DEATH IN THE DESERT
After eight months of anguish on the part of Kimberly Nilson's family and friends, and diligent work on the part of the Tempe Police Department, her remains were found on April 12 in a clearing beneath the paloverde that was probably her last resting place.
She had been missing since last August 22, when her car turned up in a tony neighborhood in north Scottsdale. A national manhunt failed to produce any sign of her, and she was found only by accident.
A ranch hand looking for breaks in a barbed-wire fence stumbled upon the bones, a grim contrast to the wildly blooming cholla cactuses and creosote bushes in that clearing. There was no sign of her clothing or jewelry--as often happens to the desert's victims, it had likely been shredded by animals, blown away by the winds and the rains, carried off by pack rats and dissolved by sunlight. But 90 percent of the skeleton was recovered; the only missing parts were the hands, the feet, the lower right leg and the tiny hyoid bone--which, if found broken, might have indicated that the ASU co-ed had been strangled.
According to initial autopsy reports, there was no sign of physical trauma--no gunshot wounds, no knife nicks, no bones broken at the time of death, nothing to prove that Nilson had been murdered, or had not been. Dr. Laura Fulginiti, the forensic anthropologist who examined the bones on behalf of the Maricopa County Medical Examiner's Office, said, "My suggestion was that they go on to look at toxicology and see if they can come up with other things."
There was, of course, no way to tell if Nilson had been stabbed or beaten in the midsection, no way to determine if she had died of exposure. Medical examiners did, in fact, extract bone marrow from the leg bones to try to run blood tests on; they did, in fact, find samples of hair and a couple of two-inch-wide chunks of dried brain tissue. But all of those samples were so desiccated from the heat and dryness of the desert that neither police nor medical examiners expected to find much from them. Maricopa County toxicologists planned to send the samples out for analysis, afraid that they themselves were not qualified to test for the substance that the police asked them to find.
Nilson's behavior the night she disappeared suggested that she was in some kind of altered state. She had spent the afternoon vomiting and the evening making frantic and incoherent phone calls to friends; she made frustrated trips in her car trying to find the home of a friend she had visited many times before.
Her personal journal described stress and emotions that her family and friends didn't seem to notice. She had asked friends and former boyfriends about peyote, and she may have found some.
Peyote comes from a small, hard-to-find Southwestern cactus, parts of which are chewed to induce hallucinations. It is a natural source of the drug mescaline, and is used legally only in the religious ceremonies of some Native American tribes.
The drug affects different people in different ways. Most vomit violently after taking it. As for its psychoactive effects, some trippers recall everything they did on the drug, others become completely incapacitated and still others report drifting in and out of consciousness. Police investigators say that it can exaggerate one's emotional state; research texts say it can cause psychosis, even death. But people who have experimented with the drug agree that it instills in its users a deep feeling of spirituality that can last for days. And it makes the city seem to hum and whir ominously, causing a compulsion to get as far from civilization as possible.
Like to the spot where Kimberly Nilson was found, a scant clearing reached only by hiking up rugged, double-track trails and cow paths and climbing through barbed-wire fences.
Her 1982 Volkswagen Rabbit was found parked neatly in the driveway of a north Scottsdale home, in one of those neighborhoods whose streets and cul-de-sacs are as winding as a rat warren.
Kimberly's sister Sondra Nilson describes the car's parking as an "in-your-face gesture" by Kimberly's abductors. "I feel very strongly that Kimberly was murdered," she says.
The police are not so sure.
As detective Larry Baggs of the Tempe Police Department told New Times several weeks before Kimberly Nilson was found, "I'm not a bad guy, but I'm not going to park a car of someone I've either just raped or kidnaped or murdered in the driveway of a residence."
Not at 9 in the morning, especially when there are countless miles of dirt roads in the immediate vicinity, places where a struggle might go unnoticed and a car's presence might remain unquestioned for days.
