For a long time, Karen Hull stopped saying she was the mother of a missing child. It was easier not to tell the story. The dreams came less.
For a long time, she didn’t know what happened to Walter in 1990. She knows now.
Walter Thomas Ackerson Jr., an undergrown Puyallup boy of 16, was beaten to death, or close to it. He was 200 miles from home, a student at a federal Job Corps center on the Oregon Coast.
His assailants: three older boys, fellow Job Corps students. After the beating, they carried Walter, perhaps still alive, to the second southbound pillar of Newport’s Yaquina Bay Bridge, a crescent of cable and steel looming 10 stories above the edge of the Pacific Ocean.
They shoved Walter over the rail and watched him fall.
They lied for 20 years.
Confessions came in August 2009. Charges of first-degree murder and first-degree manslaughter were filed Wednesday in Lincoln County, Ore., Circuit Court: trial to follow, date to be determined.
The defendant: Troy Culver, 40, of Prineville, Ore., a one-time classmate of Walter’s at Job Corps. In multiple statements to police, he admitted killing the teen and throwing him off the bridge. Bail: $1.25 million.
The witnesses: Eric Forsgren, 40, of Warrenton, Ore.; and Geoff Calligan, 39, of Auburn.
Forsgren and Calligan struck deals with prosecutors. They agreed to testify in exchange for immunity. In separate statements to police, they admitted throwing Walter off the bridge. They face no charges.
“Yeah,” Hull says. “Sucks, doesn’t it?”
Hull, 59, director of the Pierce County Housing Authority, knows the long miles to the coast and the courthouse in Newport.
On the road, she’ll have time to think.
Years ago, she was a single mother scratching for low-paying jobs, battling a bullheaded teen who refused to go to school.
Walter took the first risk. She knows it. He skipped out of Job Corps one day, and the bad thing struck, the mother’s sworn enemy: too much stupidity, a flood of drunken teen adrenaline.
His risk, but she sent him there. To save him, not to lose him. She sent him there. The thought always hurts, but the wound is old, familiar. What stings is fresh.
After 20 years, Hull sees why the truth stayed hidden for so long: The people who could have discovered it didn’t try very hard. Cold tides and lost years washed the proof away. Two of the three men who watched her son die will go free.
PATTERNS OF APATHY
Records of the 20-year criminal investigation, obtained by The News Tribune, reveal early patterns of skepticism and indifference.
In 1990, federal workers at the Angell Job Corps in Yachats, Ore., dismissed Walter Ackerson as a runaway despite rumors that hinted at something worse. According to Hull, they waited two weeks to tell her Walter was missing, violating their written policies. They told her conflicting stories about his disappearance.
Hull asked them to file a police report. They didn’t, and they didn’t tell her they didn’t. Another 11 days passed before local police learned of Walter’s disappearance. By then, the trail was three weeks old.
Hull wrote to her congressmen, questioning Job Corps’ handling of the case. Job Corps replied with official letters that characterized Walter as a runaway. They said they’d notified Hull of his disappearance within two days. Hull hotly replied that the accounts of early notification were false.
Local police interviewed Job Corps leaders and took them at their word. The first investigation was half-hearted, brief and incomplete.
Police didn’t seek forensic evidence. They didn’t chase a tip that said Walter had been beaten and thrown off the bridge. Years passed before they interviewed Forsgren (1996) and Calligan (2005). Instead, police classified Ackerson as a runaway and suspended the case.
Years later, a new generation of investigators reconsidered the case and unraveled it. Hull and her mother, Delores Owens, got progress reports along the way.
They are grateful, but it’s pretty hard to forget the rebuffs they endured long ago, hard to watch two of Walter’s assailants walk away.
“It’s not justice,” Hull said.
Walter, born in 1973, grew up in tiny Kettle Falls in Eastern Washington. When he was 5, he wrote a poem for Mother’s Day: “My mom smells like a rose.”
He loved animals, even the ugly ones. Rats, snakes, lizards. He caught a trout in his grandmother’s pond, and cried when it bled.
He thought he was too little. When he weighed himself, the scale said 39 pounds. He threw himself down and cried. He wanted to be bigger; the other kids all weighed 50. His mother told him to hide rocks in his pockets.
As he grew, life got harder. Hull moved to the Puyallup area in the late 1980s, and suburban culture shock set in. Only 5 feet 3 inches, Walter was an easy target for junior high bullies. They stuffed him in garbage cans. He hated school.
Hull would drive him to the school door to make sure he went. She’d drive off, and he’d walk out the back. One day the hospital called her. Walter had been admitted for alcohol poisoning. They pumped his stomach.
She tried moving Walter in with her mother, Grandma Delores, who lived in sleepy Tenino. That worked out for a while. Grandma was strict but loving.
Walter’s grades improved. His test scores were above average, especially in science. He wrote an essay about being president: If elected, he would raise taxes to lower the deficit, and abolish the Electoral College.
Walter went sideways again. He decided to move to Spokane and live with his younger brother and ex-stepfather. The dad, a trucker, was gone a lot. It didn’t work out. Walter came back. Hull took him to family counseling.
It was the first time she heard about Job Corps.
