I cannot tell a lie—I loathe camping. My idea of “roughing it” is a sojourn at a two-star hotel that
offers neither room service nor complimentary bedtime mints; the fact that ostensibly sane people voluntarily
sleep in the woods is a source of absolute bafflement to me.
The wilderness is teeming with gun-toting hillbillies and rampaging bears,
and if the mammals don’t kill you the insects will—under every leaf lurks a panoply of ravenous, blood-sucking insects patiently awaiting a felicitous opportunity to crawl through your ear canal
and burrow painfully into your brain.
And don’t even get me started on the lack of lavatory facilities;
there’s a reason our ancestors toiled endlessly to create big cities and sanitary indoor plumbing—sleeping and defecating without shelter, for lack of a better word, sucks.
My distaste for the woods was not shared by Michael Lloyd Riemer of Puyallup, Washington.
A skilled outdoorsman and avid animal trapper, Mike, 36, was perfectly at home in the forest,
rampaging bears and burrowing insects be damned. On December 12th, 1985, Mike,
accompanied by his longtime girlfriend Diana Robertson, 21, and their 2-year-old daughter Crystal, entered the woods
near the Nisqually River in Lewis County to check his traps and choose a
Christmas tree for the upcoming holiday. Michael and Diana were never seen alive again.
Later that day Crystal was found wandering alone at a Kmart in Spanaway, some 30 miles distant from the
area where her family had entered the forest. The toddler, described by witnesses as dazed and
incommunicative, was able to provide her rescuers with only a single piece
of pertinent information regarding the whereabouts of her parents: “Mommy’s in the trees,” she said.
A few months later, on February 18th, 1986, a man walking his dog stumbled upon Diana
Robertson’s corpse buried in a snow bank; Mike’s red 1982 Plymouth pick-up truck was parked nearby.
The young mother, a tube sock ligature knotted securely around her throat,
had been stabbed seventeen times in the chest. Crystal, exhibiting the uncanny acuity of the
toddler mindset, had been correct—Mommy, indeed, was in the trees.
Crystal’s mommy was in the trees, but where was her daddy?
Diana lay alone at her grisly murder scene; Michael Riemer, avid outdoorsman and animal trapper,
had been swallowed up by the densely-wooded unknown.
Michael and Diana had a notoriously rocky relationship.
In fact, at the time of their ill-fated woodland jaunt Diana had an active restraining order against Mike;
the order of protection was precipitated by an incident
during which he had kicked down the door of their apartment and vigorously mashed her face into the carpet. The couple had reconciled,
to the dismay of Diana’s family, only a short time before her murder.
A search party comprised of more than fifty lawmen and volunteers scoured the woods adjacent to
the murder site; no trace of Michael Riemer, living or dead, was discovered. Michael’s truck,
however, provided a wealth of evidence, much of it contradictory. The seats were stained with
blood, although the technology of the time could confirm only
that the blood was of human origin. Mike’s winter coat had been left behind despite the freezing
weather and miles-long trek to civilization. Most perplexingly,
the words “I Love You Diana” had been emblazoned on a large manila envelope propped on
the vehicle’s dashboard. Clues abounded, yet the data failed to
coalesce into a coherent narrative of the crime; whether Michael Lloyd Riemer had played the role of perpetrator or victim
in the woods that misbegotten day remained a mystery.
To Diana’s mother Louise Conrad, however, the identity of Diana’s murderer was as clear as the
water in a mountain stream; Michael Riemer, she believed, had
murdered her daughter. Mrs. Conrad was positive that the note, an apologia of sorts, was in Mike’s
handwriting, although an FBI document examiner had deemed Mike’s authorship of the note inconclusive.
After depositing Crystal at a Kmart rife with potential
rescuers Michael had returned to the woods, Mrs. Conrad theorized, intending to use his skills as a woodsman
and trapper to live comfortably off the grid. Michael had repeatedly told Diana he would
one day kill her and get away with it, Mrs. Conrad alleged, and on that frosty December day he’d
finally made good on his oft-stated threats.
Law enforcement, however, lacked Mrs. Conrad’s certainty regarding Michael Riemer’s guilt;
it was possible, detectives believed, that Michael had been killed along with Diana that day, his body
yet undiscovered in the rugged wilderness. For although Mike’s history of threats
and domestic violence suggested he had murdered Diana
there was a lone, crucial fact which hinted that the accomplished woodsman may have met
a grimmer fate—Diana wasn’t the first murdered woman to be discovered in the local woodlands that year
garroted with an athletic sock.
On the evening of Saturday, August 10th, 1985, 27-year-old Steven Harkins and his 42-year-old
girlfriend Ruth Cooper departed their East Tacoma home with their trusty
canine in tow; the couple planned to spend a few days camping out under the stars and enjoying
the tranquility of the forest. Steve, described by his brother as “Grizzly Adams with a
smile,” had the bounteous beard of a Mormon prophet and an abiding
love of nature. He and Ruth frequently vacationed in the wilderness;
this trip, however, would be their last.
