Today’s mystery is known by two different names. One of them is the Mineral Murders, named for the teeny tiny Washington town called, as you may have guessed, Mineral. The other name for the mystery is the Tube Sock Killings. We’re going to call them the Tube Sock Killings not only because it sounds better, but also because I find the name Mineral Murders to be somewhat misleading.
So today we will be looking into the case of a potential serial killer who could have had as many as six victims, or we could also be looking into the case of three similar but ultimately unrelated incidents of double homicide. Or we could be looking at a serial killer with four victims and another double homicide. Or we could be looking at two unrelated double homicides and an unrelated murder-suicide.
Like I said earlier, we will be in the state of Washington, in the relatively remote areas of Lewis and Pierce Counties, south of the metropolitan areas of Seattle, Tacoma, and the state’s capital of Olympia. The minuscule town of Mineral, from which the mystery gets one of its names, sits right on the county line separating Lewis and Pierce. Mineral boasts a population of 202 people, and is about 55 miles south of Olympia. Now, not very much in today’s mystery actually happens in Mineral which is why I find the name Mineral Murders to be misleading. However, the mystery is named for Mineral because there isn’t that much else around to name the mystery after, as this area of the state is quite uninhabited, with tiny unincorporated communities dotting the area in little pockets. Mineral is just a few miles west of Mt. Rainier National Park, and does feature a view of the mountain from the community. The town is named after Mineral Lake, which provides the town’s main industry through recreational fishing.
The area surrounding Mineral is a sight to behold, especially for a guy like me who has only ever lived in the Midwest. If you Google Image search Mineral, Washington, one of the first images you’ll find is of Mineral Lake. And then, miles beyond the lake, west of Mineral, is Mt. Rainier, which rises up from thick forestland to tower 14,000 feet above the surrounding foothills. I’m not even a nature guy, but I definitely got caught up in looking at pictures of this area. Not only is it crazy awesome to look at, but some of it is kind of creepy. And it becomes especially creepy when you realize that six people were murdered out there in 1985.
Our first couple up is twenty-five-year-old Kim La Vine and twenty-six-year-old Ed Smith. The two met at the University of Southeastern Massachusetts at Dartmouth, where they both graduated in June of 1984 with degrees in accounting. Following graduation, they picked up and moved out to the Seattle area, where both had received jobs in the accounting field. The two got engaged while living in Washington, and were planning to travel back east in the summer of 1985 for their wedding. Unfortunately, they wouldn’t live that long.
On Saturday, March 9, 1985, the couple left their home in Kent, a suburb of Seattle, driving southeast on I-90 for some sightseeing in the Grant County area, near the Columbia River. The following morning, Ed’s dead body was found in a gravel pit in Beverly, Washington, which is a small town along the Columbia River, about ten miles south of I-90 and 144 miles away from Ed’s home in Kent. Ed’s hands were bound and his throat had been cut, and initially authorities weren’t able to identify him. He had no identification with him and the only item on him was a penny in his pocket. The following Monday, March 11, both Ed and Kim’s employers called the police in Seattle after they both uncharacteristically failed to show up for work that day.
Two weeks later, their car would be found at a scenic overlook off of I-90, south of the town of Vantage, about twelve miles north of where Ed’s body was found. Kim was nowhere to be found. However, because their car was found, authorities were finally able to connect Ed’s corpse in Beverly to the missing couple from Seattle. Also, there was a single fingerprint found on the car.
Kim’s skeletal remains weren’t found until five months later, in August of 1985. She was found by accident in some sage brush about two miles away from where Ed’s body had been found. I’m not sure that they were able to determine cause of death or how long she had been there, but it was possible that she was abducted, held for awhile, and then dumped, but that’s just conjecture. I really couldn’t figure out anything more about Kim and the investigation into their deaths struggled to get going.
