Gary Ridgway – Green River Killer
For nearly two decades, between January 1982 and November 2001, police in Washington pursued an elusive predator who murdered girls and women along the seedy Sea-Tac Strip, between Seattle and Tacoma. Detectives dubbed their quarry the “Green River Killer,” after his favorite dumping ground, and ultimately blamed him for the deaths or disappearances of 49 victims. Today, although a suspect has confessed and been imprisoned in that case, disturbing mysteries remain.
Published reports identify the killer’s first known victim as Leann Wilcox, a 16-year-old Tacoma resident found strangled in a field near Federal Way, eight miles south of Seattle, on January 21, 1982. The absence of a pattern in that case prevented homicide detectives from establishing connections to the string of later deaths, and nearly two years would elapse before Wilcox was finally acknowledged as a “Green River” victim, in November 1983. Likewise, 36-year-old Amina Agisheff was simply a missing person when she vanished on July 7, 1982. Her skeletal remains were not recovered and identified until April 1984.
The first “official” victim, 16-year-old Wendy Coffield, was reported missing from her foster home on July 8, 1982, her body fished out of the Green River seven days later. Seventeen-year-old Gisele Lovvorn left home and vanished on July 17; she was found two months later, on September 25. On August 12, 23-year- old Deborah Bonner was dragged from the river, a half- mile upstream from where Coffield was found. On August 15 the Green River yielded three more victims: 31-year-old Marcia Chapman, 17-year-old Cynthia Hinds, and 16-year-old Opal Mills, all reported missing since August 1, 1982.
Police now realized they had a problem on their hands, and it was growing by the day. Two 17-year- olds, Kase Lee and Terri Milligan, went missing in late August 1982; Milligan’s remains were identified on April 1, 1984. Eighteen-year-old Mary Meehan joined the missing list on September 15, 1982, followed by 15- year-old Debra Estes five days later. Their skeletal remains were found in November 1983 and May 1988, respectively. Linda Rule, age 16, disappeared on September 26, 1982; her remains were discovered on January 31, 1983.
FBI agent John Edward Douglas took a crack at profiling the Green River Killer in September 1982, and while the broad strokes of his 12-page assessment later proved correct—the killer was a white male from a troubled home who sought dominance over women— the fine points fiew wide of the mark. As finally revealed in 2001, the slayer was not an unemployed outdoorsman who smoked and drank heavily, yet somehow remained in top physical form. The actual killer held one job for more than three decades, never smoked, drank only the occasional “lite” beer, and made no effort to remain in shape. His sole “outdoor activity” was hunting women. The case nearly killed Douglas, its stress producing a brain hemorrhage when he visited Seattle for a consultation on the crimes in December 1983.
According to police, the six known dead had all been prostitutes, but the killer also showed a taste for runaways and hitchhikers. Denise Bush, age 22, vanished on October 8, 1982; her skull surfaced in Oregon on June 12, 1985, while the rest of her remains were not found until February 1990. Seventeen-year-old Shawnda Summers disappeared one day after Bush, her remains identified by authorities in August 1983. Shirley Sherrill dropped from sight in late October; the 18-year-old’s bones were found in June 1985. Rebecca Marrero, a 20-year-old friend of Debra Estes, was last seen alive on December 2, 1982. Fifteen-year-old Colleen Brockman vanished on Christmas Eve 1982; her bones were found in a ditch, 20 miles south of Seattle, on May 26, 1984.
Alma Smith, age 19, picked up her last “trick” in Seattle on March 3, 1983; her skeletal remains were found with Terri Milligan’s in April 1984. Seventeen- year-old Delores Williams vanished on March 8 and was found dead on March 31, 1984. The killer’s pace accelerated furiously during April, with 24-year-old Gail Matthews killed on April 10 (found September 18, 1983), 19-year-old Andrea Childers on April 16 (found October 11, 1983), 17-year-old Sandra Gabbert and 16-year-old Kimi-Kai Pitsor on April 17 (found in 1984 and 1986, respectively), and 18-year-old Marie Malvar on April 30 (found September 29, 2003).
May 1983 was equally lethal. Carol Christensen, age 19, vanished on May 3 and was found five days later. Sixteen-year-old Joanne Hovland also disappeared on May 3, shortly after her release from a juvenile deten- tion facility in Everett; she remains missing today. Eighteen-year-old Martina Authorlee disappeared on May 22; her remains were found on November 14, 1984. On May 23, 18-year-old Cheryl Wims dropped from sight, found dead on March 22, 1984. Two victims, 19-year- old Yvonne Antosh and 15-year-old Carrie Rois, disappeared on May 31; their remains were found in October 1983 and March 1985, respectively.
