On August 8, 1980, Ruth Neslund (1920-1993) shoots her 83-year-old husband, Rolf Neslund (1897-1980), twice in the head after a violent argument over his purloined retirement fund. With the assistance of her older brother, she disposes of the body by chopping it up with a butcher knife and an ax, incinerating the pieces in a burn-barrel and dumping the ashes in a pile of manure in back of their Lopez Island home. After colleagues report Rolf Neslund missing, the San Juan County Sheriff’s Department opens a missing-persons investigation, eventually charging Ruth, in March 1983, with murdering her husband. In October 1985, Ruth Neslund will finally stand trial in San Juan County Superior Court and, after a month of testimony, be found guilty of premeditated murder. The judge sentences Ruth to life in prison, where she will die of natural causes in February 1993.
Rolf Neslund gained notoriety in the Puget Sound area for single-handedly forcing Seattle’s mayor and city council to stop equivocating about the construction of a high-level span over the Duwamish River to West Seattle, a controversy that had been ongoing for more than a decade. On Sunday, June 11, 1978, at 2:58 a.m., the MV Chavez, a 550-foot-long freighter, piloted by 80-year-old Neslund, collided with the north drawspan of Spokane Street Bridge No. 1 (also known as the West Seattle Bridge), damaging it beyond repair and leaving it permanently in the open position. The accident resulted in the construction of the much-needed six-lane, 157-foot tall high-span bridge and freeway, eliminating the notorious bottleneck at Harbor Island and directly linking West Seattle with the Alaskan Way Viaduct, Interstate 5, and the city. Many West Seattle citizens thought the new span, dedicated on July 14, 1984, should be named the Rolf Neslund Bridge, but the city’s Board of Public Works opted to name it the West Seattle Bridge for its geographical location.
Two weeks after the accident, Neslund retired and went home to live with his wife, Ruth, age 60, in their sprawling house on the south end of Lopez Island. Shortly thereafter, the Neslunds' domestic life began to deteriorate. Both were drinking heavily and arguing often. Some of their confrontations ended violently with property destruction and physical injuries to both parties. Occasionally, a San Juan County deputy sheriff was dispatched to the residence to intercede. Then in August 1980, Rolf Neslund suddenly disappeared.
Suspicions and Confessions
In February 1981, the Puget Sound Pilots Association (PSPA) contacted the San Juan County Sheriff’s Department and reported that they had been unable to contact Rolf Neslund. Ruth claimed Rolf had just gone on an extended trip to Norway, but the PSPA discontinued his $1,200 monthly pension payments until they heard from him. Meanwhile, the sheriff’s department decided to open a missing-persons investigation into Rolf’s sudden disappearance and sent two Lopez Island deputies, Raymond Clever and Gregory Doss, to the Neslund residence to talk to Ruth Neslund.
In April 1981, Donna Smith, Ruth Neslund's niece in Seattle, contacted the PSPA, trying to locate Rolf, but the Pilots Association hadn’t heard from him. She talked with her sister, Joy Stroup, in Mount Sterling, Ohio, and they decided to go to the authorities with a disturbing story: Ruth Neslund had phoned both sisters on August 8, 1980, confessing that she had killed her husband and was burning his body outside in the back yard. Since Ruth had appeared to be intoxicated, they didn’t believe the story at the time, but now it seemed plausible. Stroup gave a written statement at her local sheriff's office about the phone call, which was sent to the San Juan County Sheriff's Office.
On April 12, 1981, Deputy Clever obtained a search warrant for the Neslund residence and property to search for evidence of Rolf Neslund’s demise. Clever, accompanied by two sheriff’s deputies and a criminalist from the Washington State Patrol (WSP) laboratory in Olympia, served the warrant the following morning and searched for seven hours, but found no obvious evidence of a murder.
On July 23, 1981, the San Juan County Prosecutor’s Office petitioned the San Juan County Superior Court to appoint a special inquiry judge, representing that there was evidence that Ruth Neslund, with the help of her older brother, Robert Myers, killed Rolf Neslund and disposed of his body. The position was assumed by Judge Richard Pitt. Both Ruth Neslund and Robert Myers were summoned to testify under oath. They both denied Rolf had been murdered, maintaining he had either returned to his native Norway or possibly committed suicide because he was despondent over the fact that his career as a ship’s pilot had ended ignominiously.
