Murder of Billings woman unsolved after 10 yearsBILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — Ron Wilson thought that maybe this was one murder case that would be solved quickly.
BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — Ron Wilson thought that maybe this was one murder case that would be solved quickly.
As the head of detectives for the Yellowstone County Sheriff’s Office and a veteran homicide investigator, Wilson knew that most murder victims know their killer. In this case, a woman had been slain after a night out at a bar in the Heights.
To Wilson, a jealous boyfriend or spurned would-be lover seemed a likely candidate for the horrific crime that Billings firefighters discovered when they opened the trunk of a burning car.
“At first, it seemed like this may be kind of a cut-and-dried case,” Wilson said. “She was out on a date or she was with some people and something happened that led to this.”
But after interviewing people who knew Jeannette “Charlie” Atwater, or who were with her on the night of her death, it became clear to Wilson that solving the murder “wasn’t going to be quite as easy as it first seemed.”
Ten years later, Atwater’s murder remains a mystery, and questions about her final hours linger:
How did she leave the bar at closing time without being noticed by anyone?
What happened in the 90 minutes that lapsed between when the bar closed and when her car was found burning a short distance away?
And who is the man who bought a dollar’s worth of gas at a nearby convenience store minutes before Atwater’s car was set ablaze?
For Atwater’s family, the hardest question, and one that may never be answered, is also the simplest: Why?
“I try to live in the present and not dwell in the past, and I try very hard to find the good in all things,” said Atwater’s stepmother, Sheila Atwater. “For about three years (after her death), I lived with mixed hope and fear. Hoping the case would be solved, yet dreading having to live through it all again if someone were found.
“Now, I firmly believe that the person responsible for this evil will be punished, either in this world or the next.”
It was 3:32 a.m. on Jan. 16, 2000, when a car fire was reported in the area of MetraPark. A couple driving on Bench Boulevard saw the burning car in a gravel parking lot near the bike path. Firefighters had a hard time extinguishing the fire, Wilson said, and popped open the trunk.
Inside, the firefighters found severely burned human remains. The flames had destroyed the person’s features, and investigators at first were unsure if the body was a man or woman.
Dental records were used later that day to identify Atwater. Investigators had already determined that the victim was probably Atwater through the car registration, items of jewelry and clothing examined at autopsy and information from her family.
Wilson said detectives began piecing together Atwater’s last hours by interviewing co-workers, friends and family. They learned that the woman worked at the NAPA distribution center, and the evening before her death she had attended a company banquet.
Atwater was well-liked at NAPA, where she had started working a few months earlier. Most people knew Atwater by her nickname, Charlie.
“She had no real enemies,” the detective said. “She was pretty well-liked by most people who knew her.”
Atwater had no gambling or drug addictions or financial trouble that could help detectives establish a possible motive for her murder.
She was divorced, Wilson said, but her ex-husband, the father of her three children, lived in Washington state. He had no ties to Billings or Montana, and detectives questioned him extensively, Wilson said. Atwater’s three young children were with their father in Washington when Atwater was killed.
After the company banquet, Atwater went alone to a bar where she used to work. She stayed there for a short time, mostly visiting with former co-workers. She did not appear to leave with anyone, Wilson said.
Atwater then joined a group of NAPA employees who had gathered at the Player’s Club bar. Atwater arrived alone and probably parked her 1987 Cutlass Sierra in the bar parking lot.
The bar has since been razed, and a hotel has been built on the site.
Wilson said Atwater danced with a man she met at the bar, but the man left alone before closing time. The man was found and questioned by detectives. He met Atwater at the bar, he said, and they danced together a few times before going their separate ways.
Atwater remained at the bar with her co-workers. Shortly before 2 a.m., the bar announced closing time and people began filtering into the parking lot.
“The lights come on, and there’s a mass exodus out the door,” Wilson said.
Detectives reviewed footage from the bar’s video surveillance cameras, but Atwater couldn’t be found in the crowd. Her NAPA co-workers said she did not leave with their group.
“We could never locate Charlie leaving” the bar, Wilson said. “We don’t know if she went out the front door, if it is possible she went out the back door, or exactly how she left the bar.”
People in the bar parking lot after closing said they did not recall seeing Atwater or her car. Bar employees monitored the parking lot, Wilson said, and no one recalls any kind of disturbance or problem.
“There was no altercation out in the parking lot that drew anybody’s attention,” he said.
By about 2:15 a.m., the parking lot was empty.
Less than two hours after the bar closed, Atwater’s car was set on fire. It was parked in a gravel pullout within sight of the Player’s Club. Gasoline had been used to set the fire, and an empty gasoline container and a book of matches were found on the ground nearby.
With those few clues, Wilson asked patrol deputies to canvass the area for convenience stores open that night.
