The cipher in room 214 Who was Mary Anderson and why did she die?

The cipher in room 214
Who was Mary Anderson and why did she die?

October 6, 2005
Seattle PI

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Her case file has been archived, a thick stack of dead ends and unanswered questions, shut in manila folders and buried in the county's morgue.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

False leads

Investigators did work at it, putting in countless hours and chasing dozens of leads.

"It's the only case I never solved in my 10 years," said Arleigh Marquis, the medical examiner's primary investigator on the case. Marquis has identified people from leads as slim as a copied key. Like Webster and Matthews, he still thinks about Mary Anderson.

Anderson refused to yield to their probing.

"We examined her hands to see whether they suggested an occupation," Webster said. Sometimes forensic investigators can judge, by the softness of the skin, or a pattern of calluses, what work a subject might have done. Nothing.

Her use of cyanide, however, likely meant that she had some education.

For a time, investigators thought she might have worked for a mining company or a chemistry lab -- either medical, or university -- where she would have had access to the poison. But a search produced nothing.

Her skill at hiding her identity may have been its own clue. Could she have worked for an intelligence operation? Was she a spy?

"That's entirely possible," said Marquis, now the medical examiner for Snohomish County. Her appearance was vaguely Eastern European, although her command of the written English language indicated that she was a native speaker, he said.

He also wouldn't rule out that she had family, despite her note.

"When people tell me that, I automatically don't believe it," he said. "It's more a request not to look."

Marquis believes that she was likely familiar with Seattle and had been to the hotel before, perhaps had a significant memory associated with it. The ZIP code she wrote in the hotel registry was for Astoria, N.Y., but checks there didn't reveal any information.

There were other false leads.

She had a copper IUD implanted in her uterus, the implied intimacy of it suggestive of a relationship. But the part number was worn away, so investigators couldn't trace its origin. And no lover came to claim her.

Scars beneath both breasts indicated some form of cosmetic breast surgery -- indicating that she had the means, and desire, to care for her appearance. That, too, led nowhere. Dental records didn't help either.

They tried to trace her clothing and makeup to their point of purchase, but all were from department stores located in multiple states. The lot her Metamucil came from was shipped initially to Phoenix, but could have gone anywhere after that.

Her family Bible had no family listed.

When all the leads had been exhausted, this is all they knew of Anderson:

She was about 5 foot 7 and approximately 240 pounds. She had short, brownish hair and brown eyes. She was likely between age 33 and 45. She had never borne children. She owned two pairs of eyeglasses and shopped at midrange department stores. The brand names she wore, The Villager (by Liz Claiborne) and Alfred Dunner, were available at what was then The Bon March?, or at J.C. Penney. In Canada, she could have bought those brands at Sears or Hudson's. She preferred bright lipstick: Starlit Pink or Rich and Rosy. She wore Est?e Lauder Private Collection perfume.

But even "facts" can be subjective.

Light eyes turn darker after death, Matthews of the Doe Network said. And it's sometimes hard even in life to differentiate eye color. Hair can be color-treated. Age estimates are subjective at best.

Identifying details get reported differently by different people, and such creeping inconsistencies are the bane of searchers.

Some things are provable: An autopsy confirmed she was in good health.

But the psyche doesn't yield to the scalpel; there are no forensic tests for a broken spirit.

'Black cloud'

If Anderson chose an invisible death, it may well have been the result of an invisible killer.

Depression -- undiagnosed depression in particular -- is an insidious threat. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is among the top 10 causes of death in the United States, outstripping homicide.

"It's a lethal condition that is underdiagnosed and undertreated," said Dr. David Dunner, professor of psychiatry at the University of Washington and director of the Center for Anxiety and Depression. Only about half of those who have it seek help, and only about half of those who seek help are diagnosed properly and treated. Of those who are diagnosed, only half are treated adequately, he said.

"Unfortunately, suicide is an outcome with a fairly high percentage, although the exact figure is unknown," he said.

