|Your account||Today's news index||Weather||Traffic||Movies||Restaurants||Today's events|
What went wrong? Police at first failed to notice pattern
Thursday, November 6, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 a.m.
By Tomas Guillen and Carlton Smith
Five years after an elusive killer claimed the first of nearly four dozen victims, one of the most haunting questions about the Green River murders remains:
How was it possible for one man to kill so many young women while virtually surrounded by police?
The answer is that when the first five victims' bodies were found in or near the Green River, King County police were just not prepared to handle an investigation that complex. Officers failed to even see that more murders were happening, let alone prevent them.
The investigation also found that the errors that marred the beginning of a probe into the nation's worst known serial-murder sequence were not those of police alone. The Legislature, the King County Council, the city of Seattle and the news media, media, to varying degrees, inadvertently helped make it easier for the killer to succeed.
These conclusions and supporting findings are based on a computer analysis of nearly 5,000 individual police arrest and expense records, review of numerous administrative memorandums and hundreds of court files, and interviews with scores of former and current police officials, probation counselors, judges, prostitutes, members of victims' families, pimps and experts on juvenile prostitution.
There is no way of knowing for certain how many murders the Green River killer may have committed. So far, the only deaths officially attributed to him involve King County victims. But similar slayings that could have been committed by the same person have occurred in Spokane, Vancouver, B.C., and the Portland area.
The recent discovery of the remains of seven murdered women near Molalla, Ore., raises the possibility the killer may be in that state. Police say they're reserving judgment until they have more information on those victims. Similarly, police are still studying the asphixiation murder of a 16-year-old Lynnwood girl found recently near where many Green River victims were last seen to determine if the killer may have struck again in King County.
The Green River killings began in the summer of 1982, when Bernard Winckoski was sheriff of the King County Police, the agency that was to have primary responsibility for handling the case. Winckoski was a holdover appointee of former King County Executive Ron Dunlap, who had been succeeded late in 1981 by Randy Revelle.
VALUABLE TIME LOST
The Times' review of county police records and interviews with those involved in the case show that under Winckoski, the department's first efforts to find the killer were marked by a lack of coordination, inadequate record-keeping and a failure to follow up leads that could have made officers aware of the true scope of the crimes in time to possibly prevent some of them.
During the early months of the investigation, officers lost valuable time focusing on a cab driver from Thurston County named Melvin Foster as their chief suspect. Meanwhile, the real killer continued to pick up women on the streets of South King County and murder them undetected.
Winckoski, now living in retirement in Redmond, said he does not second-guess his handling of the case; that he believed at the time his officers were on the right track.
"To this day, I would be haunted if we hadn't done everything we could," Winckoski said in an interview.
"Who knew it would turn out the way it has, the worst in the country? We're not mind readers or crystal-ball gazers. We were pretty excited about a couple of suspects. We felt we were making good progress, and we were led to believe we were not spinning our wheels."
Winckoski said he met almost daily with the supervisor of an initial 25-member task force, King County Police Maj. Richard Kraske, who told him investigators had the resources they needed to handle the case. Had Kraske requested additional resources, Winckoski said, he would have provided them. Winckoski said he relayed Kraske's assessment of the case to his superiors, County Executive Revelle and Deputy Executive Harry Thomas.
In the beginning, police concentrated on trying to solve the first five murders, Kraske said later. Less attention was paid to the possibility that the crimes might be continuing.
"With only the five we had at the time," Kraske said, "we thought the number of people we were putting into it would be able to manage the investigation. But as we all know, it got proportionately larger. So it kind of expanded beyond our capacity to control it."
By the time Winckoski left the department's top job in January 1983, the first task force had been disbanded. Winckoski was replaced as sheriff three months later by Vern Thomas. In the interim, the department was supervised by field operations chief Jim Nickle.
During and immediately following this transition from late January of 1983 to July of that year the killer murdered 14 more women, bringing the total to 30.
Thomas says he cannot comment on the county's efforts to solve the crimes before he became sheriff in April 1983.
"Don't ask me," he said. "I don't know. I don't have time. I have a problem. I have the biggest homicide problem in the United States. I don't have the time or inclination to go back and worry about what somebody else did. I can't answer for them, nor am I going to answer for them.