On the surface, it looked good. “Make a new life and a good living,” the brochure said. Students ranged in age from 16 to 24. They had to pass criminal background checks. They lived in dorms on-site, on the Oregon Coast: a small-town setting, without distractions. Alcohol was forbidden. Walter could get his GED, earn money and learn a trade.
“On the face of it, it looked like a great opportunity for someone to get an education and have a place to stay that was permanent and stable,” Hull remembered. “They talked about the college opportunities.”
Walter was all for it. He wanted to go to the Job Corps center, in Oregon, by the ocean.
“Aren’t you afraid?” his mother asked.
“No,” he said – not that he would admit it.
It was awfully far, she said. What about one of the closer Job Corps centers in Washington? She could visit him.
Walter was firm. He wanted to be by the ocean.
Hull and Walter signed the admission forms. He picked culinary arts as his career interest. One form his mother signed allowed him to leave the campus on off-days for unsupervised trips. There were lakes and streams to fish. He was 16, a student, not a prisoner.
Hull’s phone number was the first listed emergency contact. Grandma Delores was second.
Walter packed his bag and baseball cards, including some of his precious Ken Griffey Jr. rookies. He took a bus to Oregon. Before he left, he wrote his grandmother a letter.
Grandma, hi today I leave in about 81/2 hours. I am afraid of not succeeding in this venture. I know I can but I think a large part of my failure(s) are because I am afraid that if I really try I will fail. I am goin(g) to try to succeed at it at least that is what part of me is saying but I know the other side is saying I am a quitter a failure. I hope you understand what I am saying.… When I get down their I am planning on going to the junior college they have on campus as well as the job corp. I have so much to say since I talked to you yesterday afternoon. Thanks again for the baseball cards and the card although I think you should have saved your money because you need it more than I need baseball cards.
– Letter from Walter to Delores Owens, 3-7-90
Grandma wrote back with a pep talk. This was the chance of a lifetime. Fear of failure was normal. Everyone felt it – grown-ups too. That was life. That was learning.
“I love you – and think of you a lot and really hope this is your break you deserve,” she said.
For the first two weeks, Walter called his mother and grandmother occasionally. He asked for a fishing pole. During a March 20 call, he said something cryptic to his grandmother.
“This place is nothing like you think it is,” he told her.
After that, he didn’t call again.
“We learned there wasn’t anything good about that place,” Grandma Delores said.
Hull had heard nothing from Walter for two weeks. On April 5, 1990, a Job Corps counselor named Bud called her.
“We want to know what Walter’s plans are,” he said.
Hull didn’t understand the question.
“Why would you ask me?” she said. “Why wouldn’t you ask him?”
“Has anyone called you?” the man said.
“Nobody’s called you.”
“Well, he’s been missing. He left on the 24th of March.”
“Oh, my god – what do you mean he’s missing?”
“You haven’t heard from him?”
Job Corps policy set the rules for alerting parents when students went AWOL. The 1990 policies required notification within 24 hours.
Walter had been missing since March 24. The Oregon staff had blown the deadline by 13 days.
A few minutes after the call, Hull spoke to the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department and tried to file a missing person report. Call Oregon, she was told; that’s the scene of the disappearance. She called Job Corps back and left a message. Maren Taylor, a counselor, returned the call.
The News Tribune interviewed Taylor in May 2010. She said she had recently retired from Job Corps. She said she remembered little of the 1990 incident, and referred questions to current Job Corps staff.
Hull remembers more. She still has her notes and letters.
“Oh, there’s nothing to worry about,” she recalls Taylor saying.
“What do you mean?”
“We figured it out. He took off for Wyoming with another kid.”
Hull asked Taylor to file a police report.
“Why would you want me to do that?”
“Because he’s 16 years old,” Hull said. “If he’s not with you, then he belongs with us. He should not be running around the country. He’s 16 years old.”
Taylor reluctantly agreed to file a report, and hung up.
Walter had been missing for two weeks. Hull, plagued by images of her son alone on the road, hoped someone somewhere would spot him hitchhiking. She fretted for a week and a half, heard nothing, and called Job Corps again April 16.
She spoke to a counselor named Sheryl, and asked if the police report had been filed. Had the other boy, the kid who took off with Walter, been found?
The counselor was puzzled. All the boys who left with Walter had returned, she said. No one had filed a police report. Walter had taken all his things with him: clothes and personal belongings.
He’d been missing more than three weeks. Hull called the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office to file the report herself, and arranged a drive to Oregon with her mother.
The report – teen missing from Job Corps – went to Lt. Dave Shanks. He spent an afternoon in Yachats, talking to Job Corps administrators.
The staff members said Walter and three other students – Troy Culver, 20; Eric Forsgren, 19; and Geoff Calligan, 19 – had gone to Nye Beach on March 24 and gotten blitzed after talking someone into buying them beer. Apparently, Walter got stumbling drunk.
The other three students came back the next day; Walter didn’t. The Job Corps staff had interviewed the three students. All told the same story: Walter just disappeared, and they couldn’t find him when it was time to head back.
Shanks spoke to Walt Casto, director of the Job Corps center; and Ivy Lanthier, a veteran counselor. (Casto died in 1997; his statements come from records of the investigation and the memories of those who spoke to him. Lanthier did not respond to a phone message from The News Tribune.)
Shanks said Walter’s mother had complained about delays in notification, and delays in reporting the disappearance to police. What about that?
