By Carrie Gronewald
An unknown man had been killing prostitutes since the early 80’s. Their bodies had been dumped in forested places along the Green River, which runs down the west slope of the Cascade Mountains and empties into the Puget Sound in Seattle.
By this time over 30 bodies, actually skeletal remains, had been found by hikers and fishermen. Since none had been recently killed, useful evidence was always scarce. Police had formed a task force years before. The case had been going on for so long that several of the original detectives had retired and still the killings went on.
My husband, Ken, and I are campers and hikers. We love to camp several times a year in the high country of the Cascade Mountains. When we’re not camping we drive up into the hills above the Green River on the logging roads for picnics. High on a steep logging road turnout, the views are unrivaled, the breeze fresh, the wildflowers and scenery breathtaking.
That year, we were camping just north of the base of Mount Rainier. It was a bluebird day with just enough clouds to give the sky shape. We were coming down the mountain from our camping trip and stopped at an outside turn in the road that offered a beautiful view of the Green River Valley below almost all the way to Seattle. We got out of the car to take it all in and watch the coming sunset. The broken clouds were already making the settings sun’s rays look like fingers of gold stretching to reach the ground. Just feet from where we parked on the overlook, we noticed the remains of a small camp fire with curious artifacts that made us pause and take a closer look. The fire ring was modest…perhaps two feet across. At first it appeared as if some teenagers had been pushing some social boundaries.
We found some red lingerie torn and cut apart. A few pieces had been burned in the campfire. Looking closer, we noticed a paperback book lying half in and half out of the ashes. My husband bent over, brushed away the ashes and picked it up. It had been partly burned around the edges, but was mostly intact. The title was “How to Have Sex.” Opening it up, we looked at the table of contents and saw that it was indeed a basic instruction manual for sex with chapters on anatomy, foreplay, a variety of sexual positions, etc. It quickly became obvious this book really was an instruction manual not meant for pornographic enjoyment; there were no photographs for illustration. Instead, well-drawn illustrations drawn by an artist were used throughout. It looked like a real “how to” manual for someone who knew nothing about sex.
Many of the sections and pages were marked with a yellow highlighter while others were underlined and circled in black ink. Numerous notes and comments were scribbled in the margins. They were written in simplistic, almost childlike writings like, “yes, hold down penis or this will hurt,” and “make her wear a pony tail or hold her hair tightly.”
We spent about a half an hour investigating this scene and decided it was some teenagers who must have been fooling around and had a campfire to burn all their “findings and evidence.”
Two years later in 2001, an improbable looking small quiet man who worked at the local Kenworth commercial truck factory was arrested, then convicted as the Green River Killer. His name was Gary Ridgway. He was sentenced to life in prison for more than 30 murders and rapes of women, many of them drug users and prostitutes, in between Seattle and Tacoma. He now has a total of 71 murders attributed to him.
I enjoy reading accounts of real crimes, in particular anything written by Ann Rule. After reading “Green River, Running Red”– her book about Ridgway – I noticed that one of his victims had been buried near the particular campfire site we had found. His pattern involved keeping bodies in his truck for several days, sometimes returning to a site several times to have repeated sex with the body, and then finally dumping the bodies. He also sometimes built campfires and destroyed evidence. The base of Mt. Rainier where we had been was one of his killing spots.
Looking at the evidence made public in the case against Gary Ridgway, I recognized his handwriting style as very similar to that we found in the sex handbook. My husband and I now realized we had most likely not come upon the work of a silly teenager. We had possibly been just a few days late on the track of Gary Ridgway with one of his victims.
As of 2011, Mr. Ridgway has confessed to the murder of 49 victims, all between 1982 and 1998. The Green River Killer Task Force attributes another 22 missing women to his hand. They doubt a killer so prolific stopped for the last three years before he was finally arrested. They continue to investigate the rest frequently re-interviewing the killer, who is now in prison serving 49 consecutive life terms, trying to wrest further confessions from him to give the remaining families closure.
If the campfire we found was left by the Green River Killer, the victim remains nameless since he has not confessed to any murders after 1998.
More mesmerizing TYTT stories to read:
Smashing Plates by Rachel Kimbrough
Requiem for the Girl Next Door by Emory Holmes II
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