In February 1982, Clever located Paul Myers, another of Ruth Neslund’s brothers, living in Scappoose, Oregon, and traveled there for an interview. Myers said both Ruth and Robert told him about Rolf’s murder in great detail, and he described places in the house where traces of blood and other evidence would most likely be found. Paul Myers was brought to Friday Harbor in order to testify before the court of special inquiry.
Based on the testimony of Paul Myers, Clever obtained another search warrant for the Neslund residence and property. Clever, accompanied by three sheriff’s deputies and a WSP criminalist, served the warrant on Tuesday morning, March 2, 1982. The search was exhaustive. Deputies removed two large chunks of stained concrete from the living room floor with a jackhammer, cut out sections of carpeting and padding, and took three pieces of the living room ceiling. They also used a backhoe to dig up portions of the Neslund property, including the septic tank and drain field, searching for forensic evidence. When the search was finally completed on March 11, the investigators had logged more than 700 items of potential evidence, including the suspected murder weapon, a Smith and Wesson .38-caliber revolver.
Prosecuting the Case
While waiting for the laboratory to process the evidence, the San Juan County Prosecutor’s Office took advantage of a new 1981 state law allowing small, understaffed counties to seek assistance from the Washington State Attorney General. As a result, Senior Assistant Attorney General Gregory P. Canova (later a King County Superior Court judge) was assigned as Special Prosecutor, along with Criminal Investigator Robert Kepel from his office to help prepare the complicated case. Co-counsel was Charles Z. Silverman, the San Juan County deputy prosecutor who had been monitoring the investigation from the beginning. Without a body, the prosecution’s challenge would be to establish convincing evidence a murder had taken place and that Ruth Neslund and Robert Myers had committed the crime.
On March 7, 1983, Canova and Silverman filed an information in San Juan County Superior Court, charging Ruth Neslund with first-degree murder. The next day, Neslund, with her attorney, Fred Weedon, appeared before Judge Richard Pitt, and entered a plea of not guilty. Judge Pitt set Neslund’s bail at $50,000 which she posted, using her Lopez Island property as security.
On March 11, Neslund’s attorney, Fred Weedon, went on the offensive and filed a civil suit against San Juan County and Washington state in U.S. District Court, Seattle, alleging violation of her civil rights and asking for $850,000 in damages. Weedon claimed the San Juan County Sheriff’s Department unlawfully and maliciously ransacked Neslund’s home and property on Lopez Island for 10 days in March 1982, during the execution of a defective search warrant.
Next, Weedon filed a motion with the San Juan County Superior Court to suppress all the evidence seized during the execution of the invalid search warrant. Judge Robert C. Bibb, a visiting judge from Snohomish County assigned to the Neslund trial, upheld the validity of the search, but ruled that certain seized items were inadmissible. Weedon immediately appealed the decision to the Washington State Supreme Court and was granted a motion for discretionary review. On November 6, 1984, the state Supreme Court affirmed Judge Bibb’s ruling, allowing the use of evidence seized during the search in March 1982.
Preparing for the Trial
Finally, after a 20-month delay, Judge Bibb scheduled the trial date for May 6, 1985. In the interim, the old San Juan County Courthouse in Friday Harbor had been condemned and a new building was constructed at 350 Court Street, and readied for the big event. But a few days before trial, Neslund fell and broke her hip, forcing another near six-month delay. Judge Bibb scheduled a new trial date for October 28, 1985.
Jury selection began on Monday morning, October 28, with a pool of some 400 prospective jurors. Neslund’s attorney hadn’t filed the usual request for a change-of-venue, believing that community sympathy and support would be in her favor, giving her the best chance of acquittal. Both attorneys Weedon and Canova were considered to be experts at the art of jury selection, so questioning was expected to be lengthy. To speed the process, Judge Bibb had sent potential jurors instructions about avoiding news coverage of the case, plus a comprehensive 14-page questionnaire, asking a number of general questions and whether they knew any of the 150 possible trial witnesses. But the trial was halted on Thursday afternoon, October 31, after Neslund suffered a severe nosebleed, due to high blood pressure, and had to be airlifted to Saint Joseph Hospital in Bellingham for treatment. After three-and-a-half days of questioning, the pool of prospective jurors had been narrowed down to 50.
During hospitalization, Neslund suffered respiratory problems and delirium tremens, a result of alcohol withdrawal, and was placed in the intensive care unit. She was finally released on Friday, November 8, and Judge Bibb ordered the trial to resume on Monday morning, November 11. Another two-and-a-half days of laborious questioning ensued until the trial attorneys finally selected fifteen jurors (including three alternates), 12 women and three men, but no one from Lopez Island.