All the murders had a certain ritualistic quality. Like Ted Bundy before him, the Green River Killer preferred certain dump sites for multiple victims. At least eight such locations were used, the killer switching off despite police surveillance. Many victims were covered with loose brush and branches, and several were laid out beside fallen logs. Pathologists found small, pyramid-shaped stones inserted into the vaginas of several Green River victims; their significance is unknown to this day. At least one corpse was left by the killer with a dead fish draped across one thigh. Police had two near-misses with the killer in spring 1983. On April 8, prostitute Gail Matthews climbed into a pickup truck on the Sea-Tac Strip, observed by her boyfriend as the vehicle pulled away. Her strangled body was found near Star Lake on September 18, 1983, but the boyfriend gave confiicting descriptions of the killer’s vehicle and the search went nowhere. Meanwhile, on April 30, Marie Malvar worked the Strip near the spot where Matthews had vanished three weeks earlier. Malvar’s pimp, Robert Woods, watched her enter a dark-colored pickup and followed the truck for several blocks before he lost it at a red light. Malvar never returned from her “date,” but Woods described the pickup to her family and José Malvar went searching for his daughter. Finding the truck Woods had described, parked outside a house in Des Moines, Washington, Malvar directed police to the scene. Detective Robert Fox questioned the tenant, Gary Ridgway, on May 4 and accepted his denials at face value. The interrogation solved nothing. Constance Naon, a 23-year-old prostitute, was reported missing on June 8, 1983; her bones were recovered in October. On June 12, the killer plucked 27-year-old Kimberly Reames from the Sea-Tac Strip. Her body was recovered the next afternoon. Kelly Ware, age 22, disappeared on July 19; her remains were found on October 29. Another 22-year-old, Tina Thompson, vanished on July 25 and was found dead on April 20, 1984. April Buttram, age 17, left home for the last time on August 4, 1983; her scattered remains were found in August and September 2003.
September 1983 was another busy month for the Green River Killer. He claimed 26-year-old Debbie Abernathy on the September 5; her skeletal remains were recovered on March 31, 1984. Nineteen-year-olds Tracy Winston and Maureen Feeney were reported missing on September 12 and 28, respectively; their remains were found in March and May 1986.
October’s victims included 25-year-old Mary Bellow (killed October 11, found the next day), 16-year-old Pammy Avent (killed October 26, 1983, found August 16, 2003), and 22-year-old Delise Plager (killed October 30, 1983, found February 14, 1984). The slayer claimed 26-year-old Kimberly Nelson on November 1, 1983; her remains were found June 14, 1986. Lisa Yates, age 26, vanished on December 23 and was found dead on March 13, 1984.
A task force was organized to investigate the Green River murders in January 1984, but its formation failed to intimidate the killer. Relatives of Patricia Osborn, a 19-year-old prostitute, reported her missing on January 24, and her name made the Green River victims’ list on February 11. Five days earlier, on February 6, 16-year- old Mary West was abducted en route to a neighborhood market; her skull was identified in September 1985. Seventeen-year-old Cindy Smith became the last official Green River victim on March 21, 1984; her remains were found on June 27, 1987.
Police reviewed their file on Gary Ridgway in spring 1984. By then, they knew that he had been arrested in July 1980, on suspicion of choking a hooker, but he was released without charges. In May 1982 he was jailed again, for soliciting sex from an undercover policewoman. That charge was apparently dropped, but two years later, on May 7, 1984, Ridgway agreed to task force requests that he sit for a polygraph test in the Green River case. The specific results of that session were never released, but court documents state that “Ridgway was considered to be cleared as a Green River suspect.” Later, he bragged about the ease with which he fooled police. “I just relaxed and took the polygraph,” he said. “I mean, I didn’t practice or anything. Just relaxed and answered the questions and whatever came out, came out.” That test was subsequently ruled “invalid,” but at the time it diverted official attention from Ridgway toward other suspects. Six months later, in November 1984, police discovered a survivor of the murder series. Rebecca Guay was 19 years old in November 1982, when she accepted $20 for a “car date” with the driver of a dark-colored pickup on Pacific Highway South. The “john” told Guay a sob story about his recent arrest in a prostitution sting, then drove her deep into the woods and tried to strangle her. She managed to escape, but waited two years to report the incident. When shown a photo lineup of six suspects, she immediately fingered Gary Ridgway’s mug shot. This time, when questioned by police, Ridgway admitted paying Guay for sex, further granting that he choked her after she had bitten him. Detectives dropped the case.
