The story of Robert Hansen: the butcher

In the annals of American criminal history, few stories reach as deep into the heart of wilderness and human depravity as that of Robert Hansen. Known as the “Baker Butcher”, Hansen transformed the Alaskan frontier, often idealised for its pristine beauty and rugged independence, into a nightmarish landscape where he executed a series of heinous crimes that would haunt the state and the nation.

His childhood and youth

Robert Christian Hansen was born on 15 February 1939 in Estherville, Iowa, into a home that epitomised the strict, work-focused spirit of Midwestern America. His father, a Danish immigrant, owned a bakery and imposed on Robert and the rest of the family an austere lifestyle deeply rooted in hard work and discipline. This environment, while stable, was emotionally sterile, offering little warmth or emotional support.

From an early age, Hansen faced a myriad of challenges that set him apart from his peers. He suffered from severe acne that left permanent scars on his face, a condition that became a source of deep-seated insecurity and social ostracism. These physical conditions, coupled with his stuttering, made Hansen the target of relentless bullying. The psychological cost of these experiences, which fostered in Hansen a latent resentment towards those around him and a sense of isolation from the wider community, cannot be overemphasised.

Hansen’s relationship with his father was complex and fraught with tension. Described as domineering and inflexible, his father’s expectations and discipline were demanding. This rigid upbringing, lacking emotional support, probably contributed to Hansen’s internalisation of anger and frustration. Hansen’s attempts to earn his father’s approval through hard work in the bakery or academic achievement were often met with criticism, further entrenching his feelings of inadequacy and alienation.

Hunting became a solace for Hansen, an arena in which he exercised control and demonstrated competence. The vast expanses of the Iowa countryside offered him an escape from the scrutiny and judgment of society. In nature, Hansen found a sense of power and autonomy that eluded him in his social interactions. This early inclination towards hunting, initially a healthy outlet for leisure and skill development, would later take on a dark and perverse meaning in his life.

Early youth and move to Alaska

After graduating from high school, Hansen briefly enlisted in the army reserve, hoping to make a place for himself beyond the confines of his father’s bakery and the small-town dynamics of Estherville. His military service, however, did little to alleviate his deep-seated problems. In 1960, at age 21, Hansen committed his first known criminal act: arson. He set fire to a school bus garage in Pocahontas County, an act of revenge against the community he felt had rejected him. This incident earned him a diagnosis of “childish personality” during his incarceration, highlighting the early recognition of his psychological problems.

Hansen’s move to Alaska in 1967 was emblematic of his desire to start over. Alaska, with its rugged landscape and promise of anonymity, seemed the perfect refuge for someone seeking to escape his past. Here, Hansen hoped to redefine himself, away from the scrutiny of those who knew him in Iowa. He immersed himself in the Alaskan wilderness, honing his hunting skills and building a new life. It was in this environment, where the boundaries between man and nature blurred, that Hansen’s darker impulses found fertile ground.

His countless crimes

Delving into Robert Hansen’s crimes involves examining the nature of his crimes, the methodology he used to select his victims, the meticulous planning he carried out for each abduction and the subsequent execution of his hunts. Hansen’s criminal activities extended from the early 1970s until his arrest in 1983, during which he committed a series of brutal crimes that shocked both the community and law enforcement.

Nature and extent of the crimes

Robert Hansen’s crimes were characterised by a chilling mixture of predation and sadism, set against the backdrop of Alaska’s vast wilderness. He specifically targeted women on the margins of society: sex workers, dancers and, occasionally, women he encountered in everyday life whom he believed he would not immediately miss. This selection process was part of a calculated strategy to minimise the risk of early detection and exploit the vulnerability of his victims.

Abduction and false pretexts

Hansen would often approach his victims under the pretext of offering them money for photo shoots or for his business, taking advantage of their financial needs and social status. Once he had gained their trust, he would kidnap them, using coercion or violence to control them. These early interactions reveal Hansen’s manipulative skills and his ability to disguise his predatory nature.

The terrifying hunts

Perhaps the most horrifying aspect of Hansen’s crimes was his practice of releasing his victims into the wild, and then hunting them with a rifle or bow. This perverse game was a manifestation of his ultimate control and dominance over his victims, reducing them to mere sporting objects. Nature served as a vast and isolated setting where Hansen believed he could act out his fantasies without interference or discovery.

Challenges to discovery and research

The bodies of Hansen’s victims were often not discovered until much later, due to the remoteness of the places where they were dumped. This delay made the investigation considerably more difficult, as evidence was exposed to the elements and the memories of potential witnesses faded. Alaska’s vast landscape, while a beautiful and integral part of the state’s identity, posed a formidable challenge to law enforcement officers tracking a killer who was intimately familiar with its terrain.

Meticulous planning and execution

Hansen carried out his crimes in a methodical and precisely planned manner. He kept detailed maps marking the location of his victims’ bodies, a grim catalogue of his atrocities. His familiarity with the area, combined with his hunting and tracking skills, made him a formidable adversary for law enforcement.

