CRIME WATCH WYOMING: Father Seeks Answers in Son’s Mysterious Death, Part 1

Lusk police determined to solve six-year-old cold case and only unsolved death

Special to the Wyoming Truth

LUSK, Wyo.—The 83-year-old father of a man whose body was found on a hilltop is seeking answers in the unsolved death of his son, as local police take a second look at the open case.

Kenneth “Ken” Van Buskirk went missing on July 28, 2014. According to family members who spoke to Ken the evening he disappeared, the 54-year-old Navy veteran reportedly sounded impaired and spoke of two men in his house who were trying to kill him.

Ken’s remains were discovered nearly 18 months later—on Feb. 21, 2016—near a water tank in downtown Lusk, an area that had previously been searched multiple times in daylight with the help of cadaver dogs. Police were notified of the remains after someone called to report what looked like a light on the top of the hill. When police went to investigate, they met two witnesses who had discovered Ken’s body.

Ken’s father, Ernie Van Buskirk, a retired Converse County sheriff deputy, is seeking answers and justice in his youngest son’s death. 

“Not knowing what happened to him weighs heavily on me,” said Ernie, who has heart problems and recently underwent an aortic valve replacement. “I’m just looking for closure before I die.” 

Ken Van Buskirk’s remains were discovered on Feb. 21, 2016, near a water tank in downtown Lusk. The area had previously been searched multiple times by law enforcement and cadaver dogs after he went missing 18 months earlier. (Wyoming Truth photo by Jennifer Kocher)

To date, Ken’s case remains unsolved with two potential theories cited in the police report the Lusk Police Department shared with the Wyoming Truth. The first is that Ken, who was suffering from lung cancer and a long-term opioid addiction, committed suicide given that, in the past, he had expressed suicidal ideations both to family and friends. 

The other possible cause is that he was murdered based on evidence police gathered in the aftermath of Ken’s disappearance.

At the heart of the mystery is what happened to Ken in between the time he was last seen in his home in late July and when his body was discovered in a place that had been searched by multiple agencies over a three-day period.

The current Lusk police chief, Bo Krein, voiced his resolve to finally solve this mystery. The case predates his employment with the department, and none of the former investigators is still on staff. Krein has no firsthand knowledge of the case and said he doesn’t want to second guess the work of former investigators. But he sees several clues that he personally would like to pursue.

“It’s the only unsolved homicide to date [in Lusk], and it bothers all of us,” Krein said.

“He deserves justice”

Even eight years after losing his son, Ernie still can’t get a decent night’s sleep. His mind races, as he wonders what happened to Ken.

To Ernie, Ken was more than just a drug addict; he was a man who deserves justice. He was a father and beloved uncle. A U.S. Navy veteran and former oil field worker, Ken injured his back on the job in his late 20s, which limited him to light labor for the rest of his life. Ultimately, it led to his drug addiction to curb the pain in his back, feet, shoulders and lungs.

Right now, all Ernie has is Ken’s name etched into the vault in the veteran’s cemetery in Evansville that contains what was left of Ken’s remains.

The two were close, Ernie said, and they took frequent road trips to Ken’s distant doctor’s appointments for his lung cancer and other ailments.

Once, the two were traveling through the Bighorn Mountains in a winter storm when they came across tire tracks in the snow indicating a vehicle had run off the road. Ernie stopped the car, and Ken bailed out and ran down the embankment where he found a car with two elderly people cold and bundled together. 

“He got them out of their car and brought them to mine where they could get warm,” Ernie said. “The lady was in tears and held on to Ken, calling him their angel sent by God. He was always helping people whenever he could.”

Those memories are all Ernie has left of his son.

“There are other stories I could talk about, but right now my eyes are wet and blurred, making it hard to say anything else right now,” he told the Wyoming Truth from his home in Torrington. “I loved my son with all that is in me.”

Ernie recalled the day in July 2014 when he repeatedly called his son but got no answer, despite seeing him just a few days earlier.