"My problem started in April of 1983. I came in, and in my opinion I went at it as quickly as I could. It took a long time to get people to agree to let me do what I did."
Revelle's first orders to Thomas, both men agree, were to look into the Green River murders and make recommendations on how to proceed. By that time, King County police had linked the deaths of six women to the killer, though information available to police indicated that as many as 10 others had disappeared.
Thomas' evaluation took three months. Revelle says Thomas told him he had concluded the murders could be a larger problem than had been realized, and that there had been errors in the initial investigation. A new, larger task force was needed, Thomas said.
It took Thomas nearly seven more months to plan and organize that force. He said some of his own staff objected to it because of the strain it would put on scarce resources.
While Thomas formulated his plan and built a consensus in support of it, 20 of the 46 women in the case disappeared.
Thomas' efforts ultimately resulted in formation of the current Green River Task Force in January 1984. The group now composed of more than 40 members represented a major increase in commitment to the case, and it immediately began a more aggressive, organized pursuit of the killer.
Shortly thereafter, the murders apparently stopped at least in King County. Police say they have no evidence that the crimes are continuing. They remain open to the possibility that the killer still lives here but is killing elsewhere, or that he has moved to another city where he may be murdering.
They also concede that more than one person could be responsible for the murders, but doubt it because evidence found with victims' remains indicates a single killer. Police have never made most of that evidence public.
The crucial nature of the first 18 months of the investigation, before the present task force was formed, is underscored by the fact that 44 of the 46 slayings so far attributed to the murderer were committed within that period. The killer was most active when police were least organized.
When the killings first came to public notice in the summer of 1982, the county police department was essentially a large rural force, unequipped in many important respects to deal with amurder case this complicated a shortcoming the County Council had failed over the years to remedy.
Just seven years earlier, another serial-killing case, the so-called "Ted" murders, later attributed to convicted killer Ted Bundy, had baffled King County police, in part because of a lack of staffing and investigative competence.
Despite that experience, county police in 1982 still did not have a detective unit specifically trained to handle homicides. Instead, detectives took care of everything from robberies to murders.
Three detectives who had gained valuable experience investigating the "Ted" murders had left for other jobs.
Nor did the police have a unit specifically assigned to investigate missing-persons cases, or a system of comprehensive record-keeping on those cases. Many reports on missing teen-agers were automatically purged from the county's computer system after 30 days because police routinely considered the youngsters runaways. Police normally ignored runaway cases because there were so many of them and because they didn't have legal authority to detain any teens they found.
A BURDENED UNIT
All of that made it hard for investigators to determine who might have been killed or even how many murders had taken place until well after the crimes appeared to have stopped.
It was not until 18 months into the investigation that homicide detectives began coordinating their investigative operations with the department's vice unit, the arm of the police that was most in touch with the prostitution scene.
Throughout most of the time the murders were taking place, the county's vice unit was understaffed and burdened with minor inspection tasks necessary to collect county license fees and taxes, particularly on legal, licensed gambling.
One crucial distinction between the Green River murders and other serial homicide cases is that the Green River crimes began in places that were intensively policed by both uniformed and undercover officers mostly because victims were picked up in relatively small areas where prostitution flourished.
In fact, county police say the chances are quite high that one of their officers encountered the killer while on routine patrol through those areas.
Yet no system was established for routinely interviewing all prostitutes and their customers immediately after their arrests to see what they might know about the murders or possible victims.
Nor did the department have officers ask for permission to search the vehicles of arrested prostitution customers, or "johns." Police say court decisions restricting police-search rights made them afraid to conduct such searches for fear that any evidence uncovered would be suppressed.
Police first became aware of the murders when the body of a young runaway was found in the Green River July 15, 1982. By Aug. 15, four new bodies had been found.
Police knew within days that all the victims had connections to street prostitution, making customers of prostitutes obvious potential suspects and all street prostitutes potential victims. But Thomas contends that as late as the summer of 1983, police were still not sure the crimes were related to street prostitution.
As a result, for almost two years following the discovery of the first body while murders were still taking place officers usually did not note the descriptions or license plates of vehicles driven by the johns, even while they covertly watched prostitutes for violations of county's anti-loitering laws.