Across Main Street from the Player’s Club was a 24-hour Cenex station. The clerk working the night of Atwater’s death may have met her killer.
Shortly after 3 a.m., a car pulled into the outermost pumps at the station. Video surveillance, time-stamped at 3:09 a.m., shows a man inside the store standing at the counter. The clerk said the man bought a dollar’s worth of gas, grabbed a pack of matches from the counter and left.
The matches for customers at the store were similar to the matches found near Atwater’s car.
The clerk couldn’t provide a good description of the car beyond a small, brown hatchback with an orange stripe. She didn’t know if the man put the gas into the car or a container, Wilson said. She also couldn’t tell if the man was alone.
The surveillance video shows a white male thought to be in his 30s, about 5 feet, 10 inches tall. He had light acne scaring on his face, brown hair and was wearing a pants and jacket warm-up or jogging suit.
The clerk recalled that the man was wearing expensive, or at least strong, aftershave or cologne.
The man’s image has been widely circulated, and the case has been shown on “America’s Most Wanted.” But the stranger who bought less than a gallon of gas minutes before Atwater’s car was found burning a few blocks away has never been identified.
Earlier this month, the Sheriff’s Office began distributing new posters with images of the man and asking for help identifying him.
“We want to talk to him,” Wilson said. “He knows something that might help us.”
Wilson won’t publicly comment on some aspects of the murder investigation, including whether Atwater was sexually assaulted or what toxicology reports say about her blood-alcohol level at the time of her death. He also will not discuss how or where detectives believe Atwater was placed in the trunk of her car.
Wilson will say that Atwater died from smoke inhalation, so she was most likely alive when she was put in the trunk. An autopsy showed no other obvious signs of fatal injury, such as bullet wounds or head trauma, he said.
She did not appear to have been gagged or bound.
Since the murder, detectives have spoken with many people who knew Atwater or saw her the night of her death. No one, Wilson said, can provide any clues to her murder.
That leaves Wilson wondering if her death was a random act of violence.
“One of the theories is that it was somebody passing through and she just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time,” he said. “It could have been anyone that night. We can’t find anything that singles out Charlie Atwater as a target.”
The case is even more difficult because there is no trace evidence, such as DNA or fingerprints. Efforts to find similarities between Atwater’s murder and other cases across the country have proved futile, Wilson said.
Atwater’s family is also mystified.
Gregarious and outgoing, Charlie Atwater seemed to have turned a corner in her life. At the time of her death, she had started a new job and was eager to return to it after donating a kidney to an ill relative.
Not everything had always gone so smoothly for her.
Atwater was born in Miles City on Jan. 14, 1966. Her nickname originated before she was born when her mother was at a county fair. Her mother’s brother won a stuffed animal and gave it to his pregnant sister, saying “Here, this is for little Charlie.”
Atwater’s mother and father divorced when she was young. She lost touch with her father until her teen years, but she was close to her stepfather. Her mother and stepfather had two daughters.
“She was always an outgoing kid,” said her stepfather, Brownell Parks, who lives in Ringling.
Parks and Atwater’s mother, Dona Parks, later divorced. Efforts to contact Dona Parks and her two daughters for this story were not successful.
James Atwater described his daughter as a “ball of fun.” After years of being apart, the father and daughter reunited when she was about 14. James Atwater said his second wife, Sheila, and his daughter were very close. James and Sheila Atwater also had a daughter together.
Atwater graduated from Dawson County High School in Glendive in 1986 and attended MSUB on a volleyball scholarship. A knee injury ended her athletic career, and she dropped out of college after just one quarter.
Atwater left Montana and went to live near her father and stepmother in Bellingham, Wash. She enrolled in a technical college, and then in 1987 she joined the Air Force. She hoped to make a career in the military.
But Atwater lasted only a few months beyond basic training when she decided military life was not for her, said her father.
She returned to Bellingham where she met and married Robert Aiken in 1990. The couple’s children were born in 1990, 1992 and 1994. They divorced in 1995.
About two years after the divorce, Atwater moved back to Billings hoping to make another new start in a familiar and friendly place.
Atwater was active in a local softball league, and she worked several waitress and bar jobs. She made friends easily at her new job, which offered her family more stability. Wilson said Atwater dated but was not in a serious or long-term relationship.
In November 1999, Atwater took time off from work to donate a kidney to an ailing uncle. The surgery was done at a Seattle hospital.
“I think about her quite often because I’m walking around on account of her,” said the uncle, Donald Lebie, who lives in Nevada.
Sheila Atwater, her stepmother, said the family continues to struggle with her loss.
“I really dislike the word ’closure,”’ she said. “There really is never any end. Nothing will ever bring her back. The empty place will always be there.”