One year ago yesterday, Marie Hanson hitched a ride with her neighbor to the annual Rainbow Family Gathering on the slopes of Mt. St. Helens. Three months later, searchers found her decomposed remains on a hillside not far from her campsite. Today, after a lengthy investigation, Hanson's death remains an unsolved mystery.
The Rainbow Family has assembled to pray and party during the first week of July in a different National Forest every year since 1972. Last year's event took place in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, and this year's festivities are currently underway in the Cherokee National Forest in the northeast corner of Tennessee.
More on the group and their event, which was attended by more than 20,000 hippies, freaks, and free spirits last year:
The allure, frequent Gatherers say, is a utopian atmosphere that emphasizes both individual freedom and collective action. There are no rules, no leaders, and no organization, at least not in the traditional sense. A council open to every attendee, regardless of age or experience, makes logistical decisions only after a consensus is reached. Volunteers operate dozens of makeshift kitchens that serve food free of charge, and, much as at Burning Man, cash transactions are strongly discouraged.Hanson camped with her neighbor -- 44-year-old Alan "Mellow" Peck, and was later joined by Peck's girlfriend, 50-something Cathy Ward. Hanson, according to her fellow campers, had fallen ill and was suffering severe intestinal distress. Peck initially misstated the night Hanson went missing, but he eventually confirmed to police that she was last seen on the morning of July 8, "stumbling down the street barefoot in shorts and a tank top, and heading toward the shitter."
"It's a return to community," says a Rainbow from Seattle who goes by the nickname Circus Maximus. "It may be weird counterculture, but there's something there that we're missing in our e-mail and text-message lifestyle."
The Rainbow adherence to loving thy neighbor and other tenets of Christianity is no coincidence. Spirituality plays a pivotal role in the culture, which combines environmentalism, socialism, and Native American customs with Judaism, Buddhism, paganism, and other faiths to form an eclectic, inclusive belief system. Mainstream society is derisively referred to as "Babylon."
It took searchers three months of scouring the steep, brush-covered hillside near Hanson's campsite to locate what was left of her body, which, according to one source, was spread across an area "about the size of a baseball field."
Skamania County Sheriffs are still conducting an ongoing investigation in conjunction with South Lake Tahoe Police. Skamania County Undersheriff Dave Cox says an autopsy, forensic testing, and toxicology results are in, but the results are not being released to the public. A Seattle Weekly records request for Hanson's case file is still pending.
Nancy Enterline, a spokesperson for the Hanson family, says authorities told her that no drugs other than prescribed pain medication were found in Hanson's system, and a cause of death could not be determined from the autopsy.
The most likely scenario, according to investigators and others close to the case, is that Hanson rose early in the morning to relieve herself, got lost in the woods, and died of natural causes. But the fact that her companions failed to immediately raise the alarm and then provided misinformation to investigators has raised suspicion. Ward denies ever seeing Hanson during the three days they were together at the Gathering, and ended up in a hospital psychiatric ward in the days following Hanson's disappearance.
Cox says the investigation will likely be completed in the coming weeks. "They're just doing some polygraphs on some witnesses and trying to get that finalized," Cox says. "Once they get that completed they'll determine where they go with the case from there. I don't know what's going to happen or what's going to come out of that, if anything."
He didn't specify which persons associated with the case will be subjected to the lie detector.
Enterline says the Hanson family is still seeking information from anyone who encountered Hanson or her neighbor's Peck and Ward on the evening of July 7 or the morning of July 8, when Hanson was last seen alive. Rainbow Family volunteers are distributing flyers at this year's Gathering in hopes of compelling witnesses to come forward.
Hanson family members are planning to a trip to Mt. St. Helens in the coming months for a memorial service, Enterline says, and to look for personal items that were never recovered during the searches last year, including a crucifix necklace that belonged to Hanson. Enterline says her family is "devastated" about the unexplained death, and still looking closure and answers.
"As somebody who lost someone, I want to say to people keep your eyes on your friends," Enterline says. "Keep your loved ones close. No matter how safe you think you are, you may not be safe. I think Marie was a very trusting person. She probably trusted too much.
Life moves on but there's still these things we may never know."