"Well, take me back down where cool water flows, yeah.
-Creedence Clearwater Revival/'Green River'
Let me remember things I love,
Stoppin' at the log where catfish bite,
Walkin' along the river road at night,
Barefoot girls dancin' in the moonlight..."
-Creedence Clearwater Revival/'Green River'
Perhaps the most haunting of America's unsolved serial murder cases is that of the Green River Killer. It has been at least twenty years since the killing began, and by the time it was all over, there were forty-nine women dead, many of them very young, some of them scarcely more than children, some of them only fragments of bone with no names, no faces.
In the Beginning
The murders began on July 15th, 1982, when the body of Wendy Lee Coffield was found in the Green River near Kent, Washington. Coffield was a 16 year old prostitute who had been missing for eight days. She had been raped and strangled, and her killer had left a pair of jeans tied around neck. In the area in and around what is called the Sea-Tac strip, (in the vicinity of the Seattle/Tacoma airport,) prostitute murders are not uncommon. In many cases, there is no one to report the women missing, no one to identify or claim their body, and no one to name their killer. The death of Wendy Lee Coffield was considered just such a case.
On August 12th, an employee of a meat packing company noticed something floating in the river. It was the body of 23 year old Deborah Lynn Bonner, also known as 'Dub'. Also a prostitute, Bonner had been missing for nearly a week. With the discovery of Deborah Bonner's body, the killings seemed to begin in earnest.
Three days later, on August fifteenth, the bodies of three more prostitutes were found in the same area as Coffield and Bonner. Two of the bodies were in the water, another lay on the banks of the river. The man who discovered the bodies told police that two men had asked him if he had seen anything in the water. When the man said no, the two left in a pickup truck. They were not located by police.
A common theme dominated the latest discoveries. Rocks had been used to weigh down the bodies, and a triangle-shaped rock had been inserted into the vagina of one of the victims. Although badly decomposed, police were also able to determine that all of the women had been strangled, some of them with their own clothing. The police had five dead women, all killed and disposed of in the same fashion. A serial killer was on the loose.
The police began to comb through earlier murder cases, hoping to find a link to the more recent murders. Similarities were found in the deaths of Leann Wilcox, 16, who had been found strangled in a field in early 1982. Another woman, Amina Agisheff, had also been found strangled in July 1982. The body count was growing rapidly.
Authorities began patrolling the Sea-Tac strip, hoping someone would come forward with clues. Several prostitutes believed the killer to be a police officer, and told of being ordered into vehicles by a man with a badge. The FBI's John Douglas, a criminal profiler, was also brought in. Douglas believed the killer to be an organized person, probably a local man, with a deep interest in police work. Whoever the killer was, Douglas thought, he was familiar with the remote, wooded areas around the body dump sites, and confident enough to use the same dump site over and over again.
Despite intense investigation and help from the feds, the killings continued. In October, Denise Bush went to buy cigarettes and disappeared. In December, 18 year old Rebecca Marrero vanished from the Strip. In April of 1983, prostitute Sandra Kay gabbert was seen on the Strip as well, getting into a pickup truck that apparently drove her to her death. The same night of Gabbert's disappearance, 17 year old Kimi Kai Pitsor climbed into a green pickup and was never seen again. Later that same month, Marie Malvar was seen getting into a green pickup. Her pimp followed the truck and saw that the driver and Malvar seemed to be arguing. He tried to chase the truck, but it vanished into traffic. After considerable searching, Malvar's pimp, accompanied by her father, found the truck parked in front of a house. They contacted the police, who questioned the two men inside the home, but the lead quickly came to a dead end.
In May, Marie Malvar's driver's license was found in the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. The police were notified of the find, but never showed up to retrieve the license. Two years later, when the Green River Task Force realized they could fingerprint the license, it had been destroyed.
That same month, a woman's body was found in a grassy area east of the Strip, near what was called Raper's Road. Her head was covered by a paper sack, and a dead fish was lying across her throat. She held a bottle in one hand and ground meat in the other. An autopsy revealed that the women had been strangled with a cord and had been submerged in water for some time. A driver's license found with the body indentified her as Carol Ann Christensen. Along with Christensen, Martina Authorlee, Cheryl Wims, Tammy Liles, Constance Naon, and Kelli McGuiness disappeared in May of 1983. McGuiness' body was never found.
