The Unhappy Wife
Some married couples thrive on discord. These are the people we avoid joining for dinner and the ones in whose presence we squirm as they argue, yell, and threaten. We wonder why they got married, and if they divorce, we’re certain no one else would want either one of them. Still, some couples not only manage to survive their contentious relationships but enjoy sparring with their partners. Marriage is hard, but most of us try, at least for a while, to make a relationship work, and if it doesn’t work, we leave and go our separate ways. Jane and Scott Coville constantly fought, even before they moved to Alaska and married, but Jane did not divorce Scott; there was no need to sever ties with him because Scott conveniently disappeared. Did he grow disillusioned with Jane, marriage, and life in Alaska? Did Scott take off on his own for an adventure somewhere else, a place far away from his current responsibilities, or did something much more sinister happen to Scott Coville?
Scott Coville and Jane Limm met while they were both students at La Sierra College in Riverside, California. Scott majored in biology, and Jane sought a degree in physical therapy. The two started as friends, but over time, they developed a romantic relationship. After his junior year, Scott dropped out of college and moved to Sitka, Alaska, where he found a job as a commercial fisherman and then worked in a cannery and at a pulp mill. Jane remained in Riverside and completed her physical therapy degree, but Scott and Jane stayed in contact. When Jane graduated from college, Scott traveled to Riverside for the ceremony. After Jane’s graduation, Scott asked her to marry him, and she agreed.
Sitka, Alaska, is unlike any other town in the U.S. For a young woman from sunny, populated California, the change in locale must have jarred Jane. Sitka comprises part of the Alaska Panhandle and sits on the west side of Baranof Island and the south half of Chichagof Island in the Alexander Archipelago in southeastern Alaska. The town spans a land area of 2,870.3 square miles (7,434 square kilometers) and has a total area (including water) of 4,811.4 square miles (12,461 square kilometers), making it the largest city in landmass in the U.S. To give you a better idea of its size, the town of Sitka stretches across an area over four times larger than the state of Rhode Island. Despite its vast land size, though, less than 9,000 people live in Sitka.
The remote town of Sitka can only be accessed by water or air. Mountains carved by glaciers surround the village, and it sits in the Tongass National Forest, the largest temperate rain forest in the world. Sitka has a wet, maritime climate, but warm ocean currents moderate its temperature. The average yearly rainfall in Sitka measures 86 inches (2,200 mm), and the average snowfall reaches 39 inches (990 mm). The temperature averages around 62°F ( 17°C)in the summer and rarely drops below 30°F (-1° C) in the winter.
The frequent rainfall and dark days in a town shaded by the forest and the surrounding mountains probably weighed on both Scott and Jane and possibly fueled their arguments and gloomy moods.
Problems in the Marriage
Jane joined Scott in beautiful but remote Sitka, and she found a job as a physical therapist. They married in a civil ceremony in Alaska in October 1987 and then had a formal church wedding in California in February 1988.
Scott and Jane lived in a mobile home on the edge of Sitka, and Scott continued to work at odd jobs. Scott’s boss at the pulp mill fired Scott when he caught him smoking marijuana on the job, and Scott seemed to flounder, unsure what he wanted to do with his life.
The couple fought frequently, and Scott once told his mother their relationship was like “fire and ice.” In March 1988, Scott and Jane phoned Scott’s parents and said they’d had a big fight and needed relationship advice. Jane admitted she thought marriage would be fun, but it seemed marriage was hard. Jane said she thought she would be “Happy, happy, happy.” Scott’s mother, Rita, later said she did not know what triggered the argument between Scott and Jane, but Rita and her husband counseled the young couple. They told them marriage is a compromise, and it requires constant effort to make it work. They said marriage is both good and bad. Once they ended the call, the elder Covilles worried about the young couple. Scott would soon be 26, and Jane was only 23. Would their marriage last?
Rita did not speak with Scott or Jane for a few weeks, but on April 12, she called her son to wish him a happy birthday. The phone at Scott and Jane’s trailer repeatedly rang with no answer. Rita wasn’t concerned with her inability to reach Scott, but she still felt anxious about Scott and Jane’s marriage.
Rita continued to try to reach Scott over the next few weeks, but no one answered the phone, and a check Rita sent Scott for his birthday remained uncashed. On April 14, Scott was scheduled to appear before a judge in Sitka for a speeding ticket, but he did not show. Finally, in early May, Rita called Scott and Jane’s number and heard a recording announcing the number had been disconnected and was no longer in service. Now, Rita began to worry. Where were Scott and Jane?