Nor is it likely that anyone could carry a five-foot-five, 115-pound woman two miles uphill through the desert over rocky trails and through barbed-wire fences and then, after going to that trouble, not bury the body.
It's almost as unlikely that anyone could have chased her there and overpowered her without evidence of a struggle--Kimberly Nilson was an accomplished triathlete, and as strong as a man.
She may have gone there with someone she knew. But neither the driveway where her car turned up nor the desert clearing where her remains were recovered is the kind of place that anyone would seek out or even find twice.
They were the kinds of places you might wander to. And if Kimberly were, in fact, under the influence of a hallucinogenic drug, as police suspect, there would be no sense in looking for her logic in going there. She might have imagined she was anywhere. She might just have been looking for solitude.
And after 24 hours of strenuous activity, vomiting and dehydration, and a night of nervous wandering, she might have found a quiet clearing to pass out in and succumb to the 100-degree-plus August sun.
Kimberly Nilson might have been murdered. She might have died of exposure. And though she did not have a suicidal personality, she might, under the influence of a psychoactive drug, even have taken her own life.
"Whatever happened to her," says Detective Baggs, "happened up there."
Kimberly Nilson was raised in Montana and San Francisco, and, at the age of 24, she was entering her senior year at Arizona State University. She had arresting blue eyes and a dazzling smile, and "could walk in the room and the room would light up," her sister Sondra says. "She could make you feel at ease."
She was on top of her premed studies, her job as a dietitian at a local hospital, her personal finances. She had done some modeling, was an accomplished athlete who had recently won a triathlon in Flagstaff and carried herself with a tanned and well-muscled confidence. She could walk up to anyone and start a conversation, offer a firm handshake, meet his or her gaze full-on. She had a collection of casual male acquaintances whom her close friends only knew by first names, men who liked the same adventurous sports and hard competition that she did: skiing and mountain biking and jet-skiing.
"She didn't like hanging around women, because they didn't like to do hard things," says Bob Leet, who was one of her triathlon training partners.
However, if Kimberly was easy to meet, she was hard to know, and after her death, according to Detective Baggs, her personal diary showed a "troubled girl" who was searching for spiritual answers, who wrote down her nightmares, looking for meaning in them.
Beneath the controlled exterior, she was depressed by a recent breakup with a boyfriend.
It had been an affair that only lasted a few months, but it left scars. "She'd been acting slightly different ever since she met [her boyfriend]," says Leet. "She seemed really attached to him immediately, and he was really distant to her, but she kept chasing after him."
Then he broke off the relationship with her, something a man had never done before. Her close friend Becky Petersen reports that after the breakup, Kimberly wrote him letters, called him and left messages that were never answered, and even called his parents.
The boyfriend was part Native American, and this interested Kimberly. His grandmother had given her a book about herbs and remedies used by Native Americans, and it tied into her interest in natural medicine and her part-time job as a hospital nutritionist.
She'd discussed with the boyfriend Navajo stories of shape shifters--shamans who can take the form of animals--and she'd asked him about peyote.
Despite her family's perception that she cared too much about her health to use drugs, she'd told people that she had experimented with them in the way that college students do. She smoked marijuana occasionally, and she had confided to the boyfriend that she'd tried crystal, and maybe even hallucinogenic mushrooms. But when she asked about peyote, he answered that he didn't know much about it and had no idea how to get any.
Says Detective Baggs, "She had told quite a few of her friends that she was interested in peyote."
On Sunday, August 21, Kimberly rose at dawn to meet two men with whom she'd arranged to go mountain biking. She had set up the trip. Neither of the men, Jeff Seliga and Steve Chambers, had met the other before, but at 5:30 in the morning, they had loaded their bikes and themselves into a pickup truck to ride the trails that circled Pinnacle Peak in north Scottsdale. They rode long and hard--Kimberly took a fall, and Chambers helped her back up.
Her mood began to chill--she remarked to Seliga that Chambers made her uncomfortable, but she wouldn't explain why, and, instead, started talking about a man in her apartment complex she thought was a peeping Tom. Chambers has no idea what Kimberly was referring to.
