March 23, 1998 12:00 PM

THE PHONE RINGS IN STEVEN BECHTEL’S KITCHEN, AND he tenses visibly. “Recovery center, this is Steve,” he answers, face taut with expectation. Moments later, though, he looks deflated. “It’s another clairvoyant who thinks he can help find Amy,” Bechtel, 27, explains after saying a polite “thank you” and hanging up. “He says Amy’s dad knows the captors, and they abducted her because of a business deal gone sour. Sounds like this guy has watched too many movies.”

Bechtel’s own life lately has been unreeling like some Hollywood whodunit. Last July 24 his then 24-year-old wife, Amy, a former college track star with dreams of competing at the 2000 Summer Olympics, went for a run in the rugged Shoshone National Forest a half hour from their home in Lander, Wyo.—and vanished into the thin mountain air. The only clue: her white Toyota station wagon parked off a dirt road. Eight months later there have been no breaks in the case, but Bechtel refuses to refer to Amy in the past tense. “I keep expecting her to walk through the door,” he says. “I just have to hold out hope she’s alive and coming back.”

To that end, Bechtel, an accomplished rock climber who works in a mountain-gear store, has created a toll-free hot line and a Web site and sent some 270,000 Missing posters to truck stops and post offices in more than 40 states—a recovery effort that has yielded dozens of tips but no solid leads. Authorities, however, believe Bechtel knows more about the case than he is conveying. “I’m not saying that Steve is responsible for Amy’s disappearance, but I just can’t say that he isn’t,” says Dave King, an investigator for the Fremont County Sheriff’s Department and the man in charge of a joint probe with the FBI that has pegged Bechtel as its main suspect. “There are simply too many unanswered questions on his part.”

One key issue is Bechtel’s whereabouts on July 24. He says he was on a rock-climbing trip with a friend, Sam Lightner, near Dubois, 70 miles from Lander. But after backing up Bechtel’s story, Lightner left for his second home in Thailand, where he spends winters rock climbing, and has not yet returned to help address certain “discrepancies in the time line,” says King. Suspicions have also been raised by Bechtel’s journals, which contain page after page “about death, even some violence,” claims King, and by Steve’s refusal to submit to a polygraph test. “It really bothers me that Steve won’t take it,” says Amy’s father, Duane Wroe, 66, a retired city manager. “Why won’t he just put everybody’s mind to rest?” Bechtel insists the test, which his lawyer has advised him not to take, is unreliable. “I have nothing to hide,” he says, “and I don’t care what people think about me. The only thing that matters is finding Amy.”

Friends who knew the couple have rallied around Steve. “This sounds like a Richard Jewel-type botch,” says Ed Sherline, a University of Wyoming philosophy professor and Bechtel’s sometime rock-climbing partner. “I never saw a fight of any kind,” says former neighbor Todd Skinner. “They were the sweetest couple I ever ran across.”

Drawn together by their passion for the outdoors, Steve and Amy were exercise physiology majors at the University of Wyoming when they met in 1991. “She was as into running as I was into climbing,” says Steve, the son of Tom Bechtel, an architect, and Linda, who runs a preschool in Casper, Wyo. “Steve’s an easygoing guy where what you see is what you get,” says Bobby Model, a close college pal. “Climbing was pretty much the only outside activity he was into.”

Then Bechtel found someone who “wasn’t bothered when I’d take off climbing”—Amy Wroe, raised in Douglas, Wyo., by Duane and his wife, JoAnne, a teacher. Amy had been an average high school athlete but blossomed into an ail-American cross-country runner in college. And like Steve, she “valued an informal life as opposed to the 9-to-5 rat race,” says Sherline. The couple lived together for three years before announcing their engagement in 1995—at a party capped by a huge food fight. “It was hilarious,” says Amy’s sister Casey Lee, 31. “I remember helping her scrape mashed potatoes off the ceiling.”

