Longform

DEATH IN THE DESERT

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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.

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Michael Kiefer