Unsolved Montana: Who Killed Hallie Ganje?
Sunday, May 18, 1991. At approximately 12:15 a.m., sixteen-year-old Hallie Ganje sat at the banks of the Yellowstone River in Livingston near the Ninth Street Bridge. She unzipped her black and white striped handbag and yanked out a cigarette, lit it and puffed a drag in the blackness.
Hallie’s purse contained her McDonald’s work uniform, an assortment of cosmetics, a few photographs of herself and her friends, and, given that she was noted as the “DJ” among her friends, about a dozen cassette tapes. Tucked in one pouch was a Greyhound bus ticket in her name for an upcoming trip to Oregon, where she planned to visit a friend.
She smoked one cigarette down to the base, and then another. A cluster of flicked Marlboro Reds – her favorite – encircled the bench where she perched.
She sat in the darkness for many minutes, perhaps self-interrogating her life in sober and calculated tones. Inexplicably, she had just abruptly walked away from a party a few blocks away. Following an argument, her sunny mood went into eclipse. Hallie was known to sink occasionally into a crestfallen disposition, so perhaps a walk in the night air would improve her frame of mind, soften her mood.
Only Hallie could’ve known what Hallie she felt, saw, or heard that night. She would certainly have paid attention to the furious interplay of the Yellowstone River, however, perhaps with something akin to fright, for she harbored a terrible fear of water.
Ten months later, a Livingston area rancher spotted a skeleton among debris deposited on an island in the Yellowstone River. Through dental records, forensics identified the young woman’s remains as 16-year-old Hallie Lynette Ganje. The condition of the skeleton, according to the Yellowstone County Coroner, appeared consistent with the remains of someone who had been in the river for about a year.
The Final Nights of Hallie Ganje
The story of the end of Hallie Ganje’s life overlaps with a party at the family home of Chris Gilberg on Ninth Street Island. While Chris’s parents were on vacation, Chris decided to throw a massive, multi-day event. All he needed was an abundance of booze and a quantity of bodies to show up and consume it. He succeeded on both counts.
“Chris was a loner, a very strange guy,” says David Story, who arranged the party from which Hallie Ganje left minutes before she died. “I didn’t know him before the party. He came into my workplace and he asked me to throw it, because he knew that I was popular.”
According to Story, who was 21 at the time, the party kicked off sometime Friday evening and after a raging, alcohol-saturated Saturday night, cooled down by Sunday afternoon.
“We invited a ton of people over to their house,” says Story, a native of California who now lives in Colorado. “There had to have been 50 or 60 people there over a two or three-day weekend. On Saturday afternoon, my friends were going out on a beer run, because we were running out of alcohol. When they returned, there were two girls with them, and one of them was Hallie Ganje. They had a bunch of alcohol to unload from the vehicle. Hallie donated $100 to the beer run.”
It was the underage Ganje, “a lightweight” drinker compared to her friends, who helped stoke the party at the house.
Hallie cut a striking and rebellious figure, her blonde hair fixed upwards, wrapped in the hairspray-drenched style characteristic of the Eighties. She had green eyes and wore heavy black eyeliner, reinforcing one of her friend’s descriptions of Hallie as “the type of teenager who wouldn’t leave the house without makeup.”
She was “absolutely beautiful,” according to some, yet she didn’t believe it. Her compulsion about her looks was a form of undoing.
“Hallie was friendly, shy, a really pretty girl,” says Story of the teenager. “We had a relationship for two days, or however long the party was. I considered her my ‘girlfriend.’”
David Story concedes that from the start of the investigation into Hallie’s death, he was considered one of the top suspects. Almost thirty years later, he admits that his recollection of Hallie’s final night is murky and at places inconsistent. But he adamantly maintains that he has no knowledge as to how, when, or why she died.
A Fractured Evening
Jessica Brewer was the friend who attended the party with Hallie. Following Brewer’s recollections, along with Story’s memories from the weekend, a timeline of events emerges. Considering the mind-altering substances that were used over the weekend, it is not surprings that accounts vary about exactly what may have happened next.
According to Brewer and Story, the party may well have coincided with Hallie’s first day of work at the local McDonald’s. She might have even come over to the party wearing a McDonald’s uniform or she might have changed out of it in the car on the way to the house. She was drinking heavily on Saturday night and though she wasn’t taking heavy drugs or hallucinogenics, she was probably smoking some marijuana.
