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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The evidence was all circumstantial, but it was enough for a local judge. In April 1987 the police got a search warrant and went through Ridgway's house looking for anything that would tie him to the murders. Under the warrant, they took hair cuttings and had Ridgway chew on a piece of gauze to take a sample of his saliva. Neither they nor their suspect realized how important that would be 14 years later.

Ridgway was now one of Reichert's "prime persons of interest" in the case. But Reichert knew he had nothing that would push the D.A. to prosecute, let alone convince a jury. And that year the task force was being wound down. Reichert was one of the last detectives to stay on the case, but in 1990 he was promoted to sergeant and assigned to other duties. It was one of the lowest points in his career; he felt he had let down the families of the victims. "You are their hope. They rely on you to find out what happened to their daughters," he says. The following year just a single detective, Tom Jensen, was put in charge of baby-sitting the case — responding to phone tips and keeping track of all the information collected. The "Green River Task Farce" was all but disbanded. And the murderer, whoever he was, remained free.

Evidence of Things Unseen
Reichert's career continued to advance, and in 1997 he became sheriff of King County. In April of 2001 he called a meeting of 30 detectives who had worked on the Green River case to re-examine what they might be able to do. Many of the men were skeptical that anything new could be done, but Reichert persuaded the group to think positively. Says Reichert: "It kept coming back to, Let's go back and look at the evidence again, because the technology has changed."

Reichert had been talking to Jensen for some time about using newly developed DNA-testing technology on evidence they had collected: samples of semen from three of the victims from 1982 and '83 (Mills, Chapman and Christensen) and the sample of saliva Ridgway gave in 1987. The new technology, called short-tandem-repeat testing, or STR, which has been available only since 1997, has revolutionized DNA analysis because of its unprecedented accuracy. STR measures 13 tiny repeating sections in a DNA sample, which effectively represent a unique bar code on any individual's genome. It is now widely used by police agencies and the FBI, and has been used in mass graves in Bosnia and in the World Trade Center wreckage.

In March, Jensen submitted the semen samples and the gauze strip with Ridgway's saliva to Beverly Himick, a forensic scientist in the Washington State Patrol crime lab. On Sept. 4 she called him to say she had some matches. On Sept. 10 Jensen went into Reichert's office and presented the DNA charts without telling Reichert the name of the person they corresponded to. Jensen finally handed Reichert an envelope with a name inside, but before opening it, Reichert said, "It's Ridgway, isn't it?" Then both men broke down in tears. "Twenty years is a long time," says Reichert. "There was this sense of relief. I always thought the case would be solved, but I did have thoughts that I might not be here."

Ridgway was arrested on Nov. 30, as he was leaving work, and charged with four counts of aggravated murder. When police searched his house, they found among his belongings a copy of the book The Search for the Green River Killer, written by two Seattle Times reporters, Carlton Smith and Tomas Guillen. Ridgway was taken to the jail in Seattle. His lead lawyer, Tony Savage, expects it will be 2004 before all the evidence is ready for a trial. Prosecutors have said they will be handing over a million pages in discovery. So far, Ridgway has said nothing from jail. Savage says they will fight the case by questioning the DNA evidence. "First we have to look at that DNA and make sure it was done right," says Savage. "If we get to the point where it is, then you ask, 'What does that show you other than he's a customer? With prostitutes, from the male point of view, the object is to leave a little DNA behind you, so he was a customer, but that doesn't make him a murderer.'"

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