Seward Police Department Lt. Doreen Valadez was just doing what came natural to her – organizing the Evidence Room and making herself familiar with its contents. It was then that Valadez discovered sealed vials that appeared to be empty, but in fact contained evidence that would prove to be key in solving a murder mystery that has haunted Seward for over 25 years.
The Cold Case was dramatic enough to attract the attention of BriteSpark Films, a London-based company that produces the show Did He Do It? for the Discovery Channel. The fact that Jimmy Eackert was recently convicted for stabbing Toni Lister to death with a Phillips screwdriver before deposing her body near the dump – based on the DNA evidence in those glass vials that Valadez uncovered, makes for compelling television drama.
Director Tom Pollock expressed frustration that he wasn’t able to re-create that drama in Seward. The London office looked at the different film tax credits available, and contracted to shoot those scenes in Nova Scotia, Canada. Once in Seward, Pollock and his Director of Photography Neve Cunningham were impressed with how film-friendly the people of Seward were, and how dramatic the location was.
“Mountains, mountains, mountains,” expressed Pollock. “I think we have these incredibly dramatic mountains with the clouds rolling over them in every shot.” The two-man crew filmed what is referred to as “establishing shots” in Seward over the June 14th weekend. These sections of b-roll will run during the episode with a voice over them describing what 1982 Seward was like.
Pollock filmed street scenes of Fourth Avenue in the evening, beauty shots of Seward from across the bay, and houses that would have been standing at the time and didn’t appear to have exterior remodels that would have made them look newer. Of course, Lt. Doreen Valadez was featured as a dramatized investigating officer doing a house-to-house search for the missing woman.
Prior to coming to Seward, Pollock had flown around the country interviewing people that were involved in the case. In Anchorage Pollock reviewed court records and the evidence used at trial.
A visit with former Chief of Police Louie Bencardino helped the filmmakers get a sense of what the context of the murder of this young woman was in relation to the gristly murders of Robert Hanson – who was ruled out as a suspect in the Lister murder even though he was killing women in Seward during the same time period.
Discussions with current Chief Tom Clemens cleared up lingering questions that London researchers, unfamiliar with Alaskan conditions, had proposed as plot points in the program.
Pollock and Cunningham are now back in London, reviewing footage and creating what will be titled Episode 6: Jimmy Eackert of Discovery Channel’s Did He Do It? program. Their last day of shooting in Alaska, a trip to Kenai to film the outside of the courthouse and a visit to the Kasilof cemetery to visit the grave of Toni Lister offered the filmmakers a glimpse of context they weren’t expecting.
Toni Lister’s final resting place sticks out in the quiet hills covered in mossy woodland flowers and slabs of granite dedicated to a startling number of locals who served in the military with honors.
Decades after her death, a well maintained cedar fence protects her grave. Angel statuary rest guarding her. Smooth stones cluster together words of power. The community of Kasilof still expresses their love and concern for this Alaskan violently taken young in life.
Many thanks to Lt. Doreen Valadez for allowing justice to be put to rest.