“We don’t generally contact police when someone goes AWOL,” Casto said. “We normally contact the parents and the student screeners immediately.”
Casto added that Walter had been admitted to an in-patient drug treatment program before coming to Job Corps. Shanks noted the point.
Lanthier, the counselor, said Walter’s mother had been contacted multiple times before April 5. Four or five different people that he knew of had spoken to her.
Shanks talked to Culver, one of the three students who’d last seen Walter.
Culver said the four of them hitched up to Newport and talked a couple of guys into buying them beer, a case of 40-ouncers: Olde English 800. Walter drank his first one real fast, and started slamming another. The other three saw some girls playing football on Nye Beach and went down to play with them. Walter stayed behind.
When they came back to look for him, Walter was gone, along with another 40-ouncer. They couldn’t find him anywhere.
Walter was a pot smoker, Culver added. He bragged that he’d done acid, and he’d complained about Job Corps, saying he couldn’t wait to get out of there.
Shanks wrapped it up. Casto supplied him with a few pages from Walter’s Job Corps file, including the name of a supposed girlfriend, Emma Beller.
Back at the office, Shanks relayed what he’d learned to Hull. The Job Corps staff said Walter “chose not to return.” Shanks said investigation was difficult at this stage – a lot of time had gone by.
Recommended action –Enter Ackerson into LEDS/NCIC as a missing person.
Contact mother for progress (done)
Case suspended until more information surfaces.
– Shanks’ report, 4-17-90
Shanks hadn’t interviewed the other two boys – Forsgren and Calligan. He didn’t talk to Emma Beller.
He shared his report with detective Steve Etter, a colleague at the Newport Police Department, in case the brother agency saw opportunities for follow-up.
The next day, Hull arrived at Job Corps. She spoke to more witnesses than Shanks.
GOING TO YACHATS
The drive from Puyallup to the Job Corps center in Yachats was 300 miles.
Grandma Delores thought the center looked like a barracks, an institution. The kids walked around in big boots. They looked like crooks. Walter had been right: The place was nothing like she thought.
The two women met with Casto, director of the center. He gave them Walter’s things: his bag, clothes and toothbrush. The baseball cards were gone.
Hull was confused again. Only two days earlier, a Job Corps counselor told her Walter had taken all his things with him, yet here they were.
That didn’t seem like runaway behavior, but Casto assured her that was what had happened.
Staff members had taken all the necessary steps, he told Hull. They had interviewed the students who were with Walter. So had the sheriff’s deputy. The students’ stories were consistent.
They had gone AWOL with Walter on March 24, gone to Nye Beach in Newport and talked someone into buying them beer. Walter got very drunk. The other students saw some girls and talked to them, leaving Walter on a bluff near the beach. When the students came back to look for him, he was gone.
The staff tried to contact Hull, Casto said. Called her two days after Walter disappeared, but couldn’t reach her. They’d left a message on Grandma’s phone, and sent a letter the same day.
Hull was getting irritated. Casto was mistaken. She hadn’t been called, no one had left a message with her mother and she had received no letter. The first word she got came April 5, almost two weeks after Walter disappeared.
Perhaps notification had been overlooked, Casto conceded – but the underlying facts remained. All the available evidence pointed one way: Walter chose not to return.
Casto brought in the three students: Culver, stocky, short and mustachioed; Forsgren, tall and lean; and Calligan, brown-haired and pale. They were older than Walter, Hull saw: harder, practically grown men.
Casto repeated the story, glancing at the boys for confirmation. They nodded.
Grandma watched. Grandma was tough. The boys wouldn’t look up. They stared at the floor.
“They wouldn’t look us in the eye,” she remembered. “They’d talk and hold their heads down, and I thought, ‘Look me in the eye.’”
Hull talked to the boys, a little tearfully. She recalls Culver was the only one who spoke.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“Why?” Hull asked.
If Walter had been drinking, she said – if he’d run away on his own – why should Culver be sorry?
“I should have watched out for him better,” Culver said. “It was my responsibility.”
Forsgren and Calligan said nothing and kept looking down. Casto wrapped up the meeting. There was nothing more to say.
Hull and her mother drove home, talking for 300 miles about the way the story from Job Corps kept changing. Grandma didn’t like that Casto fellow.
A few days later, Hull hauled out the big guns. She wrote letters to Congress: U.S. Reps. Rod Chandler and Norm Dicks, and Sens. Slade Gorton and Brock Adams; two Republicans, two Democrats. She wanted an investigation.
I cannot help but feel that the Job Corps was negligent, first by not notifying me of Walter’s disappearance for 13 days, and secondly by giving me misleading information regarding his disappearance, thirdly by failing to file the runaway or missing person’s report.– Hull’s letter, 4-22-90
Hull and her father, Larry Bullard, returned to Job Corps on April 25, seeking more information. Casto and Lanthier had nothing new to report.
Her memory is jumbled, but looking back, Hull remembers talking to a young girl, a light-haired slip of a teen named Emma Beller – supposedly she was Walter’s girlfriend.
Beller ran to Hull in a hallway, grabbed a sleeve and whispered.
She said she heard there was a fight, that TC and Eric got in a fight with Walter and threw him off a bridge. She wouldn’t say any more, and ran off.
