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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Skull Helps Solve Part Of 22-Year-Old Puzzle

After 22 years, Ron Marcussen no longer is missing. His skull has been found.

And two bullets have been found inside it, Kootenai County sheriff’s officials said Thursday.

Investigators say, however, that the prime “investigative lead” in Marcussen’s murder died two months ago.

A Post Falls man found Marcussen’s skull Wednesday morning in a wooded patch of land east of Athol, Idaho. The bleached and moss-covered skull was discovered about three miles from where the skull of Marcussen’s wife was found in 1974, said sheriff’s Capt. Ben Wolfinger.

At first, investigators did not know for sure the identity of the newly discovered skull. They borrowed dental X-rays from Marcussen’s mother Thursday and took them to a dental expert in Priest River, Idaho, Wolfinger said.

Dr. G. Jones matched the X-rays with the teeth in the upper jaw of the skull. A root canal and some uniquely shaped fillings helped, Wolfinger said.

The gruesome find is another chapter in a mystery that has lingered for two decades in Kootenai County.

The Marcussens - Ron, 22, and Rita, 20, - disappeared Nov. 19, 1973.

Their car was found several days later. Her purse turned up the next month, and in May 1974, bones, hair and bits of clothing were found southeast of Athol.

Hunters discovered her skull five months later.

It’s a case that has remained lodged in the psyche of both Judge Gary Haman and Post Falls Detective Harlan Fritzsche.

Haman was the Kootenai County prosecutor at the time and Fritzsche was a Rathdrum police officer who helped with the investigation.

“It’s the kind of case that is such a mystery,” Haman said Thursday. “I worked that case so many hours. Once you get that involved, I don’t think it ever leaves you.

“By the end of the case I felt I knew Rita Marcussen almost as if she was living.”

Haman charged George E. Stroisch of Post Falls with first-degree murder for Rita’s death. A witness had seen Stroisch towing the Marcussens’ car after their death. Stroisch admitted to authorities he had been with the couple the day of their disappearance.

A convict who spent time with Stroisch in prison after the murder testified that Stroisch told him he killed the couple.

Stroisch told the convict he had met Ron Marcussen to buy drugs. A disagreement supposedly broke out and Stroisch shot Marcussen. He strangled Rita Marcussen as she started to run.

Stroisch denied it and claimed he was hunting when the couple was killed. In the end, he was acquitted.

The lack of Ron Marcussen’s remains helped win Stroisch his freedom, Haman said Thursday.

Throughout the trial, the defense raised the specter of reasonable doubt, implying that Ron Marcussen had murdered his wife and then fled.

“I never did believe that,” Detective Fritzsche said Thursday. “I knew Ron and Rita. They were nice people.”

But the prosecutor’s office kept getting reports that Ron Marcussen had been seen alive “almost as if they were Elvis sightings,” Haman said.

And without Ron Marcussen’s body, it was hard to prove he was dead rather than in hiding.

Both Haman and Wolfinger say Stroisch remains the best lead in Marcussen’s death.

Two months ago, on Aug. 20, Stroisch died at the age of 58.

Capt. Wolfinger said the case will be reopened. A more thorough search of the Athol area will be made. The bullets from the skull will be tested.

If all the evidence points to Stroisch and the detectives feel they would have had enough evidence to charge and convict him, then the murder case will be closed and considered solved.

Still, “It doesn’t settle anything in my mind, it brings up more questions,” Fritzsche said Thursday. “I’d like to know why it happened.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo