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The Long Goodbye: An Idaho Family Fights to Learn the Truth About Their Daughter's Death

What Happened to Kelsey Anderson?


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The clock in the kitchen read 5:05 a.m., but it was already more than 100 degrees outside—the early July sun crowding a midday sky over Orofino.

"I keep the clock set to Guam time—16 hours ahead of us," whispered Adelia Anderson (everyone calls her Sue). "It's already tomorrow there."

Maybe, just maybe, she said, Guam's tomorrow might bring today's truth—if not the full truth, well, maybe a piece of the truth. Anything would help.

Sue and her husband, Chris Anderson, remember their first phone call to Guam: sometime in early January 2011, when they called their daughter Kelsey to see how she was settling into her new South Pacific assignment at Andersen Air Force Base.

"That's when we first set the clock to Guam time," said Sue, cracking a half-smile "We didn't want to wake her up with a phone call if she was sleeping."

Five months after her assignment began, USAF Airman First Class Kelsey Anderson was found dead by Andersen Air Force Base personnel, shot with her own service pistol while on duty as a security officer in the early morning hours of June 9, 2011.

The Andersons have lost count of the phone calls they have made to Guam since Kelsey's death. In each call—sometimes in sorrow, other times in anger—they continued to ask anyone who would listen:

"What happened at the scene of the shooting?"

"Why did it take so long to send Kelsey's body back home?"

"Why didn't all of Kelsey's belongings return to her family?"

"Why were Air Force personnel ordered not to talk to us?"

"They told us she killed herself. She shot herself in the head," said Sue, "but there was no note, nothing. And she was on duty. And get this, she was scheduled to come for a monthlong break in just a few more weeks."

Sue took a moment to compose herself but to no avail.

"I'm sorry. ... I should be over this now," she said and sobbed.

In a series of tear-stained interviews, Chris and Sue Anderson told the story of how their little piece of Idaho heaven—living peacefully along the Clearwater River with two great kids--has devolved into a hellish battle with the United States government.

At best, the U.S. Air Force has disrespected the Andersons in refusing to be forthcoming about their daughter's death, which recently marked a grim second anniversary. But at worst, the debacle reeks of a cover-up that has resulted in a precedent-setting lawsuit against the U.S. government.

The Andersons were hoping it wouldn't have to come to this: They're listing the U.S. Air Force as a defendant with summonses appearing on the doorsteps of the U.S. Attorney General and the U.S. Attorney for the District of Idaho.

Boise Weekly sat with the Andersons in their Orofino home, along the north bank of the Clearwater, as the soft-spoken couple tried to make sense of what happened to their youngest of two children. A few feet away sat a brass box with the emblem of the U.S. Air Force emblazoned on the outside, and the ashes of their 19-year-old daughter on the inside.

The Nicest, Sweetest, Toughest Girl You Ever Saw

The Andersons said they built their home for their two children—Kelsey and brother Max (two years older, now 23). Sitting on a gorgeous piece of North Central Idaho overlooking the river, Kelsey would usually be seen atop one of the family's five horses—her favorite was Shorty—while Max was usually found riding ATVs or snowmobiles.

Lately, Max spends most of his days away from home as a lineman, assigned to assist regions throughout the country that have been hit by natural disasters. His parents say he keeps most of his thoughts to himself.

And now the Anderson home is filled with photographs and memories. A hallway-full of class photos portray Kelsey from kindergarten through high school--prettier and prettier still, her hair growing longer, her smile stretching wider (except for that one year when she had braces).

"When we open her bedroom door, I want you to take a big breath," said Sue. "I don't know what it is, but it still smells so fresh in there, so lovely, just like her."

Kelsey's bedroom appears as if she were expected to arrive at any moment: her clothes, jewelry, makeup all where they should be, walls filled with pictures and posters and a sign that reads, "I live in a house, but I'm at home in a saddle." Her shelves were stacked with triumphs: medals, ribbons and trophies for horseback riding, tap dancing, piano, but mostly soccer.

Once, Kelsey's junior-high soccer coach cautioned her team—comprised of both boys and girls because the school wasn't big enough for two separate squads—that they would need to "play more physical" against an all-boys team. "What do you mean, play more physical?" Kelsey asked her coach. But in short order, Kelsey "smacked into the boys and took the ball away," coach Ken Lame recalled, adding that Kelsey turned to him, with a big smile, and said, "I'm going to like this."

"She was the nicest, sweetest, most tender-hearted, toughest, meanest girl you ever saw on the soccer field," said Lame.

Lame's words were met with laughter and tears June 18, 2011, the day of Kelsey's memorial. Kelsey's jersey, No. 12, was officially retired, as many of her former teammates wore their soccer gear and played a pick-up game following the memorial.

"I think a lot of the kids are still trying to get over her loss. We hug when we see each other in town," said Sue. "One of her friends had the words 'Live in the Moment' tattooed on her arm, along with Kelsey's birthday, the day she died and Kelsey's initials."

Much of Orofino came out to remember Kelsey at the memorial service, but an especial pall was cast over the ceremony: Kelsey's body was still half a world away. Her body's absence would be one of many mysteries still unanswered since the day the Air Force told the Andersons that their daughter had died a violent death.

"Sue was up at our hunting camp that day [June 9, 2011]. She was cooking for a bunch of hunters that had just come in," said Chris.

The Andersons, semi-retired from a well-pump installation business, still run an outfitting operation on the North Fork of the Clearwater River for elk, deer, bear and cougar hunting seasons.

"I was working in the garden at home that day, and I saw a big black car, with government plates coming up the driveway with an escort from the Orofino police," said Chris. "A full colonel got out. He wouldn't even tell me that Kelsey had died face to face. He handed me a piece of paper and said, 'Read this.'"

The letter, delivered by USAF Lt. Col. Theodore Unzicker and signed by the USAF Maj. Gen. Alfred Stewart read, in part:

Dear Mr. And Mrs. Chris A. Anderson,

On behalf of the Chief of Staff, United States Air Force, I regret to inform you of the untimely death of your daughter, Airman First Class Kelsey S. Anderson. ... According to appearances and initial evidence as reported by Andersen Air Force Base officials, she died from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound. While further details are unavailable at this time, you will receive a letter from your daughter's commander, which will provide additional circumstances.

But that's not true. In fact, the Andersons have, time and again, tried to ask about the "additional circumstances" surrounding Kelsey's death. And two years later, their questions have mounted to the degree that they are suing to find the truth.

Hangar No. 1

"Kelsey's Hotmail and Facebook passwords were changed June 9, 2011, and her computer, cellphone and personal items were immediately taken for evidence," Sue wrote in her detailed notes to Spokane, Wash.-based attorney Matt Crotty, who is representing the Andersons in their attempt to read the investigation file on Kelsey's death.

The Andersons said that first of all, they were anxious to have their daughter's body back home, but were repeatedly told that Kelsey's remains would be kept in Guam for additional forensic examinations.