Hull recalls talking to Newport police about what the girl had said. She remembers police saying it sounded unlikely; when people drowned in Newport, the bodies always washed up eventually.
She returned to Newport on April 30 – her third trip in two weeks. She went to Job Corps one more time, wanting to put up missing-person posters of Walter. She recalls being turned away at the gate, and being told Casto had nothing more to say to her.
She met with Paul Williamson, a lieutenant with the U.S. Forest Service who was working with the Sheriff’s Office. He gave her an update on the case.
Walter had been missing for five weeks. Police were convinced he was a runaway. Williamson opened a file. There was a line for her signature, authorizing police to take Walter into custody if they found him.
Hull signed it.
She didn’t see the rest of the case file, the record of what police had done. She didn’t understand that classifying Walter as a runaway meant suspending the case: no more active inquiry.
Based on information received during the investigation and the past history of Ackerson all persons involved in the investigation believe Ackerson is a runaway and that no foul play is suspected. …I therefore recommend Walter Thomas Ackerson Jr be cleared from the computer as a missing person and entered as a Runaway Juvenile.
– Lincoln County sheriff’s report (Williamson), 4-30-90
Hull wanted to trust. If Walter ran away, he was alive. Someone could find him, or he might come back.
“Of course, I believed that the police investigated,” she recalls. “I didn’t know that they didn’t.”
She called them an hour after signing the report and spoke to sheriff’s deputy Don Brossow, just to tell him one more thing.
(Hull) contacted me and reported that she had been to the Angell Job Corps in Yachats and talked to several of the students. She advised that one of the students named Emma Beller had told her that Walter had been drinking with several of the students from the center and they had fought with him and threw him off the Waldport bridge. She would like our office to contact the students at the Job corps and reinterview them. She stated that the boys that she had talked with are Eric, Jeff and T.C. She felt that they may have some information.
The three male subjects should be contacted to see if they have any more information.
– Lincoln County sheriff’s report, 4-30-90
The three male subjects weren’t contacted. Two of them – Forsgren and Calligan – hadn’t been interviewed at all, officially. The case remained suspended.
Hull had talked to all three boys. She and her mother watched them stare at their shoes. She’d spoken to twice as many witnesses as investigators had, but the investigators said they knew what they were doing.
Six years would pass before they interviewed Forsgren. Fifteen years would pass before they spoke to Calligan and Emma Beller.
HELP FROM CONGRESS
In May 1990, Hull’s letters to Congress started circulating.
A constituent with a child missing from federal ground: Staffers from four congressional offices sprang into action. They wrote polite but firm letters of inquiry. All were sent to the same place: the U.S. Department of Labor, which oversaw the Job Corps program.
With additional polite inquiry attached, the letters were forwarded to the Department of Agriculture, which then forwarded the letters to the Forest Service, which oversaw the Job Corps employees in Yachats.
The Forest Service passed the inquiries to Job Corps. Every reply to every congressman would come from one source: Walt Casto.
Answers floated back to Hull. A letter from U.S. Rep. Rod Chandler, R-Bellevue, was typical. It said Job Corps staff had notified Hull within a day of Walter’s disappearance.
The day after his disappearance, they did attempt to contact you. When that proved unsuccessful, they left a message on your grandmother’s answering machine. Apparently, the friends who were last with Walter say he chose not to return.– Letter from Chandler to Hull, 5-10-90
The letters included a chronology of events supplied by Job Corps. Hull read it in shock. The statements were simply untrue.
They said they’d tried to call her March 26, two days after Walter went missing. She’d received no call, and she had an answering machine.
They said they’d called Grandma Delores on March 27, and left a message on the answering machine. Grandma didn’t have an answering machine.
They said they’d mailed a letter the same day, describing the phone call and stating Walter was missing. Neither Hull nor her mother recalled receiving such a letter.
They said a counselor, Maren Taylor, had called Hull on March 29, five days after the disappearance, and explained the circumstances. Hull didn’t remember receiving such a call.
She’d gone over all this with Casto at their first meeting. He had admitted that notification was overlooked – but Job Corps was telling a different story to members of Congress, and the members were parroting it back to Hull.
Hull replied with a bitter letter.
“The Job Corps has consistently given me different and misleading information each time I speak with them, and are continuing to do so even now,” she said. “… It is obvious that Mr. Casto and his counselors are anxious to cover this up, and are not inclined to tell the truth, even to you.”The federal correspondence stretched through fall. Nothing changed. Walter’s case chilled.
The three students left Job Corps that summer. Calligan graduated. Staffers praised his leadership. Forsgren was suspended and kicked out. He’d broken the rules too many times. Culver was kicked out as well, after assaulting another student.
Police made no new inquiries. Walter’s photo and background information went to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. His face landed on junk mail fliers. Progress would stall for more than a decade.
Walter was gone. He aged like Dorian Gray. Fliers from the National Center added years: a little computer magic and presto, he was 21, no longer a boy, the face newly creased.
He spoke to his mother in dreams. “Mom, you’re not looking hard enough for me,” he told her.
Grandma Delores put his pictures away. It hurt too much to look at them.
Troy Culver successfully reapplied to Job Corps in 1994, at a site in Eastern Washington. He was 24, and he wanted a second chance. In a psychological profile, he admitted a drinking problem. When he was drunk, he said, he became a “mean, angry person who likes to hurt people.”