On August 14th a passerby discovered Steve Harkins’ body, still ensconced in his sleeping bag; he’d been
shot in the forehead with a .22 caliber firearm. The corpse of the couple’s dog, also bullet-ridden,
was found nearby but there was no trace of Ruth at the scene. Her remains were
eventually located on October 26th, several hundred yards away from where Steve had
been found, secreted in deep brush. Ruth had not been shot; due to her advanced state of decomposition
the coroner could ascertain only that her death had resulted from
“homicidal violence.” A tube sock ligature had been secured around her neck, although the
police believe it had been utilized as an instrument of control rather than strangulation.
The couple’s murder had occurred a mere 15 miles from the
site where Diana’s corpse, similarly sock-bound, would be found six months later.
At the time of his death Steve had been embroiled in a
dispute with a man regarding damage done to his Harley Davidson motorcycle.
Steve and Ruth had attended a wedding reception immediately prior to their trek to the wilderness,
and this individual had appeared at the reception soon
after the couple’s departure, seemingly intent on confronting Steve. Although this man appeared
to be a viable suspect in the couple’s murder the police were never able to develop any evidence
linking him to the scene of the crime; such was the state of
affairs a few months later when Michael and Diana made their
ill-fated foray in search of the perfect yuletide pine.
The discovery of Diana Robertson’s body shifted the focus of the Harkins-Cooper investigation;
the fact that both murdered women had been found in such close proximity
with identical tube sock ligatures
seemed to indicate the crimes were linked, but without the discovery of Michael Riemer or his body the police
could not determine the exact nature of this connection.
Had Michael Riemer murdered Steve and Ruth as well as his longtime girlfriend? Or was there a serial
killer afoot murdering couples in the vast woodlands of the Pacific Northwest?
Years passed, and despite being featured on the September 6th, 1989 episode of Unsolved Mysteries
no new evidence materialized; Michael Riemer’s father offered a reward for information pertaining to the
murders, but still the case grew cold. The specter of the crime never faded for Diana’s mother Louise Conrad,
however; she’d taken custody of Crystal after Diana’s murder and raised the
tot as her own, a daily reminder of the terrible fate that had befallen her daughter.
Did Mrs. Conrad, I wonder, tell Crystal of her certitude that Michael had murdered Diana?
Crystal had been only two when her parents went missing; thus
she likely retains scant, if any, childhood memories of her father, pleasant or otherwise. How did
she feel about this human cipher who may have slaughtered her mother?
Did Michael become a sort of bogeyman to her? After all, he was possibly murderous and still at large.
Or despite his wretched history of domestic violence
did Crystal give her possibly-innocent father the benefit of the doubt?
If Crystal had feared Michael her trepidation was for naught; on March 26th, 2011,
twenty-five years after the discovery of Diana’s body, a man hiking in the woods within a mile of her murder
scene happened upon an abandoned vacuum cleaner cover. His curiosity
piqued, he flipped over the cover to reveal what appeared to be an oddly shaped rock; it was
only after he nudged the object with his foot that he
realized the ivory orb was in fact a human skull. Michael Lloyd Riemer had at last
A further search of the area unearthed only a tooth-bedecked jawbone and a pair of rubber boots;
with such scant remains it was impossible to determine
Michael’s cause or date of death, although suicide appeared unlikely—according to witnesses
the skull sported a gaping hole, yet no firearm was found nearby. Had the scores of searchers missed
Mike’s remains in the dense underbrush lo those many years ago? Or had
his body been moved by his killer? As always, questions swirled around the tube-sock murders, but a
principal mystery had at last been solved—Michael Riemer was not a murderer but a murder victim.
The once-cold case was suddenly piping hot; items found at both crime scenes were retested and foreign
DNA discovered, though the genetic material has yet to be matched to a suspect. I can’t imagine how
Crystal felt at the discovery of Michael’s remains—so many
years of wondering finally laid to rest, yet the discovery of one’s murdered
father’s body is undoubtedly a somber occasion. Is it preferable to have a
living father who has murdered or a deceased father who was murdered?
I suspect that were I in Crystal’s shoes my relief would outweigh my sadness, as Michael, whether fugitive or deceased, had been absent from
her life regardless.
Random murders, a long-missing body, a wee child set forlornly adrift
at a big-box discount store—the tube sock murder case is as perplexing as the fact
that rational people are willing to slumber al fresco
with only a nylon sleeping bag between their gluteus maximus and the cold hard ground.
Yet regardless of whether the tube-sock killer has shuffled off this mortal coil
or still roams free with a bushel of athletic socks and a grudge against tree-huggers,
the moral of today’s blog post
could not be more clear: stay the hell out of the woods, folks—the rampaging bears and
burrowing insects aren’t the only predators
lurking in the forest, and in the densely-wooded wasteland
there’s none but woodland creatures
to listen to your screams.
Addendum: Although the man who found Michael Riemer’s skull claims it had a “big hole,” the Lewis County Sheriff denies any evidence of trauma was present. I’m not sure how to reconcile these conflicting accounts—yet another mystery in a case with no shortage of them.