Finding Lynsie Ekelund
Chris McAmis wasn't officially a murderer back in January 2009. But as I sat in my car outside his Fullerton home, waiting for him to return from work, this fact failed to bring calm to my buzzing nerves. After all, McAmis was the last person known to have seen Lynsie Ekelund, a 20-year-old Fullerton College student who had mysteriously disappeared on Feb. 16, 2001, and I was pretty sure he'd killed her.
In the eight years since Ekelund had vanished, McAmis maintained he'd dropped her off on her quiet north Placentia street after returning from a trip with several friends to San Diego. But nobody had seen Ekelund since. Over the years, her image had been beamed from television screens and plastered across the pages of newspapers including The Orange County Register and the Los Angeles Times. But McAmis had largely avoided speaking to the press about Ekelund.
The mystery intrigued me. In 2009, when I was student journalist for Fullerton College's Torch Magazine, I pitched an in-depth article about the girl's disappearance to my adviser, Jay Seidel. He told me to go with it.
I didn't know how McAmis would react when I ambushed him at his home. He had been married and divorced since Ekelund's disappearance, and his second wife was a Cambodian immigrant named Kim who was raising a daughter with McAmis; she also had children from a previous relationship. The evening sun cast an orange glow on the tree-lined suburban street as a small group of youngsters played in the driveway. When his large pickup truck pulled in, the kids ran to greet him, climbing into the bed of the vehicle and crowding around him.
I stepped from my car and approached McAmis, identifying myself as a reporter, and asked if he had any information about Ekelund.
"Oh," he said. "Nothing's happened with that for a long time."
Nonetheless, McAmis agreed to speak with me. We stood on the sidewalk and chatted about the night he went to San Diego with Ekelund and some friends. Baby-faced and slightly paunchy with receding red hair, he seemed eager to help me. He threw out the names of the people he recalled as having joined them that night: Andrea Meyers, Michael Plotnik, a woman from Denmark named Christianne Sarona. He told me they visited Lara Bollinger, who lived on campus at the University of San Diego.
"We just hung out for a little bit and talked about stuff and life— stuff like that," McAmis said.
After returning from the trip south, McAmis continued, he dropped Ekelund off at the corner of Rose Drive and Valparaiso Way in Placentia, mere yards from Yorba Linda's southern border. It was 2 or 3 in the morning, and Ekelund was worried about waking her mother, who expected her daughter to stay the night at Meyers' house. Instead of taking her to the door, at her request, he dropped Ekelund off two houses from her mom's. McAmis said he remembered making a U-turn on the street to exit the neighborhood as Ekelund waved goodbye from the corner. He said he didn't watch her walk to her front door.
Though he wasn't named publicly as a suspect, soon after she disappeared, McAmis said, police searched his truck and apartment for evidence of a crime. "Because I was the last person—they say I'm not a suspect," he stammered. "But I was the last person to see her, so they wanted to investigate my stuff, and they didn't find anything."
I asked what he did for a living. "Construction," he said. "Heavy equipment."
Before I left, McAmis's daughter, then about 1 year old, tottered over, her arms outstretched. He scooped her up. Butterflies were perched on a nearby hedge; she reached for them.
* * *
I first learned about Ekelund's disappearance while working in a copy center at Cal State Fullerton in 2001. On Feb. 27 of that year, 10 days after she went missing, The Daily Titan featured her in a front-page story with a yearbook photo of a pretty girl with brown hair cut in a bob, soft hazel eyes and a slightly crooked smile. It described a severe auto accident the girl suffered as a child; it left her with limited use of her left side and a tracheotomy scar.
Matthew Reynolds, police-services manager for the Placentia Police Department, told the Titan that police suspected foul play because Ekelund had vanished so suddenly and there was no activity on her bank account. "She had just whatever money she had on her," Reynolds said. "[It] doesn't appear that she had scads of money in her purse or something."
Questions of what could have happened to Ekelund lingered for a decade: Did someone snatch her from her mother's doorstep? Did the young woman, at the threshold of adulthood, skip town and start a new life? Did McAmis kill her? If so, where did he dispose of her body?
Years after the disappearance, while driving south on Rose Drive, I noticed a sedan in the lane next to me. There was a phone number plastered across the back windshield in large print along with a physical description of Ekelund. The vanity license plate read, "LL N ME." I later realized the woman driving the car was Ekelund's mother, Nancy; the LL stood for "Lynsie Leigh."