Sometime on Sunday night, there was an argument acknowledged by Jessica Brewer (Story doesn’t recall it, but he doesn’t deny that it could have happened) between Hallie and a local teenager, someone whom she “might have (previously) fooled around with,” by the name of James Hayes.
According to Brewer and police statements made by witnesses, James Hayes and his brother Joshua showed up uninvited to the Ninth Street Island party and there was strife, shouting, and at one point, a prolonged confrontation between the two or perhaps even three of the Hayes brothers and Hallie and David Story.
At one point, James and Joshua Hayes, “rough and loud party boys with not a good reputation,” according to one witness, “rifled through Hallie’s personal belongings” and “she demanded that the brothers leave.” The altercation ended with the brothers storming out in a huff and Hallie weeping, according to Brewer.
The altercation upset Hallie.
“She was crying and talking about what an asshole James Hayes was,” says Brewer. “She decided to walk to her sister’s house on Ninth Street. I stayed there at the [party] house, and that was the last time I’d seen her.”
The evening has haunted Brewer ever since.
“It’s scary. There is a dark scariness here in Livingston,” Brewer says.
After the fight ended, Hallie either stayed a few more hours with David Story (according to his account), or a distraught Hallie left at some point afterwards (according to Jessica Brewer). Per available police reports, Brewer said that she “walked with Hallie to the Ninth Street Bridge,” though Brewer denies ever making such a statement.
Later that night, Story says he offered Hallie a ride home– probably about 9 p.m. he estimates – but she would not accept it. He needed to be at work the following morning at 9 a.m. at Western Drug, and wanted to get as much sleep as possible.
“I told her, I’m not getting up at 6:30 in the morning to drive you home before I have to go to work,” says Story. “She was so adamantly against it [leaving the party]. She lived about 45 minutes away, somewhere near Pray, I think.”
At about midnight, Hallie jiggled Story from a cold, silent sleep. She might have had a few beers between 9 p.m. and midnight, says Story, or she could have been sitting there in the corner watching him sleep for a few hours.
According to Story, Hallie agitatedly told him that she had an aunt who lived “right across the bridge on Ninth Street.” He says he strongly resisted being awakened. But Hallie needed to leave without delay and she would stay nowhere else but at her aunt’s house. Story said that he bade her farewell. Hallie scribbled down her phone number on a scrap of paper, Story says, and vanished from the room.
On Monday morning, Story says he left the house to start work at Western Drug. He walked through the house, past Chris Gilberg, the party host, who was sleeping on a couch, and surveyed the cumulative damage from the weekend of revelry.
“I thought, my god, these people are going to sue me for their house! It was trashed. It was an expensive, fancy house. I was worried about that house that everyone had utterly destroyed. They must have had to work two days to have to clean that. I never returned to the house, or saw the kid, Chris, again.”
As it turned out, Hallie had lied to her parents and said she was planning to spend Saturday and Sunday night at the home of her friend, Amber Stringfellow. When she didn’t return home Monday, Hallie was reported missing by her mother, Cheryl Standish.
Hallie never showed up for work at McDonald’s, and a check her mother had given her for $10 for either lunch or to pay for her uniform shirt, Hallie had altered to $100 to spend on alcohol.
Hallie’s Shadow Side
A very different, far darker world emerges when viewing Hallie from the descriptions of those who knew her at 16: a young woman full of self-contempt, distrust, secrets, doom, and terrible sadness.
Initially, authorities suspected that Hallie might have run away to Casper, Wyoming, with a friend named Ricky Pollock, a struggling drug addict employed as a cook at a popular café and biker bar.
“Police immediately said that she was only a 16-year-old troubled runaway and they just wrote her off,” says her friend Sunshine Zumwalt. “They gave up on her immediately – within a day it seemed. They said that she had problems and that she ran away with Ricky Pollock. It’s a terrible shame on them.”
Pollock says that he remembers “FBI guys surrounding me at work before she was found.”
“She wore good-looking short miniskirts and I think she liked the attention,” says Ricky Pollock, now 51, living in Bozeman. “I wouldn’t say that she was an airhead. She was very naïve, and the naiveté and the short miniskirts probably didn’t help, but I don’t know. At the time of her death, I was doing drugs, mostly meth, and I had to get away from Livingston to get off of it, to recover. After she was missing, I heard that she was going to my house. Livingston cops and her mom said that. We kind of went out, and she kind of was my girlfriend, I guess.”
