The Misappearance of Steven Kubacki

Part 5: To Teach Her a Lesson

If you’re just arriving, we suggest starting with Part 1, right here.

**CW: This story includes descriptions of graphic violence and trauma.

Steven Kubacki wasn’t the only Hope College student who went missing in the late 1970s. On January 31, 1979, just short of a year after Kubacki vanished during a cross-country skiing trip at the edge of Lake Michigan, Janet Chandler didn’t make it home from her job working the night shift at the Blue Mill Inn in Holland. 

Chandler, 22, was a classical music student at Hope College who, like Kubacki, lived off campus. She had an electric smile and a voice that is said to have brought an audience of enraptured neighbors to her window when she practiced singing at her parent’s home in Muskegon. She came from a deeply religious family, and remained “in the Word,” as her mother described it, right up until her disappearance. 

Just after 2 a.m. on January 31, a hotel guest called police to report a robbery underway at the Blue Mill Inn. On the phone, Robert Lynch said he’d heard from another guest that a man with a deep voice had held up the hotel and demanded money from Chandler, who was working at the front desk. When police arrived, Janet was gone; she’d left behind her coat and a lit cigarette smoldering in an ashtray. Strangely, her purse was later found at her apartment in Briarwood. Her abductor had taken $500 cash from the hotel.

In the parking lot, police saw two sets of footprints in the snow, leading from the hotel to a vehicle that had since driven away with Chandler. 

Lynch was among several dozen visiting guards from the Detroit-based Wackenhut security firm that had been hired by the Chemetron paint plant during a contentious union strike. The guards worked 12-hour-shifts ensuring the strikebreakers could safely enter and exit the plant through the picket line. The picketers and the Wackenhut strike detail, who had essentially taken over the Blue Mill Inn, did not get along. 

The search for Chandler was brief and ended badly. Less than a day after she disappeared, at around 1 a.m. on February 1, a snowplow operator found Chandler’s body—face-up, naked, and partially covered in snow—in a wooded area off Interstate 96 outside of South Haven. A medical examiner determined that she died of strangulation. There was indication of sexual assault, but in 1979, there was no way to connect outside DNA found on her body to an assailant. The clothes she was wearing have never been found. 

Janet Chandler’s story is a winding and dark one, best told in Shaun Assael’s 2007 Glamour magazine feature

As the story notes, Chandler’s case may have stayed forever cold if it were not for the work of a former Hope College professor and a group of students who made a documentary about her murder in 2003. “Who Killed Janet Chandler?” includes extended, sometimes probing interviews with Chandler’s parents, former professors, school administrators; along with a number of law enforcement officers who seem perplexed by their own ineptitude. One says Chandler was a victim of a serial killer; another thinks he knows who did it but didn’t have a case that would stick. Some of the interviews are rather focused on Chandler’s perceived social and academic failings. The former Hope College president urges Chandler’s parents towards forgiveness, before they knew who it was they might forgive. 

The documentary, which is available for digital purchase, brought renewed interest in the case, and prompted members of the Holland police force, with the help of the Michigan State Police, to revisit it.

MSP Detective David Van Lopik led the renewed investigation, and flew to Pennsylvania to interview Laurie Ann Swank, Chandler’s roommate and her manager at the Blue Mill Inn. By that time, the investigators had begun to develop a picture of Chandler’s relationships with the Wackenhut guards living at the hotel, who Swank admitted to police were a “wild” bunch. Perhaps in part because of something Swank had told him, Van Lopik became focused on Robert Lynch, who had made the initial 911 call about a purported holdup the morning Chandler was taken. 

Over the course of several months and dozens of difficult interviews, Lynch eventually admitted that the robbery-kidnap story was a lie. The truth was more sinister: Lynch had agreed to make the false 911 report as cover for his fellow Wackenhut guards who were organizing a “surprise party” for Janet. She was blindfolded as she was taken out of the hotel that morning. It’s been said she left willingly, believing she was headed to a celebration in her honor. It’s certain she was unaware of the horror that awaited her.

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As the story goes, Swank learned that Chandler had been fooling around with the head guard Arthur Paiva, who was the object of Swank’s attention. Jealous and betrayed, Swank let Paiva know that Chandler had been involved with other guards. His response, apparently without hesitation, was to orchestrate a gang rape that would “teach [Chandler] a lesson.”

What happened next, in Paiva’s guest house on the grounds of the Chemetron plant, is unspeakable and unfathomable in its violence, its spite, its duration. Chandler may have been held there for up to 17 hours, as she was repeatedly, mercilessly violated, with a belt around her neck. Swank admitted to cheering the rapists on, screaming “You bitch!” She wasn’t alone.

