1973 crime haunts Casper family, town

2013-09-22T07:30:00Z 1973 crime haunts Casper family, townBy MEGAN CASSIDY Casper Star-Tribune The Billings Gazette
September 22, 2013 7:30 am  • 

CASPER, Wyo. — Just before 9 p.m. on Sept. 24, 1973, 18-year-old Becky Thomson was leaving to buy groceries and asked her 11-year-old half-sister, Amy Burridge, if she wanted to tag along.

The two drove in Becky’s Ford station wagon to the Thriftway store on 12th and Melrose streets in Casper.

When Becky and Amy emerged from the store, one of the car’s tires was flat. Unbeknownst to the sisters, the two men who had cut the tire, Jerry Jenkins and Ronald Kennedy, were the same guys who pulled into the parking spot next to them. The men offered to help.

After a short ruse about changing the tire, the drunken men abducted the sisters and began their drive. First to Casper Mountain, then toward Alcova Lake as Sept. 24 turned into Sept. 25. Jenkins, the greasy fat one, drove, and Kennedy, the crazy-eyed one, beat and terrorized the sisters from the front passenger seat.

Jenkins and Kennedy said the four were going to see a man who would determine the girls’ fate. Becky and Amy were told that a car hit the man a few days earlier and it looked identical to the one Becky was driving.

There was no third man, let alone anyone else, around when Jenkins pulled over next to the Fremont Canyon Bridge out by Alcova, about 36 miles southwest of Casper. Amy was removed from the vehicle first.

Becky was ordered to remain in the vehicle with Jenkins against her protests. Becky didn’t know it at the time, but as she waited, Kennedy dumped her little sister off the bridge.

Former Natrona County Coroner James Thorpen would later testify that Amy likely crashed head-first into the rock ledge below, according to Casper native Ron Franscell’s book "The Darkest Night." Her spine was driven into her brain, and she lived for only seconds after the fall, Thorpen said.

When Kennedy returned, the two men took turns raping Becky. They finished and led her to the bridge. Becky was thrown over, plunging first into a ledge, then ricocheting into the deep water below. Kennedy and Jenkins spoke of how they needed to make certain she died before tossing her from the bridge.

She didn’t. After paddling her broken body to shore, Becky spent the remaining, black hours waiting. She blanketed herself with rocks and her own waist-length hair.

As the sun began to rise, she inched backward up the slick embankment, nude from the waist down. Unable to use her legs, Becky flagged down an elderly couple at the top of the canyon while lying in the dirt.

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Ron Franscell is a former Casper Star-Tribune reporter and an author of several books. He said was moved to write a book on the girls' story and its effect on Casper during a flight home from the Middle East covering the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks for the Denver Post.

“We were one thing when we went to bed on Sept. 24, 1973, and by the next night, Casper, Wyoming, was something else,” Franscell said. “I believe all of us have a moment where our innocence was lost. In one fell swoop, in 1973, our town lost it.”

His book, “The Darkest Night,” was published in 2007, and Franscell returned to his hometown in 2008 for a signing. He was confused when several teenagers and twenty-somethings began lining up, and he started asking questions. They wouldn’t have been alive when the crimes occurred; how did they hear about this?

“Mom and Dad, they always told this story before we were about to go someplace,” the youths informed him.

The arrests were swift and the jury unmoved by the defendants. Kennedy’s attorney argued insanity and Jenkins’ attorney attempted to shift the blame onto Kennedy. Both men were sentenced to death, only to later be spared by the justice system. The Wyoming Supreme Court reversed their death sentences in 1977 based on a U.S. Supreme Court decision. The state court resentenced them to life in prison.

Becky’s harrowing testimony had played a key role in the prosecution, as detailed in “The Darkest Night.”

But as Becky healed physically, she and the rest of her family remained haunted by the night of Sept. 24 and the early-morning hours of Sept. 25, 1973.

“Our family was shattered,” Toni Case, Amy's and Becky’s mother, said in a recent phone interview with the Star-Tribune. “Amy was our little clown and our happiness … she kept us all together.”

