Editor’s note: This story was first published Dec. 6, 2009.
In the minds of those who knew her best, Mandy Stavik will always be 18 years old, with all the limitless potential, beauty and passion for life that age brings.
To Neal Bittner, 59, a former neighbor, she was the athletic youth he’d see jogging while he was on walks in the Acme Valley.
To Jim Freeman, her Mount Baker High School basketball coach, she was an aggressive, emotional team leader – a cheerleader unafraid of bumps or bruises.
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To Doug Sutton, Stavik’s high school band instructor, she was the outgoing student who would stop by his office from time to time to talk. She always had a question to ask but rarely let the conversation end with just the answer.
To Whatcom County law enforcement officials, however, her life and its tragic end 20 years ago represent something far more sinister: one of the county’s most notorious unsolved murders.
In November 1989, while home from her freshman year of college on Thanksgiving break, Stavik left her home on Strand Road near Acme one afternoon to go jogging. She never returned.
Her naked body was found three days later, 31/2 miles away along a bank of the Nooksack River’s south fork.
It’s been 20 years, and the circumstances of her murder still contain more mysteries than certainties.
It was awful. I just remember feeling totally sick. I think everyone in the valley felt she was one of our children.
Van Zandt resident Kathy Kyle, whose daughter, Nichole, was friends with Stavik
It can still make longtime valley residents feel sick when they remember the fear that gripped their community soon after.
“It was awful,” said Van Zandt resident Kathy Kyle, whose daughter, Nichole, was friends with Stavik. “I just remember feeling totally sick. I think everyone in the valley felt she was one of our children.”
Despite the continued efforts of the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office, her killer – if still alive – has eluded justice.
That doesn’t stop Sheriff Bill Elfo or Whatcom County Prosecutor Dave McEachran from believing the case can be solved.
Two years ago, Elfo renewed efforts into the investigation in hopes of solving the case by developing fresh leads and through improvements in DNA technology.
“This is one of the most heinous crimes in the history of Whatcom County,” Elfo said. “We believe we can solve it, and we’re not going to rest until we do solve it.”
A new $25,000 reward has been posted for anyone who provides information that leads to an arrest and a conviction.
“It’s pretty clear a lot of people in this county remember Mandy,” said Jim Kyle, Kathy’s husband. “Even though you push it to the back of your mind, it’s an unresolved issue. After 20 years it’s still there. I really think someone out there knows something that could help.”
Flourish of activity
For Stavik, whose family moved to Whatcom County when she was 12, life in middle and high school was a flourish of activities.
Stavik played the saxophone and was a member of marching, class and jazz bands, Sutton said. She challenged herself to play tougher songs and become a more accomplished musician.
“She said what she felt and was certainly not afraid to ask questions,” Sutton said. “She drew attention to herself whether she wanted it or not. She just had that energy in class.”
She was no stranger to athletics either, and played four years of basketball, as well as track, cross-country and softball.
Her talents as an athlete were apparent early, but she was raw, Freeman said. She was cut in her first tryout for a basketball team in the school district. She went to summer camps, and ended up playing forward in one year of junior varsity and then three years of varsity in high school.
“She was quick,” Freeman said. “She was a very competitive, very aggressive player. She got more than her share of bumps and bruises. She was kind of a cheerleader...not the kind you’d want as a captain. I guess (she was) the emotional leader of the team that would fire people up. Her moods were very important.”
Stavik graduated as an honors student in June 1989, and went to Central Washington University with aspirations of becoming a pilot, Freeman said.
However, she later wrote him a letter stating that she wanted to pursue a career path that would help other people.
“I think she was very clear about where she was going to go in life,” Freeman said. “You had to grab hold of the positives of that life. To let yourself go down any other path would be to let the perpetrator win.”
Stavik left her mother’s home on the day after Thanksgiving – Friday, Nov. 24, 1989 – with her family’s German shepherd to go jogging.
The dog returned home several hours later; Stavik did not. A search for her was under way within hours but found no trace of her, which lead investigators to suspect abduction.
The effort intensified the next day as the search area spread throughout the valley. Dozens of people on horseback, in cars, on foot, in helicopters and in airplanes scoured the area. As the hours dragged on, the Sheriff’s Office ramped up its search efforts to the point that every available body was involved, said Undersheriff Jeff Parks, who was a sergeant at the time.
“For our agency at the time, it was an all-encompassing event,” Parks said. “It was really an affront to all of us in the Sheriff’s Office that this would ever occur.”
Tips flooded in. The Bellingham Police Department and FBI became involved. But nothing.
On the following Monday morning, a volunteer firefighter searching up and down the Nooksack spotted Stavik’s naked body.
The discovery confirmed everyone’s worst suspicions.
“It had been so long since she’d been missing I think most of us were prepared for the worst,” Freeman said. “For the women of the community, it was hard. The innocence of our community was disturbed a great deal by that.”
The discovery of her body only led to more questions, Parks said. To this day, investigators have theories about where her body was deposited in the river but don’t know with certainty.
They don’t have a crime scene or know the exact point she was abducted.
They believe she may have been alive when she went into the river, Parks said. Her cause of death was not inconsistent with drowning, according to initial reports.
The autopsy results have not been publicly released, as the case is still actively investigated.
Anguish to hope
The crime was as shocking as it was rare for the close-knit community, where the only persistent crimes were speeding drivers and the occasional break-in, Jim Kyle said.
“It sure made people fearful for a while to take a walk or allow your kids outside,” Kyle said. “I remember looking at unfamiliar cars going down the road and wondering, who’s that? It really wasn’t a very healthy feeling.”
Anguished community members initially donated about $25,000 into a fund set up to offer an award if her killer was captured and convicted.
As time went by, they had the option of getting the money back or putting into a scholarship fund for graduating seniors in Stavik’s name, said Neal Bittner, a fundraiser for the Mount Baker Scholarship Foundation. Most of them decided for the scholarship.
The scholarship is still given out. But for many, the pain is as fresh as that day in 1989. Stavik’s mother, Mary, declined to be interviewed for this article. Her brother and sister, Lee and Molly Stavik, could not be reached.
Warming the cold case
Over the years, four to five prime suspects emerged as possibly linked to her killing, but every time the evidence was insufficient to warrant charging them, McEachran said.
In 2007, the Sheriff’s Office devoted more hours to reviewing the case reports and sending detectives to re-interview people involved, Elfo said.
DNA technology has advanced so much in the last 20 years that samples taken from her body that were too small then could now provide new clues, McEachran said, though he wouldn’t say if they did.
So many reports have been written, so many people have been interviewed and so much evidence has been gathered that the case file ballooned, Elfo said. The Sheriff’s Office’s crime analyst, Spencer Kope, has compiled the case into a computer database, allowing investigators easy access.
Law enforcement agencies are sharing more information than ever before, so similar crimes in other states may now provide a link to potential suspects, McEachran said.
In cold cases such as this, meticulous detective work and the slow process of eliminating circumstances and suspects could yield the break it needs to be solved, he said.
“I think the answer is there,” McEachran said. “I think by the process of elimination, we’ll get there.”
Elfo agrees. He said he speaks to the Staviks to update them on the progress of the investigation.
“We owe it to them and we owe it to the community to solve this case,” Elfo said. “We owe it to Mandy most of all.”
Anyone with information about this crime should call the Sheriff’s Office tip line at 360-715-7459.