Saturday, November 26, 2005

Death in a Deep Freeze

[Update: Solution has been added at bottom]

A 5-Minute Mystery was e-mailed to me recently by Jack Pachuta. He won't reveal the solution until later next week, so I thought it would be fun to see if we could put our heads together as a blog team and try to solve it. Feel free to post theories and suspicions below.

Here's the mystery:

This is Chief Inspector Jack Pachuta with the case I call Death in a Deep Freeze.

It was an unforgettable scene - a murder unlike any I've ever investigated. The body of recluse woodsman Zachary Parks was found hanging by the neck from a rope tied to a rafter of his secluded cabin in the north woods on a bitterly cold winter day. His hands were tied behind him with his feet dangling about nine inches above the cold wooden floor. The fading embers in the nearby fireplace indicated a raging fire had died many hours before. The cabin was so cold that a frozen circle of ice had formed beneath the corpse.

The crime scene had been discovered about noon by the local postal carrier, Rusty Stubbs, who was making his weekly delivery via snowmobile to the Parks cabin. Stubbs reported looking through the window and seeing the grizzly scene. He used his citizens band radio to notify authorities of the incident. It didn't take long to get a response. Sheriff Joe Hirsch was a licensed pilot, a fact he used to his advantage when patrolling the territory. By one o'clock he had called me and coroner Pierre LaClair. The three of us took off from a snowy runway to make our way to the cabin.

Flying in, I looked out the window of the small airplane and spotted a few hunters in the woods. Several shanties used by ice fishermen dotted the lake near Parks' cabin. They all looked to be empty as no smoke rose from the small stovepipes protruding from their roofs. Landing on the frozen lake, our plane skidded to a halt near the shore about a quarter mile from Parks' hideaway. The heavy snow which had created near-blizzard conditions the night before had covered any footprints that might have been present.

Stubbs greeted us at the cabin. He had managed to open the door and get in, giving him some protection from the weather while he awaited our arrival. "I didn't touch a thing," he reported. "I left Zack's body exactly where I found it to make sure I didn't destroy any evidence." We retrieved the body and laid it on a cot.

LaClair examined the body and reported his initial findings. "Death was definitely caused by hanging," he said, "I'd estimate he died shortly after midnight," By that time, I speculated, the snow had stopped. "Zack had an on-going feud with a local trapper, Gus Tatum, the sheriff told me. "Tatum is pretty careless with his traps and this bothered Zack. Maybe we should find him." The sheriff and I started Parks' snowmobile and headed for the nearby town. Pierre LaClair stayed behind with Stubbs to build a fire and continue his analysis of the body.

It didn't take long to find Tatum at a small hotel. "I've been here all night," he emphasized with a smile, "I was ice fishing on the lake during the day and came into town to let off a little steam. Sue here will tell you I checked in about nine o'clock when the snow started getting heavy. I didn't want to take a chance of getting stuck while trying to get home in a blizzard."

Sue Shanahan, the innkeeper, corroborated Tatum's story. It's true," she confirmed. "What's this all about anyway?" When Joe Hirsch told her Zack Parks was dead, she seemed startled. "Why, we were together two nights ago. We'd been seeing each other for a few months, but had a big argument and decided to end our relationship." Tears came to her eyes as she asked, "Did you find the strongbox?" Sue explained that Parks had been an amateur prospector and, over the years, had accumulated a substantial cache of gold dust. "He kept it behind a loose stone in the fireplace,"she revealed.

Back at the cabin, we joined LaClair and began putting the pieces of the investigation together. Rusty Stubbs had departed. We could see the tracks of his vehicle as they made a path toward the next cabin, about three miles away. Joe Hirsch found the loose stone in the fireplace and peered inside the crevice that had been a secret hiding spot. It was empty - the strongbox was gone.

The heavy snow of the previous night had cleared to a brilliant sunny day. The rekindled fire in the fireplace glowed a rosy red and orange. We sat back to think about the direction our investigation would take. The icy patch on the floor turned to a puddle of water as the cabin heated up. I looked out a window and, in the distance, I could see the lake with our airplane in its secure spot near the shore.