Pictured above is Ken Van Buskirk, then 39, with his grandmother Agnes (Van Buskirk) Wimmer in 1999.

“My first thoughts when I could not get a hold of Ken was he is either out and about or harm had come to him,” he said.

During what would be their last conversation, Ken complained to Ernie about two men he called “Tim” and “Jeff” who, he said, were trying to kill him.

“At the time, I first thought that he was high and being paranoid,” Ernie said.

When Ken didn’t answer, Ernie drove to Lusk from Torrington, where he met with former Lusk Police Chief Sean Dreesen at Ken’s rented home in downtown Lusk.  

“Dreesen came on as Ken’s friend and spoke well of him,” Ernie said, “[but] Ken had told me previously that he and Dreesen did not get along with each other.”   

Dreesen, however, told Ernie that he and Ken used to get together to talk about “religion and the Bible,” Ernie said.

Ernie was skeptical, and for that reason, called the sheriff’s office in Niobrara County – of which Lusk is the town seat – to ask if the agency could intervene given the potential conflict of interest in light of Ken’s comments. Ernie said that they seem concerned, but said it was the police department’s case and they could not interfere.

In January 2015, Dreesen called in the Wyoming Department of Criminal Investigation (DCI) to assist with Ken’s missing person investigation. According to the case history DCI shared with the Wyoming Truth, the agency provided forensic support to decipher Ken’s cell phone records, as well as search efforts and assistance processing evidence at the crime scene where his body was found. All evidence was returned to Lusk police in March 2020.  

Dreesen left the Lusk police department shortly after Ken’s body was found. He did not respond to the Wyoming Truth’s request for comment over social media.  

Krein sympathizes with Ernie and agreed that he deserves to know what happened to his son. He is eager to re-examine some of the clues in Ken’s case, including the mysterious light on the hill that February night in 2016, and re-interview potential suspects.

The six-person department – including one administrative assistant – that serves the town of less than 1,600 residents is bound by limited resources, Krein noted. Just under seven years later, Ken’s case is a frequent topic of conversation among the officers.

Holes in the case

After reviewing documents in the case, Ernie, a retired sheriff’s deputy who worked in Glenrock for nine years, also sees several red flags in the investigation. Along with the way his son’s remains were discovered, he found glaring areas of concern in the autopsy that cited the cause of death as “undetermined.”

Of note are references to the cloth bracelets found around his wrists. Ken never wore bracelets, and to Ernie, this sounds like his son’s wrists had been taped and bound together. Nowhere in the case file does it note that this abnormality was ever investigated. Also of note to Ernie is the fact that Ken’s baseball cap was found in the left rear pocket of his blue jeans.

“He [Ken] was right-handed,” Ernie said. “This bothers me, as I had never known him to put his cap in his back pocket. He wore it backwards on his head, so that makes me wonder if it was stuffed in that pocket.”

Full-body X-rays of Ken’s body also revealed possible rib fractures on the right side of his chest, making Ernie wonder if “someone put the boots to him.” A folding knife with a wood and brass handle was located underneath Ken’s body; a plastic yellow “axe” handle was found next to his body.

Ernie wonders if someone hit him with the handle, causing the possible fractures in his ribs.

When Ernie met with his son three days before his disappearance, he hadn’t complained about any rib pain. And though Ken had told his dad in the past that he “should kill himself and end all his problems,” Ernie doesn’t believe that Ken took his own life.

Instead, he pointed to the mysterious phone call he received the night before Ken disappeared in which he told his dad that he could hear two men in his house plotting to kill him.

Dr. P.W. Schilke at Regional West Medical Center in Scottsbluff, Neb. declared both the cause and manner of death as undetermined. A note in the autopsy report suggests that Ken’s body was forwarded for a forensic anthropology examination.

It’s unclear whether that examination happened and what the results were. Schilke did not return phone calls from the Wyoming Truth. Krein said also plans to contact him.

Ernie also has no idea if this examination was actually done.

Check back tomorrow for part two.

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