Gary Ridgway was born in Salt Lake City in February 1949, an “average” child whose family moved to Washington in 1960. They settled in McMicken Heights, near Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Though courteous and friendly, Ridgway was a slow- witted student, 20 years old when he graduated from high school. By then, unknown to his parents or police, Ridgway had already attempted his first murder. In 1963 he stabbed a 6-year-old boy, lacerating his liver. When the child asked Ridgway, “Why did you kill mefi” Ridgway paused, wiped the bloody knife on his victim’s shirt, and replied, “I always wanted to know what it felt like to kill somebody.” Forty years later, the victim recalled Ridgway walking away, “kinda putting his head in the air, you know, and laughing real loud.” Ridgway was not arrested for that crime, and it appeared to have no outward impact on his life. He married a high school classmate in August 1970, but discovery of his bride’s adultery led Ridgway to brand her a “whore,” and the couple divorced in January 1972. (Ironically, Ridgway himself was patronizing prostitutes at the same time.) Ridgway married his second wife in December 1973 and fathered a son who was born in September 1975. In the wake of that event, he reportedly became “fanatical” about religion, attending two different churches and leading his family on door-to-door prayer walks. Sometimes his wife found Ridgway sitting in front of the television, weeping with a Bible open on his lap. The couple separated in 1980 and divorced a year later, filing mutual restraining orders, though Ridgway retained visitation rights with his son.
Life was more stable for Ridgway on the work front, where he served for 32 years in the Kenworth Truck Company’s paint shop and won awards for perfect attendance. In private, he was sexually insatiable, demanding intercourse from girlfriends two or three times per night, while keeping up his trysts with hookers on the side. Some partners, including Ridgway’s third wife, later recalled his tastes as kinky, involving bondage, anal sex, and other “deviations” from the norm. On December 24, 1981, Ridgway told recent girlfriend Sharon Hebert that he had met a woman on the street and nearly killed her. He provided no details, and Hebert asked no questions, but she soon stopped dating Ridgway.
In July 1982, while riding with his seven-year-old son, Ridgway picked up a woman on the Sea-Tac Strip and drove to a wooded area, where he parked. Leaving his son behind, Ridgway went into the forest with his victim. He returned alone, explaining to his son that the woman had decided to “walk home.” With three Green River victims slain that month, police remain uncertain of the vanishing woman’s identity.
In contrast to such outrageous risks, Ridgway also took pains to cover his tracks and confuse investigators. When one struggling victim scratched him, Ridgway clipped her fingernails to remove forensic evidence, then doused the scratches on his arm with acid to obscure them. He left gum and cigarettes beside some corpses, and once left an Afro hair-pick to incriminate the victim’s pimp. In once case, Ridgway planted leafiets from an airport motel near a victim’s body, then dropped her driver’s license at Sea-Tac Airport, creating false trails. On occasions when he met a victim through her pimp, Ridgway phoned back after the murder to request another date, thus feigning ignorance about the crime. In January 1984, Ridgway drove with his son to a suburb of Portland, Oregon, dumping the remains of Denise Bush and Shirley Sherrill, then mailing a letter filled with false leads to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. The ploy was successful, diverting task force detectives into Oregon for several months.
In early 1986, FBI agents focused their manhunt on Bill McLean, a trapper from Riverton Heights, Washington. He fit the white-outdoorsman profile, though he neither smoked nor drank, and did not frequent prostitutes. G-men arrested him on February 6, encouraged when he greeted them with a question: “What took you so longfi” Still, a search of his home revealed nothing, and McLean passed multiple polygraph tests, emerging from jail to sue King County and a local newspaper for slander. A month later, agents requested another polygraph sitting from Gary Ridgway. He agreed on March 20, then changed his mind and refused on advice from a lawyer. Discouraged, the FBI “inactivated” its file on Ridgway.
The local task force took a different view, reopening its investigation of Ridgway on August 19, 1986. Interviews with his ex-wives and girlfriends collected tales of violence, aberrant sex, and venereal disease, together with Ridgway’s fondness for pickup trucks and prostitutes. Police began to trail Ridgway, in hopes that he might lead them to a body dump, but the surveillance was haphazard. No officers were watching when he killed 19-year-old Patricia Barczak on October 17, 1986. No detectives were present when he kidnapped and strangled 21-year-old Roberta Hayes in February 1987.
Two months later, task force officers obtained a warrant to search Ridgway’s body, home, vehicles, and his locker at work. Detective Matthew Haney’s affidavit supporting the warrant declared: “It is highly probable that Gary Leon Ridgway is the Green River killer.” Technicians swabbed Ridgway’s mouth for DNA samples, plucking hairs from his head, chest and groin, while searchers confiscated various tools and articles of clothing. A backhoe was summoned to excavate Ridgway’s backyard, all in vain. Aside from a pamphlet on marijuana, no evidence of any criminal activity was found. In 1988, while Ridgway wooed and wed his third wife, a forensic laboratory in New York compared his DNA samples with rape-kit evidence collected from victims Chapman, Christensen, and Mills. The current technology failed, forcing a judgment that the victim samples were too small for testing or comparison.
