River Of Death

  • Share
  • Read Later
DUANE HAMAMURA/SOUTH COUNTY JOURNAL/AP

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

(2 of 6)

In May 1982 Ridgway was arrested for soliciting a "John patrol," a female police officer posing as a prostitute. And on Feb. 23, 1983, Ridgway picked up Keli McGinness, 17, from the strip and took her to a ballpark behind Sunset Junior High School on South 140th Street, where their liaison was disturbed by a police patrol. Four months later, McGinness disappeared after someone picked her up on the strip. Two months after that, police found the first of three bodies that had been dumped in blackberry bushes behind the school's ballpark. McGinness' body has never been found.

But with hundreds of prostitutes, thousands of customers and the furtive nature of the business they transact, Reichert's men had difficulty even drawing up a list of potential suspects. The strip was slow to yield up its secrets.

Scars, Part I
Reichert, who was elected sheriff in 1997, looks like a cop from a Hollywood movie, circa 1950, only he's not crusty. Tall and square-jawed, he wears his uniform without wrinkles, pops breath fresheners before going into meetings and ends his e-mails with electronic smiles. Despite his easygoing manner, he knows how rough it is on the streets. In 1974, when he was a 24-year-old rookie, a man holed himself up in a house and threatened to kill his wife. Reichert went in through a window alone and got the woman out, but was surprised by the man, who slit Reichert's throat open with a butcher's knife. Reichert got 45 stitches. The scar, shaped like a long pink sickle, slices down the right side of his neck.

Reichert's life has left other scars. Born in Minnesota in 1950 of German stock, Reichert is the eldest of seven children. When he was 11, his family moved to the town of Kent, south of Seattle. Like Ridgway — two years older and growing up nearby — Reichert spent his childhood playing in the fields and woods. His father worked in a warehouse, and the family was always short of money — but not discipline. "My father was the old iron German fist," says Reichert. "There was a lot of conflict there." But as the eldest of a large family, Reichert acted as peacemaker, pulling his siblings apart, confronting neighborhood bullies. "When I was 16, I remember my mother got into an argument with one of her friends. I went over and knocked on her door and tried to negotiate a peace with that lady. My mother said I was naive." Later, in college, he pursued some Peeping Toms outside the women's dormitory and ended up throwing himself on their moving car to stop them from escaping.

The church, along with his family, has always been at the center of Reichert's life. "I can't imagine going through life without faith," he says. His grandfather was a Lutheran pastor, and Reichert attended Concordia University, a Lutheran college in Portland, Ore., intending to follow the same path. But he left school to get married, in 1970. After a spell in the Air Force as a mechanic, he joined the King County sheriff's department, which covers Seattle and extends south of the airport, over what was once open land. He found himself drawn to murders. "Homicide is the ultimate in police work," he says. "I did all the courses I could — blood spattering, evidence collection, identification, puncture wounds." He started working homicide in 1979.

In '82 his partner and mentor, Sam Hicks, was shot dead while on duty. Reichert was not there when it happened. Three days later the suspect was picked up, and it was Reichert's job to ride with the man to the station in the back of a police car. Hicks's murder made him a more determined detective. Says Reichert: "You just don't want to give up until you make it right."

Scars, Part Ii
When Ridgway moved into his new house on south 348th Street in Auburn nearly five years ago, one of the first things he did was cut down all the trees on the property. "That had some neighbors pretty pissed," says Clem Gregurek, 69, a former Boeing employee whose house is next to Ridgway's. "He was one of those quick, hyper people," says Gregurek. "He was nervous. He was fast in everything he did. He was even fast mowing the lawn." Before moving to Auburn, Ridgway lived in Des Moines, Wash., only a few minutes' drive from the strip. He went around to his neighbors pointing out that prostitutes were turning tricks on their street. His complaints prompted police to increase patrols of the area. Last November, when news of his frequenting prostitutes came out following his arrest for the four murders, neighbors were shocked at his hypocrisy. Says Janine Mattoon, 50, a nurse who was Ridgway's neighbor in Des Moines: "Here is someone who is upset about there being too many prostitutes in the neighborhood, and then he is actually seeing prostitutes."

Ridgway was born in Salt Lake City, Utah, on Feb. 18, 1949. He has two brothers, Greg and Tom, and when they were young their family moved frequently between Utah and Idaho, finally settling in Washington in 1958. Like Reichert's, Ridgway's family was poor. His father drove trucks when he could get the work, while his mother brought up the three boys in a 600-sq.-ft. house off the Pacific Highway near what would become the strip. The boys slept in bunk beds in the same room and spent much of the time outdoors. "We literally crawled on our hands and knees over the area around SeaTac where this [series of killings] was supposed to have happened," says Greg Ridgway, 54, who works for a computer company.

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. 3
  4. 4
  5. 5
  6. 6