A Lincoln County sheriff’s detective, Pete Peregrin, took a brief look at the still-open case file in 1996: a standard review. He noted that Forsgren, among others, had never been interviewed. He tracked him to Astoria.
Forsgren repeated the old Nye Beach story: beer and girls on the beach. Walter had taken off, he recalled; seen a friend and told the other three he’d see them back at the center, but they never saw him again. Forsgren figured Walter just ran away.
Peregrin took a few notes and added them to the case file. He noticed another detail from the 1990 case: a girl named Emma Beller had told Ackerson’s mother there had been a fight, and the three boys dumped Walter off the Newport bridge.
Why Peregrin stopped there is unclear, but he didn’t speak to Beller. The case went cold again. Walter had been missing for six years.
RAPEWalter aged again. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children updated his poster, etching imagined life into his face.
By 2001, his avatar was 27. The same year, Culver turned 31 and assaulted a young woman.
Her name is Taunya Hall. The News Tribune reached her in May of this year. At the mention of Culver’s name, she dissolved in tears.
“He tortured me,” she said.
Hall worked for a Portland escort service. On Sept. 12, 2001, she got a call from Culver. He sounded like a guy who’d called before but hung up. He wanted her to come dance for him. He lived in Vancouver, across the Interstate 5 bridge.
She told him the rule: No sex. He said he understood. She drove across the bridge and found his apartment. What happened next is described in Clark County Superior Court records.
Taunya walked into the living room and set down her purse on the couch. When she turned around to look at the suspect he was holding a shotgun pointed at her head. He told her not to scream or he would kill her.Culver told her to take off her clothes. Barked at her to hurry up. He held the gun and a roll of duct tape. He said he’d kill her. He handcuffed her and hurt her. He locked her in the bathroom, rifled through her purse, let her out and hurt her some more. He kept her there for more than an hour. Before he finally let her go, he said he’d kill her if she called the cops.
Hall called the cops. They arrested Culver the same night, not long after he’d threatened suicide. They found his rifle and collected forensic evidence.
Culver said he’d lost his wife because he was a drunk. Said he’d just been diagnosed with cancer. Said sex with the escort was consensual. He was charged with first-degree rape.
Hall returned to Vancouver the next day in a rage and trashed Culver’s apartment. She was arrested and charged with burglary. She pleaded guilty to criminal trespassing. The fines and fees added up to $5,000.
Her victim statement appeared in Culver’s case file.
“I was terrified beyond expression. I didn’t think I was going to make it out of the apartment alive,” she wrote. “It was horrible, in fact the worst experience of my life.”
Three months later, the rape charge against Culver was dropped. The reasons don’t appear in court records. He pleaded guilty to third-degree assault and unlawful gun possession. Sentence: 24 months, plus community supervision. No requirement to register as a sex offender.
Clark County prosecutors knew nothing of Walter Ackerson’s 1990 disappearance. There was no reason for them to know. The unsolved case file languished in Oregon, reviewed once a year by the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office, marked “still valid.”
It would gather time stamps for another three years, until an unexpected tip from Alabama rekindled the investigation and a lone detective unearthed old questions that no one had asked.
CASE GETS NEW LIFE
In March 2004, Alabama deputies arrested a discharged U.S. Marine. He was suspected of molesting several 16-year-old boys. A search of the man’s home uncovered computer porn, news clippings and fliers about missing children, including Walter Ackerson.
Military and legal records checks found nothing tying the arrested Marine to Oregon – he was an image collector – but Walter’s case had new life. In Lincoln County, the old file found its way to Mark Meister’s desk.
Meister was a freshly minted sheriff’s detective, new to the case. Looking over the file, he couldn’t miss the gaps in the original investigation: one softball suspect interview, a few statements from Job Corps employees, the whole thing wrapped up in two weeks, tagged as a runaway and suspended.
The only follow-up was a 1996 interview with Eric Forsgren, who’d repeated the official story: Nye Beach and beer and girls, and Walter Ackerson had vanished.
Meister saw holes: No original push to isolate the three suspects and challenge their stories. Fourteen years gone and no one had spoken to the third suspect, Geoff Calligan. No one had talked to Emma Beller, the frightened teen who said Walter was beaten and thrown off the Yaquina Bay Bridge.
No search at the bridge. No physical evidence from the Job Corps site. The forensics looked hopeless at this distance, but there were other possibilities.
Meister started a to-do list:
• Re-interview Culver, Forsgren and Calligan.
• Find Emma Beller.
• Alert Ackerson’s mother in Washington.
For now, gather paper. Meister saw that the old case had been referred to the Newport Police Department in 1990. They’d have their own file, maybe. He checked. Zilch.
I contacted NPD Detective Steve Etter to determine what he or NPD may have done in this investigation. Detective Etter advised that he did not assist in the investigation. There are also no reports at NPD involving Ackerson.No involvement, no paper. Fourteen years earlier, Etter had been copied on the original report of Ackerson’s disappearance: all the names, all the statements.
He’d conducted no investigation. The Sheriff’s Office had handled the report. Etter had been asked his opinion. He said Ackerson looked like a runaway. His word, among others, led to suspension of the case.