About 1 in the afternoon, she stopped at the apartment of an acquaintance named Tor Stobbe, whom she had run into on campus the Friday before. Stobbe is a bit of a cosmic dabbler who studies massage and martial arts and other, more esoteric Oriental disciplines. The message on his answering machine ends with this koan delivered in a dramatic voice: "Remember, the deep source of everything is nothing--yet it is everything."
On the previous Friday evening, Kimberly and Stobbe had met to climb Camelback Mountain, and, under the full moon, they discussed Kimberly's family and religion, and she described it in her diary as a pleasant outing.
On Sunday afternoon, however, Stobbe later told police, Kimberly acted as if she had something on her mind that she was afraid to talk about. He claimed that he had made some herb tea for her, and she had snapped at him almost rudely, saying something along the lines of, "Oh, so now I have to drink the tea before I leave."
He noted that she left without giving him a hug, a gesture she regularly made on greeting or leaving her friends.
At 3:30 in the afternoon, as Kimberly's roommate, Donna Zingaro, later recalled, Kimberly was in the bathroom vomiting, and when Donna knocked at the door to ask if she was okay, Kimberly answered, "Go away. Just leave me alone."
Kimberly called in sick to work and went to bed and slept until about 5:30 p.m., when Bob Leet, her workout partner, called. They chatted about tickets he had bought for Lollapalooza, expecting that he would take a date and Kimberly would bring her former boyfriend. They arranged to meet the next morning, and she pooh-poohed her illness, telling Leet she probably just had a bug.
Then she started making peculiar phone calls. She called friends in Flagstaff, thinking she had called her ex-boyfriend; they recognized her voice, though it took a moment for her to recognize theirs. She apparently then tried to call the ex-boyfriend at work, but never got through to him.
At 7, she called Leet again, this time going on and on incoherently about some dream she had about not being able to trust him or Tor. "She never could tell me exactly; she never could quite get clear what had scared her," Leet recalls. But she seemed racked with guilt that she had not told Tor about the dream and that she had not hugged Tor when she left his apartment because she was afraid to.
"I fucked up," she told Leet. She was standing on the balcony of her apartment, and passers-by told police that they thought she might have been saying, "I'm fucked up."
After 50 minutes, the batteries in her cordless phone went dead. Leet called back, but no one answered. Passers-by recalled seeing Kimberly still on the balcony, sitting with her head between her knees as if she were sick again.
Her roommate, Donna, told police that Nilson's eyes were dilated and that she was acting irrationally. At 9:30 p.m., Nilson called another casual male friend so she could drop by his house and wish him a happy birthday. She left the apartment, and shortly afterward, returned saying that she couldn't find her friend's house and that she needed to call for better directions--which was peculiar because she had been to his house at least eight times before.
She left again, returned again, even more frustrated, and, at 10:30 p.m., left for good. Donna at first reported to police that she thought she saw Kimberly in bed the next morning when she passed by the room on her way to work. Days later, she realized that she had not.
The next morning, August 22, Nilson's car appeared, neatly parked in a driveway in north Scottsdale. It had not been there when the homeowner left the house to run errands at 7:40 a.m., but was blocking the garage when she returned at 9. It did not seem to have been parked hurriedly or under stress, but rather carefully, as if in a parking lot. The keys were in the ignition, Kimberly's checkbook and identification were on the front seat and the pullout stereo that she would remove and carry with her even if she stopped at a Circle K was still in the dashboard. Under one of the floor mats, investigators found a page torn from her diary with a map to Tor's house drawn on it.
