River Of Death

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DUANE HAMAMURA/SOUTH COUNTY JOURNAL/AP

The body of Wendy Lee Coffield is removed from the Green River in 1982

Marcia Chapman's hand seemed to be waving in the river's current when Detective David Reichert first saw her partly clothed body on that Sunday afternoon, Aug. 15, 1982. It was a gruesome welcome to what would turn out to be the most harrowing case of the Seattle cop's career. In the water, beside the body of 31-year-old Chapman, was another body, that of 17-year-old Cynthia Hinds. She was naked, and like Chapman, she had been strangled. An hour earlier, Reichert had been coming home from church with his wife Julie and three small children. Now he was standing on the bank of the Green River thinking out the first steps in a murder investigation, trying to ignore the flies biting his skin.

Reichert tried to imagine the killer's movements. Where had the murderer dragged the bodies from? The grass beside the river grew up to six feet high; as Reichert searched the bank for the killer's route to the water, he seemed to make out a faint trail. He pushed through the undergrowth, looking for any bit of evidence that might have dropped on the ground, and suddenly found himself looking at a third body, that of Opal Mills, 16. She was lying face down, a pair of blue slacks knotted around her neck. Her bra had been pulled up to expose her breasts; there were bruises all along her arms and legs. "I've got another one!" Reichert shouted to the other cops by the river. When the medical examiner arrived, he estimated that Chapman had been in the river about a week, Hinds several days. The body of Mills barely had traces of rigor mortis, suggesting she had been dead only a day or so; rigor mortis generally starts to wear off after 24 hours.


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For the next two decades, investigating these deaths would become Reichert's life. The man whom cops would call the Green River Killer was to murder at least 49 women. Some investigators think he killed as many as 90, which, if true, would make him the biggest serial murderer in U.S. history. At his peak in '83, he was murdering as many as five women a month.

Catching the Green River Killer became an obsessive personal quest for Reichert. For nearly 20 years, not a day went by when he didn't think of his adversary, out there somewhere, watching, tracking the investigation, taunting the cops with his macabre theatrical positioning of the bodies, growing more self-confident the longer Reichert couldn't find him. For the deeply religious detective, it was like a long journey through hell. Says Reichert: "I would come home after finding a 15-year-old girl, melting flesh off her face, body falling apart, the stench of rotting flesh — these are the memories that float to the top."

Last month Reichert's journey through hell seemed to come to an end. On April 15, King County prosecutor Norm Maleng announced that he will seek the death penalty in the prosecution of Gary Leon Ridgway, 53, a married man who worked in a local truck-manufacturing plant. He was arrested last November for four of the Green River murders. He is accused of killing Chapman, Hinds and Mills, as well as Carol Christensen, whose body was discovered in 1983.

But late that Sunday evening in August '82, as Reichert stood on the bank of the Green River discussing the case with colleagues, he had no idea how long the case would last. Reichert was 31 years old then, and during his three years in homicide he had dealt mostly with domestic fights or failed robberies. Chapman's waving hand was beckoning him into a different world, one of pimps, drugs, $20 prostitutes — and a predator who was picking up these women and killing them in secluded sites in the surrounding dark forest, thick with undergrowth, dripping with rain.

Blood on the Strip
Ridgway came to this world in all weather. He was a frequent customer of the prostitutes on the strip, a section of the Pacific Highway from South 139th Street to South 272nd Street that ran along the airport south of Seattle for about eight miles. The strip was lined with bars, strip clubs and motels that book rooms by the hour. In the early '80s the area drew a steady stream of Alaskan oilmen, off-duty sailors and local men in search of fleeting assignations. The women would stand out on the street waiting for customers, and during Seattle's frequent downpours, would take cover in bus shelters or convenience stores.

Ridgway often drove along the strip on his way to and from work. He would cruise slowly by single women, and was in the habit of parking in the lot at Larry's Market on 144th Street or the 7-Eleven at 142nd Street, where he could scan the street. Leading off the strip was a network of small streets. Many of its houses had been abandoned when SeaTac Airport expanded its flight path directly overhead, and this is where the girls liked to turn their tricks. The passing planes muffled any sounds, and the streets were mostly deserted. The few residents who had not moved out complained about the prostitutes and their clients parking curbside at night and the condoms and needles that were found on the road the next day.

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