Task force investigators lost heart in the 1990s, convinced that their quarry had “retired” or moved on to some other hunting ground. Media reports quoted vari- ous detectives as believing the Green River Killer was responsible for unsolved prostitute murders in California and Missouri. Others thought their man was dead or locked up on some unrelated charge. Task force commander Robert Evans even questioned whether one man was responsible for all the listed murders. “It could be two, maybe even three separate serial murder cases,” Evans told reporters. In fact, the stalker was neither absent nor inactive. He killed 31-year-old Marta Reeves in March 1990, her remains discovered six months later. Patricia Yellowrobe was murdered on August 4, 1998, her body found on August 6.
DNA technology caught up with Gary Ridgway in September 2001, as new procedures allowed definitive testing of samples deemed too small in 1988. On September 4, the Washington State Patrol’s crime lab matched Ridgway’s DNA to semen found on victims Chapman, Christensen, Hinds, and Mills. King County Sheriff Dave Reichert created a new “evidence review team” on September 11, designed to operate “under the radar” while perfecting the case against Ridgway. Two months later, on November 16, Ridgway was arrested in SeaTac, on a charge of loitering for purposes of prostitution. Still Reichert bided his time, delaying Ridgway’s arrest on murder charges until November 30, 2001.
Gary Ridgway was formally charged with four counts of aggravated first-degree murder on December 5, 2001, but the case was far from closed. Sheriff Reichert told reporters that his office had reopened investigation of 80 cases involving women murdered or missing since 1984. The search also expanded into British Columbia, where 30-odd streetwalkers were reported missing from Vancouver and survivors recalled seeing Ridgway in the neighborhood. (That phase of the investigation led nowhere near Ridgway; Canadian suspect Robert Pickton was later charged in the Vancouver slayings.) Evidence collected after Ridgway’s arrest included bone fragments found in his home and paint fiecks from several bodies, matched at long last to the Kenworth plant where Ridgway worked. In March 2002, a friend of Ridgway’s from the 1970s recalled the prisoner’s remark that “prostitution is a terrible thing, and there ought to be a solution, and that solution was to terminate the prostitutes.” Police linked Ridgway to 100 different vehicles and began the arduous task of locating each one for a new forensic search.
Three more murder charges were filed against Ridgway on March 27, 2003, for victims Bonner, Coffield, and Estes. On April 10, Ridgway abandoned his claims of innocence and confessed responsibility for 25 of the Green River slayings, followed one day later by admission of many more crimes. A bargain was struck with the state, and Ridgway led police to the remains of victims Avent, Buttram, and Malvar, found between August 16 and September 29, 2003. On November 5, 2003, after Ridgway pleaded guilty to 48 murders, media reports spoke of 60 confessions and speculated that the final tally “might be closer to 70.” In fact, police told journalists, Ridgway had “killed so many women he had a hard time keeping them straight.” Ridgway’s final statement to the court, before he vanished into prison, was brief and brought no solace to survivors of the dead. He said:
I’m sorry for killing all those young ladies. I have tried to remember as much as I could to help the detectives to find and recover the ladies. I’m sorry for the scare I put into the communities. I want to thank the police, the prosecuting attorneys, my lawyers and all others that had the patience to work with me and to help me remember all the tragic things that I did and to be able to talk about them. I know the horrible things my acts were. I have tried for a long time to get these things out of my mind. I’ve tried for a long time to keep from killing any ladies. I’m sorry I put my wife, my son, my brothers and my family through this hell. I hope they can find a way to forgive me. I’m very sorry for the ladies that were not found. May they rest in peace. They need a better place than where I gave them. I’m sorry for killing these ladies. They had their whole lives ahead of them. I’m sorry for causing so much pain to so many families.
In addition to life imprisonment without parole, Ridgway was slapped with a $480,000 fine, which the state had no means to collect. On June 1, 2004, Judge Richard Jones compounded the absurdity by ordering Ridgway to pay $74,459 in restitution to survivors of his victims (specific stipends ranged from $300 to $6,500 per family). Like the state of Washington before them, mourners are unlikely to receive a penny of the court-ordered amount.
Gary Ridgway’s confession left a nagging mystery behind in Seattle. He admitted slaying 42 of the “official” 49 Green River victims, plus six women not on the task force’s list. None of the dead were personally known to their killer, and four remain unidentified today. “Green River” victims whose murders remain officially unsolved at press time for this work include Amina Agisheff, Joanne Hovland, Kase Lee, Keli McGuiness, Patricia Osborn, Kimberly Reames, and Leann Wilcox.