Without A Trace # 5
They're Not Always Who We Think
By Mike Barber
Seattle Post-Intelligencer Reporter
February 21, 2003
For years, the issue of whether Charles T. Sinclair was a bona fide serial killer remained a question of his intentions.
Like serial killers, he trolled -- from New Mexico to Canada. Like serial killers, he had a pattern, killing coin shop dealers, all strangers. But unlike the popular perception of serial killers, Sinclair appeared to have a motive -- money.
Serial murderers are said to kill without conscience, for power, even for pleasure. People who kill for money are robbers.
But when Pete Piccini, a Jefferson County cop who chased Sinclair for years, entered a ministorage shed near Sumas in 1990, he discovered a pile of evidence and a mountain of conflicting ideas about Sinclair and his crimes.
In the bottom of a barrel in the shed were a yellow flowered bed sheet and pillows. They matched the linen used to strangle and wrap the body of 18-year-old Amanda Stavik.
Stavik, a Central Washington University student, vanished Thanksgiving Eve 1989 while jogging. Her body was found Nov. 27 in the South Fork of the Nooksack River. There was evidence of rape.
Another item to emerge from the shed was a school yearbook. Leafing through it, investigators saw Stavik's picture. She had been a classmate of Sinclair's son.
Piccini, diligently running down a missing-person report from his own county, had discovered a sex crime that called into question the profile of a man then sought as "The Coin Shop Killer."
"It was hard to define Sinclair; he was all over the map," said Piccini, who retired as Jefferson County sheriff in December.
Unlike Hollywood's Hannibal Lecter or the real-life Ted Bundy, not all serial killers present an easy-to-spot profile ripe with rituals, methods and arcane messages. Many remain unnoticed for years because their crimes show little or no common link.
Charles Sinclair defied the textbook definition of serial killer, even though he is thought to have killed more than a dozen people, including six in Western Washington.
Even now, Piccini struggles to understand exactly what kind of monster he had found.
A new way of thinking
Those who study serial murder -- including some who wrote books about it -- say their definitions have changed as they have learned more about the little-understood phenomenon.
Robert Ressler, a pioneering homicide investigator often credited with coining the term "serial murder," said he and others in the FBI's fabled Behavioral Science Unit created the definition in the 1970s "to get over the bureaucracy that was limiting the scope of what criminal offenses were."
"It was mostly a way for us to communicate with ourselves and with law enforcement outside the FBI," Ressler said. "We had to come up with new definitions to change the FBI's way of thinking."
At the time, the FBI's Uniform Crime Report allowed just five categories to describe murder.
"That was totally inadequate," Ressler said. "So we put our heads together and came up with 43 different classifications."
Among them, mass murder -- killing three or more people in one incident -- and spree killings, several murders one after another.
Ressler's group defined serial murder as "three or more murders (with) a cooling-off period between the crimes. That's serial homicide. It's very much based on a fantasy that builds and builds during this cooling-off period that leads to premeditation and planning for the next murder."
The FBI has since tinkered with that definition, reducing the number of homicides to two, said Larry Ankrom, Unit Chief of the bureau's Behavioral Science Unit-West Region.
But even that definition isn't steadfast.
"Even one murder can distinguish someone as a serial killer," said Robert Keppel, a former King County detective who worked the Bundy and Green River cases and is now one of the foremost experts on multiple murders. "The characteristics in a single-victim homicide can help you predict if the killer is going to do it again."
And even crimes short of murder, including rape or assault, can lead authorities to conclude the attacker may also be a serial killer.
Even while trying to define the phenomenon, criminologists warn that trying to be too precise can have deadly consequences.
Steve Egger, an internationally known authority on serial homicide and pattern crimes, said too much is made of defining spree, mass and serial killers. He figures a serial can happen with two murders.
"It's frustrating," said Egger, a former homicide detective who now teaches at the University of Houston-Clear Lake. "There are a whole range of theories, some good, but they don't match all the killers out there."
Spree or serial?