TOO MANY DETAILS
The head of the county's vice squad at the time of the murders, Sgt. Donald Christianson, contends that providing those descriptions and license plates would have swamped the homicide investigators.
After the larger task force began, that information was routinely channeled to detectives working on the murders.
All the while, the department's anti-prostitution enforcement was mostly directed against the potential victims of the crimes prostitutes rather than against the most likely perpetrators customers.
Statistics gleaned from county arrest records and citations make the point:
Before the Green River Task Force was formed in January 1984 by which time all but two of the 46 victims had disappeared county prostitution arrests of women outnumbered arrests of men trying to buy sex by a ratio of 3 to 1.
After the current task force was formed, arrests of men on prostitution charges exceeded those of women for the first time, by a ratio of more than 2 to 1.
That's when the murders seem to have stopped.
Thomas and former Green River Task Force commander Frank Adamson both acknowledge that the change in emphasis to arresting customers likely led directly to the apparent halt to the murders, although they also credit the far more intensive overall investigation begun by Thomas' initial task force.
"It had to be a john that's killing them," Thomas said. "There's no way there could be any other solution to it. Somebody was picking them up and killing the prostitutes.
"So therefore, (we said) let's identify who these johns are. Let's get a number of suspects listed, do background work on them. . . So we had a whole different atmosphere as to how we addressed the prostitution problem."
The investigation had other problems as well.
During the first year and a half of the murders, when most of the victims disappeared, vice officers rarely worked on weekends even though each of the first six of the first eight known victims was last seen on a Saturday or Sunday.
Vice officers spent considerable time trying to shut down massage parlors though no Green River victim was known to have ever worked in one.
At least half the staff in the county vice unit were assigned to investigate small-stakes illegal gambling while the murders were being committed.
When police realized in 1983, a year after the killings began, that the way they enforced prostitution laws might affect the way the killer operated, neither King County nor Seattle police made any effort to coordinate their strategies.
As a result, when prostitution fell drastically on the Seattle-Tacoma Airport strip in the fall of 1983 because of a county crackdown in the late summer it climbed in downtown Seattle. The city made no discernible effort to step up vice enforcement to compensate.
Women then began disappearing from city streets. Of the killer's last 14 victims, 11 were last seen inside the city limits.
The current Green River Task Force began operations in January 1984. The last known victim of the killer disappeared in March of that year.
During the 3 1/2 years since its formation, the task force has spent about $12 million following an ever-colder trail.
The first year of its existence, the task force spent much of its time searching for evidence at scenes where victims' remains were discovered, rather than investigating suspects. A great deal of time was spent looking for accused or convicted prostitutes who appeared to be missing to determine who might have been victimized.
In its second year, 1985, the task force concentrated on installing and learning to operate a sophisticated computer system, paid for with a state grant. Spirits among task-force detectives sank so low that year the county hired Seattle motivational guru Lou Tice to build up investigators' confidence.
THE WRONG MAN
In 1986, the task force searched the home of a Riverton Heights man targeted by the FBI and the computer. The result was lawsuits for false arrest against the county and defamation against newspapers and TV stations. The man is no longer a suspect, police say.
This year, police searched the home of a second man they linked to at least one and possibly more of the victims. The man's name had been known to police since 1983, but his potential as a suspect was overlooked until late in 1986. Police say he remains a suspect along with about 500 others.
Thomas says his task force is now prepared to move quickly and effectively if the murders resume, or if a different series of killings starts.
"There's no question about it," Thomas said. "I'll guarantee you that if he pops up with a body, I've got the team and I've got the organization to start on it right away. And we won't get as far behind as we were."
In the five years since the Green River killings began, public attention has focused on the murders themselves and their aftermath the grisly discovery of the first five bodies in the river or on its bank; the grief of victims' relatives; the finding, over many months, of the remains of 32 other victims in a variety of locations; the searches of the homes of suspects.
This public drama has obscured factors that contributed to the killer's success. To the extent that these are not addressed, public officials say, the possibility remains that similar crimes could occur.
The Times found that:
If the street-prostitution scene as it evolved on the Sea-Tac strip in 1982 and in downtown Seattle in the second half of 1983 had not existed, so many murders probably could not have occurred.
