Kym L. Pasqualini is the founder and former CEO of Nation's Missing Children Organization and National Center for Missing Adults.
The Tragedy of Rachel Burkheimer
On the day of her disappearance, Rachel Burkheimer told her family she was driving a friend to the airport. But she never returned home, and on September 27, 2002, her family reported her missing in Snohomish County, near Everett, Washington.
Rachel was only 18 when she was murdered by those she trusted. Her body was found in early October 2002. Two men were quickly arrested, including Rachel’s boyfriend—and more arrests would follow.
A Bright Light
Rachel was a beautiful young woman who was described as funny, giving, and a prankster. With a smile that could light up a room, she never forgot a birthday and randomly sent cards to her family and friends telling them she loved them. She was outgoing and made friends easily, even organizing a baby shower for a coworker who was only a casual acquaintance.
She lived, worked, and went to high school on the 22,000-acre Tulalip Reservation in Snohomish County.
“She had so many social groups and such a big network, I couldn’t keep up,” her father Bill Burkheimer said. “I was just her answering machine.”
Larger Than Life
When Rachel was a child, her parents thought she might be deaf because she did not start talking until she was almost three years old. But when the words began to flow, it was like a dam bursting. She had a big imagination, was good at imitations, and had a range of funny voices that kept her family amused and entertained.
"She was so theatrical and creative," Bill told Jennifer Langston of the Seattle Post Intelligencer. "I think that’s how she lived her life. I don’t want to say it was a fantasy, but it was kind of like . . . she was a character in a bigger cast of some ongoing saga."
Rachel had plans to become a medical technician. She was only 4 feet 11 inches tall, but her friends described her as mighty and independent. She had four-inch heels she wore everywhere and a makeup kit that was the size of a toolbox. With her beaming smile and bright blue eyes, she turned heads everywhere she went.
Life for Rachel Changed
In August 2001, Rachel lost one of her best friends, Cory Haynes, in a horrific rollover car accident. She took the death extremely hard and, in her grief, attached his pictures all over her Subaru dashboard and room. She hung his obituary on her bedroom wall.
“They were soulmates,” Rachel’s father Bill told True Crime Daily. “It was a brother-sister relationship. He was an amazing young man.”
The tragedies that followed Cory's death further devastated Rachel. Within the next year, she lost six additional friends to wrecks, drowning, suicide, and accidental shooting. But her family is convinced it was Cory’s death that really changed her.
“It was so hard; I think it killed her. Literally,” said Megan Burkheimer, Rachel’s older sister. “She just became so heartbroken; you could see it in her eyes. Her light was gone.”
Although Cory and Rachel were not in a romantic relationship, they had been inseparable for years. She told her family that he knew her better than anyone on the planet.
“I can’t even describe the devastation of that event . . . It was a real struggle for her, and that’s putting it mildly,” Bill told the Seattle Post Intelligencer.
Rachel became severely depressed, and her parents took her to a therapist hoping it would help. She left Marysville-Pilchuck High School and attended an alternative school but dropped out shortly thereafter. She continued working at Jimmy’s Pizza and Pasta for a while but soon left that, too. She had lost direction.
Slipping Into Depression
Rachel had once been a girl who laughed all the time and compulsively wrote “to-do” lists and weekly goals on a dry erase board above her bed. But after the string of tragic deaths, she slipped into a deep depression and began drifting away from her family. Rachel's downward spiral eventually led to her using cocaine and methamphetamine.
Her father worried about Rachel’s misdirection and confronted her on several occasions, finally telling her to get a job or go back to school.
“Rachel had so much potential. I never felt like she would not complete her education. I just knew she hit a stuck point,” her father said.
As her life unraveled, Rachel found herself hanging around a shady group of people. One was John “Diggy” Anderson, who local police said had been in and out of jail and belonged to a gang.
