Long before Amber Alerts, special child-abduction laws, DNA evidence, and violent-offender registries, two Marion children disappeared. Their murders were a frightening and consuming part of Flathead Valley criminal history.
Jessica Westphal was 9 years old. The baby in a family of five boys, she was the pride and joy of her family, according to her aunt, Sheri Westphal. They called her J or JJ.
She was a beautiful little girl, Westphal said. She loved horses. She had a little pony. She loved to draw.
On a sunny afternoon, July 31, 1973, she rode her bike to what was the Marion Store with Karen Tyler.
Karen was her best friend, Westphal said.
Karen, 11, was a classmate and neighbor of Jessicas. She was the middle child of three, raised by a single mother whom Westphal remembers as being widowed.
The two girls stopped at the store to buy candy. Jessicas mother, Jean, sent one of Jessicas brothers, Ben, over to tell her it was time to come home,
but Jessica wasnt ready to go yet.
It was the last time anyone in the family would see her alive.
When he returned to the store to relay a second order to
go home, he found Karens and Jessicas bikes in a ditch about a half mile from the store. He couldnt find the girls.
By 6 p.m., the family called Jessicas brother, Creed, to come and help look. He and Sheri were newlyweds, living in Kila. They joined an official search that would last 30 days and an unofficial search that lasted for years, searching down every road there was from here to Canada.
You didnt want to think the worst, Westphal said.
But thoughts of the worst crept in when nothing turned up, despite one of the most intense searches in Flathead Valley history.
Scores of volunteers, Flathead County sheriffs officers, and search-and-rescue members searched the area, shoulder-to-shoulder. Bloodhounds followed the girls scents from their bikes to the roadway. A slough was pumped. Posters went up across the valley with pictures of the girls Karen, blond and blue-eyed, with glasses; Jessica, smiling, her long brown hair framing her face. The FBI got involved. Marion residents carried guns. The Westphal family and their friends posted a $5,000 reward for information leading to the girls location. A few days after she disappeared, Jessicas 10th birthday passed without her.
Its just as though the girls had disappeared into thin air, said then-Sheriff Curtis Snyder.
The investigation turned up one slim clue: A witness reported seeing the girls talking to a young man in an old red truck before they vanished. Officers stopped countless drivers of red trucks. It all led nowhere.
Thirty-nine months passed.
Creeds mother always kind of had that hope that the girls would be found one day, Westphal said. They were, on Nov. 1, 1976, in a grisly discovery just two miles from where they were last seen. A hunter found their bones and the pink-and-brown-striped pants that Westphal wore and the green-and-purple clothing Tyler was last seen wearing.
Their identities were confirmed with dental records for one of the girls.
It was horrifying. I cant even put it in words, Westphal said. And yet, there was some relief they found them. We knew what happened.
The girls had each been shot six times in the head.
It literally drove both mothers crazy, Westphal said. Creeds mother never got over it. It was hard on all of them.
No one would have known who shot the two little girls in the country if something strange hadnt happened years later.
Flathead County Sheriffs Office deputy Larry Merical had moved to the valley after the murders. He was aware of the tragedy, of the fear that still lingered in Marion. But it was, by July 1977, what officers would now call a cold case.
Merical was on patrol July 15 in Glacier Park to put the run on some guy who was panhandling there.
He ran into a friend of his, Karl Randy Bachman. The two men shared an interest in muzzle loading and had spent time together at a national rendezvous for enthusiasts.
He was a very handsome, good-looking young man whom Mericals wife liked, he said.
The kid just seemed like an awfully nice person.
Bachman jumped into Mericals patrol car, and the men shared some Cheetos and Pepsi and passed the time talking about guns and stuff like that.
The panhandler Merical was looking for appeared, and Bachman left as Merical went about what he was there to do.
When he was done, it was the end of his shift. Merical was driving back to Kalispell when he got a call about an attempted rape and abduction near Lake 5.
A 19-year-old park employee said she was hitchhiking to the park. A clean-cut man in a very clean green truck picked her up. Instead of taking her to the park, though, he drove down a road at Lake 5. He molested her, showed her a gun, and ordered her to get down on the floorboard of his truck.
Instead, she grabbed the gun. He took it back and forced her onto the floor, according to the only report remaining at the Sheriffs Office. The teenager pleaded with the man not to hurt her.