The Trial Begins
Opening statements began late Wednesday afternoon, November 13, with deputy prosecutor Silverman outlining the state’s case against Ruth Neslund. The motive for the murder was money. She had quietly moved as much as $100,000 of Rolf’s retirement money from jointly held bank accounts into her individual, private accounts. When he discovered all his money was gone and confronted Ruth, she shot and killed him, and then cremated the remains in a burn barrel, with the help her brother Robert Myers. Silverman summarized the testimony of two key witnesses, Joy Stroup and Paul Myers, about conversations with Neslund in which she described the murder. He said, although no body or body parts had ever been found, the corroborative physical evidence, primarily bloodstains found at various places inside the Neslund home and on the murder weapon, a Smith and Wesson .38-caliber revolver, proved that Rolf had been murdered.
On November 21, after several trial delays and interruptions caused by Neslund’s ongoing health problems and her excessive use of alcohol, Judge Bibb ordered that she stay in the Islands Convalescent Center in Friday Harbor each night, except Friday and Saturday, during the remainder of the trial.
The prosecution rested its case on Monday afternoon, December 2, 1985, after 12 days of testimony and entering some 130 items into evidence. The time had come for Ruth Neslund’s attorneys, Fred Weedon and Ellsworth Connelly, to present her story of Rolf’s disappearance to the jury.
Weedon saved his opening statement for the defense phase of the trial and told the jury that Rolf Neslund knew Ruth had moved all his funds into accounts she alone controlled, and he approved of the situation. Rolf worried that he could be sued for damages he caused to the Spokane Street Bridge in 1978, so instructed Ruth to transfer all his money into her private accounts. Weedon maintained Rolf, despondent after the bridge accident and being forced into retirement, had discussed committing suicide. Another theory was that Rolf had gone back to Norway to live with another woman who was the sister of his first wife and had mothered his two sons. Weedon explained the bloodstains found in the house were the results Rolf’s home-improvement accidents, nosebleeds and other bloody activities over the years. Testimony from two of Ruth Neslund’s relatives, Joy Stroup, her niece, and Paul Myers, her brother, were patently false and never happened, and a witness saw Rolf on the ferryboat, two days after the murder allegedly occurred. And finally, the defendant planned to testify in her own defense.
On Friday, December 6, the 22nd day of trial and the 16th day of testimony, Ruth Neslund finally took the stand. During Weedon’s direct examination, she told about her marriage, her health and alcoholism, and her version of the period leading up to Rolf’s disappearance. On cross-examination, prosecutor Canova established that Neslund’s relationship with her husband had become increasingly violent. Throughout questioning, she either denied or claimed she couldn’t recall certain events and incriminating conversations with her relatives. Canova attacked Neslund’s version of events, using sworn testimony she had made during the 1981-1982 special inquiry, as well as statements to the investigators. Ruth ended her testimony, declaring: “I did not kill my husband” (The Seattle Times).
A Surprise Witness
On Tuesday, December 10, Canova called a surprise rebuttal witness, Winnie Kay Stafford, who had been Ruth’s close friend since the Neslunds moved to Lopez Island in 1974. Stafford had decided to recant sworn testimony she made before the court of special inquiry in exchange for a grant of immunity from prosecution for perjury. She testified Ruth Neslund told her on the night of August 8, 1980, that she had killed Rolf, and that her brother, Robert Myers, was in the bathroom cutting up the body for disposal. Stafford admitted lying under oath, then said: “I felt what had been done had been done, and I was protecting Ruth” (The Seattle Times).
Robert Myers was never charged with participating in Rolf Neslund’s murder. During the trial, Judge Bibb signed an extradition order to bring Myers to court as a material witness, with a grant of immunity from prosecution. However he was now living in a nursing home in Illinois, suffering from senile dementia and on kidney dialysis. And neither side was willing to risk calling an unpredictable witness to the stand.
The Jury Deliberates
Closing arguments began late Wednesday afternoon, December 11, and the attorneys finally finished at about 9:30 p.m. The names of three jurors were selected at random as alternates and excused by the court. Judge Bibb had the remaining 12 jurors select a foreman, then recessed the trial until the next morning.
