[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.