In this place known as the West End, it seems everyone knows everyone else’s business.
Residents know when the neighbor’s filly gets hit by a car. They know when the town barfly gets booted from the tavern.
This small Montana community even knew one of its own residents was in danger. People just didn’t realize what they knew until too late.
On Nov. 28, Nanette Hansen, 34, was found dead in her horse corral, face down in a foot of mud, snow and horse manure.
Nearly three months later, her husband and stepson were arrested on charges of murdering the well-loved waitress. It is a killing they are thought to have planned, hinted about and even bragged of months before the death.
After the most extensive Mineral County investigation in two decades, investigators say it appears Chris Hansen, 52, and Scott Abe, 29, beat and suffocated Nanette Hansen by shoving her face into the corral muck. Then, as Abe had told a neighbor he would, they made it appear she had been trampled by her beloved horses.
“The plans were laid out before me,” said Jerry Sparrick, a resident who told investigators he listened as Abe described how he would kill his stepmother. “I just thought he was venting. I laughed at him.”
The two suspects have refused to comment, as have several of their relatives and Hansen’s attorney.
“You’re hearing only one side,” said Norma Hansen, Chris Hansen’s mother. But “we’ve been told to keep quiet.”
Despite her protest, anger is growing among residents of this community burrowed into the Bitterroot Mountains.
Residents spit cuss words when Chris Hansen and Abe’s names are mentioned. Some have armed themselves, fearing their former friends will be released from jail.
Underneath the anger and the fear lurks a profound guilt.
From bartenders to waitresses to the mercantile owner, almost everyone in the community believed Nanette Hansen was being abused. Many told investigators they had seen her busted nose, her swollen face and her shadow-ringed eyes.
“We never dreamed it could happen,” said Irene Dranzan.
They are known as West Enders - those living in DeBorgia, Haugan and Saltese on the far west end of Mineral County.
The last official count put their number at 292.
Here, along Interstate 90, they carve out a living from the tourists and travelers who drop off the highway and into their lives.
A handful of bars, a mercantile and a bed and breakfast make up the core of this burg. The most prominent place is Lincoln’s “World Famous” 10,000 Silver Dollar Bar and Restaurant.
The gift shop, touted as Montana’s largest, draws tourists who stop to use the bathrooms, shove quarters in the poker machines and paw through rows of mass-produced souvenirs.
Still, the West End remains a solitary community. To the east, 30 miles of mountains and pines isolate them from the rest of their county; to the west, Lookout Pass walls off Idaho.
The isolation breeds intimacy among the residents.
“We have our little fights and squabbles but when we need to, we pull together,” said Jerry Sparrick. “This community is just like a family.”
It is a place where residents still feel comfortable letting strangers-in-need stay in their homes. Most people don’t even remember the last time there was a murder - it’s been 10 years.
“We have the values people had 50 years ago,” Arnold Richardson said. “Places like this are gone forever.”
Don’t call her Nanette.
To those who knew her, it was Nan or Nanny. Or when her fellow waitresses were teasing her, it was Nannygoat.
Born in Germany into an Air Force family, she went to high school in Kansas. She later moved to Seattle and met Chris Hansen in 1987 while hang gliding.
“I know she genuinely loved Chris,” her brother, Raymond Schneider, said.
She was attracted to exciting things, like hiking and horseback riding. Hansen, a former motorcycle racer, seemed adventurous.
In 1990 the Hansens were married in Reno. They moved to DeBorgia a short time later to be with Chris Hansen’s mother and to raise horses - Nan’s passion.
Like most folks living in the West End, she worked at the Silver Dollar Bar.
She was straight-forward and loved practical jokes. She was known for her compassion for animals, often vaccinating and caring for her neighbor’s horses.
Chris Hansen, who claimed to be disabled, didn’t work and was known for his moody temperament.
What most West Enders now remember about their union is the discord. They divorced in 1991 only to get remarried in 1994.
In May 1994, he poured kerosene on himself, his wife, their dogs and their house and threatened to set them ablaze, according to court records. Found mentally unstable, he was placed in a hospital. Kim Sparrick worked with Nan Hansen at the bar.
“She came in one night, her face was a mass of bruises,” Sparrick said. “She said a horse kicked her but everyone knew it wasn’t her horses.”
After the beatings, Nan would knock on Louise Richardson’s door at 3 a.m., face bloody, nose broken, her head scarred with cuts.
“I’d take her in and clean her up,” Louise Richardson said between gulps of beer at The Riverside Inn. “At 7 in the morning Chris was there pounding on the door saying ‘Give me my wife back.’
“I’d say, ‘Nan, he’s going to kill you one day.”’ But she always went back.