Two former Tacomans, John Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo, await trial in Virginia in relation to the monthlong string of Washington, D.C., sniper slayings last fall. They're also suspects in a Tacoma slaying that occurred months earlier, making a total of 13 deaths they have been linked to.
Yet, the D.C. sniper is widely classified as a spree killer -- a cousin of the serial killer whose actions are often triggered by some rage-inducing event stemming from a perceived failure or rejection, killing anyone they encounter over a shorter period.
Edger, however, considers the snipers to be serial killers.
"It is about domination and control," he said. "I think it was about power over life and death (because the snipers) appeared to be choosing victims and playing games with police."
Other strings of slayings more comfortably fit the general definition of serial killings.
Robert Pickton, a Port Coquitlam, B.C., pig farmer, is accused of killing several prostitutes who disappeared from the streets of Vancouver in recent years -- a more familiar pattern, much like the Seattle-area Green River murders in the 1980s.
But not all killers follow such an obvious plan in selecting victims. And not all fit the Hollywood profile of loners, cannibals and misfits.
Some are like Charles Sinclair.
Sinclair, a New Mexico native, was a Navy veteran of the Vietnam War and a father of two teenagers. He had been an oil field worker, farmer and gun shop owner -- unknown to law enforcement until people he met began turning up dead in the 1980s.
"In Hobbs, he had been big in the neighborhood, a nice guy, opened a gun store and expanded it into sporting goods," Piccini said of Sinclair's life in New Mexico. "Then he needed money. That's when his routine began."
Sinclair's first crime was likely embezzlement. When a bank began looking for $30,000 in missing money, he and his family "went into the wind," Piccini said. They surfaced in Deming, Wash., living under assumed names, in 1985.
Piccini's long struggle to understand Sinclair began the following summer, when he was assigned to run down a missing-person report. Robert D. Linton, 64, and his wife, Dagmar, 62, retirees from Stockton, Calif., were on their way to Expo '86 in Vancouver, B.C., when they stopped at a Brinnon, Wash.-area campground. They unhooked their travel trailer and drove off in their truck on a day-trip to the Mount Baker area. They were never seen again.
"We went down to the campground thinking maybe they just took a trip," Piccini recalls. "But I got a little shaky about it because they had been gone a week. We got inside the trailer, and everything was set up like they were coming back."
Jefferson County investigators first checked out the couple's credit card and found it was used to pay for a movie and gasoline near Marblemount, 125 miles and a ferry ride east of Jefferson County, not long after they disappeared.
Over the next three weeks, the card was used up and down the Interstate 5 corridor, as far south as Cottage Grove, Ore. Investigators suspected the killer had taken the Linton's car as well.
Tracking the card, Piccini noted an attempt to buy two 50-peso Mexican gold pieces, $500 a copy, at an Oregon coin shop. Much later, he would know exactly how close the shop owners had come to death.
The Coin Shop Killer would show interest in a piece, but profess to be short of cash -- an excuse to ask the dealer to open the shop early or late so he could come back with money. Usually that meant the dealer would be alone -- an easy target.
The gold coin purchase in Oregon didn't go through and the "buyer" didn't come back later with cash as promised -- likely because the dealers never worked alone and always were armed. They later described the man with the credit card to Piccini. Their description fit Sinclair -- taller than 6 feet, 4 inches, big hair in a bandanna.
By then, Jefferson County investigators were just three days behind the credit card user, and were narrowing the gap. Piccini was getting ready to spring when someone tipped his hand.
"All of a sudden the story hits the paper, then the wire service, and then television is all over, looking at the Linton's trailer, Piccini said. "The credit card usage stopped. We lost him."
Worse, Piccini said, "He went on killing."
A hunting buddy
Over the next four years, the Coin Shop Killer became a suspect in robbery-murders in Spokane; Vancouver, B.C.; Vacaville, Calif.; Kansas City, Mo.; Watertown, N.Y.; and Billings, Mont.
All the while, Piccini kept the Linton's file on his desk. Any time he saw any report of a crime anywhere with an unusually tall suspect he would call that police department for details. One summer day in 1990 he saw a Teletype about a coin shop robbery in Utah.