Rita called one of her son’s friends in Alaska, and the friend told her he had not seen Scott since early April. The friend said Scott did not mention any plans to leave Alaska. While concerned, Rita and her husband knew Scott sometimes took off on his own, and if he and Jane were having marital problems, perhaps he went somewhere to think about his marriage and his life.
On Mother’s Day, Rita received a card from Scott and Jane. The card was signed from both of them, but the signatures were in Jane’s handwriting, and the envelope bore the postmark of San Bernardino, California. Rita knew Jane had family in San Bernardino, so perhaps she and Scott were visiting her relatives. Would Scott travel to California, though, without letting his parents know he was just hours from their home?
Where was Scott?
By May 30, when Scott’s parents still could not reach him, they finally called the police in Sitka. The Covilles admitted to the authorities that their son might have left on his own, but they said they could not locate him, and they were worried about him. Sitka police began to search half-heartedly for Scott. Scott was an adult and had a habit of wandering off without telling anyone. The authorities believed he would show up at any moment with a plausible explanation for where he had been.
On June 8, 1988, law enforcement officials placed an article in the Sitka Daily Sentinel with Scott’s photo. The piece stated that no one had seen Scott Coville since April 12, 1988, and it asked for anyone with information about Scott’s whereabouts to come forward. No one responded to the plea for information.
Police then went to the trailer where Scott and Jane had lived. Jane’s possessions were gone, but Scott’s things were still there. The inside of the mobile home looked tidy, and authorities found no clues there to Scott’s whereabouts. Detectives tried to contact Jane in San Bernardino, but they couldn’t find her.
The police then located Scott’s truck at the Sitka airport, but there was no evidence Scott bought a plane ticket and left Sitka. Scott disappeared in 1988, though, when a passenger could more easily fly under an assumed name. Perhaps Scott used a false name, jumped on a plane, and flew somewhere where no one could find him. As an adult, Scott had the right to disappear, and law enforcement officials felt little obligation to try to find him.
In the summer of 1988, Scott’s parents received a rambling, three-page letter from Jane. She said she came home to their trailer in Sitka one day and found Scott and his truck gone, and she believed he’d given up on their marriage and left. She said she had no idea what happened to him. She blamed him for the problems in their marriage. She said he began acting strangely and smoking too much pot, and she told them the pulp mill manager fired him for smoking marijuana on the job. She claimed he said he did not want to be married to her any longer.
Jane gave Scott’s parents her new phone number and told them to call her if they had any questions, but Rita said she did not want to call Jane because she was suspicious of her and felt Jane had something to do with Scott’s disappearance. Rita said, “I was afraid if I talked to her, I might say something a Christian shouldn’t say.”
A few months later, Jane called Scott’s parents at their home in San Diego and said she planned to attend a party and thought she’d left a cocktail dress at their home. She asked if it would be okay for a friend to stop by and pick up the dress. Scott’s father told Jane she was welcome to come to their house to get the dress, but they would not allow a stranger to come into their home to search for it. Jane nor anyone else came to look for the dress, and the Covilles never heard from Jane again.
In a notice in the June 21, 1989, Daily Sitka Sentinel, Jane announced she was suing Scott for divorce. Since Scott could not be found for the court to serve him divorce papers, Jane was required to file the notice in the newspaper. Scott never responded.
The case of Scott Coville’s disappearance went cold, and ten years later, Scott’s parents decided they needed to move on with their lives. They believed Scott was dead because he would have contacted them by now if he were still alive. In 1994, the Covilles had Scott declared dead. Scott’s father died in 2004, never knowing what happened to his son.
Meanwhile, Jane moved to Southern California, where she worked as a physical therapist, and she became heavily involved in her Seventh Day Adventist church. She gave as much money as she could to the church and devoted time to missionary work in Nepal and China.
In 2000, Jane met Chris Reth, a corporate jet pilot, and the two married and moved to Maple Park, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. Jane took a job working for the Geneva school district and was well-liked by neighbors and fellow workers. Her marriage to Chris Reth did not last, though, and the pair divorced in 2005. After their divorce, Chris Reth moved back to California, and Jane stayed in Illinois.
In 2007, Chris Reth applied to have his marriage to Jane annulled by the Roman Catholic Church. The church takes marriage annulment very seriously, and they hired an investigator to run a background check on both Chris and Jane. The man who investigated Chris and Jane’s marriage happened to be a former LAPD homicide detective, and Chris told him that Jane confessed to him she had murdered her first husband, Scott. The investigator was not bound by confidentiality, so he immediately called the Sitka police department and asked if they had any record of a missing person by the name of Scott Coville.
