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

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Back in Seattle, the investigation was getting bogged down by the sheer number of bodies. Corpses were being found in a wide arc around SeaTac Airport by kids on bikes, a man walking his dog, mushroom collectors, soldiers on exercises. "Every time you found a body it was like being hit on the head with a baseball bat," says Reichert. Often when the cops went to examine a body in the woods, they would come across the remains of several others nearby.

"We had mountains of evidence. We even took birds' nests from scenes hoping we would find a hair from the suspect or a piece of jewelry," says Bruce Kalin, a detective brought in on the case in early 1984. At each dump site, the cops cut away the undergrowth and sifted through the topsoil for several hundred yards in every direction. It took three to four days to process each set of remains. The forest helped turn up evidence for those who knew how to look. The decomposing bodies made the soil more acidic, turning overhanging foliage yellow. The number of layers of leaves on the remains indicated how many years they had been there.

Police called in an FBI profiler from Quantico, Va., to help them narrow their search. His profile suggested the killer felt humiliated by women, was an outdoorsman who knew the local countryside well and may have had some religious motives. Reichert and his men thought the profile was too broad to be very useful. And there wasn't much help coming from the county coffers. For 18 months, the cops could not get special funding for a full-scale investigation of the murders. Many people in Seattle felt the problem was not so much the killer but rather the proliferation of prostitutes on the strip. Finally, in January 1984, a year and a half after the killings began, a dedicated Green River task force was set up. At its height in 1986, it had 56 members chasing down 47,000 tips and 17,000 names. Several times investigators thought they had found the killer. Reichert was convinced that the killer was a taxi driver who worked the strip, but that lead was dropped when the killings continued even while the cabbie was under 24-hour surveillance.

After three years of fruitless work, the investigation had become a public joke. In 1986 the Seattle Times ran a cartoon depicting a cop peering through binoculars and speaking into a walkie-talkie, saying "He's white male...harbors a deep resentment towards the opposite sex...and knows these woods inside out." The next panel showed cops surrounding a small boy in front of a tree house (with a sign reading NO GURLS ALLOWED) and yelling "Freeze dog-breath! Green River Task Farce!"

Police morale was sinking. Not only were the cops unable to make an arrest, but the killer's taunts were getting to them. In mid-'85, they found part of the remains of Denise Bush on Bull Mountain, near King City in Washington County, Ore. Bush had been abducted in October 1982 from the strip in King County, Wash. Two Kings, two Washingtons. "That was really an in-your-face kind of thing," says Reichert. "It was like, 'Are you guys so stupid you can't make the connection?'"

A Person of Interest
Ridgway came to police notice again in February 1984, when a prostitute, Dawn White, reported him after she became uneasy about the way he approached her for sex on the Pacific Highway. Ridgway was interviewed, given a polygraph and cleared. Later that year Rebecca Guay, another prostitute, came forward with a lurid tale of how Ridgway nearly strangled her back in 1982, after taking her into the woods and partly undressing her. Ridgway admitted being with Guay but said she had bitten him and denied choking her.

This was suspicious enough to persuade the cops to dig further into Ridgway's background. They found the records of his 1982 arrest for soliciting a police decoy and the 1983 incident near the school ballpark. From his two ex-wives and an ex-girlfriend, they learned about his appetite for outdoor sex — and found he had arranged trysts, camped out or picked blackberries at as many as seven of the body dump sites.

His ex-wife Marcia said Ridgway had choked her in 1972--something Ridgway admitted to police. She also said she often saw him coming home late at night, his clothes wet and dirty. An ex-girlfriend told police that Ridgway came into a bar late on Christmas Eve in 1981 and told her he had just nearly killed a woman. Investigators worked out the details and found that on all the 27 dates and times that could be pinpointed for victims' disappearances, Ridgway was, in their words, "available as a suspect."

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