In June, police went to an alley near the airport to investigate a call about a foul smell. They found nothing but a heap of dead fish. Later that month, little league games were called off because of parents and players complaining of a strange smell. The field where the little leaguers were playing was near the alley police had investigated earlier in the month. It was not until July that a skeleton was discovered in the area, hidden beneath a brush pile. The body was never identified, although another skeleton was found a month later in the same location. The killer apparently was not resting, however. The naked, strangled body of Gisele Lovvorn was found south of the airport in late July.
Autumn brought no reprieve. In October, another skeleton was found south of the airport. It seemed the killer - or killers - was expanding beyond the Green River in his search for dump sites. After a search, more bodies were found in the same area, all of them skeletonized.
The Green River Task Force was formed in January of 1984, nearly two years after the discovery of Wendy Coffield's body. The Task Force was in charge of taking on a massive, multi-jurisdictional, disorganized investigation and making some sense of it. Hampered by politics, disorganization, and intense pressure from the public and the media, the Task Force was faced with a daunting task.
And to make matters worse, bodies were still turning up in different dump sites, some of them miles away.
The latest body dump site was found on Valentine's Day 1984, some 40 miles east of Seattle, off Interstate 90. Four female skeletons were recovered there within a one-month period. Arranged head-to-head with one of the bodies was, inexplicably, the complete skeleton of a large dog. (Its significance, if any, to the case is still uncertain.) With the four latest finds, police also found a possible link to the killer or killers - size ten or eleven shoeprints. In the weeks to come, there would be several more bodies discovered in the area, pushing the death toll higher and driving the public and media into a frenzy.
Another possible break in the case came not long after the four skeletons were found. The Green River Task Force, while plotting the area of the killer's three main dump sites, (the Green River, Raper's Road, and the new I-90 site,) stumbled across a pattern. The three sites formed a triangle, with all points of the triangle connected by isolated back roads. Some of these roads were not located on area maps, which led police to believe that the killer was indeed a local man, familiar with the surroundings.
The Bundy Connection
In mid-1984 the Task Force received an offer of help from a most unlikely source - convicted serial killer Ted Bundy, who had haunted Washington state years earlier. In a series of Death Row interviews with Dr. Robert D. Keppel, Bundy passed along his theories about the killer he called the 'Riverman'. He believed the killer was known by prostitutes and may have been posing as a police officer or other authority figure. Bundy also thought that as time passed, the killer would dump bodies closer and closer to his home. In the end, however, it seemed Bundy was merely expounding on the subject that had dominated his entire life - murder. Although his thoughts and opinions on the subject helped authorities gain fascinating insight into his own mind, Bundy seemed to be telling investigators what he would do, how he would handle the situations, if he were the Green River killer. Bundy continued to theorize on the Riverman, as well as spill forth thinly veiled confessions of his own crimes, until his execution. (For more information on the Bundy connection, see The Riverman: Ted Bundy and I Hunt for the Green River Killer, by Robert D. Keppel, Ph.D., with William J. Birnes.)
1984 and Beyond
1984 saw the end of the Green River killings - or so the Task Force believed. While bodies were still being discovered years afterward - some in the same dump sites used earlier - many believed the killer had moved on, died, or was biding his time in prison for other crimes. Despite the sudden stop, the Task Force still had thousands of pieces of evidence, more than 4,000 people to question, and nearly 1,000 suspects. While continuing their investigation, authorities also discovered nearly forty killings, dating back to 1973, that the Green River killer may have been responsible for. The murder seemed to have come to a halt, but the body of at least one more woman was still waiting to be discovered. The remains of Denise Bush, missing from Seattle for three years, was found in 1985 in Portland, Oregon. The FBI entered the case once again, and police began to wonder about the possibility of two killers, working in tandem. The method of body disposal had differed over the years, with some bodies left out in the open and others buried haphazardly beneath brush and garbage.
