MISSOULA — Visitors on Glacier National Park’s Going-to-the-Sun Road had a gruesome view the morning of July 12, 1983.
A battered body lay below the popular pullout for Heavens Peak known as Crystal Point.
Almost a year later, Scott David Steel was convicted of stabbing Frederick Pongrace and then dumping his body over the edge of the overlook, as well as for theft and interstate transportation of a stolen vehicle.
Thirty years later to the month, another body was found in The Loop area of the park.
Last week, 22-year-old Jordan Linn Graham was accused of second-degree murder after she allegedly pushed her husband over a cliff as they argued. Graham and 25-year-old Cody Lee Johnson had been married just eight days.
“This deal that they’ve got going now is a very, very sad deal, my goodness,” said Jerry Bell, a retired park ranger who headed the investigation into the 1983 murder.
Seared into his mind
Details from that investigation 30 years ago are seared in the World War II veteran’s mind.
“It didn’t happen very often. I’ve been involved in a lot of investigations, but not homicide, and it’s just something that stuck in my mind,” said Bell, who happened to be working the day Pongrace’s body was discovered in the park subdistrict he supervised.
The body was found below a 186-foot cliff, Bell said, “and it was banged up pretty bad because it’s a vertical drop and it’s solid rock terrain there.”
Four wounds in Pongrace’s abdomen didn’t seem like they had been caused by the fall, said Bell, who worked in the park for 30 years before retiring.
Before he could determine whether a murder occurred, though, Bell had to identify the man below the cliff.
An inch and a half of rain overnight had washed the crime scene clean.
“So any evidence of blood or foul play wasn’t there,” Bell said.
No ID was found on the body, but a vehicle registration for a 1968 Volkswagon van was found in a billfold.
The van was registered to Pongrace and a woman who turned out to be his sister. Bell called the number for the woman and got a positive identification on Pongrace, who had just gotten out of the military and was headed to Seattle for a new job.
“He was very well organized. He had everything written down. His parents knew what he was doing,” Bell said, adding that Pongrace’s itinerary included a stop at a Volkswagon convention in Minneapolis and a stop in Glacier Park.
Bell put out an all-points bulletin for the van and had a stroke of luck in the form of a phone call from the sheriff’s office out of Cut Bank.
A man with a big black dog and a van matching the APB had been in an altercation with campers at the Shady Grove Campground outside of town. The man had pulled a knife on the other campers.
“The driver was not involved, but he had a passenger and the passenger had a big black dog,” Bell said.
“Now, I knew (Pongrace) had a passenger. That’s the important thing, and the van was gone, so I assumed, well, the guy stole (Pongrace’s) van,” he added.
Bell now had to identify the mystery man traveling with the big black dog. He put out another APB describing the duo, and received another phone call, this time from Wolf Point.
A man matching the description had stayed overnight at the border. His name was Scott David Steel and he had a California driver’s license.
Steel showed up again in Havre, where he had robbed his ride and walked to U.S. Highway 2, where Pongrace then picked him up, Bell said.
Another break came when a tow truck driver called. He had pulled a van matching the description from the mud outside Ronan.
“The guy didn’t have any money to pay me, so he gave me a camera,” Bell remembered the driver saying.
Bell told the tow truck driver to save the camera, and photos developed from the film provided evidence Pongrace had been in Glacier, including at the viewpoint his body was found below, during Steel’s trial.
At that point, Bell assumed Steel would head to California.
Finding him in California would prove problematic, as there were more than 50 people with Steel’s name in the state, albeit with variations in spelling.
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Border checkpoints going into California didn’t turn up Steel, but Bell got another lead in the investigation when people tried to break into the van.
Bell got a call that a van matching the APB’s description was being robbed in downtown Los Angeles.
“I said, ‘call the FBI so they can get there before any of the evidence in the van is disturbed,’ ” Bell remembered saying.
Inside the van was a crumpled piece of paper with a number on it and bloodstains on the seatbelt, visor, back seat and rear areas of the van.
FBI agents called the number and a woman said that Steel wasn’t there at the time and had gone uptown.
The woman was Steel’s sister, and since she and the other male resident at the location were training to be police officers, they were helpful with the investigation, Bell said.
Inside the residence, agents found Pongrace’s belongings that had been taken from the van. Steel, however, remained elusive.
“Golly, it must have been six months, seven months, something like that – I get a call from St. George, Utah, that they picked up this guy,” Bell said.
It turned out to be Steel, who was hitchhiking with a large black dog. He was transported to Missoula, where he stood trial for and was convicted of Pongrace’s murder.
Steel’s defense lawyer contended that Steel could have waited for Pongrace to return, then stolen the van when Pongrace didn’t, according to an Aug. 10, 1984, Missoulian article.
“We were all happy we got a conviction,” Bell said of the four-day trial’s conclusion.
“I was happy for the parents because they had a closure on the thing,” he added.
Pongrace’s murder piqued Bell’s interest about other possible murders in the park. But while rumors abounded, he was unable to find any official record of others in the park prior to 1983.
Cody Lee Johnson’s alleged murder is only the second in the park’s history.
Deaths in the park are not altogether uncommon. People fall or commit suicide sometimes, Bell said. “It does happen, but it’s a great place.”
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