When I think of Nancy Stensrud, I remember a particular smile.
She was in a courtroom in 2002, seated next to her friend Karil Nelson. The women, then both living in Arlington, had forged a bond from the shared grief that only two mothers with murdered daughters could fully understand.
Together they’d spent years pressing for justice in their cases. Together they’d pushed cops and prosecutors in Snohomish County to dig deep, to not let the passage of time and the urgency of new crimes reward killers who had done better-than-average jobs of covering their tracks.
I was the
re when Herald photographer Dan Bates snapped a photo of the friends, right at the moment a jury announced a guilty verdict for the man who killed Karil’s daughter, Juliana Schubert. Karil wept with relief; she’d worked more th
an a dozen years to reach that moment. Cops and prosecutors had managed to win the conviction even though Juliana’s body has never been found.
Nancy smiled, genuinely happy for her friend. She was still smiling when the killer was led away in handcuffs.
“It’s better than Christmas. It really is. It’s better than you can hope for,” she said later.
We’ve stayed in touch. Last week came word that Nancy had been waiting nearly 16 years to hear. Detectives at the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office told her that genetic tests had connected a convicted sex offender to the July 31, 1995 murder of her daughter, Patti Berry.The suspect is in prison. No charges have been filed, but the cops seem convinced, to the cellular level, that they’ve caught the killer. They also say he’s linked by DNA to the disappearance and probable death of Tracey Brazzel. She dropped from sight just weeks before Patti Berry was killed.
I spoke with Nancy a few hours after she’d received the news. It was a phone call she and I had been talking about for years: the day we’d report a break in her daughter’s case. There were tears on both sides of the conversation.
Nancy is one of my heroes. I want to take a few minutes to tell you why.
The summer her daughter died was a lot like our spring so far: rainy, cold, dismal. Patti Berry’s murder was big news, in large part because of her job. She was a 26-year-old single mom with a 2-year-old at home in Arlington. She paid the bills by dancing at Honey’s, a notorious nude nightclub south of Everett, now gone but then owned by the Colacurcio family. People rushed to connect her killing with what she did for a living.
I didn’t write the first stories about Patti Berry’s murder. I had other duties at the time. Months later, though, while working on a Saturday evening, Nancy Stensrud called me at the newsroom. She made clear that she didn’t want a story; she didn’t much care for journalists. She’d heard that I was somebody who could be trusted, though, and she had some questions about court cases we were following.
The answers were in public records. I had no problem telling her what she wanted to know. She thanked me and ended the call. Before long Nancy called again. More questions. Then a few weeks later, another phone call. We did this for awhile. From her questions it was clear that she was looking for possible links to her daughter’s killing. She was investigating things on her own, frustrated that no arrests had been made. I suggested a story about her daughter’s case.
Nope. She didn’t want media attention. I told her the offer stood and that she could call me any time.
It was close to four years and dozens more phone calls before Stensrud decided that a story may be a good idea. Her investigations had long since led to dangerous ground. She was out knocking on strangers’ doors, confronting people, some of whom were clearly up to no good. She was convinced the cops had stopped working her daughter’s case. They told her nothing.
With her consent, I approached them with some of her concerns. They nodded in understanding. I knew these guys. They were solid detectives who had built cases that led to convictions for people who’d committed awful crimes. They were frustrated over the lack of progress, the lack of time and resources. They also were weary of Nancy, but they understood why she was riding them all the time.
The cops agreed, too, that some coverage for the case may be a good idea. In the summer of 1999 The Herald published a six-part series on the case, presenting it as a serial narrative with daily installments on the front page. The detectives gave me unusual access, including permission to review the active case file. While we negotiated restrictions on what details about the investigation would be published, they welcomed me sharing with Patti Berry’s family one major finding: the records showed the detectives had been actively investigating the killing. Years into the hunt, they still were getting fresh leads and submitting evidence for testing. The case file at that point already filled more than a dozen three-ring binders. Scores of interviews had been conducted. Hundreds of pieces of evidence gathered.
The stories provided an opportunity to tell people more about Patti Berry. In those many phone calls, Nancy had given me glimpses, a detail here and there. She invited me over to thumb through photo albums, view some videotapes and ask my questions. Nancy poured us coffee. Then she began to sob, letting loose deep, gut-wrenching grief. She fought to regain her composure, then said she thought it was hopeless. She wanted to tell me about her Patti, she said, but her mind was blank except for the sound the dirt made as it landed on her daughter’s coffin.
I told Nancy we could talk another day. But she wouldn’t have it. She was going to do this, for her child. So we began. I asked her what her daughter had smelled like. She began to describe her perfume. No, I told her, not that. Tell me what Patti smelled like when she was a baby. That’s something parents don’t forget. I know.
Nancy had 26 years of memories about her daughter. We spent the afternoon exploring them. Some were happy. A lot were sad. The young woman had been dealt some terrible breaks and had made some poor choices. But she wasn’t hard or cruel. She loved her little girl. She loved her family. Some bastard killed her as she was heading home from work.
When the articles ran they brought in a lot of tips to the sheriff’s office. That was the plan. They also uncovered something unexpected. One detective was honest and blunt: the attention was great, he said, some of the leads maybe even helpful, but if there weren’t detectives to run down those details, it was pointless. It just created more paperwork for the growing case file.
About that time other communities around the U.S. were starting to experiment with cold-case squads. I did some stories about the county’s unsolved murder problem and how cold-case squads in California and elsewhere were leading to arrests.
Nancy saw where her energies needed to go. She and Karil Nelson joined forces with Steve Koski, father of a 17-year-old Seattle girl murdered and dumped near Maltby in 1990. Her case was unsolved, too. The trio began lobbying then-sheriff Rick Bart and others to form a detectives squad dedicated to investigating murders that had slipped from the headlines. Bart was supportive, but made it clear it wasn’t his top priority. His deputies were in near-mutiny over limited staff.
Undeterred, Nancy and her friends pitched other county leaders. They began testifying at budget hearings. Koski died of cancer in 2001, but before he passed, he put together a detailed report about cold-case teams around the country. The teams work in part because they turn the passage of time into an asset. The years have brought advances in forensic science, particularly refined DNA tests that can find long-hidden clues. Time also changes people, loosening lips long sealed.
With Bart’s support, funding for Snohomish County’s cold-case squad was included in the 2002 budget. The team was quietly launched and just as quietly has gone about its work these many years.
Nancy has had regular conversations with sheriff’s cold-case detective Jim Scharf and volunteer Chuck Wright. They promised her that Patti’s case was being worked. They didn’t tell her that in 2004, tests on materials gathered from her daughter’s car nine years before had been found to contain the presumed killer’s DNA mixed in with the young woman’s. In 2008, there was a hit in a DNA database, linking the genetic material from the car to a sex offender locked up in prison.
The detectives continued to build their case, never letting on about the progress they were making. They knew that sort of news, if shared outside the small circle of investigators, wouldn’t stay a secret for long.
In late April, Nancy called the newsroom. She’d just heard word that the cold-case team she’d pressed for had made an arrest in a 33-year-old killing near Lynnwood. She was happy, excited for that family. You could sense the smile across the phone lines.
Before she hung up, she said it gave her hope that someday her family would get some answers, too.
Last weeks’ announcement about a suspect in Patti Berry’s killing is a long way from a conviction. Nothing has been proven.
But Nancy, your friends are smiling — this time for you.