In late 1985, a fifteen year old prostitute came to police with a story that made them wonder if the Green River Killer really had vanished. The girl told authorities that she had been picked up by a man with a blonde mustache and a pock-marked face. The man forced her at knifepoint to lie on the floorboard of the vehicle while he drove them to an area known as Horsetail Falls. The girl was then beaten, tortured, raped, and stabbed repeatedley. The girl lost consciousness and awoke later to find that she had been covered with brush. She could see the man staring at the brush pile covering her, and she lay still until he drove away. She was then able to summon help from a passing car.
The Body Count
In 1988, six years after Wendy Coffield was pulled from the Green River, San Diego, California began experiencing a rash of prostitute killings that closely mirrored those in Washington. Prostitutes were abducted from a downtown area known as the Strip, their bodies dumped a few miles away in isolated areas, sometimes covered by brush.
The similarities prompted both the Green River Task Force and the FBI to try and gain the cooperation of the San Diego police. California authorities vehemently denied that the local murders were related to the Green River Killer, but intense public pressure forced them to form a joint task force. Eventually, 48 murders in San Diego were blamed on a serial killer. A suspect was arrested and convicted in two of the deaths, which prompted the FBI to reconsider the belief that more than one person was responsible for the murders. Most of the San Diego murders remain unsolved to this day, and there is still much debate over their relation - if any - to the Green River killings.
1990 brought more confusion to the Task Force. A headless skeleton was discovered in a Seattle park, and with it police found a medical instrument that had belonged to Denise Bush. Police had already found Bush's head - in Portland. Later on, authorities realized that other victims had pieces of missing property that were discovered in locations seperate from their bodies. Was the killer or killers returning to dump sites, taking away body parts or items belonging to the victims, and then scattering them elsewhere?
The question was never answered. The Green River Task Force was disbanded in 1990, after accumulating more than 500 volumes of evidence.
The search for the Green River Killer is far from over. As late of 1997, three more bodies were found buried at a Seattle construction site. In 1999, twenty-five prostitutes disappeared in and around Vancouver, British Columbia, two hours away from Seattle.
There have been many suspects in the Green River case, but so far, none have been conclusively linked to the killings. Some experts believe that one man is responsible for all of the murders, while others contend that two men - or more - were at work. Perhaps the only certainty is that someone, somewhere, knows who this man is. It has been two decades since the murders began, and whoever is responsible may very well be dead or in prison, convicted of unrelated crimes. It is also possible that he may be roaming the streets still, trying to satisfy an urge that knows no boundaries.
The following is a brief profile of the Green River Killer, taken verbatim from the website apbnews.com. Remember that a profile is just that - a profile. The Green River Killer may or may not fit all of the characteristics listed here.
Despite the lack of any firm suspects, experts on the case think they know some important details about the Green River Killer. He spent much of the period between July 1982 and March 1984 around Seattle. He had the spare time to cruise the Sea-Tac Strip prostitution area and scout out numerous wooded places in the Puget Sound area. He was likely a white man, probably 30 to 50 years old. His shoe size was between 10 and 11 and at least once (while disposing of Sandra Gabbert's body) he wore a pair of shoes with a composite sole and no heel. He traveled between Seattle and Portland, at least once carrying human remains. He may have been at Gate B-4 in the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport during late May 1983 (when Marie Malvar's identification card was dropped there). For some reason, he was unwilling or unable to kill during January and February 1983 and January 1984. Something may have disrupted him on February 6, 1984, when he dumped a victim within the city limits of Seattle, breaking the habit of leaving his victims in the woods. There's a good chance he drove a pickup truck with a camper. According to The Search for the Green River Killer, he may have worked with fiberglass. He could have had military, security guard or even police experience. He may well have kept souvenirs from his victims. There's also a chance he has revealed his secret, intentionally or accidentally, to someone else. If you know who fits this description, contact the King County Police or e-mail us at: email@example.com.
In November of 2001, the King County sheriff's department received their biggest break yet in the Green River case.
