From the Green River: Forensic Evidence and the Prosecution of Gary Ridgway

Baird, J. (2006) From the Green River: Forensic Evidence and the Prosecution of Gary Ridgway. American Academy of Forensic Sciences Annual Meeting Green River.

Published on: 2/1/2006

The goal of this presentation is to describe the apprehension of Gary Ridgway as the perpetrator of multiple homicides and discuss the role of forensic evidence in the prosecution of this serial killer. This presentation will impact the forensic community and/or humanity by providing attendees with insight into the organization of a multi-agency manhunt; and understand the enormous contribution and the limited role of forensic evidence in this case. In July and August of 1982, five women were murdered and left in or near the Green River in King County, Washington. All five had a history of prostitution; all five had been strangled. These murders were the community’s first notice that a serial killer was preying on young women. Over the next several years, the bodies of more and more victims, most of them teenage girls, were found in wooded or remote parts of King County. Most were found with no clothing or possessions. In many cases, months or even years had passed since the victim’s disappearance, and all that was found were skeletal remains. Identification of the victims sometimes took years. Eventually, 49victims were listed as victims of the Green River Killer. Despite extraordinary efforts by county, state, and federal investigators, and public and private forensic scientists, these murders remained unsolved for nearly two decades. Hundreds of suspects were identified, but no convincing evidence of their guilt was developed. Finally, in 2001, Beverly Himick and Jean Johnston at the Washington State Patrol Crime Laboratory discovered DNA evidence linking Gary Ridgway to several of the Green River homicides. Ridgway, a King County resident who had worked for decades in the paint shop at a local truck factory, was charged with four murders. For the next 18 months, a team of detectives and prosecutors painstakingly reviewed approximately five dozen unsolved homicides (most of them attributed at the time to the “Green River Killer”) for any evidence linking them to Ridgway or any other suspect. Hundreds of items of evidence were submitted to scientists in various forensic disciplines throughout the country. In 2003, shortly before the court-imposed charging deadline in the case, Skip Palenik, a private forensic scientist at Microtrace, reported that he had discovered tiny spheres of sprayed paint from a number of the crime scenes and on evidence seized from Ridgway in the 1980s. Based on this evidence, Ridgway was charged with three additional murders. Faced with this additional forensic evidence of his guilt, Ridgway offered to provide prosecutors with a full account of his criminal activities in King County and to plead guilty to all the murders he had committed in that jurisdiction if the prosecution would agree not to seek the death penalty. After considerable discussion and contemplation, Norm Maleng, the King County Prosecutor, accepted this offer. Detectives, prosecutors, and mental health experts interviewed Ridgway for nearly six months. In November of 2003, Gary Ridgway pled guilty to 48 counts of aggravated, first-degree murder. The Ridgway case illustrates both the extraordinary power of contemporary forensic science, and its equally striking limitations. Without DNA evidence, the Green River Killings would never have been solved. Yet despite extraordinary efforts by premier public and private forensic laboratories employing state-of-the art methods, no physical evidence whatsoever linked Ridgway (or any other suspect, identified or unidentified) to the majority of the Green River murders. Even after Ridgway was identified — and after he provided irrefutable corroborative evidence of his guilt to investigators (e.g., leading them to additional bodies) – forensic science was unable to link him to most of his victims. The unsophisticated but ruthlessly successful way Ridgway committed his crimes – the victims he chose, the manner in which he killed them, and the way he disposed of their bodies – yielded surprisingly little forensic evidence of his guilt.

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