“Poetic Dancer” by Lois Paige Simenson

Issue 10 / Summer 2017

 

I found my writing journal from 1986. This isn’t a remarkable discovery, except for the timing of finding it. I read to page four and stopped dead in my tracks. I’d written about my friend and neighbor, Elizabeth Skowran, or Liz as I knew her.

Liz was murdered in 1989.

A while back, I attended a University of Alaska, Anchorage (UAA) lecture, “True Crime As a Literary Genre.” Three notable Alaska writers, Tom Brennan (Dead Man’s Dancer: The Mechele Linehan Story), Leland Hale (Butcher, Baker), and Glen Klinkhart (Finding Bethany) discussed their work and challenges writing true crime books. All of these stories took place in and around Anchorage, Alaska.

I read Mr. Klinkhart’s book about finding Bethany Correira, who disappeared in 2003 and was later found deceased. I finished reading it the same day I discovered my own journal buried in a dust-covered box and thought of Liz, who met a similar fate.

As I read through my journal entries Liz came alive for me again.

We lived in a duplex near Lake Hood and the Anchorage International Airport, as it was called in 1986. I’d signed up for a creative writing class at Anchorage Community College. Liz was in the same class. Once we discovered we lived across the street from one another, we became fast friends. Liz lived in a duplex with her boyfriend, Rick, who had a VCR repair business in Anchorage. She told me she was a dancer for money. Being fairly new to Alaska and due to my performing arts background, I figured that meant she was a professional ballet dancer.

We were required to keep a daily journal as part of our grade for the creative writing class. My journal entries were mundane daily observations: job complaints, grousing about the dark and the cold, and occasional poems. Sometimes I wrote casual observations about Liz and her boyfriend.

Liz liked to watch jets take off and land at the end of the international airport runway, at Point Woronzof, overlooking Cook Inlet. We’d lie on the hood of my old Audi sedan, propped on the windshield, gazing at the underbellies of 737s roaring over us while Liz threw shots of tequila and recited poetry. She’d talk me into accompanying her, since I was the one with the car. Other times she’d come over and we’d sit at my dining room table and write poems or stories in our journals.

Liz was a nonstop talker, a free spirit, and a passionate writer. She wrote poetry that was certainly publishable, but she wouldn’t submit it. I used to wonder what happened to her poems and her journal, hoping they somehow wound up in a good place, but when people go missing and the main suspect is the person they are living with, personal possessions have a way of evaporating into thin air.

 

“Hey, I’ve choreographed some new moves,” said Liz on my doorstep one Saturday afternoon in late November 1986. “Wanna come see ‘em? Rick is gone and I have the place to myself.”

Liz was taking a dance class at UAA and wanted to show me what she was incorporating into her dance routine for work.

“Sure,” I said. “Be right over.” After I finished the dishes, I strolled across the street.

When I entered Liz’s spacious living room, she cleared away the throw rugs and pushed the furniture against the wall. Talking Heads was blaring “Wild, Wild Life” from tall speakers. Liz wore a low-cut black body leotard with pink knit leggings. She was dancing, fervent and possessed, lost in her artistic creation.

“Oh, oh, watch this!” she threw over her shoulder, twirling and writhing side-to-side, then molding her body into a provocative plié and a graceful arabesque. Grabbing a tie-dyed silk scarf, she stood in front of me, swishing the serpentine scarf around my neck and slapping the floor like she was swatting mosquitoes. She contorted, moving her chest in ways I didn’t know was possible. Off came the leotard. I closed my eyes, then squinted one eye open at a time.

She had on a multicolored fluorescent bikini.

“Ha, fooled you!” Liz laughed and undulated in front of me like a teasing aurora in an Anchorage winter sky.

I felt my face turn red.

“What kind of dance is that?” I yelled over the music, not knowing what else to say.

“My newest lap dance!” Liz laughed at my naiveté. I’d heard of the Bush Company and knew what it was, but had never been there. My husband had to define lap dance for me.

“Why didn’t you just say you’re a stripper?”

“We don’t call ourselves strippers anymore. That’s so ’70s. We’re dancers for money!”

Liz seized my hands and pulled me up to dance with her. She danced with passion and without inhibition. Her bikini stayed on. I wasn’t comfortable with another woman performing a lap dance for me, let alone if she were to peel off the rest. Liz didn’t care, she was obviously used to dancing for anyone who cared to watch.

Not knowing what to do and not wanting to be rude, I sat, watching her. I flinched from her scarf swipes, a weird frozen smile on my face, thinking hundreds of guys in Anchorage would love to be me right now. I had a compulsion to flee, yet was fascinated by my friend.

A deep male voice boomed into the house. “Hey, what the hell are you doing?” Rick was home and stomped his large frame across the floor to turn off the cassette player. The music stopped and so did Liz. He glared at me, then shifted his gaze to Liz. When I tried to explain, he interrupted.

“You’re supposed to be cleaning the damn house!” he screamed at Liz. She instinctively backed away from him and I didn’t know what to do. She had mentioned that he’d sometimes hurt her when he was drunk. He wasn’t drunk now, but he looked as though he was going to strike her.

He scared me.

“I was showing her my new moves.” She motioned in my direction, pleading with him. He looked at me, the kind of look that tingles the fear in your toes and sends it out the top of your head.

“I’d better be going,” I said, moving to the door.

“That’s a damn good idea,” he said, fixating on his girlfriend, who was a quarter his size. Once I walked out the door, I was afraid he would hurt her. I was right. I stood outside listening to yelling, crashing, and things hitting the wall. I ran to my house, intending to call the police. Looking out the window I saw Rick get in his truck and leave.