The jury of three men and nine women began their deliberations on Thursday, December 12, and after 33 hours of deliberations over four days, the foreman informed the bailiff that a unanimous verdict had been reached. At about 7:00 p.m. on Monday, December 16, Judge Bibb reconvened the trial and read the verdict that found Ruth Neslund guilty of the premeditated murder of her husband, Rolf, with a deadly weapon. Judge Bibb revoked Neslund’s bail and set sentencing for January 13, 1986. Until then, she had to wait in the Island County jail in Coupeville on Whidbey Island.
After the trial, one juror told reporters it took a “smoking gun” to convict Ruth Neslund of premeditated murder. It was an advertisement, offering their house for sale, that had been published in the Friday Harbor Journal before the date she claimed Rolf had left the country for an extended visit to Norway. The juror said: “If in fact Rolf left and she was expecting him to come back -- what was he going to come back to?” (The Seattle Times). Ironically, the classified ad supposedly wasn’t for the Neslunds' house at all, but for a neighbor’s house with Ruth as the person to contact. Although admitted into evidence, the ad apparently had little weight and never became an issue at trial. Unfortunately for Ruth, the jury’s decision was binding and after-the-fact doubts had no legal significance.
Sentenced to Life
On Monday, January 13, 1986, Judge Bibb sentenced Ruth Neslund to life imprisonment with a minimum term of 20 years. He also ruled that she could be released on $100,000 bail or a $150,000 property bond, pending an appeal of the conviction. Defense attorney Weedon proposed using Neslund’s property on Aleck Bay, worth $250,000, to cover the bond, but the property was already being used to secure a bond in a 1981 civil action involving Rolf’s estate. Judge Bibb agreed to allow eight San Juan County residents to use their property as security for Neslund’s bond and she was released from custody on January 24, pending her appeal.
In January 1987, Ruth Neslund agreed to a $6,000 out-of court settlement with San Juan County Sheriff’s Department to resolve the law suit filed in U.S. District Court claiming the sheriff’s deputies had violated her civil rights and damaged her Lopez Island property. The agreement prohibited her from discussing the settlement out of court and required her to sign a statement, releasing the state, county, and sheriff’s department from further liability. The law suit against San Juan County was dismissed on February 12, 1987.
On Friday morning, July 17, 1987, Ruth Neslund made the news once again when she hit two bicyclists on Lopez Island with her 1975 Dodge van, sending them to Saint Luke Hospital in Bellingham with critical injuries. When a Breathalyzer test showed Neslund had been using alcohol, in violation of the terms of her release on appeal, the state Department of Corrections ordered her back to jail.
At her bond revocation hearing before Judge Bibb on August 17, Neslund testified she unknowingly drank orange juice laced with vodka that some of her friends had inadvertently placed in the refrigerator without telling her. She said the drink and her poor eyesight contributed to the accident with the bicyclists. Judge Bibb was unconvinced and ordered Neslund to begin serving her prison sentence, but stayed his order until September 23 to allow her appeals attorney, James E. Lobsenz, time to file another appeal. In his decision, Judge Bibb wrote: “It is uncomfortable for me to contemplate Ms. Neslund spending some substantial period of her last years in prison or even expiring there only to have her conviction subsequently reversed” (The Seattle Times).
Ruth Neslund's Last Years
Neslund was held in the Island County jail until transported by plane to the Washington Corrections Center for Women at Gig Harbor. On October 7, the attorneys in the case agreed to dismiss Neslund’s negligent driving charge, since she was already serving time in prison for murder. The injured bicyclists, however, were permitted to sue Neslund for damages.
On February 8, 1988, the Washington State Court of Appeals upheld Ruth Neslund’s first-degree murder conviction. Her appeal had raised nine issues with judicial decisions made in the trial, all of which were rejected by the appellate judges. With good behavior, Neslund’s earliest date of release from custody would be in August 2007.
In the fall of 1992, Neslund was allegedly diagnosed with lung cancer and told she had only months to live. With the help of her trial attorney and friend, Fred Weedon, more than 100 Lopez Island residents signed petitions asking Governor Booth Gardner for an early release on account of her failing health.
Neslund died on Wednesday, February 17, 1993, in the Women's Correction Center, at age 73. An autopsy by the Pierce County Medical Examiner’s Office determined that her death was caused by a blood clot in a lung, the result of poor health and inactivity. As luck would have it, the governor’s Board of Clemency and Pardons had scheduled a hearing for March 12, to consider releasing her for humanitarian reasons.