Experts estimate the mortality rate for severe depression to be about 15 percent. The risk of suicide is about 20 times greater for people with depression than for the general population.

And although men have triple the rate of suicide, women attempt it three times more often than men, psychologists say.

Women are more vulnerable to depression, in part because of hormonal interplay with mood disorders, Dunner said. Rates of depression are twice as common in women than in men.

People who are depressed may go in and out of feeling suicidal. It is very difficult to predict.

A feeling of hopelessness, however, is one commonality among those who contemplate suicide, Dunner said. Survivors of suicide attempts talk about it as though they were taken over by a "black cloud."

The invisible age

No one knows what Mary Anderson's state of mind was, but her deliberate invisibility could itself be a clue.

At a certain age, women can begin to feel unnoticed, said Halling, the psychology professor at Seattle University.

Women who are seeing their looks begin to change, and who have not yet achieved the revered status of elder or grandmother, may begin to feel lost in a society that focuses on shallow views of women's worth.

Perhaps it's revealing, then, that she picked Mary Anderson as her alias. Mary Anderson was the name of the woman who invented the windshield wiper in 1905.

Was it deliberate irony to choose as a namesake the inventor of a ubiquitous device we look past daily with little notice? Or merely happenstance?

For both sexes, middle age is a time of dealing with accrued life issues, the "baggage" of messy lives, said Pepper Schwartz, a professor of sociology at the University of Washington.

The changes such unresolved life issues cause in people may be subtle enough that those around them don't see them spiraling into depression.

"People forget just exactly what the person used to be like, so nobody is figuring out how to respond," Schwartz said. "Pretty soon it's a real big problem."

Looking at the Anderson case from the outside, Schwartz said, her method suggests that she really wanted to die. "That's an important part of that description. ... I think it's important to know she was beyond caring."

Isolation can lead to that level of despair, she added.

"We're very much a herd animal, and a coupling animal," she said. "We need to have people in close intimate relationship. We get strange when we don't. If we stay isolated, we feel unimportant, irrelevant and start to get self-destructive."

Anonymous presence

Wind rakes the branches of the trees that shelter the headstones spread across Crown Hill Cemetery. Tucked into a modest residential area on the edge of Ballard, the graveyard is one of the few remaining family-owned cemeteries in Seattle.

In a green-shingled trailer that doubles as a cemetery office, caretaker Phillip Howell pulls a yellowing card from an old steel file cabinet.

"Here she is," he says. The card reads: Doe, Jane, Grave No. 197-A.

Howell heads across the brown grass to the far corner of the cemetery.

"Quite often this is a happy place," he says, sounding wishful. "It's a place where people come to be together and remember.

"But this back here is kind of a sad area. There's one person who was murdered a couple of spaces away."

A few feet from the back fence, just over from a high bank of dirt from already-dug graves, he stops and feels for the slight indentation that tells him he has arrived.

"This is it," he says. Anderson shares the space with another, a man buried as indigent. The county spent $479 on her burial. There was no service. There is no marker on her grave.

But there are people who remember. Quarles, who found her at the hotel, does.

"I've thought about her a lot over the years," he said. "It shouldn't be that easy to just disappear."

Webster still wishes he knew her real name, if only to lay the matter to rest for whatever family she had.

Matthews, too, wants to give her a name. "Everyone deserves that," he said.

And Halling, of Seattle University, offered this. "If you wanted to, you could disappear. She made herself anonymous, but still a presence."

In that sense, she got what she perhaps didn't get in life: notice.

The sun is setting, and the caretaker winds his way through the cemetery back to his office. Dotted around the graveyard are monuments to memories of others -- a perpetual garden with a bench and wintering pansies at the grave of a teenager, a mausoleum housing a man buried seated in his wheelchair -- each as idiosyncratic as the person it memorializes.

Behind him, a blanket of fallen maple leaves carpets Mary's grave.