A pattern in Hallie’s young life is that she frequently partied and drank with older guys, like Pollock, like Story, people even ten years or more her senior. Misconceived male attentions appeared to have been the dominant theme of her self-therapy.
Born November 15, 1974, the daughter of Kenneth Zellmer and Cheryl Standish, Hallie had some minor encounters with the local authorities, including a summons for being a minor in possession of alcohol. She grew up in the Pine Creek area in Paradise Valley south of Livingston and attended junior high and high school in Livingston. For lack of options, she spent a lot of time after high school at the bowling alley – the quintessential small town hangout. Her weekends were spent playing video games and pool and shrugging off the hours with her friends.
Some of Hallie’s friends partied thunderously. She tried marijuana but mostly stuck to casual underage drinking. She hung around older boys – men, really – the type who even in their 20s and even 30s saw nothing wrong in their relationships with teenage girls like Hallie.
Indeed, Hallie’s lack of self-confidence often drove her to make questionable choices, such as exchanging fawning letters with a convicted murderer named Richie Allen Ayers. Hallie told her friends that she didn’t believe that Ayers, convicted in 1991 of raping and murdering a Livingston woman, was guilty, and that he should not have been sent to prison.
“Hallie was an extremely insecure person,” says friend Sunshine Zumwalt. “She was very eager to please, very young, very easily led… She was insecure, and she would bring her hand up in front of her face to talk, hiding behind it. She was meek. Not a spunky girl. Very, very shy. I can’t think of anything that would make anyone want to hurt her.”
Hallie’s family was left with a humbling dearth of clues as to what had happened to her: the handbag found next to the Ninth Street Island Bridge, a bench with (according to police reports) “two sets of footprints” and “a circle of cigarette butts.”
While her relationship with men was often somewhat predatory with her as prey, Hallie was fortunate to have a number of authentic friendships with female peers. One of them was Anita Hughes. Hallie moved in with Anita and her family when the two were junior high school students.
“She was funny and that was part of who she was,” says Anita Hughes. “She would be airheaded a lot and make us laugh because she would say off-the-wall things. But what surprised me about her was that she had trophies for winning spelling bees and that kind of stuff. Whenever we were outside, she always kept her hand in front of her face when she smiled and laughed. She kept her hands in her sleeves and her hand up in front of her face. She thought that her nose was big and that she had an ugly smile. She did not! She had pretty green eyes.
Still, Hughes says, “She wouldn’t leave the house without makeup. She didn’t like her picture taken.”
“My picture and the bus ticket were there in the handbag (left behind at the bridge),” adds Anita, who left Montana for Oregon in 1990. “At first her mom thought that she had run away… The things I heard about her afterwards were bullshit. I know that she was shy with her body, that she didn’t think that she was pretty. Before she died, she couldn’t wait to come to Oregon and [for us] to see one another.”
According to David Story, he worked at Western Drug from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Monday, May 19, 1991, and at 6:15 p.m. he walked into the Livingston Police department and wrote and signed a statement. He was asked to come to the station to help find the missing girl. There he filed a deposition and was on his way home in a matter of minutes.
“That’s when her mom said that Hallie didn’t have an aunt living off of Ninth Street,” says Story. “She stole and forged a check, and she never showed up to her first day of work, and she lied about visiting her aunt. This was never a murder case. Mom was matter-of-fact that she killed herself. The cigarette butts identified as hers were found near the bench, and there was no doubt that she was at that bench.
“I wrote out a small paragraph and a half of a statement. Being the last person who was with her in a boyfriend-girlfriend way, you would think that they would want more information. But, no, for some reason, those 10 minutes that I was in the police station many, many years ago were enough.”
It is true that Hallie was having difficulties in her home life, even seeking legal emancipation from her parents. Her friends said that she frequently “couch surfed for weeks on end.” Hallie’s intended destination that night, if she had one, was most likely the home of Amber Stringfellow, who lived nearby on Eighth Street. Amber had been grounded by her parents, and she couldn’t attend the party at the Island, though her mother agreed to allow Hallie to stay with them that night. On Sunday morning, Amber and Hallie talked on the telephone for several minutes.
They would never speak again.
Ten months later, Hallie Ganje was found in the Yellowstone River and pronounced dead by Park County coroner Albert C. Jenkins at 12:32 p.m. on March 3, 1992. The immediate cause of death was listed as “unknown” by Jenkins.
From the time she vanished, many of Hallie’s friends and family reacted with suspicion. Why would the intensely private Hallie dump out a bag with all of her personal belongings next to the river on the ground? Weren’t the scattered cigarette butts a hint that she was obviously waiting for someone?
