River Of Death

23 minute read
Terry Mccarthy/Seattle

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.

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.


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.

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.


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.”


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.

Their father wasn’t around much, and when he came home the boys would beg to go out with him into the woods and cook up some breakfast on an open fire. Their mother was, in Greg’s words, “a strong woman.” Gary Ridgway’s second wife Marcia said the mother completely dominated the boys’ father and that the young Ridgway once saw his mother break a plate over his father’s head at the dinner table.

Gary had problems at school because he was dyslexic, and was held back a year. He joined the Navy before he graduated from high school, and was sent to Vietnam. “He spent his time on rivers in patrol boats being shot at. These were things we didn’t talk about–his anger about things in Vietnam, if there was any,” says his brother Greg. When Ridgway came back to the U.S., he got a job painting Kenworth trucks in a factory in Renton, Wash. He kept this job for 30 years. He married three times, and has a son from his second marriage, who is in the Marines. In the late ’70s Gary became fanatical about religion, according to Marcia. He would go from door to door proselytizing for a Pentecostal church and would be infuriated when people refused to listen to him. At home he would sit in front of the television with a Bible open on his lap, and he often cried after attending church services.

At the same time, Ridgway was keenly interested in public sex and illegal sex. Ridgway’s ex-wives and ex-girlfriends later told police he wanted sex several times a day, often outside in the nearby woods–in some cases in areas where Green River victims were discovered. Ridgway told police in March 1986 he had a fixation on prostitutes, saying they affected him “as strongly as alcohol does an alcoholic,” in the words of the police report. He conceded that he had contracted venereal diseases many times from prostitutes. Greg Ridgway says he is “surprised” about his brother’s contacts with prostitutes, but says “we didn’t sit around talking about those things–our personal lives are private.” He cannot imagine that his brother is a killer, and thinks “his habits with women got him too close to this investigation, and he got burned by it.”

But when Gary Ridgway first passed through the investigation, he was barely noticed. On the evening of April 30, 1983, Marie Malvar, 18, got into a pickup with a male driver on the strip. Her boyfriend Bobby Woods was watching, and followed the pickup until he lost sight of it at a red light. When Malvar failed to come home, Woods and her father Jose went looking for the pickup, which had a distinctive spot of primer on the door. After half a day’s driving around the area, they found what Woods thought was the pickup, parked in front of Ridgway’s house. Ridgway was then living in Des Moines just outside Reichert’s jurisdiction. The Des Moines police came and talked briefly to Ridgway at his door, then left. They were slow to pass Ridgway’s name on to Reichert’s men, and it was not until November ’83, seven months later, that King County police interviewed Ridgway for the first time about the killings. He denied everything. Marie Malvar’s body has never been found.

In May of that year, police discovered the body of Carol Christensen, 21, in a wooded roadside area in Maple Valley, Wash. She had been strangled with fishing line. A paper sack had been pulled over her head, a trout had been placed on her neck and another on her shoulder; a wine bottle was left on her belly, and there was a mound of sausage near her body. Police speculate that the strange scene could have been a twisted biblical reference to the Last Supper. They also suspect that the killer was mocking them by making a tableau out of the victim.


Reichert thought he would catch his serial killer by reading about those who had come before: John Wayne Gacy, the killer clown of Chicago, who slew 33; Gerald Stano from Daytona Beach, Fla., who murdered 41; Randy Kraft in California, who was convicted of 16 murders. Reichert contacted police departments around the country that had dealt with serial killers, and in 1984 he flew to Florida to talk to Ted Bundy on death row. Bundy had been found guilty of killing 22 victims. Says Reichert: “Just to sit across from him and shake hands sent chills. You think, ‘Just how many people’s lives have these hands squeezed out?'”

Reichert and Bundy talked for two days, and Bundy played mind games. “He talked in the third person all the time, but later we realized he was talking about himself,” says Reichert. But Bundy did give Reichert some useful insights: a serial killer doesn’t leave home in the morning compelled to kill; he will do it when he feels like it and when he feels safe. He needs to be in control. He told Reichert the police were giving too much information to the press and concurred with Reichert’s suspicion that the killer was at times taunting the cops. “Certainly there is an amount of competition between this individual and the police,” Bundy was quoted as saying in The Riverman, a book about the case by Robert D. Keppel, an investigator who aided Reichert on the case.

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?'”


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.”

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.


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.'”

The mystery of the Green River Killer still has not been solved. The official Green River victims’ list, from 1982 to ’84, has 49 entries–45 names and four unidentified sets of remains. The DNA tests cleared the way for three of the charges; circumstantial evidence, the police claim, ties Ridgway to the murder of Cynthia Hinds. If Ridgway does get the death penalty, some wonder if the mystery will follow him to his grave.

So should he be kept alive to tell his tales? Seattle is divided on the issue. Many of the victims’ relatives are in favor of the death penalty, and the prosecutor, Norm Maleng, has indicated that he is not interested in engaging in any plea bargaining. As sheriff, Reichert is torn between wanting to know the whole story and wanting to inflict the ultimate punishment. A cautious man, he makes the point that Ridgway is innocent until proved guilty. “I would love to have the opportunity to visit with him and learn the what, where, why, when, who and how for each case…but if anyone deserves to get the death penalty, it would be the person responsible for this series of murders.”

–With reporting by Nathan Thornburgh/Seattle

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