"[The gang] was kind of in the infant stages, and it [had] a real stupid name," said Detective Brad Pince of the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office. "They called themselves the 'Northwest Mafia.' They would steal drugs, sell some of them, and use most of it. They had no other ambition in life. They would sit around and play video games, smoke dope and [do] cocaine and meth and [party]."
Bill Burkheimer would find out about Rachel’s relationship with Anderson when he received a bill for $640 from the phone company. The bill showed that a bulk of the phone calls came from the Correctional Facility in Shelton, Washington.
Rachel was also receiving fanatical letters from Anderson. She would find out he was perilously jealous.
Worried, her father confronted Rachel. “She kept talking about how she saw good in him, and he wasn’t what people think he is,” Bill said.
But according to her friends and family, the relationship was toxic and abusive. Anderson was so consumed by jealousy that he sniffed Rachel’s hair and clothing to see if she had been with other men. He frequently threatened her, and Rachel's sister Meghan recalled her having bruises.
But her family said Rachel was finally beginning to see the light shortly before her death.
“She sat on the end of my bed and she was talking until 2:00 a.m. about her fears, about her concerns about John Anderson, and the different threats he had been giving her,” said Meghan.
Meghan said Rachel had finally had enough and was forging new relationships with her family and reclaiming her life.
"One morning, a beautiful Sunday morning, she’s sitting on our porch and she has this radiance again that I have not seen in a few months," Bill told True Crime Daily. "And she looked up and said, 'I have met an incredible friend, Maurice.'"
Maurice Rivas, 18, was also a member of the Northwest Mafia, but he told Rachel he was looking for a way out. He and Rachel had formed a bond in their goal to break free. Unfortunately, John Anderson would not let that day happen, and Rivas would be forced to make the most fateful decision of his life.
In an attempt to get other gang members to turn on Rachel, Anderson told them that Rachel was passing on “gang secrets” to her friends. This terrified Rachel, and she went to her sister Meghan for advice.
"I told her, 'Look, you need to be aware, you need to be cautious. Stay away from him for sure,'" said Meghan. Admittedly, Meghan thought Anderson was just being a young punk and dismissed the threats.
From Gang Member to Murderer
On a cool September evening in 2002, Rachel went to a party with seven members of the Northwest Mafia in Everett. She was with Maurice, so Rachel felt safe, and she was also trying to show her friends that she had not deceived them.
According to True Crime Daily, John Anderson arrived at the party where they were all sitting around a couch, laughing and smoking marijuana. He did not like what he was seeing, and it angered him.
"Anderson comes in from the outside of the duplex and he’s angry because everybody is having such a good time," said Det. Pince. “He smacks a couple of the kids in the face.”
Guns were drawn. When the confrontation escalated, Rachel tried to get up and leave—but she would never even make it to the door.
“He grabs her by the hair, hit[s] her in the face, knocks her down on the floor, and a couple of other guys start helping,” said the detective.
They kicked Rachel in the head repeatedly, and someone in the room ordered the stereo be turned up so her screams could not be heard.
“They scooped up Rachel, took her out to the garage, and gagged and taped her so she couldn’t scream anymore,” said Det. Pince.
While Rachel was helpless in the garage, the crew talked about gang-raping her and tried to figure out what to do next.
As they ate pizza, played video games, and smoked pot, poor Rachel must have been lying there in horror and confusion, trying to understand the ultimate betrayal of her friends.
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Spark of Hope
Trissa Conner, the owner of the house and girlfriend to one of the gang members, came home from her nursing classes at Everett Community College. When she entered the garage, she was horrified to find a blond-haired woman bound and gagged on the garage floor.
“Trissa walked into the garage, saw Rachel beat up, tied, laying on the floor, and she went back to the kitchen to get a knife to try to cut her hands and feet loose,” Det. Pince told True Crime Daily.
But Anderson intervened and stopped Conner from saving Rachel. Rachel’s hope for survival was diminishing.
Conner was ordered to leave the garage and began hearing sounds of a beating. She later saw the men stuff Rachel inside a large black duffel bag and into the back of a Jeep.
