CRIME WATCH WYOMING: Lusk Police Identify Person of Interest in Mysterious Death of Veteran

Cause of death is still inconclusive as police ramp up investigation

By Jennifer Kocher

Special to the Wyoming Truth


LUSK, Wyo.–Lusk Police Department has zeroed in on an unnamed person of interest in the mysterious death of a 54-year-old Navy veteran. 

Picture above is Ken Van Buskirk, then 39, with his grandmother Agnes (Van Buskirk) Wimmer in 1999. (Courtesy photo from Ernie Van Buskirk)

Ken Van Buskirk disappeared from his home in Lusk in July 2014, and his body was found nearly 18 months later on a hilltop near a water tank downtown.

To date, investigators are still trying to determine whether Van Buskirk took his own life or whether he’s a victim of homicide, according to Lusk Police Chief Bo Krein.

Evidence thus far has proven inconclusive. But a handful of new tips about what might have happened to Van Buskirk were elicited following a story in the Wyoming Truth last November. These new tips reignited police efforts to conduct more interviews, leading to a potential person of interest.

Krein declined to identify the individual or provide additional details, only to say it’s an active investigation and the pool of potential suspects is widening.

“We’re making slow progress,” Krein said. “But we’re definitely untangling the web.”

Mysterious circumstances  

Van Buskirk’s body was discovered on Feb. 21, 2016, after two local men called police to report a mysterious bright light shining on a hill downtown called “tank hill,” according to police records shared with the Wyoming Truth. While checking out the source of the light, the men found Van Buskirk’s body.

At the heart of the mystery is the fact that Van Buskirk’s body was found in an area that had been previously been searched by law enforcement and cadaver dogs. The fact that the body was missed on the first search indicates to some – including Van Buskirk’s father, Ernie Van Buskirk – that it may have been moved there after the fact.

The detail of the light on the hill has always bothered Ernie, 84, who finds it very suspicious. A retired Converse County sheriff deputy, Ernie pointed out many holes in the original investigation, including the light on the hill. 

Lusk Police Chief Bo Krein has ramped up his department’s efforts to solve the mysterious death of Ken Van Buskirk. (Wyoming Truth photo by Jennifer Kocher)

The official cause of Van Buskirk’s death was found to be undetermined by Dr. P.W. Schilke at Regional West Medical Center in Scottsbluff, Neb., with nothing to suggest that he was either murdered or had taken his own life.

Van Buskirk, a Navy veteran, was suffering from lung cancer and a long-term opioid addiction at the time of his death. He had previously indicated suicidal ideations to friends and family members, according to police records. 

On the evening he disappeared, Van Buskirk told his father that two men — individuals he referred to as “Tim” and “Jeff” — were at his house and were trying to kill him.

“I first thought that he was high and being paranoid,” Ernie said in an earlier interview with the Wyoming Truth. However, when Van Buskirk didn’t answer his phone the next day, Ernie drove from Torrington to Lusk to meet with former police chief Sean Dreesen at Ken’s home before reporting him missing.

Ernie, for one, does not believe that his son would have taken his own life or that he would have had the physical strength to walk up the hill on his own.

Also of interest to Ernie are elements in his son’s autopsy:  the reference to cloth bracelets found on Van Buskirk’s wrists and the baseball cap discovered in the left rear pocket of his blue jeans. Van Buskirk never wore bracelets, suggesting to Ernie that his son’s wrists may have been taped and bound together. Van Buskirk was right-handed, Ernie noted, and was never known to put a cap in his pocket.

A full body X-ray of Van Buskirk’s remains also revealed possible rib fractures, which suggest to his father that he may have been kicked or beaten up. 

Holes in the case

Ken Van Buskirk’s body was found on a hill in downtown Lusk in February 2016 after being reported missing by his family nearly 18 months earlier. (Courtesy photo from We Help the Missing)

Krein is equally puzzled by both the report of the light on the hill and other lingering questions about why Van Buskirk’s body would have been missed during the first search.

Krein had no knowledge of the case when he joined the department in 2018. It’s challenging, he said, to piece together an eight-year-old crime without conclusive evidence or a manner of death. This includes photos of the crime scene conducted by the Wyoming Department of Criminal Investigation, which Krein has yet to locate. 

New information and additional interviews, however, are helping to shed some light on what might have happened.

A recent forensic analysis conducted by the Human Identification Lab at Metropolitan State University in Denver, indicated that Van Buskirk’s body had been out in the elements for an extended time. Other details, such as animal bites on his bones, also support that conclusion, which as Krein noted, doesn’t mean the body couldn’t have been moved after the fact.

Apart from exposure, the report – just like the autopsy – did not indicate how Van Buskirk might have died. However, Krein said he did not see anything in the report to suggest Van Buskirk had been beaten up. There’s also nothing to indicate Van Buskirk had overdosed or been murdered in some other fashion.

“We don’t have a toxicology analysis or anything that shows he might have been strangled or suffocated,” Krein said. “So, it’s helpful in one sense, but definitely doesn’t tell the whole story.”

Krein said his six-person department will continue to investigate the case, as they zero in one a person of interest and conduct more interviews. 

“We still have people to talk to,” Krein said, “but we’re starting to get more answers.”

Anyone with information is asked to contact the Lusk Police Department at (307) 344-4055.

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