An ice fisherman must have returned to his fishing spot because the smokestack on a shanty spewed a white plume. That's when everything clicked into place. As the sun sparkled on the snowy landscape, I looked at the room one more time and knew I was correct. I knew who had murdered Zack Parks.

** Mystery solved below **

Ice - hard, cold, chilling ice. The icy cabin near an icy lake. It gave both form and substance to this crime. Several facts puzzled me about this murder. First, the time of death. The fresh snow made it clear that no one was near the cabin after midnight. Yet, it was at about midnight that Zack Parks had died.

Gus Tatum, a prime suspect was at a nearby hotel when the death occurred. Certainly, he couldn't be in two places at the same time. And, trusty Rusty Stubbs? If he had made a midnight trek to the cabin, why would he be the one to notify the sheriff? Wouldn't he just say he received no response when he knocked on the cabin door? And why would he select this most unusual method for doing away with his victim? In a secluded spot in the north woods, no one would be around to hear a struggle or the sound of a weapon.

It was the absence of a critical component that pointed me in the right direction. Parks was hanging from a rope tied to a rafter indicating he was not hoisted from the floor. This meant he must have been standing on something which was eventually removed, causing his strangulation and death. But, we found no object at the scene which could have been used for this purpose.

Or, could the circle of ice have been the object? Yes - the ice. Zack Parks had been made to stand on a block of ice - a block of ice that slowly melted as the heat from a fire permeated the cabin. Parks was positioned on the block of ice early the previous evening and must have watched in disbelief as it melted from under his feet. By the time the snowstorm started, the murderer was long-gone with Parks' treasure chest of gold.

As the cabin chilled, the puddle from the block of ice again froze, creating the icy circle we discovered. Who could provide such a block of ice? Perhaps, someone who might cut into a frozen lake to catch fish - someone like Gus Tatum.

Yes, Tatum set up the scenario that killed Zack Parks, then made sure he had an alibi for the exact time at which death would occur. Joe Hirsch and I rushed back to the hotel and arrived in a nick of time. Tatum was loading a vehicle with his gear. Gear which, after a search, revealed a strongbox filled with gold dust. It was Zack Parks' treasure, and the final evidence that enabled us to convict Gus Tatum of murder and close the case of Death in a Deep Freeze.


Greg said...

Based on previous 5-Minute Mysteries that I've received from Pachuta, the key seems to be finding clues about the motive. Once you have a theory about motive and therefore a suspect in mind, you can then try to piece together how the crime was committed. (Now granted, I've never successfully solved one of these, so what do I know?)

jay michael said...

see this guys article "powerboaters.blogspot" article on powerboating, someone got killed on smith mountain lake virginia and they are trying to outlaw powerboats in virginia

lisa :) said...

Ooh!! I love these things! Here's my theories! To quote: "His hands were tied behind him with his feet dangling about nine inches above the cold wooden floor. The fading embers in the nearby fireplace indicated a raging fire had died many hours before. The cabin was so cold that a frozen circle of ice had formed beneath the corpse."
I say he was tied up standing on top of a nine inch ice cube - the "raging fire" melted the ice and he was strangled leaving the water to refreeze into "a frozen circle of ice" beneath him. Also, as to who did it I'm guessing it's the guy that was ice fishing because he probably cut out the circle of ice to fish from!!

Let me know if I'm right!
- Sherlock Guerrero

Westy said...

I agree w/ Lisa that it was the ice fisherman. But who was that? Does it ever say?

Greg said...

Hmm... I'm liking the theory about the block of ice melting, leading to the strangling. However, we will have to come up with an actual name. Here are the named suspects as I see it...

Rusty Stubbs -- The mail carrier discovered the body and says he "didn't destroy the evidence." However, the strongbox was discovered missing AFTER Rusty had left.

Gus Tatum -- Local trapper who had an ongoing feud w/ Parks. He claims to have an alibi which was backed up by the innkeeper. However, he does have knowledge of ice fishing and besides, his alibi isn't really a good one when one considers how Parks was killed (according to our current theory).