Meister moved on. His first stop was Eric Forsgren. In December 2004, the big man was marking time in the Multnomah County Jail.
HAPPENS ALL THE TIME
Forsgren was surprised Walter was still missing. He told the old story: Forsgren, Culver, Calligan and Walter skipped out of camp, hitchhiked to Newport and shoulder-tapped a guy who bought them beer.
Culver and Walter had argued. Forsgren couldn’t remember why. The three older guys saw some girls on the beach, went down, played football, left Walter with the beer. Walter was smashed, acting like a jerk. When they came back to look for him, he was gone. Forsgren always figured him for a runaway. Kids ran from Job Corps all the time.
One down. Meister plowed ahead. In March 2005, he called Hull. Her son’s case had been reopened, he told her.
For years, she’d heard nothing. Old grief welled up. She wanted to know what happened.
“There’s never been an investigation,” she remembers Meister saying. “I don’t know what to tell you, except to tell you that they never did anything.”
AN OLD RUMOR
Meister’s next target was Troy Culver, who lived in Prineville, a small town in Eastern Oregon.
Culver had no idea Walter was still missing. He remembered the Job Corps incident. A cop had interviewed him back then. Walter’s mother, too. She was crying and upset.
Culver always assumed Ackerson ran away. No big deal; lots of kids did.
He remembered getting the beer, hitting the beach, Walter drinking too much, the girls playing football. Culver, along with Forsgren and Calligan, went down to hang out with them. Walter stayed behind drinking. He was gone when they got back.
That was all he remembered, apart from an old rumor. Other kids said Ackerson’s girlfriend said she saw Ackerson a few days after the disappearance. Supposedly he’d picked up his things and left.
Culver couldn’t remember ever arguing with Ackerson.
Two down. Next came Geoff Calligan.
Calligan lived up north in Washington, in Auburn.
Meister called the King County Sheriff’s Office and asked a favor. A local deputy pulled the interview duty.
“Mr. Calligan was very surprised to learn Walter was still missing,” the deputy wrote.
Calligan couldn’t remember much. They’d scored the beer, hit the beach, seen the college girls. He and Forsgren had walked down, left TC and Walter behind drinking. They met up with TC later – he said Walter took off, said he wasn’t going back to Job Corps.
Calligan always assumed Walter ran away. Didn’t remember him arguing with TC.
Three suspects, one story, with slight variations. Meister’s last hope was Emma Beller. He found her in Colorado in August 2005.
Over the phone, Beller said she remembered being at Job Corps. She remembered that Ackerson was a quiet, shy boy, but she’d never dated him. She didn’t even remember that he’d disappeared. She was sorry she couldn’t remember anything else. (The News Tribune spoke to Beller in May of this year. She said she couldn’t remember anything about Walter’s disappearance.)
Stalemate. Meister had covered reasonable ground for almost a year while juggling other duties. He had nothing left. He called Hull and gave her the news. He said he was sorry.
“Case closed,” he wrote in a report. “All available leads have been exhausted at this time. Case to be returned to archives as unsolved.”
Four more years would pass before the break came.
On Aug. 4, 2009, Oregon state parole officer Ann Hawkins met Troy Culver for his regular appointment in Prineville.
Culver, then 39, was a registered sex offender, convicted in 2007 of encouraging child sex abuse, sentenced to 21 months. He was out of prison, under supervision, seemingly making progress in drug treatment.
Addiction therapy included atonement, admitting past wrongs. Culver said he had something to confess.
Hawkins listened, then called Prineville police Lt. Jimmy O’Daniel, who came over and listened.
Culver said he’d beaten a man to death 20 years earlier.
“Culver told me he carried the body to a bridge,” O’Daniel wrote. “He threw him over the bridge, into the bay.”
O’Daniel invited Culver to headquarters for a video interview. Two more detectives joined in. All three told him the statement would be recorded. Did he still want to talk?
They recorded the statement. Two hours later, Meister got the word in Newport: Culver had confessed to murder.
Meister lassoed a colleague, sheriff’s detective Quentin Bendel. The two of them drove east: 200 miles, four hours, crossing Santiam Pass between Mount Washington and Three-Fingered Jack. They hit Prineville at 12:39 a.m. On the long drive back to Newport, Culver told the story for the third time.
The next day he told the story two more times, to Mike Leake and Charles Lane, detectives from the Lincoln City Police Department, who’d joined the investigation.
TIRED OF THE NOISE
Walter had been whiny at the beach, Culver said: drunk and crying about a girl or something, wanting to go back to Job Corps. Culver, also drunk, was getting tired of the noise.
He hit Walter “again and again and again,” he said. He threw Walter against a tree, slamming his head. He remembered jumping on Walter more than once. At some point, Culver realized Walter was unconscious, maybe dead, and he panicked.
He’d horsed the body up to the bridge. He couldn’t remember whether the others helped, but it was a lot of work. Cars went by. He had to rest a few times. He wanted to be out near the middle of the bridge, over the water.
He threw Walter over the edge, thinking he was already dead. He thought the body hit something on the way down – a pillar, maybe, but he couldn’t be sure. It was dark.
He and Forsgren and Calligan had hitched back to Job Corps, back to the dorms. Culver’s clothes were bloody. The other two guys were freaking out. He told them to shut up and never talk about this again. They threw the bloody clothes in the dorm laundry with a bunch of bleach. They squared their stories.
