News

At Last, Justice

Mandy Stavik murder ends in conviction

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

A 30-year-old murder mystery was brought to conclusion by a Whatcom County jury last week: They found the man responsible.

Timothy Bass, 51, was found guilty on Friday after the jury deliberated for more than a day on evidence presented over the past two weeks in Whatcom County Superior Court. The jury found Bass guilty of rape, attempted rape, kidnapping and attempted kidnapping—and because these aggravated charges assemble around the death of Mandy Stavik, they ultimately found Bass guilty of murder in the first degree.

On Nov. 24, 1989, Stavik went missing from her home in the Nooksack Valley near Acme. Her body was found three days later in the Nooksack River.

Family, friends and neighbors wept openly at the verdict—their consolation, the closure of an important chapter of a mystery that has consumed this close-knit community for 29 years. That chapter was written by a community that never stopped searching for answers, never stopped looking for her killer.

Mandy, 18, was a graduate of Mount Baker High School. She was popular and athletic, active in her school and community. She was often seen running the roads around Clipper with her family dog.

Mandy had gone off to college that fall in Ellensburg and had returned home for Thanksgiving with her roommate. The following day, she went for a midday run and did not return. After a frantic search, her body was found, nude but for her running shoes, at the edge of the river a few miles south of her Valley home.

The full story of her fate may never be known. Bass did not testify at his trial, and throughout sat motionless and stone-faced in the courtroom of Judge Robert Olson.

A narrative of Stavik’s death was not offered to the jury, and the evidence focused primarily on the forensic details of her body. Matters of means, motive and opportunity were not brought to the assembled jury. An autopsy found she had had sexual intercourse. The contents of her stomach indicated she’d been killed within hours of her disappearance. The time frame of her killing was narrow and precise.

A conjectural narrative that fits all the facts might go something like this: Mandy was abducted on her run only a few yards from her home. She was taken to a remote location where she was raped. Somehow, strong and athletic, she managed to escape her abductor and ran through brambles and blackberries to the river, where she suffered a terrible cold and lonely death on the river’s stony shores in November.

Her legs were covered in scratches and lacerations consistent with running through thickets. She’d suffered a slight concussive blow to her head—painful but not lethal. She had no offensive or defensive injuries to her arms or hands. Her face and neck were unmarked. The proximate cause of her death was by drowning, but there was little evidence she’d been battered by travel far down the river.

“When I turned her over in the river, she almost seemed to be asleep, like I could gently pat her face and she would wake,” Ron Peterson, a former chief civil deputy with the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office and the sergeant in lead of the crime scene investigation at the time, told jurors.

Peterson’s voice faltered and broke as he described the discovery of her body three days after she was reported missing.

“Mandy was like everyone’s daughter,” Peterson said after the trial. “She was the all-American girl, and we all had kids of our own about the same age—especially me. My daughter was the same age, same physical characteristics. When I rolled her over in the river, to some extent I saw my own daughter there. It was a real imprint on me, and it was a real imprint on everyone.”

The cold of the water had preserved her, and it had preserved inside her the key DNA evidence that—as the science matured over three decades—led to the identification and conviction of Bass.

“The DNA was the whole case and told the story,” Prosecutor Dave McEachran said after the trial. “Because once we had that, we knew that was the reason she was kidnapped. We knew that was the reason she was raped. And we knew that was the reason she was killed.

“When you look at it,” the prosecutor said, “you’re not going to find a young woman who is out running, who is then found dead in the river, naked with just her shoes on, and has had recent sexual intercourse and scratches on her body as if she is running though the brush—that doesn’t happen by accident. Her clothes were gone, never found. The murderer got rid of them.”

Peterson said, “I’ve always told my students in CSI class, ‘We are the voice of the dead, and their story has to be told as accurately as possible though evidence.’ We told Mandy’s story.”

As with Chief Peterson, Prosecutor McEachran had officially retired after decades consumed by the Stavik mystery but emerged from retirement to prosecute the case. For them and for others involved, it was never a cold case and there was always a sense the science would catch up with the forensic evidence and they could close their files.

“I started on this immediately when it happened,” McEachran related. “We’ve always had a team concept with law enforcement, and so when the Sheriff’s office was involved, I would also get involved. I did all the search warrants, all the way through these 30 years. I would go with them in their searches. And when I was asked to continue to prosecute this case after my retirement, I was honored to do so.”

Though it was a young science and though he was also young at the time, Whatcom County Medical Examiner Gary Goldfogel took exquisite care in preserving the DNA samples. Indeed, a large portion of trial controversy revolved around how perfectly the slide samples were kept—whether they might be mistaken for new samples or some degradation of the original had occurred, and within that decay some ambiguity of when sexual intercourse may have taken place.