I met Nancy Ekelund in 2009. By then, she'd sold the Placentia home she had shared with her daughter and moved to Fullerton. Now living alone, she worked as a switchboard operator for an insurance company. In her free time, she tirelessly continued to keep her daughter's memory in the public consciousness. While writing for the Torch, I received a voice mail from her. After introducing herself, she counted off how many thousands of days it had been since her daughter disappeared. I don't remember the exact number, but it would have been close to 2,900. She kept track of every day her daughter had been missing with a pad of Post-it notes.
We met at a Burger King in Brea. She held more than a passing resemblance to Mary Tyler Moore, and she spoke in a high-pitched, almost girlish voice, her jaw clenched tightly together so that the corners of her mouth turned down in a perpetual frown. She explained how she spent years calling police to check on the progress of the case and speaking to any media outlet that would listen, including The John Walsh Show and self-proclaimed psychic James Van Praagh.
The extremely close relationship mother and daughter shared had been forged by a car accident in which 5-year-old Lynsie had been thrown from the vehicle. Nancy spent more than a year by her daughter's side as she endured lengthy hospital stays and multiple surgeries. Later, they took classes together at Fullerton College, worked at the same cleaning company and volunteered at Placentia-Linda Hospital.
The last evening she saw her daughter alive was a bit out of the ordinary. "Every single Friday like clockwork, we would go out to dinner together," Nancy recalled. "She called me at work and said, 'Mom, I have a chance to stay over at a girlfriend's house.'"
That friend was Meyers, whom McAmis had mentioned to me when I interviewed him. Amy Krier was supposed to join them that evening, as well as McAmis, who picked Ekelund up around 6 p.m. Friday.
"Chris came to the door; he was very personable," said Nancy. "He had a white, king-cab pickup. I walked out with both of them. That was the last time I saw her."
The following morning, Lynsie was supposed to tutor a couple of girls from the neighborhood. She never showed up. "In the afternoon, I really started to wonder," Nancy said. "I didn't know Andrea's number. I couldn't call her."
As panic began to set in, Nancy phoned hospitals, police, even McAmis, who insisted he had dropped her off by her home at 11:30 Friday night.
"He said he left her at the corner, but our house was two doors down from the corner," Nancy recalled. "Any gentleman would walk a lady to the door."
Nancy said police had revealed little about what they knew. After meeting with her, I visited the Placentia Police Department and spoke with Detective James McElhinney. He wasn't keen on giving me many details, either.
With the kind of hard-eyed poker face cops are notorious for, McElhinney offered only a bare-bones summary of the case: There were no formal suspects, Ekelund had gone to San Diego with one male and two females, and her disappearance was classified as a "no-body homicide." He couldn't say anything beyond that. When I mentioned that McAmis had claimed there were two males and several females present that night, McElhinney snickered."Yeah," he said. "He's told us a lot of things over the years."
Although McElhinney wouldn't elaborate, years later, when I reviewed interview tapes, I discovered police had been aggressively chasing down leads, and McAmis was only one of the many people they had questioned. Also of particular interest to officers was an elderly Brea resident named Martin Pregenzer who had been spending time with Ekelund before her disappearance.
"He used to take her everywhere as her dad," Nancy told me. "He took her to dinner; he'd buy her clothes. All of a sudden, she turned up with a beautiful leather jacket. And I said, 'Whoa, my clothes aren't even like this.'"
I visited Pregenzer at his house one afternoon, just as his wife returned from a trip to the grocery store. Standing on his front porch, I asked if he would answer some questions about his relationship with Ekelund. He seemed reluctant to talk, but he answered my questions, explaining he was driving around town one day when he saw Ekelund crossing the street and struggling with a bag she was carrying. He offered her a ride, the two became friends, and the next thing he knew, perhaps because Ekelund didn't have a car and he had nothing better to do, he'd become something akin to her chauffeur. After she vanished, he said, the police brought him in.
"They raided the house and scared the crap out of my wife," Pregrenzer said, adding that police took him to the station and questioned him for hours. In particular, they wanted to know his whereabouts the night Ekelund had vanished. Pregenzer pointed to his leg. "I got replaced knees; I got a replaced hip," he said. "I was in bed."
He spoke with conviction and a little righteous anger. I believed him immediately. But because I knew McAmis had taken a polygraph test, I asked Pregenzer if the police had also asked him to do so. He said they had—and he'd refused to cooperate.
