Special Reports

Arrest in long-running case is satisfying for officers

The tireless work, the public criticism, the sleepless nights have all paid off.

For the detectives who worked on the Green River Killer Task Force, including King County Sheriff Dave Reichert, Friday's news of Gary Leon Ridgway's arrest in the case brought vindication.

And satisfaction.

"It's real hard to even put into words, but there was certainly a cheer that went up in the office when we heard that he was in custody," Reichert said at a Friday news conference. "It's just, to me, extra satisfaction to be the sheriff when this happens, having been the lead detective for eight years."

Detectives - even ones not connected with the task force - believed it was simply a matter of time. The task force received tens of thousands of tips and kept a short list of suspects for years. Investigators just needed the help of advanced DNA technology.

King County sheriff's officials say they've linked Ridgway to three deaths through DNA evidence and a fourth death through circumstantial evidence.

"I just had a feeling it was going to get solved," said Walt Stout, a retired Pierce County sheriff's homicide detective who served on the task force in 1984. "Guys wanted to solve those cases. I have a lot of admiration for those who worked there."

Jim O'Hern, a longtime Pierce County sheriff's homicide detective, said he believed the amount of evidence retrieved back when the victims were recovered would eventually lead to the killer.

"The only way it wouldn't have gotten solved was if the guy died," he said.

The case has remained with Reichert, even though he's moved up the ranks at the sheriff's office. Over the years, the detectives became close to the victims' families; Reichert was even a pall bearer at one victim's funeral. Reichert still gets cards, calls and letters from them.

"One of the characteristics of a good investigator is that you can never give up hope," Reichert said. "The victims families never give up hope, and we are their conduit in this case. We are their lifeline to a solution, to closure. And I think that really is (something)."

But they weren't always that upbeat.

The task force

The first body appeared in the Green River in Kent on July 15, 1982. Less than a month later, another body was found in the river. Both were tattooed prostitutes who worked the strip near Sea-Tac Airport. On Aug. 15, the bodies of three more women turned up in the river.

The task force began in August 1982 with four detectives. Within two years, it had grown to 56 members representing the sheriff's office, Seattle Police Department, Kent Police Department, the FBI, Port of Seattle, the Washington State Patrol and the state Attorney General's Office.

"We were trying to put together the proper organization and approach to this scale of the crime," Stout said. "It was a different situation."

There were long hours and even longer days than investigators typically work on a homicide case. The task force worked in an intense environment, with pressures from the media, victims' families and interest groups. They were criticized for saying too little and not producing results.

"Green River was so difficult because it had no timely suspect data that the police could go on," said Bob Keppel, a state investigator on the case and author of "Riverman," a book about the killer based in part on interviews with serial killer Ted Bundy, the handsome law student who preyed on college coeds around Seattle in the early 1970s.

"They'd find out that some prostitute was identified from the bones, and go back and interview the people who last saw her, six or eight months later."

And yet, there was an energy driving the task force to find the man believed responsible for the deaths of 49 women, including seven women whose bodies have never been found or identified.

"Police agencies had so much invested in his case," said retired Pierce County Sheriff Mark French, who commanded his department's investigations division in the early 1980s. "It's good news and a credit to the police work."

The Pierce County Sheriff's Department sent Stout to the task force in 1984 after the body of at least one woman found in Pierce County was attributed to the Green River Killer. The remains of Colleen Renee Brockmann, 15, were found May 26, 1984, in the 5300 block of Jovita Boulevard, just inside the county.

"It was at a period of time when Pierce County hadn't yet contributed to the task force," Stout recalled. "It was decided we should probably do that."

Stout and detective Reichert worked together to track down various leads amid the myriad tips.

"You couldn't disregard any of them. You had to follow up on all of them," Stout said.

Stout primarily was assigned to checking out tips and doing follow-up work on suspects. He talked with some women on the streets about who the killer might be.

Stout said he was aware of Ridgway, but wasn't assigned to work on that lead.

Later in 1984, in a politically questionable decision, Pierce County pulled Stout off the task force and returned him to the sheriff's department. The homicide rate was skyrocketing in the county.

"I probably would have stayed up there longer if Pierce County had not been so short-handed," Stout said. "Our first responsibility was to our citizens."

The task force continued on, with the remains of more bodies turning up. The group disbanded in 1991, leaving King County sheriff's detective Tom Jensen as the sole investigator on the case.

Unsolved cases

Speaking generally of unsolved homicides, Pierce County detective O'Hern said he has a stack of eight such Pierce County cases on his shelves at work. He remembers the details and periodically hears from the families of the victims.

Like other homicide detectives, O'Hern doesn't work on the cold cases every day. But he thinks about them.

"When they really nag at you is when you get a call from a mother, brother, sister inquiring," O'Hern said. "Then it resurfaces."

Advances in technology and evidence collection have bolstered detectives' efforts in re-examining unsolved homicide cases. Investigators have learned better ways to preserve blood samples and other bits of trace evidence.

"We learned a lot of stuff on the Yates case," O'Hern said of Robert Yates, the convicted Spokane serial killer arrested last year.

"You always want to solve your unsolved," O'Hern said. "You keep them on your shelves, and if additional information surfaces, you run with it."

News Tribune staff writer Sarah Duran and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Staff writer Stacey Burns covers Pierce County crime and safety. Reach her at 253-597-8268 or stacey.burns@mail.tribnet.com.