I must be crazy, she remembered him saying. I dont want to do anything like this.
She said maybe he just needed to talk. Yes, he said, he wanted to talk to her.
Instead, she fled from the truck. The driver turned the truck around and passed her.
The girl told Merical that the man was about 5 feet, 8 or 9 inches tall, thin, with dark brown hair, dark plastic-rim glasses and fair skin. He seemed shy, she said.
Im thinking, God, that sounds like Randy, Merical said. It seemed unlikely that a man who had just been sitting in his patrol car would try to rape a girl 15 or 20 minutes later.
Merical drove past Bachmans house. Bachmans truck had a license-plate number just one digit off from the number the girl had given. And it matched her description exactly.
Suspicion about Bachman seemed so misdirected, Merical said. Bachman came from a well-respected family. He was married and had never been in trouble.
Then-Sheriff Al Rierson asked Merical whether he knew that Bachman had been questioned in connection with Karens and Jessicas disappearance years ago. Merical had not.
Dan Youreman was a detective with the Sheriffs Office. He always had considered Bachman a suspect in the Marion murders. Another detective, Bob Soderstrom, had interviewed Bachman about it twice, until Bachmans attorney got a restraining order to keep detectives away from his client.
Bachman took five polygraph exams about the matter. Three indicated he was not implicated in the crime.
But everything we had led to him, Youreman said of Bachman. There were so many things that fit.
After the Lake 5 incident, the victim just about came unglued when detectives showed her a picture of Bachman. That was him, she said. Bachman was arrested at his job at Plum Creek and was taken to the sheriffs office for questioning about the attempted rape.
He admitted it, Youreman said. Then we went into the Marion case, which was probably pushing our luck a little bit as far as the restraining order he had against us.
Local law-enforcement lore is that the detectives dropped some of the girls clothing in Bachmans lap and he broke down.
Youreman said Bachman was getting a little teary eyed. He said, I want to talk to you, but I want to talk to my attorney first, Youreman remembers.
Bachmans attorney, Calvin Christian, was immediately flown over from Polson. He spent 15 or 20 minutes with Bachman, and then came out to tell officials, Well, youve got your man, Youreman said.
Merical wasnt there when that happened, but the next day, he went to see Bachman at the jail.
Ill never forget. The minute he saw me coming, he absolutely broke down. He was crying like his heart was breaking.
He asked me, How can you ever forgive me for what Ive done? Merical said. Bachman stretched out his hand between the jail bars, shaking violently.
Merical asked his friend, What in the world happened to you?
Bachman said hed suffered his whole life from excruciating headaches and blackouts, for which he took medication. On the day of the murders, hed gone to his parents cabin on Bitterroot Lake to lay some flagstone for a walkway. He felt an episode coming on, went to his truck for his medicine, and found the bottle empty. Bachman told Merical he decided to work until the pain got too bad.
When it did, he got in his truck and started driving home, he told Merical.
I remember standing alongside of the road, talking to two little girls, Bachman told him. The next thing I remember is standing in the woods over their bodies with the gun in my hand. I killed them. I know that.
Westphal has no sympathy for Bachman.
He should have lost his life, she said. You think of the wasted life, of life snuffed out so young.
If Jessica had survived, shed have children of her own by now, Westphal said.
Bachman received two life sentences for the murders. It angers Westphal that he was considered for parole on Friday. A life sentence should not carry even that possibility, she said.
The law isnt right to have to go through this, she said. It brings it all back.
Merical, now retired, said that when he took inmates to the state prison, he sometimes thought about stopping to see Bachman.
I never could do it, he said.
Youreman, also retired, thinks Bachman should absolutely not be released.
As far as Im concerned, he is a cold-blooded murderer.
Although it was never publicly stated at the time, Youreman thinks a sexual element existed in the girls murders.
Somebody that could and would do something like that, theyll do it again, he said. He should never walk among us again.
Merical agrees that the man who was once his friend is dangerous and always will be.
I dont care if its medical, he said of Bachmans problems. I dont care what it is.
He is a danger and should never ever, ever, ever, ever be released.
Reporter Chery Sabol may be reached at 758-4441 or by e-mail at email@example.com.