Longform

DEATH IN THE DESERT

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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.

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Michael Kiefer