“What could have been done?” Louise Richardson asks. “You don’t step in between a married couple. The person getting hurt is going to get hurt worse.”
In the early 1990s, Scott Abe, Hansen’s son from another marriage, moved to the West End.
His friends say he was a loner who developed an intense dislike for Nan.
“He hated her with an obsession,” said Jerry Sparrick, who was friends with Abe. “I could never really understand his hatred, especially as deep as it was.”
In time, Sparrick said, Abe laid out the plans for a murder - something Sparrick saw as nothing more than an idle threat.
Abe said he would wait for Nan Hansen to come home drunk one night and then attack her. Sparrick said Abe told him, “Then I’ll drag her out in the horse muck and cram her down in as far as I can.”’
Abe said he would make it look like Nan had been killed by her horses, Sparrick said. He said Abe boasted “I already told my dad that if he wanted me to murder her I’d do it.”
The night before she died, Nan headed to The Riverside to shoot pool.
That’s where she, Shelley Auger and another woman hatched a plan to head out of town for a few days.
“She wanted out of there because of the fighting. She couldn’t take it.” Auger said.
“I begged her to stay at my house that night so nothing would happen to her,” Auger said.
But as always, Nan insisted on going home, promising she’d be ready to leave in the morning.
When Auger called the next morning, only the answering machine responded.
The Montana State Medical Examiner believes Nan died about 9 a.m. Nov. 28, 1995.
Dave Jones, an emergency medical worker from DeBorgia, plans to give up the volunteer job.
The night before Nan’s death, he had watched his good friend sink a difficult pool shot during a game at The Riverside.
“Nan was happy that night,” he said.
The next morning, Jones was called to the corral where Nan was found.
“I yelled at her,” he said, shaking with anger and tears. “I said, ‘You’re not going to leave us.”’ Rescue workers tried to revive Nan Hansen for more than an hour. Their efforts were futile.
The burden is too much for Jones. Although he spent years working as an emergency worker in Tacoma, “Those were just bodies over there,” he said. “This was my friend.
“It’s not right to see a pretty, smiling lady face-down in the mud.”
On Feb. 26 - almost three months later - Chris Hansen and Scott Abe were arrested, each on a charge of deliberate homicide.
On Thursday, they made their initial appearance in a packed courtroom. Hansen pleaded not guilty. Scott Abe did not enter his plea.
For this case, local and state investigators interviewed almost a third of West End residents, most of whom are listed as potential prosecution witnesses.
“It hurts me to turn against my friends but I’m going to do it,” Jerry Sparrick says.
For many it will be a kind of penance.
“We can’t ever bring her back but we can sure try to make it up to her,” Auger said.
At 9:37 a.m. on the day of Nan Hansen’s death, the sheriff’s department received a call from Chris Hansen.
“I think my wife is dead. I think she’s been stomped by the horses, I mean I know she has been stomped by the horses,” he told them, according to court records.
Hansen told investigators he went looking for his wife in the pasture that morning after he couldn’t find her at their log home. He said he stumbled over her body, then called his son and they both tried to resuscitate her.
Medical personnel were the first to notice that Nan’s injuries didn’t seem to match the story.
“She had a number of injuries that were not consistent with trampling by horses but were consistent with being assaulted,” said Shaun Donovan, Mineral County Prosecutor.
Then came the calls and visits from West Enders - people who knew she had raised those horses herself.
“Those animals were the most important thing in her life,” Kim Sparrick said. “There was no way her horses did it.”
According to court documents, there were “substantial inconsistencies” in the men’s statements.
Although Nan often went to the barn to feed her horses, West Enders say that when she was found she had no shoes on - unusual, if not unthinkable, in late fall.
Court documents also show that during the weeks before Nan’s death, Chris Hansen had removed his wife’s name from their joint bank account, credit cards and the title to property they had owned jointly.
Hansen also had indicated to witnesses that the financial obligations on both their pickup and the family home would be paid off from insurance proceeds payable as a result of Nan’s death, according to court records.
Donovan summed it up, “It looked like there were a whole lot of questions and not a lot of answers.”
After her death, the waitresses at Lincoln’s decorated Nan’s tips cup and displayed it in the restaurant’s ordering window. After a few days they took it down.
It was too upsetting.
Residents passed around a petition asking the court to keep the two men in jail. Chris Hansen and his son have remained behind bars on $250,000 bail.
At The Riverside, West Enders drown their heartbreak with drafts of beer.
They talk impotently about wanting to strangle the accused killers, or skin them alive.
“These people have made this community sick because of their actions,” Arnold Richardson said, lounging in a chair near the bar. “This tears the fabric of us to pieces.”
Some say time will heal their community. Others say it is altered forever.
“We not only lost Nan, we lost all three of these people because of this,” Jerry Sparrick said.
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