The dual nature of Hansen’s life, as a respected businessman and family man in the community and a brutal shadow serial killer, further complicated the investigation. He used his public image to deflect suspicion and continued his criminal activities undetected for years.

Impact on victims and society

The revelation of Hansen’s crimes brought to light not only the brutality of his actions, but also the social problems that allowed his victims to go undetected for so long. The impact on the victims and their families was devastating, leaving a lasting scar on the community. It also sparked a wider debate about the treatment of sex workers and other marginalised people, both in society and by law enforcement.

Robert Hansen confessed to the murders of 17 women, but only a fraction of these victims were conclusively identified. Here is a list of some of the victims whose identities were confirmed:

  • Sherry Morrow – Her body was found in 1984 near the Knik River. She was 23 years old and had been reported missing since 1982.
  • Joanna Messina – Her body was discovered in a grave near Seward in 1980. She was a topless dancer from Anchorage.
  • “Eklutna Annie” – Remains found near Eklutna Road in 1980; remains unidentified but was one of Hansen’s first victims.
  • Paula Goulding – Anchorage dancer, disappeared in 1983. Her body was also found near the Knik River.
  • Malai Larsen – Found near the Knik River.
  • Sue Luna – Disappeared in 1982 and her body was later found near the Knik River.
  • Tammy Pederson – Also a victim of Hansen, her remains were identified.
  • Angela Feddern – Her body was found near the Knik River in 1984.
  • Teresa Watson – Another of Hansen’s victims, identified through her confession and subsequent investigation.
  • DeLynn “Sugar” Frey – Her remains were also found thanks to Hansen’s confession.
  • Lisa Futrell – Identified among the victims after Hansen led investigators to her body.

Hansen also indicated other locations where he claimed to have left bodies, but not all were found and some victims remain unidentified. The tragic nature of these crimes and the unknown identities of some victims highlight the depth of Hansen’s depravity and the lasting impact on families and the community. Hansen’s case prompted significant changes in the way missing persons cases are handled, especially with regard to marginalised groups such as sex workers, to ensure that they receive the attention and investigative efforts they rightfully deserve.

The investigation and the end of the Hansen nightmare

The investigation into Robert Hansen’s crimes was a lengthy process, characterised by initial frustrations and dead ends. Hansen’s victims, mainly sex workers and strippers, were often not immediately reported missing, complicating efforts to recognise a pattern to the disappearances.

A Breakthrough and the Role of Survivor Testimony

A significant breakthrough came when one of Hansen’s intended victims managed to escape. Seventeen-year-old Cindy Paulson was abducted by Hansen, but escaped and provided detailed information to police about her ordeal, including descriptions of Hansen, his car and the interior of the house where she was held. Paulson’s testimony was crucial, yet Hansen maintained his innocence, capitalising on his reputation as a respectable businessman and family man. The initial scepticism of some members of law enforcement, given Paulson’s status as a sex worker, highlighted social prejudices that complicated the investigation.

Forensic evidence

The investigation gained momentum with the involvement of the FBI, including the assistance of Special Agent John Douglas, one of the pioneers of criminal profiling. Douglas’ profile of the suspect closely matched Hansen’s background and behaviour, which strengthened suspicions against him. In addition, advances in forensic science played a crucial role. Ballistics tests linked the shell casings found near the bodies to weapons owned by Hansen. In addition, items found buried in Hansen’s backyard and a map with markings corresponding to the locations of the known victims’ bodies were instrumental in determining his guilt.

The arrest

Hansen was arrested in October 1983, marking the end of a complex manhunt. The evidence against him was overwhelming, and the charges against him included assault, kidnapping and multiple murder. Hansen’s double life as a baker and family man on the one hand and a brutal predator on the other shocked the community and the country.

Hansen’s trial was a landmark prosecution in Alaska. Faced with insurmountable evidence, Hansen’s defence team negotiated a plea bargain to avoid the death penalty, which was not in effect in Alaska but could have been sought on federal charges due to the nature of the crimes.
In a controversial but strategic move, Hansen agreed to plead guilty to four counts of murder (Sherry Morrow, Joanna Messina, “Eklutna Annie” and Paula Goulding) in exchange for a reduced sentence and a guarantee that he would serve his time in federal prison, rather than in a maximum-security state prison. This deal also involved Hansen disclosing the location of his victims’ bodies, many of which were unknown to investigators. This deal was met with mixed reactions from the public and the victims’ families: some saw it as a necessary evil to uncover the extent of Hansen’s crimes, while others considered it too lenient.

Hansen was sentenced to 461 years plus life in prison without the possibility of parole, reflecting the severity and brutality of his crimes. The sentence also served as a statement by the justice system on the value of the lives he had taken and the terror he had inflicted on the community.


The investigation and subsequent prosecution of the Robert Hansen case represents a turning point in law enforcement and the criminal justice system. It highlighted the importance of treating all victims with dignity, the value of forensic science in solving crimes and the need for vigilance in communities. Hansen’s case is a grim reminder of the capacity for evil that can lurk beneath the surface of normality and the relentless effort needed to bring such individuals to justice.