The detectives drove Culver around Newport, all the spots. He pointed to the wooded area north of the Yaquina Bay Bridge, where the fight had taken place. He pointed out the second southbound pillar on the bridge, where Walter had been thrown over, more than 100 feet above the water.
He agreed to a polygraph test. He recorded a message the detectives could play for Forsgren and Calligan.
In summary, the message said, I told the police everything. You should tell them your side of the story.– Lincoln City police report, 8-6-09
Culver said the murder haunted him.
Mr. Culver told us that for the first two years after the murder he had horrible nightmares.
Geoff Calligan said he couldn’t remember Troy Culver’s name.
It was Aug. 6, 2009 – the Lincoln City police detectives, Leake and Lane, had driven up to Washington to talk to Calligan, who lived in Auburn.
Calligan, 39, was a 14-year member of the Washington National Guard. He’d just returned from his second tour in Iraq. He had a 10-year-old son.
He told the old story again: going to Newport with the others, getting the beer, going to the beach, leaving Walter on the bluff. They’d come back, and Walter was gone.
Lane let Calligan lie for a long time. Finally, he pulled out his digital recorder, played Culver’s message and watched.
Think of Walter’s mother, he said.
“I told Calligan that I knew that he knew what happened to Walter,” Lane wrote later.
“Troy and Eric beat him to death. I personally never touched him,” Calligan said.
For the rest of the interview, he called Culver “TC.”
He’d lied for 20 years out of fear, he said. Lane asked for the real story.
TC beat Walter mercilessly for 15 or 20 minutes, shouting taunts, Calligan said. The four of them had gotten separated earlier, and TC blamed Walter. He’d been “psychotic.” He took breaks between flurries. Forsgren had joined in, kicking Walter in the midsection.
Calligan denied touching Walter or helping to throw him off the bridge. TC and Forsgren did that, he said; it might have been Forsgren’s idea. He couldn’t say whether Walter was still alive at that point.
Leake and Lane drove Calligan back to Newport and bunked him in a hotel. The next morning, they bought him breakfast, took him to the bridge and watched him point out the same spots Culver had described a day earlier.
Calligan agreed to a polygraph test. He failed. He blamed lingering guilt. The incident was the worst experience of his life. Worse than his tours in Iraq, he said.
Lane squeezed: Calligan hadn’t told the truth; time to give it up.
“I think it was my idea to dump him off the bridge,” Calligan said.
He’d helped push Walter over, he said. Just pushed in the middle.
Eric Forsgren, 39, was doing short time in the Powder River Correctional Facility on Oregon’s eastern edge when Leake and Newport police detective Brent Gainer visited him Aug. 11, 2009.
Forsgren’s rap sheet was long – a 20-year string of drug offenses and low-level thefts. Not much violence, but he didn’t need it. He was a big man – 6-5, past 300 pounds now, stringy long hair and a crazy stare. He liked meth, coke and good weed.
Walter was a tagalong kid, like a little puppy, he told the detectives. Girls thought he was cute. Everyone got along with him. He’d gotten drunk that day on the beach and acted “goofy” – drunker than he really was, maybe – to get attention from the college girls.
Walter was “just gone” at some point, Forsgren said. What happened to him? He didn’t know.
Leake pulled out the digital recorder and played Culver’s message.
He asked if Forsgren had anything to say.
Forsgren sighed, long and deep.
“No,” he said. “I told you what happened.”
His pauses stretched. He stared at the floor and sighed. Leake, a veteran interrogator, knew the signals: Forsgren was reliving the incident.
TC got mad at Walter over something, Forsgren said: Hit him, knocked him down, kicked him in the head maybe two or three times, saying Walter had lied to him.
Everything was fuzzy after that, but Forsgren remembered pulling TC away, saying that was enough. Walter was bleeding.
They’d left him there on the ground, groggy but alive. Alive, he was sure.
The detectives danced with Forsgren for an hour, two-stepping the same ground, ending at the same place. Forsgren just couldn’t remember anything else, but he was sure Walter was alive when they left.
Leake swooped in, suddenly sharp.
“Did you cause Walter’s death?”
Forsgren answered within two seconds.
“Did you help to dispose of his body?”
“No, just, I didn’t – ”
“We know Walter is dead. There are three people in this room and all three of us know Walter is dead.”
Leake played the heart card: Walter’s mother. Wondering every day for 19 years, everything in ordinary life hurting: going to the grocery store, seeing someone who looked like her son. Wondering, is that my son?
“This wasn’t someone that just shipped her son out to Job Corps because she couldn’t handle him or didn’t like him,” Leake said. “This was her 16-year-old son, and she loved that boy and she was helping him, because she wanted him to do better with his life.”
Forsgren held on.
“I don’t know what to tell you.”
He agreed to a polygraph test. It was lunchtime at the prison. He left for his break, came back, took the test and blew it.
He sat down across the table from Leake and told him to turn on his recorder.
“Walter was beaten up and carried out on the span of the Newport bridge and tossed over the side,” Forsgren said.
During the fight, Walter hid his face, curling up to ward off TC’s blows, Forsgren said. TC had blood all over him. TC was the instigator. Calligan acted like he was joining in, but he faked it, like a TV wrestler.