All right, let’s go ahead and move on to our next lucky couple. Ruth Cooper was the forty-two-year-old single mother of four, whose ages ranged from fifteen to twenty. Steven Harkins was her twenty-seven-year-old boyfriend who had been living with her since 1983. On August 10, 1985, the couple left a wedding reception in Tacoma with the plan to camp at Tule Lake, near the town of Yelm in southern Pierce County. Coworkers became concerned when they didn’t show up to work at a local vocational school the next day, and their families officially reported them missing on August 14th.
A few days earlier, a man noticed their VW parked near the lake. He didn’t think anything of it until it was still parked in the same location on the fourteenth, the same day the couple was reported missing. The man investigated the car, and was horrified to find the dead body of Stephen inside the car. He was inside of his sleeping bag and had been shot in the head, probably while he had been asleep.
Searchers were called in to find Ruth, but instead of finding her, they found the hunting dog that the family brought with them on the trip. The dog was found several hundred feet away from where Stephen was found, and was also dead of a gunshot wound. Ruth was still nowhere to be found, and was believed to have been kidnapped.
Two and a half months later on October 26th, Ruth’s skull was found by a couple of hunters who were walking along the dead end of Eighth Avenue South, about one and a half miles west of where Stephen had been found. She was identified using dental records. Two days later, the rest of her body was found fifty feet away from her skull, along with her purse. And, interestingly, a tube sock had been tied around her neck, which is an interesting detail considering her head had been cut off.
Most of the reports I read stated that, because of the effect of decomposition on Ruth’s body, the police were unable to attribute a cause of death to anything other than a vague description of “homicidal violence,” although I did read a newspaper article that said a spokesperson reported that she had been killed by a gunshot wound to the abdomen. Whatever the case may be, it’s more than likely that the decapitation had been postmortem and not the cause of death.
Police struggled to identify any suspects in the case, but they did wonder if the murders of Stephen and Ruth were tied to the murders of Ed and Kim, as they were both couples on weekend camping trips in remote areas of Washington, and both the man and the woman were separated from one another, with the woman being found much later. However, there were marked differences in the murders, such as the means by which they were murdered, the binding of the first couple, and the tube sock tied around Ruth’s neck.
A suspect did surface in the case of Stephen and Ruth’s murders in the form of a man with whom Stephen was having a dispute. Apparently this unnamed man was upset with Stephen regarding some damage that Stephen had done to man’s Harley-Davidson motorcycle. This man reportedly showed up at the wedding reception Stephen and Ruth had attended, but found that they had already left by the time he arrived. When he was told that Stephen and Ruth had gone for a camping trip, the man stormed off, appearing as if he intended to confront Stephen. However, if we accept this man as a suspect, then we’re accepting that he was so mad that, not only did he kill Stephen in his sleep, but he also brutally murdered Ruth as well. I’ll let you know that this suspect really didn’t pan out, because the police couldn’t find any evidence to link him to the crime scene. Other than him, they had no other suspects.
Now it’s time to discuss our third and final couple. Thirty-six-year-old Michael Reimer and twenty-one-year-old Diana Robertson had been dating for four years, since Diana was seventeen, and the two of them had a two-year-old daughter named Crystal together. Michael worked as a roofer in the warm months, and trapped animals for their pelts in the winter. However, Michael was a bit of a hothead and was known to have been abusive toward Diana. In fact, on October 19, 1985, Michael had been arrested for domestic assault and malicious damage. Diana had been the one to make the report after Michael had kicked in a door at her apartment, thrown her to the floor, and rubbed her face into the carpet. As a result of this arrest, there was an order of no contact between Michael and Diana. There were also two other known reports of domestic assault that hadn’t resulted in arrests.
Diana and Michael were back together by December of 1985, and on the twelfth of that month, they, along with their daughter Crystal, left their home in the Tacoma suburb of Puyallup (Pyoo-all-up) to go down to the Nisqually River area to check the animal traps that Michael had laid and to find a Christmas tree for their family. That was the last time anyone knew of Diana and Michael alive.