"He didn't follow his usual routine," Piccini said of the Utah robbery. "Usually he'd shoot someone and then shoot them again behind the ear. This one he shot, but didn't shoot them again."
The clerk was able describe an unusually tall robber who had given the name Weir. After several dead ends, police found a man named Jimmy Charles Weir -- and learned he was a victim of stolen identity.
The real Weir had a hunting buddy: Charles Sinclair.
From 1985 to 1989, Sinclair, calling himself Jimmy Charles Weir, had lived on a rented farm near Deming, about 50 miles northwest of Marblemount -- the town where the Linton's credit card had been used.
Local police from several states met in Montana to discuss the breakthrough and quickly discovered that federal agents who were supposed to look for pattern killers had let them down.
"A lot of police agencies filed information with . . . the FBI (which) never let the agencies know about all these reports of coin dealers being killed," Piccini said. "When the FBI came into the case . . . our question to them was, 'You had all these police reports from agencies around the U.S. and Canada and never put it together or let us know. How did that happen?' "
No one has been able to answer that question, he said.
Sinclair, still calling himself Weir, was tracked to Alaska, where he was arrested Aug. 13, 1990, near Kenney Lake, where he was trying to buy a farm. More than a dozen police departments made the trek to the jail in Cook Inlet, Alaska, to get what they could from him. Piccini was there in October 1990.
"He was as cold as a snake on a stone," Piccini said at the time. "I showed him pictures and his face didn't change but he was swallowing. He knew them."
Twelve years later, he recalled that Sinclair "was very surprised to see me. I told him we weren't interested in prosecuting -- we would just have to stand in line with bigger fish waiting to get at him. We just wanted to know where the missing were."
But Sinclair took his secrets with him. He died of a heart attack at 44 on Oct. 30, 1990.
In addition to the Lintons and Stavik, Sinclair is now thought to have killed three others in Washington state, starting with the 1980 slaying of David M. Sutton at the Bennington Auction Co. in Everett.
He is also thought to have killed a young Canadian couple, Jay Roland Cook, 20, and his girlfriend, Tanya Van Cuylenborg, 18, who disappeared after getting off a Bremerton-to-Seattle ferry in 1987. The girl, sexually assaulted and shot, was found Thanksgiving Day, dumped in a ditch near Burlington. Cook was strangled and dumped near Monroe.
Piccini sought help from the FBI's relatively new Violent Criminal Apprehension Program, ViCAP, a computer capable of suggesting patterns to killings.
The computer's results were inconclusive, but Piccini notes some common points. Cook and Van Cuylenborg, like the Lintons, had driven through Brinnon and were en route to Bremerton to catch a ferry before they disappeared. The Lintons' truck later was found abandoned in public parking at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport; the Canadian couple's van at a parking lot in Bellingham.
After Sinclair's arrest in 1990, his common-law wife, Debby, was extradited to New Mexico to answer questions about the alleged embezzlement. Neither she nor their children, who could not be located for comment, were implicated or charged in the robberies and killings.
"She was more like an ostrich," Piccini said. "She just never asked. He would bring home coins, cash them in, and they'd party and then he'd go out again."
He kept everything
What police found in Sinclair's storage locker in Sumas comes closest to answering the question of whether he was an unusually violent robber or belongs on the list of more than 40 serial killers known to have operated in Washington state.
Many serial killers keep trophies, often-common items that remind them of the thrill of a murder. Sinclair kept everything.
Investigators in Sumas found a big Rolex watch taken from Lucky Williams, a coin dealer murdered in California, and Lucky's sale book. They found stacks of phony identification.
They found matchbooks Sinclair had saved from almost everywhere he went.
"Half were places where the murders were," Piccini said.
They even found everything charged on the Linton's credit card, including a clarinet, school supplies, household goods and even underwear from J.C. Penney's.
The inventory brought a chilling realization.
"Sinclair's daughter needed a clarinet," Piccini said. "His wife needed a crockpot and he needed some more coins.
"That's why the Lintons died -- he needed their credit card. He didn't give anybody mercy. He was a sociopath."
P-I reporter Lewis Kamb contributed to this report.