A trooper remembers.*
By Ken Marsh
That she’d been discovered at all was extraordinary, entombed as she was within that wild country of forests, muskegs, creeks, and lakes. No one had searched for her or even, at that point, realized she was missing. But there in the heart of autumn, that transient season roaring with color, air sweet with berries, hills and skies alive with wild creatures, hung Jessica. By her neck. From a very old, white-barked birch. A hunter stalking moose in the woods north of Trapper Creek found her suspended by a length of nylon rope, her deadness amplified by golden leaves fluttering down, lighting as a gentle rain upon her shoulders and long sandy-brown hair.
The area lacked cellphone reception, so the hunter had bushwhacked to the highway, marking the route with pink survey ribbon that he tied around tree trunks and low-hanging branches. He’d then driven nearly 13 miles south to Trapper Creek where reception was available and phoned the Alaska State Troopers post in Palmer.
The hunter then returned and waited in a gravel pit just past Milepost 127. I arrived nearly 30 minutes after the call was received and found him leaning against his pickup, shoulders slouched, face downcast and pale. He told me he’d been searching the forest floor for moose sign when he came around a tree and nearly bumped his face into Jessica’s denim-clad knees. She was just hanging there, he said, dead. I watched the hunter tremble as he apparently relived the moment. Fuckin’ crazy, he said, shaking his head.
Leaving the gravel pit, we walked across the highway and found the hunter’s pink ribbon trail. The body hung nearly a half mile from the road, through uncut timber, muskegs, and a tangled understory of devil’s club and cranberry shrubs. By the time we reached her, the sun was settling into the trees. Forest shadows rose around us and for a moment, Jessica – a pretty, 28-year-old single mother of a two-year-old daughter – was left center stage, her hair and shoulders backlit and glowing in a halo of tangerine light.
Later that night, the medical examiner arrived to assist in the investigation and remove Jessica’s body. Based on her condition (the eyes weren’t badly sunken and the skin on her face, though pallid, remained taut) I believed she had died within a day or two of being found. The medical examiner’s office agreed, and the death would later be ruled a suicide.
Next morning around 5 a.m. I’d returned to my post in Cantwell worn out, but unable to sleep. I sat at my workstation computer with a cup of tea and entered Jessica’s name into the Alaska Public Safety Information Network. Her record suggested ongoing relationship issues. She was from Fairbanks where on three occasions over the past five years restraining orders and domestic violence charges had been placed against her and later dropped. Currently, an active case indicated she’d been arrested for battery on her male partner, the father of their little girl. That was in August. A magistrate ordered the two-year-old placed in the custody of her father and Jessica was released on bail the following day. She was ordered not to contact the father or daughter, and a court date was set for mid-September – just 48 hours from the day she was found dead.
I logged out of APSIN and onto Facebook on the likelihood a more personal accounting of her life might be found. Sure enough, I located her page, complete with images much more revealing than her portrait on the driver’s license I’d found tucked in her hip pocket. Jessica’s social media page was three years old but contained fewer than a dozen posts. Only nine people, including a brother and her mother, were listed as “friends.”
One post indicated Jessica had left employment in March as a social worker for a new job in a local nursery and garden center. A snapshot showed her in an apron surrounded by young plants, and she seemed excited at the prospect of a new chapter in her life (“Way to take charge, Jess!” read a comment from her brother). Another post featured her standing in a poorly lit apartment wearing leotards and a tank top while gripping a pair of small dumbbells. She’d begun working out, read the accompanying caption, to take charge of her physical health. Clearly, it wasn’t enough.
*Though based on a true event, this fragment is a work of fiction. The people and events are not real. If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, call 800-273-8255 for help and support.