Jeremiah Burridge, Amy’s uncle, said the crime literally killed his father, Amy’s grandfather, G.O. Burridge.

Amy was one of G.O.’s “favorite gals,” Jeremiah told the Star-Tribune in a recent interview. He and his father had visited Amy the week before her death.

“She had to show him all these trophies,” Jeremiah recalled of his sports-minded niece.

Jeremiah said his father, always jovial and quick with a story, gave up on life after Sept. 25, 1973. He died nine months later.

“It was the first tragedy to our family that ever fell upon us,” he said. “ … It killed three people. Becky, Amy and my father.”

Becky’s death was more prolonged.

To outsiders, Becky flourished in early adulthood. She worked as a meter maid for the Casper Police Department and eventually in ad sales at Casper radio stations KVOC and then KTWO. She matured from beautiful young high school graduate to wife and mother.

Lisa Icenogle met Becky when both worked at KVOC.

“We just hit it off,” Icenogle said of Becky, who would soon become her close friend.

“We would just get silly. We would laugh and laugh at the dumbest things.”

Icenogle described Becky as thoughtful, always ready with a card for every occasion. Becky was a prankster, as well, Icenogle said. She loved practical jokes.

“A lot of times you could tell by the twinkle in her eye that she was up to something,” Icenogle said.

Icenogle, who was three years younger than Becky and grew up in Casper, had heard the story of the Fremont Canyon Bridge tragedy. She didn’t initially know Becky was one of the victims, but slowly put two and two together.

Becky shared details of the crimes with her friend as the two grew closer. Becky didn't cry. She was very calm and somber, and would simply present the facts, Icenogle said.

In addition to her own mental scars, Becky struggled with survivor’s guilt.

“She was troubled that her sister had died and she hadn’t,” Dave Dovala, a former Casper police investigator who worked on the case and remained close with Becky after the convictions of Kennedy and Jenkins, said in a recent interview with the Star-Tribune. Dovala, also a former Natrona County sheriff, gave Becky away at her wedding to Russ Brown.

Dovala and Icenogle said it wasn’t just the memories of the crimes that tortured their friend.

Every so often, Kennedy would come before the parole board and Becky would be notified. She was terrified he would one day be released.

Becky’s inner demons manifested in the form of alcoholism. Becky was a recovering alcoholic when she and Icenogle met.

Icenogle said her friend relapsed but was struggling to get back on track. Becky and Russ had divorced, which disappointed Becky, but she was most concerned about making enough money to support her daughter. She told Icenogle on more than one occasion that she feared she wouldn’t live to see her daughter Vail’s fifth birthday.

On July 31, 1992, Becky returned to the Fremont Canyon Bridge with her daughter and a man she was dating.

“She just said she had to go there,” the man told The Associated Press shortly thereafter. “The more I told her not to go out there, the faster she went.”

Becky cried as she again walked out onto the steel structure, 112 feet above the North Platte River. The man carried Vail back to the car. She shouldn’t see her mother cry.

No one knows for certain if Becky jumped or fell. Icenogle believes it was the latter.

“I’m not going to say she wasn’t contemplating it, the way everything was caving in on her,” Icenogle said. “(But)… I don’t think she’d do that to Vail.”

Becky’s second fall from the bridge killed her.

Dovala was working at the Central Wyoming Fair and Rodeo in Casper when he got the call. He was on his way to the bridge when he heard that the woman involved was the survivor who was thrown off 19 years earlier.

“I knew immediately who it was,” he said.

A small stone bench was recently approved to be placed on an easement just off the bridge on the Alcova side. It was cut from the same red granite as Fremont Canyon's, he said, and will simply be engraved, “Remember September 25, 1973.” No names, no further details. Gay hopes it can be positioned on Wednesday, the 40th anniversary.

Gay prefers to call the project a “curiosity” rather than a memorial. If recreational users of Fremont Canyon care to learn more, they can always search for the date’s significance on their own. He hopes the bench serves as either a reminder or a notification that something profound happened at this site, and that it should be treated with respect.

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