Hansen was born in Estherville, Iowa in 1939. He was the son of a Danish immigrant and followed in his father's footsteps as a baker. In his youth, he was skinny and painfully shy, afflicted with a stutter and a severe case of acne that left him permanently scarred. (In later years, he would recall his face as "one big pimple.") Shunned by the attractive girls in school, he grew up hating them and nursing fantasies of cruel revenge. Throughout childhood and adolescence, Hansen was described as being quiet and a loner and he had a dysfunctional relationship with his domineering father. He was frequently bullied at school for having acne and speaking with a stutter. He started hunting and often found refuge in this pastime.
In 1957, Hansen enlisted in the United States Army Reserve and served for one year before being discharged. He later worked as an assistant drill instructor at a police academy in Pocahontas, Iowa. There, he began a relationship with a younger woman. He married her in the summer of 1960.
On December 7, 1960, he was arrested for burning down a Pocahontas County Board of Education school bus garage, for which he served 20 months of a three-year prison sentence in Anamosa State Penitentiary. His wife filed for divorce while he was incarcerated. Over the next few years, he was jailed several times for petty theft. In 1967, he moved to Anchorage, Alaska, with his second wife, whom he had married in 1963 and with whom he had two children. In Anchorage, he was well liked by his neighbors and set several local hunting records.
On June 13, 1983, 17-year-old Cindy Paulson escaped from Hansen, while he was trying to load her into his Piper Super Cub. She told police he had offered her $200 to perform oral sex but that, when she got into the car, he pulled a gun on her and drove her to his home in Muldoon. There, he held her captive, torturing, raping and sexually assaulting her. She mentioned that, after he chained her by the neck to a post in the house's basement, Hansen took a nap on a nearby couch.
When he awoke, he put her in his car and took her to Merrill Field airport, where he told her that he intended to "take her out to his cabin" (a meat shack in the Knik River area of the Matanuska Valley accessible only by boat or bush plane). Paulson, crouched in the back seat of the car with her wrists cuffed in front of her body, waited until Hansen was busy loading the airplane's cockpit, to make a run for it. While Hansen's back was turned, Paulson crawled out of the back seat, opened the driver's side door and took off toward nearby Sixth Avenue.
She later told police that she had left her blue sneakers on the passenger side floor of the sedan's backseat, as evidence that she had been in the car. Hansen panicked and ran after her but Paulson made it to Sixth Avenue first and managed to flag down a passing truck. The driver, Robert Yount, alarmed by her disheveled appearance, stopped and picked her up. He drove her to the Mush Inn, where she jumped out of the truck and ran inside. While she pleaded with the clerk to phone her boyfriend at the Big Timber Motel, the truck driver continued on to work, where he called the police to report the barefoot, handcuffed woman.
When Anchorage Police Department officers arrived at the Mush Inn, they were told that the young woman had taken a cab to the Big Timber Motel. APD officers arrived at Room 110 of the Big Timber Motel and found Cindy Paulson, still handcuffed and alone. She was taken to APD headquarters, where she described the perpetrator. Hansen, when questioned by APD officers, denied the accusation, stating that Paulson was just trying to cause some trouble because he would not pay her extortion demands. Although Hansen had several prior run-ins with the law, his meek demeanour and humble occupation as a baker, along with a strong alibi from his friend John Henning, kept him from being considered as a serious suspect and the case went cold.
Detective Glenn Flothe of the Alaska State Troopers had been part of a team investigating the discovery of several bodies in and around Anchorage, Seward and the Matanuska-Susitna Valley area. The first of the bodies was found by construction workers near Eklutna Road. The body, dubbed "Eklutna Annie" by investigators, has never been identified. Later that year, the body of Joanna Messina was discovered in a gravel pit near Seward and in 1982, the remains of 23-year-old Sherry Morrow were discovered, in a shallow grave near the Knik River. Flothe now had three bodies and what looked like one killer.
He contacted Federal Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Roy Hazelwood and requested help with a criminal psychological profile, based on the three recovered bodies. Hazelwood thought that the killer would be an experienced hunter with low self-esteem, have a history of being rejected by women and would feel compelled to keep "souvenirs" of his murders, such as a victim's jewelry. He also suggested that the assailant might stutter. Using this profile, Flothe investigated possible suspects until he reached Hansen, who fit the profile and owned a plane.
Supported by Paulson's testimony and Hazelwood's profile, Flothe and the APD secured a warrant to search Hansen's plane, cars and home. On October 27, 1983, investigators uncovered jewelry belonging to some of the missing women, as well as an array of firearms in a corner hideaway of Hansen's attic. The biggest find was an aviation map with little "x" marks on it, hidden behind Hansen's headboard.
When confronted with the evidence found in his home, Hansen denied it as long as he could but he eventually began to blame the women and tried to justify his motives. Eventually, confessing to each item of evidence as it was presented to him, he admitted to a spree of attacks against Alaskan women starting in 1971. Hansen's earliest victims were young women, usually between 16 and 19 and not the prostitutes and strippers who led to his discovery.