52 year old Gary Leon Ridgeway, of Auburn, Washington, was arrested at the Kenworth Truck Company following an interview earlier in the month. King County Sheriff Dave Reichert says Ridgeway may be the Green River Killer. According to Reichert, DNA evidence - which was unavailable in the early days of the Green River murders - ties Ridgeway to victims Opal Mills, Marcia Chapman, and Cynthia Hinds. He is also a suspect in the murder of another woman.
"We have a lot of work to do to investigate these other cases to ensure we have the person who's responsible for those bodies," said Reichert. "We may have some copycats."
According to CNN, Ridgeway was among thousands of suspects in the case, and his name came up as early as 1984. "We have watched him off and on, we have kept track of him off and on, and most recently we have kept track of his activities in a much closer way. "We don't know if Ridgeway is responsible for the deaths of any more women, however, we will continue to investigate all unsolved homicides that may be linked to him or to any other suspects," Reichert says.
Is Gary Leon Ridgeway the Green River killer? Or is he responsible for only a few of the murders, while others - who may be lurking the streets still - added to the death toll? Right now, it is too soon to tell, and authorities aren't talking.
So the mystery surrounding the deaths of at least forty-nine women, several of them as yet unidentified, carries on. The case of the Green River Killer may never be solved. The killer or killers may have disappeared as easily as the victims were spirited away. On the other hand, the case may be best described in the words of Tomas Guillen and Carlton Smith, authors of the definitive book, The Search for the Green River Killer :
The nameless, faceless entity that haunted the Seattle-Tacoma area for more than twenty years is now behind bars - permanently. The Green River killer, after so many years lurking in the shadows, at last has a name - Gary Leon Ridgeway.
On November fifth, 2003, 54 year old Gary Leon Ridgeway pleaded guilty to the murders of forty-eight women. The guilty pleas came as part of an agreement with prosecutors that spared the former truck painter the death penalty, but only if he led authorities to the places where he had dumped womens' bodies.
In his confession Ridgeway described how me murdered the women, many of whom were prostitutes and runaways. According to the Associated Press, Ridgeway would strangle his victims, sometimes during sex, and then dump their bodies around the Seattle/Tacoma area. He would also return to the dump sites to reminisce the killings, sometimes committing necrophilia with the bodies.
Another disturbing aspect of the case is that contrary to some prosecutors' beliefs, the killings did not stop in 1984. Ridgeway confessed to killings at late as 1998, including several who were not included on the original list of victims. In a statement prosecutors read aloud in court, Ridgeway said, "I killed so many women I have a hard time keeping them straight. I picked prostitutes because I thought I could kill as many of them as I wanted without getting caught."
Wendy Lee Coffield; Gisele Ann Lovvorn; Debra Lynn Bonner; Marcia Faye Chapman; Cynthia Kean Hinds; Opal Charmaine Mills; Terry Rene Milligan; Mary Bridget Meehan; Debra Lorraine Estes; Linda Jane Rule; Denise Darcel Bush; Shawnda Leea Summers; Shirley Marie Sherrill; Colleen Renee Brockman; Alma Ann Smith; Delores LaVerne Williams; Gail Lynn Matthews; Andrea M. Childers; Sandra Kay Gabbert; Kimi-Kai Pitsor; Marie M. Malavar; Carol Christensen; Martina Theresa Authorlee; Cheryl Lee Wims; Yvonne Shelly Antosh; Carrie Ann Rois; Constance Elizabeth Naon; Kelly Marie Ware; Tina Marie Thompson; April Dawn Buttram; Debbie May Abernathy; Tracy Ann Winston; Maureen Sue Feeney; Mary Sue Bello; Pammy Annette Avent; Delise Louis Plager; Kimbery Nelson; Lisa Yates; Mary Exzetta West; Cindy Anne Smith; Patricia Michelle Barczak, Roberta Joseph Hayes; Marta Reeves; Patricia Yellow Robe; Jane Doe B-10; Jane Doe B-16; Jane Doe B-17; Jane Doe B-20
"Said, 'You're gonna find the world is smould'rin'.
-Creedence Clearwater Revival/'Green River'
And if you get lost come on home to Green River.'"
-Creedence Clearwater Revival/'Green River'