Carrying Walter was hard. The bridge walkway was narrow, and cars were going by. Forsgren was pretty sure Walter was still alive when they threw him off the bridge, but it wasn’t a clean throw – he hit something on the way down, maybe his foot had hit something. There was a sound.
“It was just a bonggg,” he said. “You could hear it, you know what I mean, like if you toss a rock off the bridge and it hits the side, you can hear something hit it.”
He remembered it being afternoon, daylight, cars passing. He guessed 400 or 500 people had seen them. He’d been scared to death.
Pack mentality. Forsgren said it several times. All over nothing: Walter hadn’t done anything bad, not really. Nothing justified the rage. They’d gotten separated and TC was mad at Walter for that. They’d been drinking Olde English 800 – Forsgren remembered that. The stuff was foul.
He reached for metaphors: a hazing ritual gone too far; a feeding frenzy, like sharks smelling blood; caught in a moment.
Yeah, they could have left Walter in the brush. They didn’t. He didn’t know why. He just didn’t know. There was no good reason. Nothing was planned. It just happened.
“We didn’t set out to beat the shit out of Walter,” he said.
He said he wasn’t trying to minimize his role, or Calligan’s – but they didn’t start it.
“TC hurt that kid,” Forsgren said. “Really, I mean he hurt him.”
He insisted Walter was alive when they threw him over.
He’d lied for 20 years. Leake asked him why.
“Because it was an incident that maybe I didn’t want to remember,” Forsgren said. “You know? It’s definitely not something that I’m proud of. Maybe it’s better left unsaid, you know? If I don’t bring anything up, then you know, I don’t know, if I don’t bring it up maybe it didn’t happen.”
He said he hadn’t looked over the railing as Walter fell. He remembered looking around to see if anyone saw them. He couldn’t have looked over the railing. That would have stuck in his mind forever.
Two weeks after Forsgren confessed, detectives in Oxnard, Calif., interviewed Michael Pettelle, a longtime friend of Calligan’s who’d been a Job Corps student at the time of the incident.
He remembered hearing Forsgren and the others talk about it. Forsgren claimed he’d slung Walter’s body over his shoulder. Pettelle remembered doubting that because it seemed like a hard thing to do, but that’s what the guy said.
And he runs out on the Quinta Bay Bridge and he throws him off the frickin’ side of the bridge. And it’s a drop. And he’s saying he bounced his head off a piling on the way down.– Oxnard police report, 8-24-09
A day later, Meister and Lane interviewed Calligan one more time in Auburn. They also spoke to his sister.
Calligan said the fight started with TC. The group had gotten separated for a few hours that day by mistake. TC blamed Walter for it, said he’d lied, and cracked him in the head. Walter went down. Forsgren had cheered, saying, “Kick his ass, he lied to us.”
Culver kicked Walter, stomped him from waist to face for half an hour, hit him with a tree branch. Walter had stopped bleeding. Calligan thought he was dead. He couldn’t imagine anyone surviving such a beating. He’d watched Walter fall from the bridge, seen him hit the piling.
Calligan’s sister remembered what he told her 20 years earlier. There had been a fight, and the three boys worried that if Walter came back to Job Corps alive, they’d get kicked out.
MISSING LINKAfter 20 years, police had obtained full confessions from all three suspects in seven days. Culver had confessed on his own. Calligan and Forsgren had confessed under questioning. The cops had all of them on video, on audio, on paper, on polygraphs, with consent.
It wasn’t enough – not enough to get all three of them. One link was missing: corpus delicti, the body of the crime, independent proof to corroborate the confessions.
Forsgren and Calligan could testify to Culver’s actions with the promise of immunity. Unless they lied to the grand jury, their own confessions couldn’t be used against them.
A confession alone is not sufficient to warrant the conviction of the defendant without some other proof that the crime has been committed.– Oregon Revised Statute 136.425 (2)
Walter Ackerson’s remains were never found. They were 20 years gone, long since lost in the sea. The detectives tried a long shot: a search at the Yaquina Bay Bridge. Divers found nothing.
It was time to tell Hull. Meister took the duty. He made a personal visit.
No one had come to her house before. Hull knew this was probably big.
“He told us that Troy had confessed to the murder,” she remembered.
The same news went to Walter’s father, Walter Ackerson Sr., who lived in Gig Harbor. He and Hull had separated in the 1970s, years before the incident, but the story of his long-lost boy reduced him to tears.
Prosecutors walked Hull through the legal math: a 20-year-old case, tied to laws as they stood in 1990. That meant perhaps 10 years max for Culver, and nothing for anybody else, nothing for Forsgren and Calligan. It was the best they could get for the men who beat her boy’s life out, hurled his body over a bridge and into the sea, and lied about it for nearly 20 years.
When the case revived, Grandma Delores pulled Walter’s pictures out of the drawer. It’s almost over, but she thinks it should have been over a long time ago.
After 20 years, the one person she’d hoped to see in court was Walt Casto, the Job Corps director. She wanted to see his face, look him in the eye, watch him hear it all.
In her mind, Hull doesn’t see the teen falling from the bridge. She sees her boy falling, the boy who loved animals, who thought he was too little, who said his mother smelled like a rose.