VERLOT — They were all young mothers then.
Their bond was the precious gift of human life.
Month after month, they’d gather.
Mary Cooper joined the group a year after the birth of her first child, Susanna Stodden.
That was 36 years ago.
Their babies grew up, went off to college, moved out and found careers. Many married and started families of their own.
Yet the mothers — there are six now, including four grandmas — still meet around kitchen tables.
Mary Cooper is not among them. Susanna can’t appear in her stead.
Their ashes have been spread on Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa and in Nepal and in the Colorado River where it meanders through the Grand Canyon. They’ve been sprinkled in the ocean and the garden at home.
The elementary school librarian and her nature-loving daughter were shot and killed 10 years ago Monday while hiking the Pinnacle Lake Trail on the east shoulder of Mount Pilchuck. The case remains unsolved.
Mary Cooper was 56. She knew everyone on her block. She grew beautiful flowers, read voraciously and listened religiously to National Public Radio. She was bright, but not arrogantly so, and believed rain was no excuse to stay inside. When she was a child, her father took her and her two sisters out hiking each Sunday and she was determined that her three daughters would make plenty of family forays into the woods.
“I think she would smile harder, the harder things got,” said Joan Horn, a friend from the mothers’ group.
Each month, as they have for a decade now, the mothers light a candle. That way, Mary Cooper is still at the table with them. She is the flame in the Mason jar.
They died on a Tuesday in the late morning or early afternoon. Their death certificates say “a.m.” in the “hour of injury” box, but the precise time is not known.
Two nights earlier, Susanna Stodden was over for dinner at her parents’ home in Seattle’s Green Lake neighborhood.
They talked about their upcoming hike.
The following day, Mary Cooper told Horn how much she was looking forward to venturing into the woods with her daughter. School librarians tend to work longer into the summer than teachers, ordering books and tending to other duties. A hike with her first-born would feel like summer.
Susanna turned 27 the week before. She’d graduated in environmental studies from Western Washington University in 2001. She’d taught in Nepal after college before returning to Seattle and finding a job with a nonprofit where she taught children about nature.
That fall, she was going to begin an internship at a Seattle school. Her plan was to ride her bike to and from work. Environmental stewardship wasn’t just an academic pursuit; it was a calling. She volunteered restoring streams, planting trees and spotting birds.
When it was time to pick raspberries, she’d find a farm that grew them organically. She assembled non-toxic bathroom-cleaning kits and wouldn’t wax her car for fear of chemicals. She met her boyfriend at a sustainability class. She hiked at every opportunity, backpacking for two weeks on the Wonderland Trail around Mount Rainier shortly before her death.
Catie Light shared a rental house with Susanna. Light appreciated her younger roommate. When one of Light’s cats became ill, growing temperamental and territorial, prospective roommates fled for other quarters. Susanna stayed, telling Light to wake her up if she decided to take the cat to an after-hours veterinary clinic.
Light still hears the high pitch of her roommate’s laughter, which carried easily up a flight of stairs. She misses her “No worries” reassurances when something didn’t go right and the friend who was there for her graduation from nursing school.
As she so often would, Susanna invited Light on the hike. Light declined. She was working on a cover letter for a job application, one she anticipated Susanna would critique later.
Mary and Susanna left in the family’s 1997 Dodge Caravan. Their plan was to hike on the other side of Mount Pilchuck, but they changed their itinerary that morning, likely out of fear there still could be snow on the ground.
Pinnacle Lake is about 20 miles east of Granite Falls, tucked away in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. There were just a few cars parked at the trailhead that day.
Around 10 a.m., Cooper and Stodden chatted with a couple near the foot of the trail. He was a retired music teacher and she was a doctor. The couple’s plan was to hike beyond the lake and scramble a ways up the mountain. They went on ahead.
The couple reported hearing what sounded like thunder. In hindsight, it might have been the echo of the gunshots. They found the bodies alongside the trail on their way down.
Another hiker had come upon the mother and daughter first and had made his way to a campground to call for help around 2:30 p.m..
In Seattle, David Stodden went to work that day before training for a Seattle-to-Portland bike ride. He ate dinner at a friend’s house.
As it grew late, calls to his wife and daughter were not returned. He tried the Washington State Patrol and later the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office.
“I could tell right then they knew but they weren’t going to tell me,” Stodden said.
