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The Nation

More Remains Found in Green River Case

A burst of activity in the 20-year serial murder probe suggests that suspect Gary Ridgway may be cooperating to avoid a death sentence.

September 15, 2003|Tomas Alex Tizon | Times Staff Writer

KENT, Wash. — Investigators in the Green River serial murder case have unearthed human remains this summer at three new sites, and are searching numerous other areas during a surge of renewed activity in the 20-year-old investigation.

The searches began in July, shortly after Green River murder suspect Gary Leon Ridgway was moved from the King County Jail to an undisclosed location. The events prompted talk that Ridgway was cooperating with police in exchange for a plea bargain that would spare him the death penalty.

"Police keep finding bodies all of a sudden," said Tomas Guillen, coauthor of the 1990 bestseller "The Search for the Green River Killer." "They hadn't found Green River remains in over a decade, and now they're finding them one right after the other. You have to think there's something in the wind.

"Based on logic and the activities of the task force, it's more likely than not that Gary Ridgway is cooperating," said Guillen, who has followed the case from the beginning. He and writer Carlton Smith are working on an update of their book.

Neither prosecutors nor defense attorneys would say whether plea-bargain negotiations were taking place, or whether Ridgway was cooperating.

Law officers have been combing wooded areas south and east of Seattle, including a site in this blue-collar town, near where many of the first victims were found in the early 1980s. Searchers last month found skeletal remains here, as well as in Snoqualmie and Enumclaw, which lie farther east. Workers spent Thursday sifting through dirt at a site in Auburn, just south of Kent, and planned to search a different area Saturday.

The remains found in Enumclaw on Aug. 16 were identified as those of Pammy Annette Avent, missing since 1983. The 16-year-old was long considered a Green River victim. The bodies of six other suspected Green River victims have never been found. Authorities have not yet identified the bones found in Kent and Snoqualmie.

Ridgway, a 54-year-old truck painter, has been charged with seven of the estimated 49 Green River murders that took place between 1982 and 1984, one of the worst serial murder sprees in U.S. history. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges and is scheduled to be tried in July. If convicted, he would likely face the death penalty.

After Ridgway's arrest, prosecutors had said they would not plea-bargain with the suspect, given the scope of the crimes. The official stance remains the same.

"We're scheduled for trial in July 2004 and we are focused on that trial," said Dan Donohoe, spokesman for the prosecutor's office. "Anything we have to say will be said in court."

One possible motivation for a plea bargain, at least for King County, would be to save money. Since Ridgway's arrest 22 months ago, the county has allocated nearly $13 million for both the defense and prosecution -- this during a time when King County and Washington state have struggled with record deficits and budget cutbacks.

If the case goes to trial, millions more would be spent, making it one of the costliest murder trials in the state's history.

Ridgway, long a suspect in the case, was arrested Nov. 30, 2001, as he left his job at Kenworth Truck Co. in Renton, where he had worked as a painter since 1969. He was initially charged with four of the Green River murders, based on DNA evidence.

Advances in DNA technology allowed investigators to test a swab of saliva taken from Ridgway in the mid-1980s. His DNA matched that of semen found in the bodies of the four victims. Investigators later linked him to three more killings, and a new task force -- organized after his arrest -- has been collecting evidence for possible future charges.

Many of the victims were picked up along a busy stretch of Highway 99 south of Seattle, in what are now the communities of SeaTac and Tukwila. The strip was known at the time as an area with a high concentration of prostitutes. The bodies of the first victims were found in or along the Green River, which runs from the Cascade Mountains through forested areas south of Seattle.

The victims were typically strangled, often with their own clothing. Many of the corpses discarded in rivers were weighted with stones. Those in the woods were often found in clusters. Though police never gave details, they indicated some of the corpses had a "signature," a particular marker that signified a common killer.

The murders became notorious, partly because of the number of victims, and also because of charges that police were lax in the initial stages of the investigation. All the victims were women, and many were prostitutes and runaways.

Kathy Mills, the mother of one of the victims, says she has mixed emotions about news that Ridgway may be cooperating. Mills' daughter, Opal Charmaine Mills, was 16 when she was found strangled on the banks of the Green River near here in 1982. Her death is one of the seven murders Ridgway is charged with committing.

"If he's really 'helping' the police," said Mills, making quotation marks with her fingers, "then I guess that's good. It might bring an ending to this."

But an ending doesn't mean the same thing as closure. For her family, she said, closure will probably never happen. This month, Opal's brother, Garrett, who is now 39, traveled to the spot along the Green River where his sister's body was found.

"People had thrown garbage down there -- bottles, cans, newspapers," Mills said. "He didn't like it at all, and started picking it all up. He cleaned the whole area. I guess you could say it's a sacred place for him."

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