A final scribble in Chandler’s notebook was an incisive philosophical question about Biblical salvation, a question she had discussed with her mother during one of their last phone conversations. She had been struggling with notions of faith and judgment in the months leading up to her torture and death. It’s excruciating to imagine what must have been going through her mind as the belt tightened, over and over again. 

Lynch had spent the decades before his confession drinking himself to the edge of oblivion; he could never move on from what he had done. Both he and Swank took a plea deal; Lynch admitted to disposing of Chandler’s body.

In court, Lynch said that he couldn’t tell fiction from reality. 

Swank testified at the trial for the four Wackenhut guards charged in Chandler’s murder; all were convicted, but only Paiva, considered the ringleader, was found guilty of murder in the first degree. He died in prison in 2013, having maintained until his death that he had no involvement, that this sinister ‘surprise party’ didn’t happen at his place or on his watch. 

Swank has since been paroled, and appears to work for a faith-based nonprofit that provides food, housing, and legal services to those in need. She did not respond to a request for comment.

In a press conference following the convictions, Ottawa County Prosecuting Attorney Ronald Frantz said he believed there may have been several more people present at the party where the gang rape and murder took place, but that his office was unlikely to pursue further prosecutions, as additional testimony ran the risk of challenging the convictions. 

“We believe that that the key people have in fact been convicted,” Frantz said.

There has never been an explanation for why no one at the party intervened on Chandler’s behalf when it must have been obvious that her life was in grave danger. Why did anyone believe that she deserved to die for engaging in the same kind of behavior that others were?  And why would Chandler just leave the hotel in the middle of her shift if not by force or threat?

The brutal killing seems to have been driven by exceptionally low stakes. The guards were from out of town and would leave Holland as soon as the strike was over; the women were young students working to make some extra money while they finished their degrees. From start to finish, it’s hard to make sense of why Chandler was killed and why it took so long for police to connect her murder to the guards living at the Blue Mill Inn; some who were interviewed and polygraphed. Did police ever search Paiva’s guest house? Did they even know about it? 

The director of “Who Killed Janet Chandler?,” who I may have inadvertently offended by characterizing the documentary as a student film, declined to participate in this project. He said I had no story if I didn’t have an interview with Kubacki himself, and also that I was a “holy fool” for pursuing Kubacki’s story independently, without a paid contract from a publication. I had no argument. 

He also said that anyone who attempts to go cross-country skiing in the area where Kubacki vanished in February 1978 is “asking for death.” 

Bob Namar, a 1978 graduate of Hope College who didn’t know Kubacki personally but has keen recollections of rumors about his disappearance, says he heard that was exactly what Kubacki was doing.

“At some point he had either been dared or asserted that he could disappear and have nobody know where he was,” Namar said, referring to purported discussions among Kubacki’s crew of fellow Dungeons and Dragons enthusiasts.

“He wanted to be declared officially dead.”

Namar said he heard that Kubacki had retraced his footsteps in the snow to make it appear as though the prints went in only one direction; out towards the icy like.

Kubacki was never declared dead, but Tom Renner, who was a public relations officer at the time, said he and other administrators feared he had drowned under the ice. Kubacki was awarded a Bachelor’s degree in absentia at the 1978 commencement, just under a year after he re-appeared in Massachusetts. Chandler was given no such honor, perhaps because she was more credit hours shy of her degree than Kubacki was at the time of his disappearance.

In contrast to many other U.S. college campuses in the 1970s, Hope College was a place where overprotective parents could send their children with the expectation they might continue to remain shielded from the complicated realities of the outside world. The student population, which hovered around 2,300 in 1979, was overwhelmingly conservative, white, Christian. Acts of civil disobedience were limited to sneaking in bottles of beer or liquor to the dry campus, making sure to avoid some of the more devout students who might snitch.

“At the height of the Vietnam War, the student protest was a candlelight ceremony in the open park,” Namar says. “That was about as radical as it got.”

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No one I’ve reached from Hope College has been eager to discuss Chandler’s murder; some said they had never heard about it. Still, at the time, it wasn’t entirely swept under the rug. An article in The Anchor, the school newspaper, detailed the early stages of the investigation, its tone vaguely critical of police. The school held a memorial service for Chandler. And female students interviewed by local media indicated they were nervous about the possibility of a killer on the loose.

A reporter asked Renner if the school planned to tighten security on campus to address the students’ fears. The answer was no. 

“It didn’t happen on campus,” Renner said at the time. “It happened three miles away.”