Anderson, Maurice, and two others then began to drive 30 miles into the mountains. Maurice, who Rachel had trusted with her life, had just taken part in her kidnapping.
According to police, the young men talked about renting a hotel room and letting her heal—but that would not become the final plan for that fateful evening.
Once they arrived in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains, Anderson and two others left to go get shovels. Shockingly, they left Rivas there to watch Rachel in what turned out to be the ultimate betrayal of their friendship.
While Anderson was gone getting supplies, Rachel told Rivas she knew she was going to die in the mountains outside Seattle and he was the only one that could help her. According to court documents, Rachel pleaded with him not to kill her and not to let her drown. Rivas told her he did not think it would go that far, and her pleas fell on deaf ears. Instead, Rivas chose loyalty to Anderson and the Northwest Mafia rather than saving the life of his "best friend" during that last moment of freedom before the gang returned.
“They get out there and unload the shovels from the Jeep. Rachel is making noise,” Det Pince told True Crime Daily. “John Anderson takes a shovel, and he hits the side of the duffel bag as hard as he can.”
They proceeded to dig her grave as Rachel lay there in the dark woods, possibly still conscious. Rivas was smoking and drinking a soda in the car when Anderson told him to get out to help. He did exactly what he was told.
Anderson told another gang member to get Rachel out of the duffel bag and strip her. Following orders, they took all her clothes and her jewelry. According to Det. Pince, she begged them to let her keep a ring her best friend Cory Haynes had given her, but Anderson told her no.
Being the independent and rebellious young woman she was, Rachel told the group of men she wanted to walk to her own grave.
As she stepped down in the shallow hole, the soil cold under her feet, Rachel was then told to lie face down in the grave.
“She got on her knees and started to pray,” said Det. Pince. “Anderson told her not to worry about it. She would be up with [Cory] soon.”
As the others watched, Anderson began shooting Rachel in the back of the head until the gun jammed. Then, he cleared the jam and emptied the gun into her. Rivas would stand by watching his friend die in a most brutal slaying.
Anderson, the frenzied mastermind, ordered the others to cover the grave.
The Northwest Mafia members had a secret pact, and no one was to know what happened to Rachel, but she was now listed as a missing person.
The Burkheimer family rallied together and distributed missing person posters everywhere in Snohomish and King Counties.
Police aggressively pursued all tips that came in, but investigators got a real break in the case when a tip was received from the mother of one of the gang members, Jeffrey Barth. That tip quickly changed the direction of the investigation and led police to a red Jeep registered to Matthew Durham.
Police apprehended Durham[, and] Sgt. Scot Fenter of the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office pressured the young man, who quickly broke and led law enforcement to the foothills of the Cascade Mountains. There, they found a shallow gravesite off Reiter Road, east of Gold Bar.
Gang Member Squeals
Matthew Durham, 17, proceeded to tell police what had happened in the garage at the house and said he was ordered by Anderson to drive his vehicle to a remote spot near Reiter Pit, a popular place for off-road vehicles, where he was told to drive down a dirt road.
Durham went on to tell investigators that Anderson told him where to stop. He said Anderson carried the duffel bag into the woods where he could hear him say, “Get on your knees,” and then heard gunshots and saw muzzle flashes. When they all returned to the vehicle, Durham was ordered not to speak of the horrific event, or he would be killed.
Investigators proceeded to pick up the others Durham had identified as taking part in the gruesome murder, including Rivas, Anderson, and Barth.
Ultimately, eight people were convicted of crimes related to Rachel’s kidnapping and killing. Two received life, including Anderson. The rest are serving substantial time behind bars.
On May 21, 2004, as Anderson wiped tears from his eyes, Snohomish County Superior Court Judge Linda Krese imposed the sentence of “life in prison” without parole.
“This is not a moment of celebration for us,” Burkheimer told Fox Q13. “It’s a victory but it’s a loss all at the same time. It's really hard to explain, it’s really hard to put into words,” he added.