“I think that the police thought that she just ran away and they didn’t look at the river,” says Hallie’s half-sister Angel Colman. “They treated her as a runaway. Nine months later, they found her. There were people who would say that they saw her in different places, like at the mall. There’s not a lot of faith in the police here. They didn’t even listen to my mom, who immediately thought that she was in the river. They just blew her off about that.”
Some of Hallie’s friends and family were still convinced that Hallie was murdered. Nearly thirty years later, the question still elicits the same reaction.
“I taught her how to doggie paddle when she was about 15,” says her friend Amber Stringfellow. “She was absolutely terrified of water. Never would she have gone in the water!”
“She didn’t like water because she didn’t like to get her hair wet or her makeup to come off,” says friend Anita Hughes. “She wouldn’t let anything go above her shoulders. She and I played in the water before. But she was afraid of the river because it could get wild certain times of the year. Somebody killed her. It never added up. It wasn’t her to kill herself.”
Hallie’s plans to visit Hughes in Oregon always remained as evidence in her friend’s mind that Hallie’s thinking at the time of her death was level-headed and clear and even optimistic.
“She was planning on coming out to see my daughter, who was one month old. We talked every week and would write each other every day... What people said doesn’t match up to her.”
No arrests were ever made in connection with the death of Hallie Ganje. Yet according to an email exchange between former Livingston Police Captain Eric Severson and one of Hallie’s friends, over the years the Livingston police re-interviewed James Hayes, who was involved in the argument with Hallie before her death.
As stated in the email exchange, “There is no doubt that James Hayes killed Hallie Ganje,” wrote Captain Severson. “He did it. He was the one to have gone after.”
James Hayes jumped to his death from a bridge over a river on May 28, 2005, in Missouri. One of his siblings, Joshua Hayes, who allegedly caused the disturbance at the party, has an arrest record that includes charges of theft, domestic battery and aggravated assault for menacing a woman with a loaded handgun. According to available public records, at one point in the mid-1990s, James, Joshua, and their younger brother Brian Hayes were all on intense probation simultaneously in Park County. Their father, a convicted violent and drug offender, James Richard Hayes, died February 4, 2018.
David Story says that his initial impression of what might have happened to Hallie was informed by the Livingston police and some members of Hallie’s family.
“At the time, the police painted this picture,” says Story. “So, here’s a girl, she didn’t show up to work, was having problems with her family, had emotional problems, was worried, sitting by the bridge, with no one to give her a ride home. She stole money from her mom. She had all of this baggage I didn’t know about. She barely spoke three words to me from the time I met her.”
Story saved a copy of his initial police statement. In it he avows that he wasn’t the final person to see Hallie before she left the house party, that it was Chris Gilberg, the party host.
“If something happened, if Hallie left, she must have walked past Chris, who was sleeping on the couch, who had called it as his place to sleep. Chris must be involved in some way with the suspicion of Hallie Ganje going missing. Originally, he said that she walked by, and she said goodbye to him, and she left. He called me at Western Drug, he said that he saw Hallie, and he spoke to her; and then said he never saw her leave… wrote a police report, and I never heard a thing about it until about ten years ago.
“A cop from Livingston called who said that he was looking through several old cases, said that he was trying to get a new perspective on them. He never said cold case. Up until then, I’d always assumed that she killed herself.”
Story says that he often attempts to envision the darkness that engulfed Hallie on that final night, not just the physical shadows of the night, but the mental gloom that may her influenced her mood.
“She had stood there for a while, and she was probably wondering what she was going to do… There was evidence that she was sitting there wondering what to do for three or four cigarette butts worth of time. Her parents had problems with Hallie for years, even committed her to a place… She must have been under immense shame and guilt. She was beside herself with depression and sadness, and she jumped into the Yellowstone River, and that was the end of it.”
In spite of everything that supports the theory of Hallie committing suicide, Story says that there are several conspicuous elements of the case that have always sowed enough doubt in his mind that she was guilty of her own death. Yes, her insecurities rattled and raked her, but when thinks back, his logic isn’t fixated to suicide.
“If I had given her a ride home, maybe she would be here, and everything would be all right. Or maybe, if I’d have given her a ride home, we’d both be dead.”
Tips or information relevant to the death of Hallie Ganje may be sent to Park County Sheriff Brad Bichler at BBichler@parkcounty.org; Brian D’Ambrosio may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.