Old Time Crime: Roommate finds murder victim's body in freezer in 1996

and last updated 2020-03-25 07:39:48-04

A murderer hid her victim's body in a freezer for five years before it was discovered in 1996.

It was March 25, 1996, when Phoenix police responded to a call saying someone found what appeared to be a dead body wrapped in plastic in a locked chest-type freezer.

Gayle Susan Zylstra, who was 44 years old in 1996, had left the freezer plugged in, inside the garage at her former residence. Her roommate suspected she was stealing from her and in November 1995, demanded that Zylstra leave her home. However, she was unable to take the freezer with her at the time, promising she would return for it and requested that it remain powered.

The roommate forced open the freezer door

After several months, the roommate unplugged the freezer to save electricity. When the odor coming from the freezer became unbearable, the roommate forced open the freezer door but was unsure of what she saw inside, thinking it was some type of meat. She contacted Zylstra who said she was storing candles left to her by a deceased relative. She also requested the freezer be plugged backed in and she would be by that evening to get it. 

The roommate, having her suspicions, contacted police. Inside the freezer, police found the remains of Sandra Purkett, a former friend and roommate of Zylstra.

"I've been waiting for you guys"

When police contacted Zylstra about their findings, Zylstra said, "I've been waiting for you guys." She then described to police how in 1991, on Purkett's birthday, she and Purkett were arguing and after a while, Purkett went to her room to rest. Then while she was sleeping, Zylstra smothered her with a plastic bag. She told police, "Before I knew it, it was over. She wasn't breathing, and I couldn't bring her back."

She then hid the body in a closet before Purkett's 11-year-old son returned home from school. She told the child that Purkett left with a truck driver.

She would often talk to the victim, putting flowers on top of the freezer

She later placed Purkett in a freezer that they had bought together. Zylstra also told police that she missed her so much, she would often talk to the victim, putting flowers on top of the freezer, while sitting in the same room with her.

When Purkett's oldest son came from California to take custody of his brother, Zylstra told him the same story of Purkett leaving with a truck driver, even saying she would get calls from her from time to time as she traveled around from state to state.

Although the victim’s family was suspicious of Zylstra's story, police were unwilling to investigate since Purkett supposedly left on her own.

Zylstra was given an extensive psychological evaluation where the psychologist described her as, "a seriously mentally disturbed individual, who attaches herself to co-dependent relationships." The doctor said that in order to return her to normalcy, she would need to be "raised again from childhood."  Zylstra also admitted to a lengthy history of addiction to prescription pain medication like Percocet, Valium, and Xanax.

In 1997, Zylstra plead guilty to second-degree murder and waived her right to trial, agreeing to a 20-year prison sentence. Purkett's son said in a written statement, "My disbelief, however, is that the judicial system and society think that fifteen to twenty years in prison is an acceptable amount of time for killing a human being."

Zylstra was released from the Arizona Department of Corrections on March 21, 2016.

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