Detectives showed up at his home. Stodden remembers he’d retrieved his ice ax and his backpack, planning to go search the side of Mount Pilchuck where he assumed they’d gone.
Stodden noticed one of the detectives look at the odometer and gas gauge inside his pickup truck.
Later that night, Stodden and police knocked on Catie Light’s front door and broke the news.
She later found one of Susanna’s journals. The writing was mature, a nearly poetic exploration of nature.
“I was just wishing it would go on and on,” Light said.
She still dreams about her housemate.
David Stodden and his two other grown daughters resolved they would do their best not to feel like victims.
That Friday, three days after the killings, they went hiking in the Mount Baker Snoqualmie National Forest on a trail not far from Pinnacle Lake.
A decade’s wait
By one estimate, 1,500 people attended the memorial.
Trees were planted. Money was raised for good causes and the library at Mary Cooper’s school was named in her honor.
In Snohomish County, sheriff’s deputies reported receiving 300 tips. The FBI offered up a profiler.
Although information from official sources trickled out slowly, David Stodden said he figured the case would be solved quickly.
Ten years later, Stodden said he still considers his wife the best friend he’s ever had and wishes he could see what Susanna would be doing now.
“Probably what makes me most sad is she had so much to offer the world and was really just getting started,” he said.
Stodden met Cooper when they were University of Washington students. He was one of eight children growing up on a rural Mason County dairy farm. She was from Pennsylvania and studied at Georgetown University before transferring to the UW.
Stodden, a contemporary dance major, was struck by her intelligence. She seemed like a walking, talking dictionary.
They married in a Unitarian church. Their reception was a potluck at their home. Mary baked her own wedding cake, a recipe that included carrots.
He remodeled homes, getting advice from his wife on tiles, carpets and other interior design considerations. A speech therapy major, she worked with deaf children in the Seattle School District before becoming a librarian.
They were married 28 years.
Over time, tips on the case dried up.
Stodden willingly turned over his checkbook, tax forms and life insurance policies for detectives to review. He picked up Mary’s van from a police impound lot, still powdery on the outside, presumably from being dusted for prints.
He made another trip to Everett to collect the couple’s computers, which had been earlier gathered up by police. Someday, he hopes to get back his wife’s wedding ring.
He posted fliers seeking information around Granite Falls and up the Robe Valley. He went to camp grounds and stopped to talk with people living along the Mountain Loop Highway. One of his sisters sent out postcards to hundreds of homes with ZIP codes from Granite Falls east along the highway. It yielded a half dozen responses. One suggested that the killings were part of an initiation into an outlaw motorcycle gang.
Stodden hiked the trail with detectives that fall. He remembers one of them trying to hide the bullet holes in one of Stodden’s posters at the trailhead so he wouldn’t have to see the damage.
He took two polygraphs. He understands that questioning of spouses can come with the territory. Strangers account for roughly one in five homicides in America, according to U.S. Department of Justice statistics. About a third of all killings go unsolved.
Stodden continues to make public appeals for tips and to check in with deputies out of fear the case might otherwise be forgotten.
At one point, he asked the lead detective if the sheriff’s office had mishandled the investigation. He knew it was a jarring question. It was a moment in time, not meant to incite, he insists. He was frustrated. To this day, he respects the detective personally and professionally.
Hopeful leads have been dashed. In 2012, a construction worker in an Alaskan jail was confessing to being a serial killer. Israel Keyes, who grew up in Eastern Washington, was linked to at least eight murders in the United States, including four in his home state. He was known to frequent remote locations, including trailheads, parks and campgrounds.
For a time, Keyes, 34, talked with investigators. He was manipulative in the clues he dropped. He committed suicide in his cell that December. The FBI created a timeline of his travels and in 2013 concluded it was “highly unlikely” that Keyes was connected to the Pinnacle Trail killings. That theory hasn’t changed in the three years since, a FBI spokeswoman said last week.
Susy Provenzano, one of Stodden’s sisters for whom Susanna was named, was told a couple of years after the Pinnacle Lake homicides that a friend of her daughter was hiking up there the Sunday before the killings. The hikers felt as though they were being watched and turned back. “They just felt creepy,” she said.
