Search goes on for Green River victims with or without Ridgway
SEATTLE -- "Is it important we find every victim? Yes. Can we? I don't know. Maybe. But, you can't depend on Ridgway to do it for us. The guy is a devil, he's evil and he's a lying ... I won't finish the sentence."
Rep. Dave Reichert was there as a King County Sheriff's Office detective when the Green River Killer's first bodies were found in 1982. And, he was there as the King County Sheriff when Gary Ridgway was arrested.
Reichert still struggles for words when discussing the case to this day. He remembers wading in the chilly waters of the Green River to pull out bodies; he remembers family members pounding on his chest with anger or anguish when he told them their loved one wasn't going to be coming home -- experiences he said he never became numb to no matter how many times he had to repeat them.
"Every day detectives would wake up and just pray they didn't find another body overnight," he said.
Reichert and current King County Sheriff John Urquhart said there is value in continuing to look for the bodies of missing victims and even in hearing what Ridgway has to say. But, those looking for clues from the man known as the Green River Killer need to proceed carefully.
"Everyone needs to go in there -- including the press, including these other investigators -- with their eyes wide open," Urquhart said. "When you're dealing with Gary, he's going to ramble, he's not going to tell the truth, he's going to play games. Maybe you'll get a nugget out of him; maybe you won't."
Pray before you search
"Have a nice time and pray before you search, and maybe you get God's help, you know."
That was Gary Ridgway's message to former Air Force investigator Rob Fitzgerald and anyone else looking for the remains of his missing victims.
Ridgway pleaded guilty to 49 murders in 2003. But, Urquhart said they know he is responsible for at least six more and believe he could be responsible for at least 75. Reichert puts the number between 65 and 75.
So, where are the remaining bodies?
Reichert, whose book on the Green River killings Ridgway said is the only one he's ever had a chance to read, said Ridgway was interrogated by detectives, profilers and psychologists for up to 12 hours a day for six months. In the end, Reichert said he still believes Ridgway was holding out on them.
"The way he survives is by thinking about those things he did, replaying those things in his mind, especially those he didn't have to share with police," Reichert said. "Those are his secrets. Those memories are his memories. He owns them. And, that's how he can sit in that cell and continue to live."
Urquhart, who was the King County Sheriff's Office spokesperson when Ridgway was arrested, said the Sheriff's Office still goes down to Walla Walla occasionally to talk to Ridgway. But, nothing has come of it, and Urquhart said he isn't sure Ridgway has any more information to give.
"I don't think he remembers," Urquhart said. "I don't think he is capable necessarily of giving good information. But, he still likes to talk about it."
Dismantling the county's cold-case unit
At the beginning of the year, the King County Sheriff's Office closed down its cold-case unit due to budget cuts stemming from the recession, leaving approximately 200 homicides and suspected homicides -- some of them dating back to the 1940s -- without any dedicated detectives to work them.
Urquhart said disbanding the cold-case unit was a tough decision for him, and he still thinks the Sheriff's Office, one of the largest in the country, needs one.
"It's an absolute shame that a huge government like King County doesn't have the resources to investigate those (cases)," he said. "Could we solve all 200? No way. But, there are some that we could solve."
Some of those 200 cold cases are likely related to the Green River killings, and Urquhart said those aren't any less important than the others, even with Gary Ridgway behind bars.
"Our goal is to bring justice to the victims and the victims' families," he said. "And, it doesn't matter if we've already got the suspect in custody in the case of Gary Ridgway or any other case for that matter. Our goal is to solve that case so we can go to the family and say, 'This is what happened to your loved one, and this is who did it.'"
But, without the resources and dedicated detectives, the Sheriff's Office will only reopen an investigation if a new tip or piece of information surfaces.
That's where Rob Fitzgerald comes in. He has been leading a team of volunteers on weekend excursions to hunt down the remains of Ridgway's missing victims for the past five years.
"They don't have manpower to do 20-year-old cases," Fitzgerald said. "They barely can do the cases they have. If we're not looking, nobody's looking. It's frustrating."
And, while Urquhart said it doesn't bother the Sheriff's Office that Fitzgerald and his team are out there looking for answers -- in fact, he said the Sheriff's Office welcomes outside help as long as any new information is turned over to police -- they don't have time to sit down and help Fitzgerald with his investigation.
"Clearly we don't have enough time with our own homicides we're working on," he said.
Fitzgerald wants the Sheriff's Office to tell him which parts of Ridgway's possible "dump sites" they have and haven't already searched and found remains. He said he is frustrated with what he perceives as a lack of cooperation.
That's one of the reasons he is forced to rely on Ridgway for information, something he's been doing through weekly phone calls over the past few years.
A wild goose chase?
"At the end of [his book] Dave Reichert says it's over," Gary Ridgway said. "It's not over. You've got 80 families out there that want to have answers."
Ridgway said it's to make things right for those families that he's giving information to Fitzgerald. But, his clues are rambling and inexact.
"One site out at, uh, two sites out at 410 had, uh, 12 people I killed out there, or 13. Twelve or 13," Ridgway said. "And, on top of those they only found, I think, six of them."
Urquhart said Ridgway, like other captured serial killers is simply looking for the attention he isn't getting in prison and is sending Fitzgerald and his team off on a wild goose chase.
Reichert wasn't any more optimistic about Ridgway leading Fitzgerald to new bodies.
"I never say never," Riechert said. "However, I think it's highly unlikely."
Reichert said the only reason Ridgway gave detectives the information he did was in order to save his own life, and even then he didn't tell detectives everything."
He said there's no benefit for Ridgway to share the information he wanted to keep for himself with Fitzgerald, especially because there's a chance it could lead to him being retried in a different jurisdiction with the death penalty on the table.
Regardless, there's always the hope Ridgway slips up and inadvertently leads Fitzgerald to more remains, Reichert said. And, he said he's sure that's what Fitzgerald is thinking.
And, while it will likely amount to nothing, Reichert said you can always hold out hope.
Bringing the victims home
Gary Ridgway said it wasn't hard getting prostitutes into his car with him, even during the height of the Green River killings. He said they were homeless and needed the money, so he would just talk to them and they'd get in.
During the investigation, Reichert said the Green River Task Force was portrayed by some as not caring enough or not trying hard enough because the Green River Killer's victims were largely prostitutes or addicts. He said that couldn't be further from the truth.
Reichert said the victims were young women deserving of sympathy who had families, no matter how dysfunctional. He said detectives would talk to one young woman along Pacific Highway or on the street in downtown Seattle and would be collecting her remains two weeks later.
"That was the reality of living through this case," he said. "It was death every day."
He said the reason the county made a deal to spare Ridgway's life was for the chance to bring the body of even one young woman home to her family.
Urquhart said the vast majority of victims' families were supportive of the deal. And, while the families of the victims could never truly get closure -- a word he said is overused -- Urquhart said detectives would at least be able to let them know what happened to their loved ones.
The fact they have not been able to give that knowledge to every family whose loved one is still missing is reason enough for someone, whether it's Fitzgerald and his team of volunteers or a reformed cold-case unit, to keep searching.
Additional reporting on this story by KOMO's Tracy Vedder and Michael Harthorne.
Ed. Note: Listen to KOMO Newsradio each day this week at 7:15 a.m., 12:15 p.m. and 5:15 p.m. as Charlie Harger shares new revelations from his exclusive interview.
Then tune-in to KOMO4 News at 11 p.m. each night as Problem Solver Tracy Vedder digs deeper into the people and the lives destroyed by the Green River Killer.