The couple settled into a rented cottage in Lander, where Steve took a job as assistant manager of a store that sold climbing equipment. They were married in June 1996. According to Amy’s brother Nels Wroe, 29, the move to Lander put a strain on their relationship. “She did not want to go,” he claims. “It seems that right from the start, Steve was very controlling.” Bechtel denies this, and by some measures, Amy appeared to adapt well to Lander, working as a waitress and teaching a children’s weight-lifting class while studying to be a personal trainer. Days before her fateful run, the couple closed on their first home, a $90,000 ranch. “They seemed really happy,” says her sister Jenny Newton, 27. “I’d get e-mails from Amy that she was excited about her life with Steve.”

Then everything changed. Thursday, July 24, began unremarkably, says Bechtel, with the couple sharing breakfast in their sunny kitchen. At 9:30 a.m., Steve says he left to go rock climbing; Amy went to the Wind River Fitness Center to teach her kids’ class. “She was in a good mood that morning,” says Dudley Irvine, the center’s owner. “It was business as usual.”

At 2:30 p.m., Amy was spotted at a Lander photo shop—her last confirmed sighting. Investigators believe she then drove into the Shoshone National Forest to check out the course of a 10K race her gym was planning to sponsor. Around 5 p.m., Wendy and Jim Gibson, owners of Lander’s Pronghorn Lodge, were driving in the forest when they saw a blonde woman running along Loop Road. “Jim said, ‘Gee, she’s going fast,’ ” says Wendy Gibson. ” ‘Somebody must be chasing her.’ ”

In contrast, no one seems to have seen Bechtel and his friend Lightner or anyone who resembled them in Dubois that afternoon. Bechtel claims they stopped in a store where Lightner bought a hammer, and records show that one was purchased with cash that day, but the owner does not recall either man. Local thunderstorms forced the pair to cut short their climb, and phone records show that Bechtel was home by 4:43 p.m. Assuming that Amy was running, he says, he went to the home of his next-door neighbors, where he had dinner and watched for Amy’s car.

Around 9 p.m., Bechtel called Amy’s parents and a hospital, then reported her missing at 10:45. Search parties canvassed spots Amy was likely to have gone running. At 1 a.m., her car was located, and over the next week hundreds of people, six dogs and four helicopters assisted in the hunt. Still, not a single important clue was discovered. “If there had been a dead field mouse on the mountain,” says Duane Wore, “one of those searchers would have found it.”

Over the next few days, Bechtel says he gave police four formal interviews, though King says there was only one. On Aug. 2 a woman whose identity has not been made public called police to say that at around 5 p.m. on July 24, she saw Bechtel’s light-blue pickup truck speeding through a campground near Loop Road—with a blonde woman inside. Three days later, FBI agents called Bechtel back in and told him they believed he was somehow involved in Amy’s disappearance. “I said, ‘You guys have got to be kidding,’ ” recalls Bechtel. “If they had evidence, it was definitely fabricated.”

At that point, Bechtel hired Wyoming lawyer Kent Spence, son of famed attorney Gerry, and refused to take a polygraph. “They’re useless,” says Spence, who claims the FBI is focusing on Steve because “they have a lot of public pressure to find Amy.” Authorities obtained a search warrant and confiscated Bechtel’s journals, which, according to investigator King, suggest the couple’s marriage “was not all it was cracked up to be.” So far, Amy’s parents and two sisters have not voiced suspicions that Steve was involved in Amy’s disappearance, but her brother Nels has, saying Bechtel’s journals “contain very strong controlling emotions toward my sister.” Bechtel insists that much of his writing, such as songs and poems about death and power, is “fictional.”

The investigation remains active but quiet, with King waiting for Lightner to return sometime this spring and for Bechtel finally to take a polygraph. The cloud of suspicion over Bechtel is “a tragedy upon a tragedy,” says his father, Tom. “But he keeps looking for Amy.” Bechtel sends out 20 Missing posters every day and says he also spends a lot of time pondering scenarios where Amy is alive. He’s sure she didn’t just run away—she didn’t take any clothes—but maybe she has amnesia, he muses, or was abducted. “If she’s being held, she’ll never get over it,” he says. “But I’m willing to spend my whole life with her, trying to get things back to the way they were.”


CATHY FREE in Lander

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