Finding Lynsie Ekelund

How the search for a missing Fullerton College student began with Chris McAmis, the last man who saw her alive

When McAmis finished talking, Montgomery and Angel handed him a map of the LARC construction site. They asked him to point out exactly where he'd buried Ekelund. McAmis seemed confused. Why did they need to know? Didn't they already have the body? Montgomery told him that yes, they had the body, but that flooding had moved it from its exact spot, and they needed McAmis to corroborate the distance.

Immediately after McAmis confessed, police took McAmis to the LARC Ranch. A police video shot that day shows him standing in a clearing, his hands shackled in front of him. Santa Ana winds blow the branches of trees nearby. Tilting his head into the breeze, McAmis juts his handcuffed wrists in front of him.

"Somewhere in this area here," he says.

Nancy Ekelund and OC District Attorney investigator Larry Montgomery at a victims'-rights rally in 2012
R. Scott Moxley
Nancy Ekelund and OC District Attorney investigator Larry Montgomery at a victims'-rights rally in 2012

"I think we're good," Montgomery then says to Angel. "Go ahead and book OCJ [Orange County Jail], but advise them the body has to be up in Whittier Friday."

Armed with a John Deere backhoe and specific information, the coroner's Special Operations Response Team (SORT) returned to the site on Nov. 3, 2010, and commenced digging.

At 2:48 p.m., they unearthed a blue Attix-brand tennis shoe. The rumble of the tractor was replaced with the soft scraping of hand trowels and small brushes. Four feet below the surface, the teams discovered a nearly intact skeleton, still clothed in a partially zipped blue windbreaker. Though it would take weeks to complete the forensic investigation, a gold bracelet clasped around the skeleton's right arm told Nancy Ekelund all she needed to know. It was a gift she had given her daughter when she was 10 years old.

* * *

On April 16, 2012, McAmis pled guilty to murdering Ekelund. He stared at the floor as her relatives and a family friend delivered brief impact statements. His wife and a few friends had attended some early pretrial hearings but now were nowhere to be seen. A judge sentenced him to 15 years to life in prison; he will be eligible for parole after completing 85 percent of that time with credit for time served while awaiting trial at the Los Angeles County Men's Jail.

Both Montgomery and Angel say that McAmis, while a violent criminal, is not a sociopath. "I think Chris had so much guilt built up over the years and stress over the matter," Montgomery told me. "By no means is he a sociopath. He definitely has feeling."

McAmis apparently enjoyed watching the violent 2000 Christian Bale movie American Psycho, viewing it repeatedly after the murder with girlfriends as well as his wife. One former girlfriend told police that McAmis once became enraged over an aquarium the two owned. He thought a crab belonging to the girlfriend ate one of his fish, so he took a hammer and smashed the crab on the driveway.

"People said he had a very dark side and was troubled," Angel concluded. "He had some family issues in the past where he may have been at least emotionally abused."

How McAmis, a person with obvious anger issues, crossed the line from crab-killing to attempted rape and murder, remains a mystery, one perhaps to be solved by the psychiatrists at the state prison at Tehachapi, where McAmis is serving his sentence. (McAmis did not respond to my attempts to schedule an interview with him.)

Sadly, Ekelund also remains a bit of a mystery. Her mother described her as a good Christian girl who was naive and trusting and endured a long and painful hospital recovery with a positive attitude. But in our discussions, Nancy hesitated to go beyond generalities, perhaps out of a mother's natural desire to protect her daughter's memory.

Ekelund's friends and acquaintances weren't much more helpful in describing her. One Fullerton College teacher simply referred to her as "meek." Others described her as "kind" and "good."

The closest I got to getting a sense of Ekelund as a living person rather than a victim of a gruesome crime was at her funeral. It was held at Placentia Presbyterian Church on Dec. 18, 2010. Friends and family shared stories about Ekelund, such as the time she convinced her mother to take her skydiving. Then there was the time Ekelund became stuck as she climbed through a doggie door at her home, laughing hysterically as her cocker spaniel licked her face.

After the service, a group of Ekelund's friends from high school told me the story of a time when she brought a duck from Tri-City Park and tried to keep it in the family's bathtub.

Kristin Highfill recounted how Ekelund would frequently donate blood at Placentia-Linda Hospital. Because she fell short of the hospital's weight requirements, Ekelund would throw on a heavy down jacket and load the pockets with weights. One day, she convinced Highfill to join her in donating. As they were leaving the hospital, Highfill fainted.

"I woke up surrounded by all the hospital people and the smelling salts," she recalled, choking back tears. "Lynsie was holding my hand."

This article appeared in print as "Finding Lynsie: The mysterious disappearance of a Fullerton College student began with the last person who saw her."

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