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Murder in the San Juans: The Strange Life and Death of Rolf Neslund

One island, one couple, one murder.


In a region rich with natural wonder, the San Juan Islands of the Pacific Northwest stand out. The archipelago is comprised of secluded, tree-covered isles, hemmed in by the snowy peaks of the Olympic Mountains to the southwest, and the mighty Cascades to the east. Those who reside in the San Juans operate on island time, yet live a ferry ride away from the bustle of Vancouver or Seattle. Understandably, the islands cast a distinctly mysterious spell. Multiple murder novels take place on the San Juans, while the first (and only) season of the blood-soaked mystery TV series, Harper's Island was shot on a rocky isle to the north, off the coast of Vancouver. 

One could argue that such novels and shows exaggerate the island's quiet mystery for dramatic effect. Yet there are a few real-life cases that make these fictionalized tales seem disquietingly close to reality. The eerie death of Rolf Neslund over 35 years ago is one such case. 

Ruth and Rolf were an elderly married couple, 60 and 83 years old, respectively. They lived in semi-isolation on Lopez Island, and those who knew them claimed that their relationship was far from blissful. Their alcohol-fueled fights got so bad that physical damage to both person and property often occurred. Each had a drinking problem and seemed to take their issues out on the other. 

Related: 8 Books About People Who Killed for Love 

Rolf was a sea captain. In 1978, he made quite a name for himself by crashing a 550-foot freighter into the West Seattle Bridge. His action ended a decade-long battle between the city council and area residents over whether to direct municipal funds towards upgrading the bridge. Neslund's crash permanently damaged the structure, forcing the City's hand to rebuild and transform the bridge into the 6-lane span that stands today. The elderly captain retired after the crash; he was likely too old to be behind the wheel, and his reputation as a drinker didn't help. Still, some residents believed that the reconstructed bridge ought to have been named the Rolf Neslund Bridge.

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  • West Seattle Bridge after being rammed by Rolf NeslundPhoto Credit: Wikipedia

And so, at the age of 80, Rolf began to spend more time with Ruth at heir isolated home on Lopez Island. The couple's domestic troubles soon took an irreversible turn for the worse. Both in the throws of alcoholism, Rolf and Ruth screamed and hurled objects. More often than not, San Juan county officers were called in to check out the situation. Rolf tended to be the more physically injured of the two.

Related: 5 Creepy Disappearances That No One Can Explain  

Then, in August 1980, Rolf disappeared. News circulated around Lopez Island that Mr. Neslund was nowhere to be found. Ruth claimed that Rolf had left for his home country of Norway. She said that they had gotten into a fight; fed up, Rolf packed his bags, drove his car to the ferry, and simply left. Indeed, his car did turn up abandoned at the Anacortes ferry terminal on the mainland, but it was unclear who had driven it there. 

Authorities were suspicious of Ruth's story. For starters, Rolf's belongings were still at home, and he had not renewed any of his prescriptions in preparation for his "journey." What's more, neither his American nor Norwegian bank accounts were touched after August 1980. And, in the first December after his disappearance, not one of his friends or relatives received his annual Christmas card. Nevertheless, despite such irregularities, there was nothing concrete to prove anything unlawful had happened.

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And so, Ruth continued her life on Lopez Island. She sold a few of Rolf's cars and belongings in the days and weeks after her husband's disappearance; a year later, she turned their home into a very popular bed and breakfast—the Alec Bay Inn. 

Related: 10 Books for Fans of True Crime Documentaries That Crack the Case Wide Open  

Slowly, though, holes appeared in Ruth's account—especially after it became clear that Rolf was not in Norway. Family members of Ruth's claimed she had often threatened to kill Rolf in years past. Typically, she was intoxicated while she made these remarks, so her family brushed them off. Such drunken threats, however, took on a sinister tone with the benefit of hindsight. In April 1981, police obtained a warrant and searched the Neslund residence; they could not find anything conclusive. 

Then, in 1982, Ruth’s brother Paul made a shocking confession to the police: he claimed that a drunken Ruth had admitted to murdering Rolf. She had told him that on August 8, 1980, their other brother Robert held down Rolf while Ruth shot him twice in the head. They dismembered the victim's body in the bathtub, burned the remains in a barrel in the yard, and then dumped the ashes on the manure pile.  

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  • Lopez IslandPhoto Credit: Bureau of Land Management Oregon and Washington / Flickr (CC)

With this newfound information, police acquired a second warrant to search the Neslund property. This time, they found that the carpet had been replaced—and beneath it were bloodstains. There was some indication of blood spatter on the ceiling, as well as in the hallway. Most damning of all: A bloodstained .38 caliber Smith and Wesson revolver was stashed in Ruth's dresser.

Authorities finally had the evidence to needed. They believed Rolf and Ruth began by arguing over their finances. Rolf found out that Ruth, who had power of attorney and control of their accounts, had transferred about $80,000 from their joint account into an account with just her name on it. She had also lied to him about loans from friends and family, claiming that they still had outstanding debts when they were all actually paid off. When Rolf confronted Ruth on these issues, they entered into their worst fight yet... one that Rolf did not survive.

Related: Who Killed Bob Crane? 

Ruth was charged with Rolf's murder in March 1983. Because of health issues, her trial was delayed until October 1985. She was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison. Her brother Robert, who was her accomplice, was never held accountable for his part in the murder; by 1985, he had advanced dementia, and was deemed incompetent. 

Ruth's story, though, does not end there. She was initially allowed to serve her time at home, as long as she agreed to neither drink nor drive. Soon after her sentencing, though, she hit two bicyclists while driving a minivan. She was intoxicated. Ruth Neslund was promptly sent to prison, where she lived out her days before dying at the age of 73. She maintained her innocence in Rolf's death for the rest of her life.

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[Via History Link, The Charley Project, Wikipedia]  

Featured photo: HistoryLink.org / Seattle Post-Intelligencer; Additional photo: Bureau of Land Management Oregon and Washington / Flickr (CC)