Tenakee residents feared worst after teen disappeared

Posted: Monday, April 07, 2003

TENAKEE SPRINGS - This is a village where everyone knows one another - and one another's business. A lot of people knew part-time resident Maggie Wigen, but whoever killed the teenager last month and buried her body is a mystery.

With no one arrested as of Sunday and no suspect named by law enforcement agencies, it would be presumptuous to conclude Wigen, 19, was killed by someone she knew. But it does seem likely.

Wigen grew up primarily in Juneau, according to Sue Gullufson, a family friend. Since 1998, she had split her time between Juneau and Tenakee Springs, on Chichagof Island about 50 miles southwest of the capital.

Tenakee Springs has one general store, one school and one cafe, but no roads, cars or trucks. Its 100 residents use motorized carts to traverse the 10 miles of dirt trail running through the village.

One of Wigen's typical visits to the village could last for several months. She'd ferry back and forth between Juneau and Tenakee to see friends and to visit her mother, Karin Wigen, who works in the Information Office of the Legislature.

When in Juneau, she worked at Rainbow Foods. When in Tenakee Springs, she picked up odd jobs, often working with locals fixing up their boats. This time, she had been in the village since October, with the exception of a recent week's stay in Juneau before she disappeared in late March.

Tenakee residents said she lived alone in a green cabin at the top of a hill. She lived across the trail from "Tenakee Rosie" Floresca, her landlady. Since 1955, Floresca, 66, has run The Blue Moon Cafe, from which she keeps track of who's coming and going.

Floresca was one of the few people in Tenakee who knew Wigen. Floresca said Wigen was shy and kept to herself, but often came by to talk. Floresca said she kept an eye on the teenager, too.

"She would come in here (the cafe) and listen to me talk," Floresca said Friday as tears welled in her eyes. "She was such a good listener."

Floresca said she last saw Wigen on March 22, the same day the cafe owner hired a local man to work on the little concrete-block dam that slows the flow of a freshwater stream about 180 feet from Wigen's house. A hose running from the stream was the main source of water for Wigen's cottage.

"I didn't really have reason to worry, but I was worried about her," Floresca said. "I usually saw her walking with her dog, Sauk, on the trail, and by Monday (March 24) I hadn't seen her."

Floresca said she checked the work done on the dam and noticed a fresh pile of dirt at the dam's base, she said. She went on to Wigen's house. No one answered her knock on the door - but music was playing inside, she said. She said she went into the house and saw bedding piled in the hallway, "but no Maggie."

Floresca said she started asking people casually if they had seen her. No one had, but no one seemed overly concerned.

On March 25, Mayor Shelly Wilson noticed Sauk in her yard. She told her daughter, Becca, 16, to take the dog to Maggie's and tie him up outside. Floresca noticed - and worried because Wigen never went anywhere without her dog.

"They were companions," she said. "He was her baby. I asked him, 'where's your mama?'"

By Tuesday, March 26, there still was no sign of Wigen, Floresca said.

"I kept looking out my window up at Maggie's place," she said. "I saw someone had lowered the blinds in her kitchen, but I kept watching for her light. There was no light, no light, no light and no Maggie, no Maggie, but the dog had been brought inside."

She enlisted Rachel Israel, another village resident, to go into the house with her. The radio was playing but the pile of bedding was gone. The smell of cigarette smoke and corned beef hash hung in the air. Wigen didn't smoke and was a vegetarian, Israel said. Floresca noticed the attic ladder, which pulled from the ceiling and led to Wigen's bedroom, was only partially up.

In hindsight, the women said, Wigen's killer probably was in the bedroom as they looked for her downstairs.

Floresca and Israel went around town asking people if anyone had seen Wigen.

By March 27, the dog was back outside, howling. Floresca said she was in a panic and went to the house three times that day - the final time bringing her friend Judy McDonald along. She and McDonald searched the house with a flashlight. In Wigen's room, another pile of bedding was in the middle of the floor. Floresca said she poked it.

"I thought maybe she was sick and curled up in the blanket and maybe that's why she didn't answer us," Floresca said. "She wasn't there."

Floresca and McDonald went to homes and boats where they knew Wigen sometimes hung out. No one had seen her. Finally, people were starting to worry.

By March 28, Floresca made one last trek to the house. The music was off but the dog was inside, on Wigen's bed. His food and water dishes were empty.

"I knew she was gone," Floresca said of Wigen.

A search party took shape. Residents walked the trail, bringing their dogs, and went door-to door and boat-to boat. Mayor Wilson called the Alaska State Troopers, who organized a search beginning the next morning. Troopers brought in Sitka Search and Rescue and the Southeast Alaska Dogs Organized for Ground Search. But Wilson, who has been mayor since October, said it was the army of volunteers who scoured the 10 miles of the village, 18 miles of coastline and the Forest Service cabins beyond the city limits.

"You know we may not all like each other or even get along most of the time, but when a crisis happens, we're here for each other like family," Wilson said.

Israel said she had mixed emotions during the search.

"You know, you want to find her and you don't - you know what I mean - because you don't know yet what you're looking for," she said. "As time went on, we just knew. I mean, we still hoped, but it didn't look good. But we never stopped. We had to have a resolution. Even when the Troopers gave up on her that Sunday, we couldn't."

Troopers suspended their search on Sunday, March 30, and left Tenakee, even though the incident was being investigated as a possible homicide, said Trooper Spokesman Greg Wilkinson. He said they didn't have the time or the resources to leave a Trooper in Tenakee. Troopers said to call if anyone found anything, Wilson said.

Floresca had been telling everyone to check the little dam, mentioning something about "weird-looking dirt," Israel said. Even though search parties checked it with dogs and turned up nothing, Arnie Strong, the teacher at the Tenakee Springs School, checked it one more time, Israel said. Poking a mound of dirt, Strong ended the search for Maggie Wigen.

"He saw a foot," said Israel. "We all had places we just had to check. We all felt that. He said his was the dam, he said he had to check there one more time, and he was the one that found her. She was partially buried, wrapped in a blanket or rug or something, and tucked in next to the wall of the dam."

Strong declined comment on the incident.

In the wake of her death, residents speculate she was killed in her home. They don't want to know in what ways she may have been hurt before she died. They think she was strangled, most likely in her room, where no one could hear her.

"It's so unbelievable to me," Israel said. "She lived in the center of town. She wasn't out the road. She was right here, right next to us, and we never heard anything. We never suspected anything or heard cries for help. She was all alone and scared and we couldn't get to her. Maybe we could have helped her, but there was nothing."

Crime-scene investigators flew to Tenakee on April 2. Wigen's body was removed on April 3. As the Troopers carried her to the plane that waited to take her to Anchorage for an autopsy, scheduled today, some residents asked the "blue shirts" for a favor.

"We told them Maggie just loved long walks," said Bob Pegues, owner of the general store in town. "We asked if they might not take her for one more. So they put her in the plane and as they were pulling away, they pulled way far up on the beach and rode a little ways down past the town, they tipped their wings back and forth as a tribute and to say good-bye, and flew her away."

Melanie Plenda can be reached at mplenda@juneauempire.com.

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