Later, when police realized that she was missing, bloodhounds tracked Kimberly from the center of the driveway to the front door of the house, as if she had gone to ring the bell. Detective Baggs noted, however, that her scent could have attached itself to the Scottsdale police officer who moved her car out of the driveway and become airborne when he walked back to the home's door. From there, the scent had evaporated completely. Police searching Kimberly's room found a small plastic bag filled with marijuana. On top of her desk was the herb book that her boyfriend's grandmother had given to her, and it held three bookmarks that had been torn from a yellow legal pad lying next to it. The first bookmark opened to a chart of Native American herbs, and in the center of the page was an entry for peyote. The second opened to an entry for yew, or hemlock, a poison that can cause vomiting, mental disorientation and possibly a coma. The third bookmark opened to a page on emotional stress.
Detective Baggs thought the first and third entries were related. "[Peyote] intensifies whatever mood you're having," he says. "In fact, her roommate told me that she was really upset over the breakup with [her boyfriend], because she had never, ever in her life been dumped before. So if she's calling him up at 6:30 at night and she's either on peyote or she took it soon after, and she's feeling like she's been dumped, that drug could really intensify those emotions."
Baggs picked up Kimberly's Bible. It opened to a passage in Isaiah 40 highlighted with a yellow marker. It fell under a heading that read "Comfort for God's people," but it seemed a foreshadowing of Kimberly's death site.
"A voice of one calling: 'In the desert prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God. Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain. And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all mankind together will see it. For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.'"
In the days following Nilson's disappearance, searchers combed the trails of the desert surrounding the neighborhood where her car was found, but, according to Detective Baggs, never ventured onto the private property where her remains were discovered.
Her friends and family pumped the local and national media machines with the ardent hope that someone might have seen something. The tips that poured in to the Tempe Police Department filled four thick loose-leaf binders, generating more reports than any case in the history of the department.
Everybody wanted to help. Kimberly was reported in 36 states. She had been seen on TV talk shows, in bars, in Circle K stores and in strip joints. Countless psychics called to give descriptions--sometimes cryptic, sometimes crystal-clear--of her whereabouts. Shysters gave false information, trying to collect a reward. Baggs and his partner, Alan Reed, ran them all down.
Some leads seemed dead-on possible: A telephone voice gave a detailed location for a grave site near Picacho Peak; the police combed the area. A pair of sharps from Scottsdale skipped out on their rent and their jobs on the day she disappeared, and there were enough clues to suggest they were somehow involved; they turned up in Albuquerque with plausible alibis.
Police interviewed all of the men Kimberly had seen or talked to on the day she disappeared. Stobbe told police that in his attempts to locate Kimberly, he had used numerology--a method of assigning numbers to names and pertinent personal facts and thereby arriving at psychic conclusions.
"She was overwhelmed in a situation that maybe she didn't have control over," he told them.
Because Kimberly's remains were discovered in Scottsdale, the case passed to the jurisdiction of the Scottsdale Police Department, much to the consternation of Kimberly's family. They had become attached to Detective Larry Baggs, and he to them. He had grown to think of Kimberly "as a sister," and they had taken to sending him cards and inquiring about his health and his family.
Scottsdale police, incidentally, have refused to talk about the case.
The family hangs on to a conviction that Kimberly was murdered. Her sister Sondra concedes that Kimberly might have been drugged, but not willingly. Kimberly was too careful about her health and her body, Sondra says, and was absolutely compulsive about being prompt to work. "She wouldn't let me make her even a few minutes late," Sondra says, and points out that Kimberly would not have been so irresponsible the day before school started.
"I believe that she was murdered," Sondra continues. "She definitely did not walk off into the desert by herself."
That possibility certainly still exists, but leads are dwindling, and the peyote angle looms large.
"She talked about it, told her friends about it, wrote about it and showed signs of it," Baggs says.
Toxicology may not show anything, and it may remain a mystery forever.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.
- Phoenix New Times Seeks News Freelancers
Wed., Oct. 14, 3:00pm
Thu., Oct. 15, 7:00pm
Thu., Oct. 15, 7:00pm
Sat., Oct. 17, 7:00pm
- Another Teacher-Student Sex Scandal — and What Happened to Metro Phoenix's 10 Most...
- Arizona Driver's License Rules Change Drastically for REAL ID