Later that same day, two-year-old Crystal showed up unattended at a Kmart in Spanaway, which is 30 miles from where they had been checking the traps and 12 miles away from their hometown of Puyallup. Crystal was reportedly “dazed but unharmed,” however she was unable to explain who she was, how she had gotten there, or where her parents were. She was placed in emergency foster care until she could be identified. When her foster mother took her to the doctor to get some minor scratches and bruises checked out, a nurse there recognized her as the daughter of the missing family she had seen on the news.
Crystal was placed in the care of her maternal grandmother, Louise Conrad, who stated that her granddaughter, who was usually an energetic girl, was unhappy and withdrawn after whatever had happened to her and her parents. When police attempted to question Crystal about what had happened to her parents, the only thing she told them was a little unnerving: “Mommy is in the trees.” After all, she was two years old, so her verbal skills and her ability to understand events were not good enough to adequately explain what had happened.
Diana’s remains were found on February 18th, 1986, two months after she and Mike disappeared. A man who had stopped his car to walk his dog found them buried in the snow along a logging road off of Highway 7, between the town of Mineral and the unincorporated community of Elbe. She was found deep in the woods, which is probably what Crystal meant when she said, “Mommy is in the trees.” Diana had been stabbed seventeen times and, coincidence of coincidences, a tube sock had been died around her neck. Many searches of the area were conducted, but Mike was nowhere to be found.
However, while Mike wasn’t found, his truck was. It was fairly close to where Diana’s body was found, and there were bloodstains on the front seat of the car. Tests were run on samples of the blood, but they could only conclude that the blood was human. There was also a manila envelope under the windshield in the truck with the words “I Love You, Diana” scrawled across it. Handwriting analysis was run on the words, but they came back inconclusive, probably because handwriting analysis is a bogus science. For what it’s worth, Diana’s family stated that they believe this is Mike’s handwriting. It’s uncertain whether there was anything inside the manila envelope, but if there was, the police haven’t released this information. Finally, there were also some shell casings found a short distance from the truck, but the police didn’t discuss them as evidence in the case and it’s uncertain whether they’re even connected to it.
Police began to suspect that Mike may have been the perpetrator of the crime, since he had a history of violence toward Diana and because he was nowhere to be found. Mike was also well-known as an outdoorsman who would have likely had the skills to have lived in the wilderness on his own, on the run from society. Plus, some people interpreted the message on the manila envelope as an expression of remorse. Diana’s family agreed with the police, believing that Mike had killed her. Diane’s sister would state that Mike had a tendency to beat her up and blame her for pretty much anything and everything. And honestly, I think if your daughter or sister is constantly getting beat up by some dude, it wouldn’t take too much to make you believe that that dude—who was the last person she was known to have been with—had been the one to kill her.
However, there was some pushback against this theory, namely against Mike’s family and friends, who believed that he was a victim just as much as Diana. Mike’s father Lloyd put up a reward for information that helped find his son, and also led searches through the area where he knew his son frequently went to trap. Mike’s boss publicly stated that Mike cared too much about his daughter to have just abandoned her at a Kmart. Plus, there was quite a bit about the theory of Mike being the killer that didn’t quite make sense. For instance, why not take Crystal to a family member’s house? And why didn’t she tell anyone that her dad had been the one to drop her off? And why abandon his truck with Diana’s body? And would it really have been possible for him to have survived outdoors in the frigid winter months? And, finally, where did Mike go? How far could he have gotten without his truck?
Now, as you might have guessed, police suspected that the murder of Diana was connected to the murders of Ruth and Stephen because of the tube sock that was tied around both women’s necks. However, they also were forced to concede that there weren’t many other similarities, so it’s possible, if implausible, that the tube sock was a coincidence. Like a huge, major, unbelievable coincidence, especially because the socks were reportedly identical and tied in the same way.