"I've just heard you never want to take one because they're unreliable," he told me, suddenly standing up and walking inside his house. I got the distinct hunch he might have refused the test because he was nervous answering questions about his relationship with a girl who was less than half his age.
Next, I turned to McAmis' friends, the ones he'd said were present the night Ekelund disappeared. I tracked down Bollinger, who in 2009 was a spokesperson for the U.S. Navy. When I phoned one morning, she seemed surprised. Struggling to remember details, she said Ekelund, McAmis and a few other people had visited her San Diego dorm room, but she offered a significantly different time line from the one given by McAmis. (Later, she would admit her memory was incorrect.)
"I barely knew this person you're talking about," she told me, referring to Ekelund.
At the time, Meyers lived in Tennessee and was pregnant with twins; she would only communicate with me via Facebook. She said her pregnancy was affecting her memory and that her recollection of that evening in 2001 was hazy. She recalled that the group, which possibly included Krier, went to San Diego for a night of dancing. Those plans fell through, she said, but Meyers couldn't remember what they had done instead.
McAmis, she added, left her at her house in Corona at about 4 a.m—roughly four hours after McAmis had told me he'd dropped off Ekelund. In a subsequent message, I asked Meyers whether she could confirm McAmis' story, since she presumably would still have been a passenger in his car. She didn't respond, and I couldn't find her telephone number, so I called her grandfather, hoping to get it from him. He promised to pass my message to her, and days later, I got a curt message from Meyers' husband, telling me to back off. (Later, police interviews would establish that while McAmis did drop Meyers off well after midnight, Ekelund was still in his car.)
Plotnik proved difficult to reach as well. During one visit to his Cerritos home with a fellow student from Fullerton College, an angry man who didn't identify himself answered the door. When we told him we were writing a story on Lynsie Ekelund, he interrupted us. "Let me just tell you one thing," he said. "You're barking up the wrong tree." He slammed the door shut, saying, "Have a nice day, buddies."
Days later, Plotnik called to apologize. Although McAmis had insisted he'd been present that night, Plotnik told me he hadn't taken any trip to San Diego on the night in question.
"I don't know why anybody mentioned my name," he said. McAmis, he said, was a compulsive liar. "Anything he'd say, he'd lie about everything." Plotnik refused to speculate if McAmis might have killed Ekelund. "The only person who is going to have any kind of answer is Chris," he said.
As the spring semester drew to a close, I wasn't any closer to answering the mystery of what happened to Ekelund. It didn't help that the stories I was getting from McAmis and his friends didn't match up very well or that some potential witnesses were proving unwilling to talk. Though police would later tell me I was wrong, it felt as though his friends were perhaps covering for McAmis. In May 2009, my deadline arrived, and the article published. It was time to move on to other stories. The question of what had happened to Lynsie Ekelund would have to wait.
* * *
In August 2010, I received an email at OC Weekly, where I'd recently been hired as clubs editor, from Larry Montgomery, an investigator with the Orange County district attorney's office. When I returned his call, Montgomery told me that Placentia police had asked him to take a look at the Ekelund case. He'd quickly zeroed-in on McAmis and his connection to the Los Angeles Residential Community (LARC) Ranch in northwestern Los Angeles County, a sprawling complex that provides housing for adults with developmental disabilities.
In 2001, Montgomery explained, McAmis operated a tractor for his father's company, Exeni Paving and Gravel, which was doing a job on the construction site at LARC. Montgomery believed McAmis had killed Ekelund and brought her body to the site, burying it in a remote area that measured roughly 1,000 square meters, an area too large to completely dig up.
Documents I obtained later show that on May 12 and 13, 2009, investigators with the Los Angeles Department of Coroner conducted a search of the site. When I recently interviewed one of them, a diminutive investigator with jet-black bangs named Elissa Fleak, she told me the agency used cadaver dogs, including a German shepherd named Indiana Bones, and a forensic backhoe to thoroughly search the ranch.
Visual line searches were also used, Fleak said. "We basically have as many personnel as possible, police and coroner employees," she said. "We just line up literally 6 feet [apart] and look for human remains, depressions, indentations, increased vegetation."
"Indy," as Fleak referred to the dog, showed interest in a few spots around the ranch, but subsequent digging hadn't led to the discovery of any remains. "Even with the dogs and backhoe, it's still a needle in the haystack," she remarked.
However, both Fleak and Montgomery were certain a body was hidden somewhere in that chunk of dirt..