Widespread street prostitution in both places presented the killer with hundreds of potential targets. Many of them were juveniles whose unpredictable and unsupervised lifestyles contributed in no small way to the difficulties of solving the case.
All but a handful of the dead were under 21. Eighteen were 17 or younger. Three were just 15. Had the killer chosen almost any other type of victim, police say, chances of his getting caught would have greatly increased.
The Legislature which had approved a 1977 law changing the legal status of juveniles so that they were treated much the same as adults failed to provide enough money for juvenile services.
As a result, thousands of youths many of them young women were allowed to wander the streets of Seattle and King County without police interference. Many turned to prostitution to earn money. The Seattle Police Department, for example, estimated in 1984 that 4,500 young people had either run away or been evicted from their family homes and that 300 to 500 were involved in prostitution.
Chronically understaffed social-service agencies failed to effectively divert these troubled youngsters from prostitution.
Teen-age prostitutes were revolved through the doors of the county's juvenile-justice system in large numbers while youth-services counselors tried unsuccessfully to cope with a law that compelled them to treat children as if they were adults. The law eliminated police authority to pick up runaways.
Courts failed to impose stronger penalties on prostitution defendants, both male and female, though it might have deterred prostitution.
In part, judges gave lenient sentences because they didn't want to burden already overcrowded jails. Most of those women accused of prostitution were released on personal recognizance shortly after arrest and promptly returned to the dangerous streets. Men were jailed for a few hours and later fined a small amount, and were allowed to keep their arrest secret from their families.
The later failure of prostitutes to make court appearances turned out to be one indication they had disappeared. But the courts kept no easily accessible records on the women charged with prostitution who had warrants out for their arrest. That prevented police from knowing about some victims' disappearances until months later.
Government agencies couldn't realistically address the problems of street prostitution because the public in general viewed prostitution as a "victimless crime." This was despite overwhelming evidence that it is linked to street-level drug abuse; assaults against women; and unwanted pregnancies leading to later welfare dependency, subsequent child abuse and a new generation of troubled children.
Judges, defense lawyers, police and prosecutors contend that political leaders never sought or provided the resources necessary to effectively combat prostitution and its link to other social ills because the public simply would not give a strong commitment to controlling it.
The media at first did little to encourage police to attack the case with enough resources or to give a serious look at the quality of the police effort that was being made in 1982 and 1983.
When journalists did more vigorous reporting, police complained in public, contending the news-gathering was interfering with the investigation because reporters were talking to potential witnesses before detectives could reach them. Newspapers and broadcasters then backed off the story and waited for police to make announcements.
In 1984, Kraske said the police decision to keep back information about the case led to lesser news coverage. That, he said, led to fewer leads for investigators, and ultimately to an attitude of public indifference.
A GROWING POOL
Taken together, the missed opportunities helped provide the killer with a large and growing pool of potential victims and prevented authorities from understanding what was happening until dozens were dead.
The procedures of courts and social-service agencies have changed little today despite the killings. That raises the troubling question of whether the Green River murderer or a new killer could get away with similar crimes in the future.
Superior Court Judge Terry Carroll, who presided over the sentencing of hundreds of young prostitutes in juvenile court, says the answer is probably yes.
"If anything is clear," Carroll said, "it is that that law has produced and permitted an enormous increase in the number of young children who are allowed to wander our streets.
"And that's a sad commentary on America. Because even if you say the children are victims themselves of abuse, as many of them are, you also need to recognize that that doesn't justify the system continuing that abuse by permitting the children to wander the streets at will. You have to wonder what their lives are going to be like in five or 10 years.
"They're simply in the cesspool of life and we don't intervene in ways that we should. I think . . . you probably can affect children on the street at one of two periods: either in the beginning or at the very end, at the depths of their despair, and loneliness, and anger."
THE TIDE TURNS AS 'JOHNS' BECOME TARGET
Although police quickly surmised that the killer was likely a "john," the emphasis in 1982 and 1983 was on arresting prostitutes. It wasn't until 1984 that johns became a target. The killings stopped shortly thereafter.
Home delivery | Contact us | Search archive | Site map | Low-graphic
NWclassifieds | NWsource | Advertising info | The Seattle Times Company
Back to top