Now, let’s talk for a minute about my personal favorite subject of conversation: tube socks. As near as I can tell, the tube socks found on the two women were identical to one another. I know at least one of them had a thick navy blue stripe around the calf, but I couldn’t find a picture of the other one. Both socks reportedly had knots tied in them that were laid over the women’s throats, which led the police to believe that they were not weapons to kill, but to control.
I have wondered about the possibility of a copycat killer, whether that was Mike or someone else. I tried my best to find out whether the tube sock detail was reported after Ruth’s murder and before Diana’s, but I couldn’t find out. If it was, then it’s possible that this could have been a copycat. If it wasn’t, then it would have to have been a coincident, which I don’t think it was. So if it wasn’t a copycat killer then, Willy, we might just have a serial killer on our hands. But before we discuss whether this is the case, we have a few more developments in the case to discuss.
Do you remember how I mentioned that a single fingerprint had been found on the car of the first couple, Ed and Kim? Well, in 1989, this fingerprint was matched to that of an inmate in a Wyoming named Billy Ray Ballard, Jr. Ballard was an itinerant truck driver from Plains, Montana who was serving time for the abduction, rape, and torture of two women in Wyoming. Ballard would later confess to the murder of Ed Smith and Kim La Vine and would receive a life sentence without the possibility of parole.
I tried to find more information about Billy Ray Ballard, but what I just told you is just about all there is available. What I really wanted to know was when Ballard was arrested for the abduction in Wyoming to find out if it was possible that he could have killed the other two couples. I had even dialed up the Wyoming State Penitentiary when I realized that he was no longer in that prison, and that I didn’t know where he was now, or if he’s even still alive. What I did find out is that there are a shocking amount of people who are named Billy Ray Ballard.
There’s one more development in the case that really got things wild and crazy, but this wouldn’t come until more than 25 years after the Tube Sock Killings. On March 26, 2011, a partial human skull was found in a wooded area near the town of Mineral, about a mile away from where Diana’s body had been found. A human jawbone was also found a few feet away, and using dental records, this skull was determined to be that of none other than Michael Reimer, the main suspect in the case.
After finding Mike’s skull, the police came out and said that they no longer believed that Mike was the prime suspect in the case. A cause of death was unable to be determined, but the police did state that they had ruled out the possibility of a gunshot wound to the head, as the partial skull fragment had shown no sign of trauma. Likewise, it was impossible to determine just when Mike had died.
There was no trace of Mike’s body ever found, though whether that’s because he had been decapitated and his skull dumped there or because animals had scavenged his body, we’ll never know. It’s worth noting that police also found an old driver’s license that was so faded it was impossible to figure out who it belonged to. They also found a pair of rubber boots, but there were no dead, decomposed feet in the boots.
So, while the discovery of Mike’s skull was a huge development and all but eliminated him from the list of suspects, police had to admit that it really brought them no closer to solving the mystery of the tube sock killings. So let’s see if we can solve it ourselves, shall we, Willy?
Actually, figuring out a theory to explain this case is a little complex because I don’t think we have great suspects, and because we kind of have to combine suspects and theories in order to adequately explain the case. The three couples could have all been killed by the same guy, three different guys, or any combination in between.
We know for a fact that Billy Ray Ballard killed the first couple, so if all six people were killed by the same person, it would have to be him. Now, I suppose it could be possible that the same man killed them all, even though the causes of death were different and there was no tube sock. While serial killers tend to maintain a single type of killing—known as a modus operandi—they don’t always, thus making it possible that Ballard could have killed them all with different causes of death. Plus, the lack of tube sock in the first murder could have just meant that Ballard hadn’t yet evolved to the point where he used the tube sock for control. And the fact that Ballard was imprisoned shortly after could explain why there were no other tube sock killings after Diana and Mike. Finally, it’s important to note similarities: the victims were an unmarried couple who were attacked and brutally murdered in a remote area, and the man and the woman were found quite a ways apart from one another.
