A runner disappears in the Wyoming wilderness and police suspect foul play.
On July 24, 1997, 24-year-old Amy Bechtel went for a run among the tall trees of the Shoshone National Forest near Lander, Wyoming, and vanished. As police began to suspect foul play, Amy’s husband, Steve, became a key suspect.
Amy and Steve Bechtel had been married for a little more than a year. Both loved the outdoors. It was running for Amy, and climbing for Steve. They moved to Lander because its rugged terrain made it a perfect training ground.
July 24th was a typical day for Amy and Steve. Steve was going rock-climbing with a friend. Amy had a long list of errands that day: call the phone company, get the gas turned on, buy home insurance. Once those tasks were done, she would reward herself by planning a route for a 10k mountain run.
When Steve returned from his all-day climbing trip, Amy wasn't home yet. Steve’s friend Todd Skinner recalled his exchange with Steve:
“We were just talking casually and he asked about Amy, and … I said, ‘I don't know, last time I saw her she was okay.’”
Around 8:15 PM, Steve stopped in to see Todd and his wife. He told them Amy still wasn't home. Todd recalls that Steve seemed cool:
“He wasn't panicking by any means because it was still light, and still, you know, she could have been out doing something. It was not an unordinary day for Amy.”
Concerned, Todd and his wife Amy set out to search roads where Amy Bechtel most likely went running. Steve stayed behind, hoping his wife would call. At around 1 AM, Todd and Amy found Amy Bechtel’s car pulled off to the side of the road in an area where she might be expected to go for a run.
Todd Skinner recalled the discovery:
“We were relieved. It was like, oh, man, we thought we'd found her. So I walked up completely expecting her to be in the car.”
But Amy wasn’t in the car. On hearing the news, Steve says he began to wonder if Amy hadn’t injured herself on her run:
“At that point, it was relief, you know. And concern, because, you know, her car's still up there and it's after midnight and, you know, she's probably cold and maybe has a twisted ankle.”
Amy did not surface over the next 24 hours. In the following days, more than 500 people scoured a 20-mile radius. After eight days, the massive search was called off. Not a single clue was recovered. In the aftermath, Fremont County Sheriff Dave King accused Steve of knowing much more than he was saying:
“We should have found Amy Bechtel, if she were a runner up there and nothing else entered the picture. Could she still be there? Yes. But given the circumstances, the lack of clues, I don't think she is.”
Steve Bechtel reacted to Sheriff King’s suspicions:
“I was pretty blown away, you know. And I turned to Dave, I was like, you know, ‘Dave, what's going on here? This is not cool.’”
When Sheriff King asked Steve to take a polygraph test, Steve called for legal counsel:
“The guys says, ‘Look, if you take a polygraph test, we'll get this cleared up right now.’ And I was like, ‘Wait a minute’, you know? ‘If you guys are accusing me of something I didn't do, I'm going to want to talk to legal counsel here.’"
Kent Spence was Steve’s attorney:
“I wouldn't let any client take a lie detector test. They're completely inaccurate. They come in about 1/3 of the time as a false positive and it would be a terrible injustice to Steve if he fell within that 1/3 false positive and it was used wrongly against him.”
Deputies searched Steve and Amy’s home. Among the items they confiscated were a series of journals Steve had been keeping since high school. Sheriff King found some of the writings incriminating:
“There are writings about power and death. Some about killing people.”
Amy’s brother, Nel Wroe, told the sheriff about one night when Amy and Steve were over for dinner. Nel noticed that Amy was bruised. Amy made a joke, saying that Steve can get a little rough sometimes. Nel found Amy’s reaction odd:
“Amy just laughed it off, would not look me in the eye, and I said, that is not a normal reaction, particularly for Amy.”
Deputies also found a camper who claimed that on the day Amy disappeared, she had seen a blue pickup truck driving fast on the mountain close to where Amy's car was found. A man was at the wheel and a blond woman in the passenger seat. The next day, the camper saw the same truck at the search site. When police showed her a picture of Steve Bechtel’s truck, she identified it as the same one she had seen.
Sheriff David King summed up the case against Steve Bechtel:
“Statistically, he did it. The first person we have to eliminate in a case where there may be foul play involved in one's disappearance is the person closest to that person.”
Sheriff's investigators also believed there were incriminating gaps in Steve's activities that day, time when he could have harmed his wife. But Todd Skinner’s wife, Amy, doesn’t see how Steve would have had the opportunity to be involved in Amy’s disappearance:
“He was with people all that afternoon and evening, so I don’t have any question about that. He just didn't have the time.”
However, according to phone records, Steve made a call from his house at 4:43 that afternoon. That's about the same time the camper saw what she alleged was his truck on the mountain road -- a 45 minute drive from the Bechtels' home.
Investigators also believed Steve's journals showed a desire for power and control that may have led to murder. Todd Skinner strongly disagreed. He says the writings were taken out of context in order to make Steve look more capable of the crime:
“A psychologist can read anything into any writing that you can ever wish to put in there. And to me, I've never seen more innocuous writing taken out of context more heavily to, you know, to a worse result.”
Seven years after she disappeared, Steve had Amy declared dead. He has since re-married:
“I don't feel like me going in and getting attacked is going to solve any problems. I feel like, you know, I went and I tried to work with Dave and it didn't work out. And, you know, things need to get solved a different way now.”
The community of Lander, Wyoming, is still divided over whether Steve Bechtel murdered his wife. Steve believes a stranger could have kidnapped her or a motorist could have accidentally struck Amy, and in a panic, disposed of her body.
Amy’s family is not convinced. They want Steve to take a polygraph test.