“Ron Peterson and Dr. Goldfogel knew how to preserve evidence for later DNA analysis,” McEachran said. “We all knew that DNA analysis was going to get better and better. So the samples were preserved for perpetuity. And that is what solved this case.”

And yet, what really solved the case is that locals never gave up on it. Law enforcement never stopped searching.

“The legacy of this case is that none of us forgot,” Peterson said. “We just stay with it, and each year that went by we were still in it. We’re still taking to each other and working new leads.”

“Shortly after I became Sheriff, I went out and visited Mandy’s mom, Mrs. Stavik, in her home, and gave her an overview of the case as it stood,” Whatcom County Sheriff Bill Elfo recalled. “I promised I would do everything in my ability, and it would be my highest priority while I’m Sheriff to get this case solved.”

Elfo dedicated the resources. He appointed Kevin Bowhay as lead detective on the Stavik case.

“I thought it needed to be solved. Detective Bowhay, one of our most experienced interviewers, has been working primarily on this case for the last year and a half, as has Mr. McEachran,” Elfo confirmed.

“We looked at a number of people, and we ended up getting DNA from 84 people. Just huge,” McEachran related. “As we looked at the various people, worked through the 83 we distinguished, we knew the DNA would get us to where to really needed to be.”

A break in the case occurred around 2013.

“We had lots of suspects that we were looking at—in fact, everybody that lived out there in that area we tried to look at.” Elfo related. “But there was information brought forward to our detectives. Mostly good community policing and people trusting our deputies and coming forward with information. We hire people who live in the community and who went to school at Mount Baker. One woman thought something was suspicious. And that caused us to refocus on Tim Bass.”

As the list of suspects had their DNA profiles cleared, the net began to tighten around Bass. Bass had refused to provide investigators with a DNA sample. But detectives caught a break.

A co-worker of Bass collected a plastic cup and Coke can that he discarded and gave it to detectives. They found a match and arrested him in December 2017.

“If it was any other person than Mr. Bass, it was a chance of one in 11 quadrillion—a huge number, more than there are people in the world,” McEachran said. “That probability is becoming even more certain over time because we are looking at more positions on the DNA. We have more loci, and so the statistics of certainty are greater.”

In trial, Bowhay marveled at the chain of events that led to a person volunteering to offer assistance in their investigation.

“I was just a year older than Mandy. Her life seemed like it mirrored mine that she could have easily been one of my friends,” said Kim Wagner, who reached out to detectives to help them fetch a DNA sample fromher co-worker. “Her death really changed the landscape of our lives at that age.

“I think we all knew that it just wasn’t somebody driving through her neighborhood, that it had to be somebody she knew.

“When detectives came to my place of work and began asking for permission to investigate an employee, I just put two and two together. I knew Tim Bass had grown up near Mandy on the Strand Road, and when Detective Bowhay came into my office I said, ‘I just have to ask you, is this about Mandy?’ I thought, if I could help her, I would; and if it didn’t help her, no harm.”

Sheriff Elfo, who had marshaled resources and man-hours to close the Stavik case, recalled when the DNA came in on Bass.

“It’s funny,” he said, “I was sitting in the chief criminal deputy’s office, we were discussing something, and our crime analyst who communicates with the lab comes walking into the office like he does regularly, and he said, ‘I’ve got something to tell you.’

“And I asked, just flippantly, ‘Did we get a DNA match on the Mandy Stavik case?’

“And sure enough, that’s exactly by coincidence what it was. So then we had to go full speed ahead, getting all the loose ends tied up that we could, and arrest Mr. Bass.”

“It took 30 years, but justice was done,” McEachran agreed.

“What I think is the most fascinating thing about the advancement of DNA—and I mentioned this in my argument—I think the defendant was worried about this from the time it happened—Nov. 24, 1989—until we contacted him in October of 2013. That he would have a knock on his door by someone with a badge. And they would ask him, ‘What happened to Mandy Stavik?’”

“We never forget,” Peterson said. “We just stay with it, and each year that went by we were still in it.”

“Many of the officers involved in this case were students in the Mount Baker School District,” Elfo related, “ so there is a very personal connection to this trial and verdict.”

Undersheriff Jeff Parks, who retired this week after a long career, summed it up: “This was never a cold case for us. I supervised many of these investigators over the years, and this was always at the forefront of the community’s mind. We never gave up, we never lost hope that it would be solved.”

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