Best Story Ever

Part I of “The Cipher in Room 214: Who Was Mary Anderson and Why Did She Die?”  (Carol Smith, I salute you.)

Mary Anderson is fading, as surely as a forgotten Polaroid.

Her case file has been archived, a thick stack of dead ends and unanswered questions, shut in manila folders and buried in the county’s morgue.

Tucked into a modest residential area on the edge of Ballard is the Crown Hill Cemetery, one of the few remaining family-owned cemeteries in Seattle. A maple leaf rests on the headstone of a man buried in the same grave as Mary Anderson — she does not have her own marker. Records of the police investigation have been destroyed.

The man who retained the institutional memory of the case resigned from the King County Medical Examiner’s Office four years ago.

This is just the way Anderson apparently wanted it.

If there was anything out of the ordinary about the woman’s arrival at the Hotel Vintage Park in downtown Seattle that autumn day, it was only the weather — a near-record 80 degrees. That much is recorded.

The woman herself slipped by unnoticed. She had called an hour or so earlier to reserve the room. She took a cab, got out around the corner with two bags and walked into the lobby alone on Oct. 9, 1996.

She signed the register “Mary Anderson.” No one spotted the hesitation marks in her handwriting.

There were no tags on her luggage.

The desk clerk recalled nothing exceptional about her — no accent, nor anything to make her seem out of place in the luxury boutique hotel.

Neatly groomed with artfully shaped brows and a pearly manicure, she carried an expensive olive-green, woven-leather purse and paid about $350 in cash for two nights in an elegant room at the end of a long, richly carpeted hallway.

This is where the trail of Anderson’s life ends. No one knows precisely what happened next. Was she absorbed in the final details of erasing her identity — perhaps flushing away a driver’s license and address book, ripping the label off a prescription bottle? Did she anticipate the confusion her act would cause? Did she have second thoughts?

What we do know is this: She made no phone calls. Ordered nothing from room service. Instead, in some unknown sequence, she put out the “Do Not Disturb” sign, applied pink Est?e Lauder lipstick and combed her short auburn hair. She wrote a note on hotel stationery, opened her Bible to the 23rd Psalm and mixed some cyanide into a glass of Metamucil.

Then she drank it.

People who choose cyanide are trying for a clean getaway from this life. With cyanide, there is no question about outcome, or intent.

Her note, its corner tucked under the bottle of Metamucil to keep it from slipping off the hotel desk, read:

“To whom it may concern: I have decided to end my life and no one is responsible for my death. Mary Anderson.

“P.S. I have no relatives. You can use my body as you choose.”

‘No signs of a struggle’

When the guest in Room 214 did not check out at noon on the 11th, front-desk manager Josh Quarles signaled the bellman to look in on her.

The bellman knocked. But there was no answer. A deadbolt blocked his entry.

“At that point, we knew somebody was inside the room,” Quarles said. Thinking she might be a sound sleeper, or hearing-impaired, Quarles went with the bellman and engineers to bypass the lock.

Inside the room, Mary Anderson had propped herself against the pillows on the bed. She appeared to have fallen asleep, a King James Bible clasped to her chest. Quarles checked her pulse. Nothing.

When police arrived, they found the room “neat and orderly,” half a dozen stretch velour separates in hues of emerald green, fuchsia, navy and black hanging in the closet. She had a cobalt blue Himalaya Outfitters jacket and black leather gloves from Nordstrom. Her purse contained $36.78 in cash, but no ID. No key. No credit cards. She had packed slippers for comfort. Size 10.

Police noted her final coordinates — “head to the west, and feet to the east” — like a ship gone down at sea. There were, according to official reports, “no signs of a struggle.”

At that point, everyone assumed that this was a routine suicide case. Investigators had a name, contact phone number and address from the hotel registry.

What they didn’t realize was this: Everything they thought they knew about Mary Anderson was a lie. Her name — an alias, likely made up on the spot based on a later signature analysis. The New York address she’d given the hotel — non-existent. The phone contact she left — a wrong number.

Mary Anderson was a non-entity, a puzzle. A cipher.

Nine years later, Anderson’s file is the coldest of cold cases — one with low odds of being solved. It doesn’t have enough sex appeal for tabloid television. It doesn’t arouse public anger, or horror, in the same way as a murder. Some would argue, why bother with it? She asked for her death. She got it. On her terms. Case closed.

And yet … her death raises other questions: How can a person live to middle age without leaving any ties to the world? What about her dry cleaner? The cosmetics counter sales lady? Did they wonder about a troubled woman in their midst?