There are a few things working against the Ballard theory, such as the fact that I’m not sure he was even still a free man when the other murders were committed. And while the lack of tube sock and the different MO don’t necessarily rule out Ballard, they do cast a considerable amount of doubt on the possibility that Ballard killed the two later couples. Also, because Ballard was a semi truck driver, it’s unknown how often he went through the area where the murders were committed. And if he did commit all of the murders in Washington, then it’s likely he would have murdered other places as well, only there’s never been other reported tube sock murders anywhere else. But I think the most convincing evidence against Ballard is that, as near as I can tell, he has never been considered by police as a person of interest in the later murders. You assume they would have questioned him about the later murders, and so if they didn’t even consider him a person of interest, then there’s a fair chance he had nothing to do with them.
The only suspect unique to Stephen and Ruth’s murders was the man who had shown up at the wedding reception ready to confront Stephen. But we kind of touched on it earlier, just because he’s upset with Stephen, doesn’t mean he’s going to shoot Stephen in the head and then saw off Ruth’s head. Plus, the fact that we don’t even know his name tells us that the police didn’t find him to be a very compelling suspect.
The only other suspect we know of is none other than Mike Reimer, the police’s main suspect before he turned up dead. But, no matter what the police say, just because Mike is dead doesn’t make it impossible that he killed Diana—and maybe even Ruth and Stephen too. It’s possible he could have killed Diana, driven Crystal to the Kmart in Spanaway, driven back to the scene of Diana’s murder, walked a mile away, and killed himself. One problem with this theory is that there was no gun found at the scene, but of course a gunshot wound is not the only way to kill one’s self. Mike could have slashed his wrists with the knife Diana was killed with and then chucked the knife away, or he could have overdosed on some sort of medication. We’ll never be able to know how Mike died though, because the partial skull that was found provided no clues as to Mike’s cause of death.
I have a few hang-ups with the Mike-as-killer theory. The first is Crystal. Mike’s boss said he would never abandon his daughter, particularly not in a Kmart. If Mike was really going to kill Diana, you’d think he would drop his daughter off with a family member instead of a department store. Plus, if Mike had been the one to drop her off at Kmart, you’d think she would have been able to tell people that it had been her dad who had taken her there. Second, I don’t think it’s very likely that Mike also killed Ruth and Stephen. If the murders are connected, then I think it is a huge leap to say that Mike committed all of them. Of course, it’s possible that Mike hadn’t killed Ruth and Stephen, but that he had killed Diana and tied the tube sock around her neck to make it look like she had been the victim of a serial killer. But if you’re going to kill yourself, I don’t understand why you would need to frame someone else for your partner’s murder.
In researching this case, I found that some people theorized that the couples could have been killed by a known serial killer who was active in Washington at the time, such as Gary Ridgeway, the Green River Killer. I suppose this could have been possible, but the MO of the tube sock killer doesn’t match the MO of any of the known serial killer in Washington, and believe me, Washington is a cesspool of serial killers. I also found that some people suspected a well-known drifter from the Northwest named Joseph Henry Burgess who was also suspected a double homicide of a young California couple in 2004. Frankly, I think that there’s no good reason for suspecting that the tube sock killer was another known serial killer or that he was Joseph Henry Burgess, so we’re not going to go any deeper into those theories.
If the tube sock killer wasn’t Billy Ray Ballard, Mike Reimer, Joseph Henry Burgess, or Gary Ridgeway, then it must have been someone else, someone we don’t have any idea about. Perhaps this killer was an opportunistic killer who couldn’t stop himself from killing couples found in remote areas, and who either uses a tube sock as a signature, or as a means to control the woman. It is interesting that the killer refused to kill Crystal and even risked being noticed to drop her off somewhere she could be taken care of, which shows that the killer has some sort of personal moral code. Whoever the killer was, I think it’s likely that they either died or were arrested for an unrelated crime, soon after, which would explain why there has never been another tube sock killing. Or perhaps the killer kept killing but only had the one pair of tube socks.