David Stodden has gone long distances over the past 10 years and undertaken great physical challenges. His travels afar somehow bring him closer to his wife and daughter, who cherished their time outdoors, he said. He has run marathons in Boston and Pittsburgh. He ran across the bottom of the Grand Canyon — twice. He has climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and the 22,838-foot Mount Aconcaugua, the tallest of the Andes Mountains.
Four years ago, Stodden attended a family reunion in Iowa. He rode a bicycle home across Nebraska, through Wyoming and Yellowstone National Park and into western Montana. He crossed Lolo Pass to Clarkston and the Iron Horse trail from Ellensburg to Seattle. It took him 21 days.
As the 10th anniversary of the killings approaches, Stodden drives up the Mountain Loop Highway once again. He’s in Mary’s van. It is old and tired. A tape pokes out of the cassette player that no longer works.
Stodden veers onto a twisting gravel road where giant potholes seem like craters. The road leads him back to the Pinnacle Lake Trail. His poster seeking clues is gone. There is a flyer offering a $100 reward for information from anyone harassed by a goshawk.
Stodden is 67, lean and fit. Despite a foot surgery in January, he glides up the rugged, root-filled trail, climbing over tree trunks that block the path. His boots squish through mud. He passes hikers a third his age. His companions’ shirts are soaked, but there is not a bead of sweat on him.
He sits on a log not far from the lake. It seems a natural resting stop. On this late morning, clouds and sun meet in the middle. Midges begin to swarm. A pileated woodpecker raps in the distance and unseen songbirds chirp nearby. It seems so peaceful.
He’s paused at this wide spot along the trail for a reason.
It is here where his wife and daughter were fatally shot, their backpacks left, apparently untouched.
A fading wood sign on a nearby tree marks the lives lost.
Stodden tries not to dwell deeply on all the details.
He does wonder how long they were terrorized and who was shot first while the other was left to suffer.
His thoughts invariably turn to a more pressing question: Who did this?
Lately, David Stodden is busy rebuilding a house in south Seattle for his youngest daughter.
For a stretch, he worked as a classroom aide with special education students.
His home is seldom empty. He’s been hosting foreign exchange students — 34 and counting.
Most of the food he eats comes from his garden. He often rides his bike to and from the YMCA.
His daughters, too, are finding their way.
Elisa, 34, trains people who teach sex education.
Joanna, 31, is a program manager for an environmental education nonprofit.
From time to time, David Stodden takes out newspaper ads seeking tips. Most go nowhere. Stodden hears out each caller, the good, the bad and the bonkers. He passes along what might be useful to detectives.
“You never know” he often says.
One anonymous tip has reached Stodden more than once. Most recently, a caller told Stodden that he believed a man named “Aaron” living somewhere in or around Granite Falls knows something about what happened that day.
He hopes the man will call him back.
Time marches on.
He remembers handing out fliers a few years back. Several people told him they thought the case had been solved.
Familiar faces are disappearing.
When he stopped in at the Verlot Ranger Station the last day of June, he asked the man and woman behind the counter if Diane was around. He didn’t know her last name, but he’d built a rapport with her over the years.
Diane, it turned out, had retired two years ago.
The detective who handled the case for much of the last 10 years, a man Stodden had come to know, retired last month.
The investigation is being turned over to the sheriff’s office cold case team.
“In this case, the big thing we can hope for is someone knows something,” sheriff’s office spokeswoman Shari Ireton said. “Lets hope someone shares something.”
David Stodden believes it will take someone coming forward. He’ll keep asking for answers.
Linda Spoor, a retired elementary school librarian, lives a few blocks from Stodden. She’d walk around Green Lake with Mary Cooper who would often leave her with a Mason jar full of flowers she’d pick from her garden.
“I can’t see a dahlia without seeing Mary,” Spoor said.
David Stodden stops by her house, cheerful and engaging.
“He has great stories, but I always get the feeling that deep down that rock in his soul is very heavy,” she said. “I think we all carry a rock.”
Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446; firstname.lastname@example.org
What: A walk around Green Lake in Seattle is planned for 8 p.m. Monday to remember Mary Cooper and her daughter, Susanna Stodden, who were shot and killed while hiking on the Pinnacle Lake Trail east of Granite Falls 10 years ago.
Where: Anyone who wants to take part is invited to meet at the Green Lake Community Center, 7201 East Green Lake Drive.