Robert C. Hansen is known to have raped and assaulted over 30 Alaskan women. He is also responsible for murdering at least 17, ranging in age from 16 to 41. They were:Lisa Futrell, 41 (acknowledged, body found with Hansen's help)
Malai Larsen, 28 (acknowledged, body found with Hansen's help)
Sue Luna, 23 (acknowledged, body found with Hansen's help)
Tami Pederson, 20 (acknowledged, body found with Hansen's help)
Angela Feddern, 24 (acknowledged, body found with Hansen's help)
Teresa Watson (acknowledged, body found with Hansen's help)
DeLynn "Sugar" Frey (acknowledged, body discovered on August 20, 1985 by a pilot testing new tires on the sandbar of the Knik River)
Paula Goulding (acknowledged, body found)
Andrea "Fish" Altiery (admitted, body not found)
Sherry Morrow, 23 (admitted, body found)
"Eklutna Annie" (admitted, body found, true identity has never been discovered)
Joanna Messina (admitted, body found)
"Horseshoe Harriet" (acknowledged, body found with Hansen's help, true identity has never been discovered)
Roxane Easland, 24 (acknowledged, body not found)
Ceilia "Beth" Van Zanten, 17 (denied, but suspected because of x on aviation map, body found)
Megan Emerick, 17 (denied, but suspected because of x on aviation map, body not found)
Mary Thill, 23 (denied, but suspected because of x on aviation map, body not found)
Of these 17 women, Hansen was only formally charged with the murder of four - Sherry Morrow, Joanna Messina, Eklutna Annie and Paula Goulding. He was also charged with the kidnapping and rape of Cindy Paulson.
Once arrested, Hansen was charged with assault, kidnapping, multiple weapons offenses, and theft and insurance fraud. The last charge was related to a claim filed with the insurance company over alleged theft of some trophies, whose funds he used to purchase the Super Cub. At trial, he claimed he later recovered the trophies in his backyard but forgot to inform the insurer.
Only after ballistics tests returned a match between bullets found at the crime scenes and Hansen's rifle, did he enter into a plea bargain. He pled guilty to the four homicides the police had evidence for (Morrow, Messina, Goulding and Eklutna Annie) and provided details about his other victims, in return for serving his sentence in a federal prison, along with no publicity in the press. Another condition of the plea bargain was his participation in deciphering the markings on his aviation map and locating his victims' bodies. He confirmed the police theory of how the women were abducted, adding that he would sometimes let a potential victim go if she convinced him that she wouldn't report him to police. He indicated that he began killing in the early 1970s.
He showed investigators seventeen grave sites, in and around Southcentral Alaska, twelve of which were unknown to investigators. There remained marks on his map that he refused to give up, including three in Resurrection Bay, near Seward (authorities suspect two of these marks belong to the graves of Mary Thill and Megan Emrick, whom Hansen has denied killing). The remains of twelve (of a probable 21) victims were exhumed by the police and returned to their families. Hansen was sentenced by jury to 461 years plus life in prison, without the possibility of parole. He was first imprisoned at the United States Penitentiary, Lewisburg in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania.
In 1988, he was returned to Alaska and briefly incarcerated at Lemon Creek Correctional Center in Juneau. He was also imprisoned at Spring Creek Correctional Center in Seward until May 2014, when he was transported to the Anchorage Correctional Complex for health reasons.
Hansen died at the age of 75, at Alaska Regional Hospital in Anchorage on August 21, 2014, due to undisclosed, lingering health conditions.John Cusack portrayed Hansen, in the film The Frozen Ground (2013), opposite Nicolas Cage as Sergeant Jack Halcombe (a character based on Glenn Flothe) and Vanessa Hudgens as victim Cindy Paulson.
Documentaries:The FBI Files episode, "Hunter's Game" (1999), depicts Hansen's murderous rampage.
Crime Stories featured a full 2007 episode of the case.
The Alaska: Ice Cold Killers episode "Hunting Humans" (January 25, 2012) on Investigation Discovery covered the Hansen case.
Hidden City season 1, episode 12 ("Anchorage: Robert Hansen's Most Dangerous Game, the Legend of Blackjack Sturges, Eskimo Hu"; airdate February 21, 2012), on the Travel Channel, covered the Hansen case.
TV series:"Mind Hunters" and "The Woods", two 2005 episodes of the CBS TV series Cold Case, were inspired by Hansen's crimes.
In Criminal Minds season 5, episode 21 ("Exit Wounds"; airdate May 12, 2010), Hansen is referred to by name.
Hansen's crimes also inspired Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, season 13, episode 15 ("Hunting Ground"; airdate February 22, 2012), which depicts a serial killer, who hunts women like wild game before killing them.