I called Liz. “Are you okay?”

She blew it off. “Yeah, I’m fine. He just had a bad day. I’ll be all right.”

Around midnight, I heard pounding on our door. Liz stood on my porch with a black eye, holding her bloody nose. “Can you take me to the E.R.?”

I put on my parka and drove her to Providence emergency. She wouldn’t press charges.

 

After our class ended at Christmas break, I hardly saw Liz except if we watched their Doberman a few times when they were gone on trips. In return Rick said we could borrow VHS movies from his movie library. He had an excessive amount of VCR players and TVs in the garage, too many to repair, I thought.

In late winter of ’88 we returned from a trip to the Lower Forty-Eight and neighbors said Liz and Rick had moved out overnight. No forwarding address, only a hastily scribbled note taped to our door with some music cassettes Liz promised to record for me: “Moving to California—I’ll be in touch, Love Liz :-)”

I never saw her or heard from her again.

 

In March 1989, the Exxon Valdez spilled oil into Prince William Sound and news organizations were consumed with the story. Shortly after I went into labor with my first child and moved to Eagle River, I learned Liz never made it to California. She was reported missing later that summer. Her story paled against the oiled seas and more important news like Mt. Redoubt’s volcanic eruption.

In late May 1991, I opened the Anchorage Daily News to find that an unidentified woman was found deceased at mile 72.5 of the Seward Highway. She was unearthed by hikers on Turnagain Pass. The article explained how David Weaver, a forensic artist at the state crime lab, spent hours reconstructing the woman’s face, following the contours of her skull with oil-based clay, molding it into a bust, in hopes someone could identify her.

Weaver distributed pictures of his sculpture to the media. Another dancer recognized her as Elizabeth Skowran, last heard from in March 1989. Not much of her was left when troopers lifted her decomposed, bullet-riddled body from a grave 100 feet up a steep hill in Turnagain Pass. “Someone identified her and called an APD informant and they called us,” Weaver said. “Then we got the dental records and bingo. The case started rolling.”

The Alaska State Troopers issued a media release requesting if anyone had any information about Liz or Richard Wilkins, to contact them. From the time Liz’s body was identified in 1991, Wilkins was the prime suspect. He left Alaska around the time she disappeared. After Liz’s body was discovered, Alaska investigators worked the case hard. Twice they flew to California armed with warrants to search the bus Wilkins was traveling in at the time. Wilkins then disappeared from trooper radar.

I was devastated to learn Liz had been murdered, after wondering what had happened to her. I thought it odd that we’d not heard from her after she moved out of the duplex. I wanted to do something, anything, to help catch her killer. I took my journal to the Alaska State Troopers in hopes that it might somehow help with their investigation. But my entries only solidified what they already knew: Wilkins had abused Liz when they were together. It didn’t contribute anything new to their investigation. Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough forensic evidence to bring Liz’s murder case to trial.

When you come face-to-face with an unthinkable truth, you can’t believe it really happened, especially to someone you care about. Your mind refuses to acknowledge it, instead you choose to believe it only as a bad dream. And then you wonder why. You wonder how anyone could get away with such a horrific crime.

 

Nine years later, on June 11, 2000, officers surrounded a camper trailer parked in Williamston, SC, where Wilkins had been living with a wife and her twelve-year-old granddaughter. The child told a neighbor she’d been choked and sexually assaulted by Wilkins and he’d killed her grandmother, according to investigators. After a brief standoff, Wilkins was taken into custody and charged with six felonies, including murder of Victoria McNairy Wilkins, found dead in a storage building adjacent to the trailer.

The Juneau Empire reported March 7, 2005 that Wilkins confessed to shooting Liz in the head then dumping her body in a shallow grave on Turnagain Pass. He is serving time for rape and murder in a South Carolina prison.

 

After reading Glen Klinkhart’s book, Finding Bethany, I have a better understanding of the pieces and parts that are integral to a missing persons’ investigation, how difficult it is bringing suspects to justice, and how vital it is not to release information too soon because it can compromise catching the bad guys.

From time to time I think of my petite friend, the exuberant, intelligent, poetically-gifted Elizabeth Skowran, who drifted into my life for a short time. As people come and go from our lives, they leave footprints on us. I wonder if there was anything I could have done or should have said that would have made a difference—maybe she’d be alive today if I’d spent more time with her and maybe influenced her choices. But all the wondering and maybes in the world won’t bring her back.

Who is to say how our paths are destined, how every moment’s choice leads us down the right path or the wrong one? We make our choices, cross our fingers, and hope for the best.

I do know one thing: Each time someone is reported missing in Anchorage, I hold my breath—and pray.

 

A version of “Poetic Dancer” originally appeared in Cirque, North Pacific Rim Literary Journal.

 

Lois Paige Simenson writes for journals, magazines, and newspapers. Her work has appeared in The Anchorage Press, Alaska Magazine, Alaska Women Speak, Erma Bombeck Humor Writers.org, and The Washington D.C. Metro Bugle. Her Anchorage Press story, “Embers of Memories,” about wild land firefighting in Alaska, won a 2016 Alaska Press Club award. Her two novels, The Butte Girls Club and Otter Rock, are forthcoming. Links to stories are at loispaigesimenson.com. Connect with her on Facebook, Twitter @nemesisto642, LinkedIn, and Google+.

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2 Comments

  1. Donna Latimer Campbell

    Keep at it, Girl! I am so proud of you and happy to be your cousin in California. I look forward to reading much more of your stories and especially your forthcoming books.

    Reply
    • Lois Simenson

      Thank you, Donna! Thanks for taking the time to comment on the story 🙂

      Reply

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