The day Rachel was murdered, eight men decided to ignore their moral compasses and choose loyalty to a gang, leading to a senseless crime that could have been stopped multiple times by multiple people.
After spending years in court facing each of his daughter’s killers, Bill has kept the loss of Rachel in the forefront of his mind.
Bill lived the ultimate parent’s nightmare while at each trial and attending countless appeals. Seeing the gruesome crime scene photos that are forever etched in his memory, it is a wonder how he functions.
“I’ll never forget, I did see a photo of the gravesite after they removed her body and, in the dirt, there was an imprint of her hands in the praying position, perfectly preserved, that gives me some peace,” Bill told True Crime Daily.
Instead of crumbling, Bill began to raise awareness for other crime victims by working on legislation that would make it a crime to not render care to an injured person.
On September 25, 2007, the National Day of Remembrance for Murder Victims was held at the Capitol in Olympia, Washington. On that day, Bill presented a moving and raw declaration to the crowd attending. It goes like this:
"Whereas…Insidious grief and pain are a direct result of losing a loved one to murder…this day shall be a day of grief relief. All survivors get a one-day pass on pain…and no monsters can whisper in their ears.
Whereas…Some ignorant people who are shallow and narrow-minded enough to believe families who have had a loved one murdered have some kind of communicable disease…will on this day finally realize that murder is not contagious. Furthermore, no doctor will think they can prescribe 'grief pills'…there is no such thing.
Whereas…The criminal justice system that prosecuted the perpetrators of murder may not have produced the end result that is in line with the victim’s family’s concept of justice…therefore on this day surviving families may resentence such murders to a more appropriate sentence determined by the victims loved ones…no appeals will be considered.
Whereas…Past judicial decisions to set aside scores of sentences for the crime of felony assault murder have re-victimized the families of the victims…therefore no judicial body will ever make such an unjust and painful decision again…ever.
Whereas…Crime victim organizations and support groups struggle to obtain adequate funding to maintain their vital role in our communities…and whose tireless efforts by dedicated and committed people bring strength and courage to friends and families of violent crime…shall on this day receive enough funding to effectively operate forever…or until there is no more violent crime…whichever comes first.
Therefore…I, Bill Burkheimer…benevolent ruler of the world…do hereby declare this day a day of peace, healing, and comfort to all those that have been impacted by the horrific crime of murder."
While life has gotten a little easier to deal with, it remains important to Bill that Rachel is remembered and that somehow her story will help other crime victims cope.
“The case may go away, but Rachel never will,” Bill told the Seattle Times. "Her life was not tragic; her death was.”
Where Are They Now?
In 2022, Matthew Durham (37) and Maurice Rivas (38), who were originally sentenced to 26 years for their role in Rachel's murder, had their terms reduced to 22½ years.
Snohomish County Superior Court Judge George Appel issued the ruling one year after a state Supreme Court decision paved the way for judges to resentence convicts based on the age at which when they committed their crime. Durham and Rivas, who were 17 and 18, respectively, when they drove Rachel to the site of her murder and helped dig her grave, will now be released from prison before their 40th birthdays.
John Whitaker, who took sentimental jewelry from Rachel as she waited to die, was originally sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. In 2013, he was granted a retrial. Three years later, he was convicted of 1st-degree murder again and given a second life sentence without the possibility of parole.
“This last trial, which was 12 years after the last trial, it was the hardest of all of them, mentally, emotionally physically in every aspect," said Rachel's father, Bill Burkheimer, after the retrial. “The sad part is," he continued, quoting his sister, "when [the trial is] all over it’s like we have to watch her walk off into the sunset and say goodbye again.”
Bill said nothing can bring closure after such a horrific loss. “Every one of the defendants’ families have lost one of their sons, the impact of this spreads out and touches a lot of people."
The other five co-defendants convicted of Rachel's murder, including John "Diggy" Anderson, continue serving life sentences without the possibility of parole.
© 2021 Kym L Pasqualini