"We need [McAmis] to give us a clue," Montgomery told me over the telephone.
He asked if I might consider going to McAmis' house as part of a ruse aimed at tricking him into revisiting the clandestine grave. The plan involved my telling McAmis I was doing a follow-up to my Torch story. Specifically, Montgomery wanted me to tell McAmis that investigators had found Ekelund's body, then ask him for a comment.
Sitting in my car with cell phone pressed against my ear, I had little time to think.
I wanted to help, but standard journalistic ethics dictated that I decline. Reporters do not work as unpaid informants for the police. I wanted to do the interview, just not for the cops. But now that they'd brought me in on their plan, I couldn't very well attempt to contact McAmis myself, lest I interfere in their investigation. In the end, I felt I had no choice but to refuse Montgomery's invitation. He congratulated me on my new job and wished me luck.
A few weeks after Montgomery called me, a beautiful young blonde knocked on McAmis' front door. She identified herself as Nicole Anderson and claimed to be a student reporter for the Torch. Unbeknownst to McAmis, in addition to a notepad and pen, she was armed with a small recorder and a service pistol. Her real name was Spring Sendele, a motorcycle cop for the Laguna Beach Police Department.
"We just received word that remains have been found that they believe belong to Lynsie," Sendele told McAmis. "I guess they're doing DNA testing right now."
Clearly rattled but trying to sound nonchalant, McAmis ventured that it wasn't a good time to talk. Sendele asked if they could schedule another time. "There probably won't be a good time," he answered.
Montgomery had hoped that after Sendele left, a spooked McAmis would immediately hop in his truck and drive to the LARC Ranch. That's exactly what happened, but McAmis never got there. As he drove north, he realized he was being followed by someone driving a gray Dodge Charger with no front license plate. Officers broke off the pursuit, and McAmis returned home.
On Oct. 27, 2010, Placentia police arrested McAmis at his house while Montgomery waited in a small interview room at the Fullerton police station. Placentia Police Detective Bryce Angel led McAmis into the room. Over the next 40 minutes, as recorded in a police video I viewed, Montgomery calmly laid out the evidence while McAmis slumped in his chair, his legs crossed at the ankles and hands glued to his thighs.
Occasionally, McAmis uttered an unintelligible grunting sound. He listened as Montgomery told him a lie: that Los Angeles Sheriff's deputies near LARC Ranch had recently dug up Ekelund's body after it had been unearthed by heavy flooding. Then Montgomery produced a damning piece of accurate evidence: a record of a credit-card transaction in McAmis' name dated the day after Ekelund disappeared. For years, McAmis had maintained to investigators that he stayed close to his Whittier apartment the day after supposedly dropping Ekelund off. But the receipt showed a purchase of $33.08 at a gas station in Santa Clarita, almost 100 miles from Whittier but just a few miles from the LARC Ranch.
"I think I need a lawyer to talk to you about this," McAmis replied.
"It's up to you," Montgomery said.
Then Angel, who had been quietly sitting next to McAmis during the interview spoke up. "Nobody likes to be labeled the monster," he told McAmis. "In this case, that's the way it's pointing. Only you have the other side of the story. Nobody is going to be able to speak for you. That's why we're here now."
McAmis suddenly broke down, seemingly relieved to have been caught. He admitted he never dropped Ekelund off, but had instead taken her to his apartment. While there, he attempted to kiss her, but she rebuffed his advance. Then, he went to the kitchen, opened the refrigerated liquor cabinet and downed some vodka straight from the bottle.
When he returned to the bedroom, Ekelund appeared to be pretending to sleep. "I pulled her pants down and tried to put my penis inside her," he recalled. Ekelund grabbed the phone and threatened to call the police, then slammed the receiver across his face.
"Being drunk, it enraged me," he said. "It set me on fire. I grabbed her, threw her onto my bed, got her into a headlock. I just thought she was going to pass out, and I ended up killing her."
McAmis kept Ekelund's corpse in his apartment for up to two days. Eventually, he wrapped her body, which had stiffened with rigor mortis, in a green blanket, carried her down the stairs of his second-floor unit and loaded her into the extended cab of his pickup. He told police he bumped her head as he hurriedly put her in the vehicle, causing her head to bleed. (Forensic experts say the bleeding would be impossible.) Once he arrived at the LARC construction site, McAmis said, he dug Ekelund's grave using a skip loader. Then, during his lunch break, he drove his truck into the clearing and dumped her body into the hole.
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.
"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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