Sue Shanahan -- Never underestimate the power of a woman scorned. She's currently at the top of my list until proven otherwise.

Pierre LaClair -- Could it be the coroner? Doubt it.

Joe Hirsch -- He's the sheriff and thus the last one we'd suspect...

Unless I'm missing something, there are three key suspects: Stubbs, Tatum, and Shanahan.

One thing that I need to give more thought to is Parks and his status as an amateur prospector who was accumulating and stashing away a substantial cache of gold dust.

Chairman said...

While I initially also wanted to just blame the woman, this is a conspiracy put together by more than one party. First of all Tatum. His alibi is no good. Even if he got checked in by 9pm, how long does it take for a big old block of ice to melt? Apparently, about 3 hours, plus whatever travel time he incurred. But why would Tatum kill Zach? The gold dust had to play a role.

But how would he know about the gold dust? Not unless he was also shacking up with that hussy, Sue. You see, no man would kill another man just because they were annoyed that they were sloppy with their traps. But for money? Now that's another story. And Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. Which Sue was. She hated Zach for ending the relationship. And for that, he had to pay. Sue couldn't kill him. She couldn't stand the sight of blood or death. But she could certainly convince someone else to take care of the chore for her. So once Sue seduced Tatum, she let him in on Zach's little secret. There was gold dust in the man's fireplace.

So they had to kill him. And the cover of the blizzard would be perfect. They would have their alibi. Sue had to manage the inn all night. She would have records that Tatum was back there by 9. Zach wouldn't be officially dead until later on, when the ice melted, but was for all intents dead to the world by 8:30, when Tatum had him strung up. But there was one more problem. How would they manage to transport the strongbox? The nearest cabin was 3 miles, and town was even further. The only man in the area with suitable transportation was Rusty, with his snowmobile.

Mail carriers were already of questionable character. They were always sneaking peeks at the dirty magazines that the people on their route subscribed to. They often helped themselves to the baked goods and care packs. In addition to his general lack of character, Rusty also had many debts that needed to be paid. Rusty had a love for the dice, but he was a lousy gambler. There had been more than one threat on his life, and recently, someone had already tried to collect from him. Rusty wouldn't be difficult to persuade.

Rusty and Tatum were old friends from their days out on the lake. Tatum asked if Rusty could meet him over at Zach's cabin around 9pm. He said that he was completing a purchase with Zach and needed a ride back to the cabin. Tatum offered Rusty a hefty fee for this ride. And Rusty accepted, just happy at his good luck. You see, Rusty was just a pidgeon. He was never in on the murder. He was just helping out an old friend (and getting paid well for it).

Behind all of this? Sue and Tatum. Sue knew that Zach had some hidden wealth. And she also know that Tatum had no love lost for Zach. All he needed was a little incentive. A little TLC and a little money was all it took for Tatum. And after that, she would have her revenge. Served cold, no less. After all, that's how it best tastes, isn't it?


Greg said...

Something tells me that if the Chairman were the Judge in this case, at least one innocent person would be convicted. However, it does seem like at least more than one was in on this crime... could it be?

Here's a question: If Sue was in on the crime, why would she tell the police about the hidden strongbox?

Chairman said...

Greg. If I was the judge in this case, I'd just start hanging people at random. Or maybe just shooting. It would all depend on what day it was.

As for Sue, she's trying to escape the blame for this crime. You see, there's no reason for her to tell the police. She could have just snuck over there herself and claimed the goods, had no one else knew. Since Tatum still has the strongbox, the police would go after him, and find him red (or perhaps gold) handed. After that, it would just be her word against his. And possession is 9/10ths of the law. Having told the police, she would end up with no part of the gold, but that was never Sue's intent. All she wanted was Zach, served on ice. She was counting on Tatum's greed to make it happen. And she was counting on the police to just go after the low hanging fruit, and simply arrest Tatum.


Westy said...

So when do we get the answer?