ANCHORAGE - The mother of a man murdered in Sitka almost 23 years ago says she's thankful to the determined cold case detectives who caught her son's killer and for bringing the family closure after two decades of mystery surrounding his disappearance.
The Covilles thought it was unlikely that their son Scott had decided to disappear in 1988 without contacting them, but they still wondered if each ringing phone was Scott trying to call, and they did double takes when they saw men who looked like Scott, Reta Coville, his mother, said in a recent interview.
Now that Scott's wife, Jane Reth, has confessed to the murder, Reta can stop worrying about what happened to her son.
"In one aspect, it's less painful to have the knowledge that they didn't cease loving you," she said.
Reth, 45, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in Sitka Superior Court on Nov. 22. Reth entered the plea by telephone from Lemon Creek Correctional Center, where she's been since troopers extradited her from Oswego, Ill.
Sometime around her 24th birthday, Reth shot her husband while he was lying in bed in their trailer in Sitka. She admitted to that and to cutting the body into pieces, stuffing the pieces into bags and disposing of the pieces, said Assistant District Attorney Jane Seaton.
"At that time garbage disposal was by incinerator, so no trace (of the victim) was ever found," Seaton said in a report by local radio station KCAW-FM.
Reth avoided the original charges - first-degree murder and a felony charge of tampering with evidence - by taking the second-degree murder plea.
She had been married to Scott Coville for a few months, Reta said. Investigators said Reth told them Scott threatened to divorce her, and that's why Reth killed him, Reta said.
"Realistically, I would rather have her plead guilty rather than go to trial because there was no body, and there never will be, because she disposed so thoroughly of my son's body," Reta said.
There's a definite sense of resolution for the Coville family now that Reth has admitted to killing Scott, the family's only child, Reta said.
"The alternatives we were faced with all these years were he's dead, he was murdered, or he's just completely blown off his entire family, which was maybe harder to deal with," Reta said. "These were the two scenarios we were left with, and neither one of them were tolerable."
Knowing that he was murdered at least means she knows something about what happened to her son, Reta said.
The cold case first started to thaw after investigators got a tip in 2007, troopers said. Troopers wouldn't elaborate on the tip.
The Alaska State Troopers' Cold Case Unit, prosecutor Pat Gullufsen and detective James Gallen with the Alaska Bureau of Investigations started putting together evidence about 20 years after Reta Coville made the first reports that her son was missing.
It was April 1988, Reta said, when she had called to wish a happy 26th birthday to her son, who had worked in Alaska for a couple years fishing and in a cannery. But the newly married couple's phone just rang and rang, she said.
Then, for Mother's Day, Reta got a card signed "love Jane and Scott," but it was in Jane's handwriting and postmarked from San Bernardino, Calif., Reta said.
Reth, who also went by Limm, had family near San Bernardino in Glendale, so Reta thought maybe they'd made a trip there. That, too, didn't make much sense because the Covilles also lived in California and hadn't heard about the trip. But Reta said she didn't always know what was going on in Scott's life.
Some kids tell their parents about everything in their lives, and some don't, Reta said. Scott didn't have a bad relationship with his parents, but he "was more of a picker and a chooser," she said.
Reta personally ruled out substance abuse as a possible explanation for Scott's disappearance. Scott didn't do drugs, Reta said. He didn't drink in excess that Reta knew of, and he had smoked pot on occasion, she said.
"I kept calling, maybe once a week, but nobody answered," Reta said. A check she sent Scott for his birthday had not been cashed months later. Finally, when a phone call got a recording that the number had been disconnected, Reta called the Sitka police.
By then, Reth had moved on. The police could only tell Reta that Alaska was often a temporary destination for people in Scott's line of work, and that they didn't know where he'd gone, nor did they know where to find Jane Limm.
The family heard from Jane once, through a friend, about six months later, Reta said. The friend said Jane wanted something she'd left at the Covilles' house, but she never showed up to get it, Reta said.
Life went on, Reta said.
"After about 10 years, you stop crying about it," Reta said. "Takes a long time, I discovered."
In the meantime, Reta figured, at least 10 members of the Coville family died without knowing what happened to Scott, she said. That included Scott's father, who passed away in 2004, she said.
The Alaska investigators who contacted Reta were very kind, she said. As the investigation picked up, they told her they had taped conversations with Reth, Reta said. At one point, they also obtained physical evidence, she said.
"Some of the evidence, it couldn't have caught her 10 years before because the science wasn't there," she said.
Reta said she wasn't comfortable trying to explain the technology that was involved. Cold case investigators did not return requests to comment for this story.
Asked how she felt toward Reth for killing her only son, Reta said she hated Reth for about 10 years after Scott vanished.
"Then I said, 'You know what? Hating someone doesn't do any good,'" Reta said. "I said, 'You know what, God? Deal with it. If she's guilty, I hope you don't give her a day's peace.'
"As to how I feel about her now, I don't really have any feelings toward her at all. It's just, what's the word? Apathy toward her," she said.
Reta described Scott and Jane's relationship as "hot and cold," and she wouldn't have been surprised if he asked for a divorce, she said.
The final closure will come when Reth is sentenced in March, said Reta, who plans to testify.