Alaska’s Cold Case Unit took charge of the case and convinced Chris Reth to phone his wife while authorities recorded the call and to ask her about Scott’s murder. Chris agreed and phoned Jane, and she confessed that she had murdered Scott. Cold-case detectives were thrilled when they heard Jane incriminate herself, but they knew Jane’s recorded confession would not be enough to convict her. They had no physical evidence tying Jane to the murder of Scott Coville, and they did not even have Scott’s body to prove he had been murdered.
Alaska State Troopers flew to Illinois to talk to Jane. At first, she denied knowing anything about Scott’s disappearance, but when troopers played the recording of her conversation with Chris Reth, Jane finally admitted to killing Scott Coville. She said she murdered him because he was abusive and said he wanted a divorce.
Jane told detectives that on Scott’s 26th birthday on April 12, 1988, she and Scott were talking in bed, and he said he was tired of being married to her and wanted a divorce. Jane waited for Scott to fall asleep and then took the .357 Magnum they kept in the trailer and shot him in the neck. Since Jane was much smaller than Scott, she wielded a long-handled ax and hacked Scott into pieces as he lay on the mattress. She then stuffed his bloody remains into garbage bags. Next, she cut up the mattress, stuffed it into garbage bags, and then hauled the bags to several dumpsters. At the time, the city of Sitka incinerated its trash, so Scott’s remains were burned to ash.
After disposing of her husband, Jane thoroughly cleaned the trailer, wiping away the blood and carefully erasing any sign of her crime in the bedroom. She then packed her clothes, drove Scott’s truck to the Sitka airport, and flew to California.
Even after Jane’s confession, the troopers did not feel they had enough evidence to arrest Jane. She could easily change her story and again claim she had no idea what happened to Scott. They needed physical evidence to add weight to their case. They searched Sitka and were surprised when they located the trailer where Scott and Jane Coville had once lived. Investigators ripped up the carpet in the master bedroom and accessed the subflooring of the mobile home. On the subflooring, they found a large blood stain and took samples of it.
Luckily, Scott’s mother kept Scott’s wisdom teeth after the dentist removed them when he was a child, and the crime lab compared the DNA they extracted from the blood sample found in the mobile home to the DNA from Scott’s wisdom teeth. The two samples matched, and the cold case detectives now had the physical evidence they needed to back up Jane’s statement.
Twenty-two years after Scott Coville’s disappearance, the State of Alaska indicted Jane for first-degree murder and tampering with evidence. Jane was arrested in Illinois and extradited to Alaska, where she pleaded not guilty to all charges. Jane’s friends in Illinois were stunned by her arrest. Jane had been living a quiet life. She was devoted to her church and working on her master’s degree in social work. For her job, she helped people with developmental disabilities.
On October 8, 2010, Jane changed her plea to guilty of second-degree murder, and the prosecution agreed to drop the tampering-with-evidence charge. Still, Jane knew she could receive a maximum sentence of 99 years in prison. Jane described to the court how she murdered Scott on his 26th birthday, cut his body into pieces, and threw him away with the trash.
The court sentenced Jane on March 4, 2011, and Scott’s mother, Rita, flew to Sitka for the hearing. Jane claimed she murdered Scott because he was abusive to her, and she said she even stayed at a women’s shelter for a while. Her attorney could offer no proof of Jane seeking refuge at a shelter, though, and he provided no evidence Jane had ever called authorities to report spousal abuse. Jane’s lawyer asked the judge to sentence her to no more than 15 years.
The judge did not believe Jane’s actions represented the behavior of an abused woman killing on the spur of the moment to escape further mistreatment. Instead, he said she behaved in a cold, calculating manner. She shot Scott while he slept and then methodically cut him and the bloody mattress into pieces, stuffed everything into garbage bags, and disposed of the bags. Next, she carefully cleaned the trailer, packed her things, and flew to California to continue her life. The judge sentenced Jane to 55 years in prison, with 19 suspended. Jane is now serving 36 years at the Highland Mountain Correctional Center in Seward, Alaska. She will be eligible for parole with good behavior on January 28, 2034, when she is 70-years old.
James Pietragallo & Jimmie Whisman. 11–22–2017. Small Town Murder Podcast #45. The Hottest Cold Case Around in Sitka, Alaska. https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/small-town-murder/e/52324451?autoplay=true
Scott Michael Coville. The Charley Project. http://charleyproject.org/case/scott-michael-coville
Grove, Casey. May 31, 2016. Mother in cold case describes years wondering about her son. Anchorage Daily News. https://www.adn.com/alaska-news/article/mother-cold-case-describes-years-wondering-about-her-son/2010/11/28/
Jane Reth. Murderpedia. https://murderpedia.org/female.R/r/reth-jane.htm
Sitka, Alaska. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sitka,_Alaska