Somewhere, someone must realize that she doesn’t come around anymore. To push through life and touch no one, to develop no gravity that pulls anyone else into your orbit, seems impossible.

Even in her death, Mary Anderson has traction, a pull on certain strangers.

Jerry Webster is one of them.

‘Things start to go wrong’

Webster, the former chief investigator for the King County Medical Examiner’s Office, is the closest Anderson has to a proxy “next of kin.” He is the man in charge of her affairs, at least on paper. His initials are next to the order not to release her personal effects from the Medical Examiner’s Office until she is identified. It was he who finally ordered her body embalmed and buried at the county’s expense.

Webster, a wiry, indefatigable man of 61, now runs a small mortuary in a shopping plaza on Capitol Hill. He does what he can to dignify any death. One of his proudest moments was when he accompanied the bodies of three Chinese men, found dead in a container on a ship in Elliott Bay, home to Fujian province in 2000.

It matters to him who the dead are. There are only a few cases in his 18-year career as a cop, and later in his 10 years as an investigator for the ME’s office, that still haunt him. Mary Anderson’s is one. It’s a paradoxical mystery: If Mary Anderson wasn’t who she said she was, then who killed her?

“It didn’t appear it was going to be a complex case, or a difficult one,” Webster said. “Then things started to go wrong.”

Investigators ran her fingerprints through the FBI’s Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System. They checked with Canadian and American missing-person records, with Interpol and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. They checked with cyanide manufacturers, and tried to trace her possessions. They sought the help of the media, casting for leads. Within a few months, she was officially categorized what she remains today: a Jane Doe.

Lives interrupted

The territory of the unidentified is its own purgatory. The unknown are not easily laid to rest.

The Internet is full of galleries of the disappeared and the reconstructed — some missing parts of their bodies, faces, minds or memories — arrayed in an eerie, endless lineup.

The lives of the missing seem interrupted in the most mundane ways — they left to go jogging, or to the corner store. They were last seen getting into cars, or leaving bars. They didn’t arrive at baby showers or jobs. They departed their lives abruptly, without explanation: “She said she’d call back, but she never did.”

And under each photo, a refrain: Do you know? Do you recognize? Please call with information.

The advent of the Internet has offered both real hope and false promise to searchers.

“Let’s say you entered (a set of criteria) into the National Crime Information Center database — 190 pounds, brown eyes, age 50 to 60 — you’d get thousands of hits — 60 pages of them,” Webster said. “Then you have to go through one by one.”

According to Todd Matthews of Tennessee, who helped build the Doe Network, a Web archive of missing and unidentified people, there are nearly 6,000 unidentified bodies known to law enforcement agencies, and more than 100,000 missing — enough to fill Safeco Field more than twice over.

“And that represents just 10 to 50 percent of cases,” said Matthews, who in 1998 staked a reputation by using the Internet to solve one of the most famous missing-person cases of the 20th century — the decades-old mystery of a 1968 murder victim then known only as “Tent Girl.”

But the sheer power of the Web still can’t overcome one fundamental limitation — unless someone is reported missing somewhere, there is little hope of making a match with an unidentified body.

That is why, of the thousands of cases that have sifted through Matthews’ hands, Anderson’s stands out.

Cold-called by a reporter a continent away, Matthews immediately knew her case from its bare-bones description before a name was mentioned.

“You’re talking about Mary Anderson,” he said. She pulls on him, too, for this simple reason: At least those listed as missing have something Anderson claimed she did not: someone who is looking for them. Who missed them. Who, presumably, loved them.

A deliberate challenge?

Perhaps the most puzzling thing about Mary Anderson’s death is the deliberateness with which she chose it.

The mind wants to make sense of it, to find a reason. Was it depression? Mental illness? A constellation of disappointments?

Webster is bothered by a different set of questions.

“I’m convinced she left us clues to who she was, and we missed them,” Webster said, leaning back in his closet of an office at his mortuary. A few months into the investigation, Webster remembered that there was a copy of Seattle Weekly on the desk, a pressed maple leaf set on a page.

“The maple leaf might have been a clue,” he said. Or perhaps it was pointing to one. Based on the symbolism of the leaf, he and his team redoubled their efforts to search in Canada.

Steen Halling, a professor of abnormal psychology at Seattle University, shares the view that there were no accidents about the way she died.

“She was very methodical,” said Halling, who also recalled the case. “As in death, so she likely was in life.”

Halling read something else into her choice as well: “I wonder if there was a bit of a challenge in it,” he said. “If you’re going to find out who I am, you’re going to have to work at it.”

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