Two Men’s Determination to Solve the Green River Murders
The police are the voice of the victims.
Tom Jensen had one case during his career in homicide; it is a case he was not prepared to let go of. Finally, after twenty years, his hard work yielded a result; he caught the Green River Killer. Gary Ridgway claimed the lives of up to ninety women before he was apprehended. For a man who killed more than Ted Bundy, Ridgway is less well known. If it hadn’t been for the determination of the police chasing him, he may have walked free.
The Green River Killer
On 15th August 1982, Dave Reichert attended a crime scene where two naked female bodies were discovered. The women had both been strangled and left close to each other. As he walked the crime scene, he discovered a third body in similar circumstances; this took the victims to five, two already having been found. The police force clearly had a serial killer in their midst. Dave Reichert was made head of the task force assigned to catch the Green River Killer, a nickname given due to the locations of the bodies.
Forensics examined the bodies; some contained semen. Despite this, technology had not advanced to where police could search for a match. What was needed was traditional police work. Officers were drafted in from other departments to help with the search. One of those officers was Fae Brooks, who came from sex crimes. Dental records and fingerprints had led to some of the victims being identified as prostitutes, one that Brooks had met previously. The task force decided to concentrate on The Strip, an area in Seattle where prostitutes frequented.
One name kept coming up as they worked The Strip: Melvyn Foster. Foster was in his 40s, a cab driver who had previously phoned in a fake tip to the task force. When they examined his background, they discovered although he lived some distance away, he drove his cab along The Strip. The FBI profile had said that he would become involved with the case, so he fitted the profile. Incidentally, the profile was compiled with help from Ted Bundy, who had committed similar serial murders.
Foster appeared to be the Green River Killer. When he failed a polygraph, the police felt sure they had found the perpetrator. Without enough evidence to hold him, Foster was released on surveillance. By 1983, thirteen bodies had been discovered over eighteen months.
Detective Tom Jensen
With the mounting body count, extra officers were brought in. One officer that impressed Reichert was Tom Jensen. He was known to be meticulous in his work and have an eye for detail. Jensen was a former navy officer who had worked in burglary and larceny before transferring to homicide. He spent his first months on the task force studying the evidence regarding Foster. It was then that he noticed several of the women had gone missing whilst Foster had been surveilled. It was clear he was not their killer; the police were back to the start with their investigation. Pressure mounted from the public to find the killer; questions were asked if the victims would have been treated differently had they not been prostitutes.
On 21st March 1984, Jensen attended his first murder scene; it was a moment that changed the course of his life. Even now, he has trouble speaking about it.
When a farmers dog returned with what looked like a human bone, the police were called. An area of woods was indicated, which was where Jensen found the skeletal remains of a female between twelve and eighteen years of age. As the remains failed to be identified, they were labelled simply as bones 10. The next day bloodhounds tracked the scent of blood to find a second victim. The killer had now claimed twenty victims in twenty-one months. To help the case, they appealed to the public and offered a $100000 reward.
Following the appeal, a woman calling herself Rebecca walked into the offices and reported an assault she thought might be relevant. Some years prior, a man who said he worked for Kenworth Trucking had hired her; they had gone into the woods where he started to choke her. She fought him off and fled the scene. The task force searched the records of men known for using prostitutes; something seemed familiar about Rebecca’s story. They remembered a man they had looked at who had worked for Kenworth Trucking; they found a mugshot of him and showed Rebecca. She identified Gary Ridgway as her attacker.
Gary Leon Ridgeway was born on 18th February 1949 in Salt Lake City, Utah. He had been raised in Seattle Pacific Highway, a poor, deprived neighbourhood. His father was a bus driver and his mother a sales clerk. Later Ridgway would accuse his mother of sexual assault; he stated he fantasised about killing her. Having been in trouble with the police for stabbing a boy at fifteen, when he left school, Ridgway joined the Navy, serving a tour in Vietnam. Ridgway was married three times, the first two unsuccessfully, although the second yielded a son.
Once he left the Navy, Ridgway joined Kenworth trucking as a painter; he worked there for thirty years. Ridgway had been arrested previously for attempting to strangle a prostitute. He had also been stopped soliciting a prostitute named Kelly McGuiness; McGuiness was missing. The police obtained a search warrant for his house and person; samples were taken for DNA purposes.
The Case Dies
The house search provided no evidence and the forensic scientists were unable to get a blood type to compare the DNA from the semen. Therefore, there was no evidence that proved Ridgway was the Green River Killer. At this point, the sheriff decided that it was time to cut the spending on the task force, as it cost too much. All officers were assigned other cases, except one man who would not give up, Tom Jensen. He refused to be taken away from the case.
The case remained dormant for many years. Then, in 1997, Dave Reichert was elected sheriff and now had control of the budget. He decided to put a small task force back together to find the Green River Killer. Jensen suggested they look at the science again to see if the advancements could help them. This time the DNA provided a match to Ridgway. Jensen worked on the Green River case for nineteen years and never gave up hope.
Justice at last
Ridgway was arrested on 30th November 2001; initially, he denied the charges but changed his plea to guilty to avoid the death penalty. He also agreed to take the police to the sites of other victims. In December 2003, Ridgway was convicted of killing over forty women; he received a life sentence with no possibility of parole.
Ridgway had been killing for sixteen years. Although the majority of killing was carried out in 1982 and 83, he killed up until 1998. It is thought that he killed less when he was in his third marriage as he was more content; he was still married when he was arrested.
In 2013, Ridgway reported that he had killed nearly ninety women. Detectives are unsure whether this is a true confession or him further craving attention. Ridgway is seventy-two and lives a solitary life at Washington State Penitentiary.
Jensen retired from the police in 2012; however, he could not let the case rest and went back to the force as a volunteer. He felt there was unfinished business as three of the victims were still unidentified.
In 2020, the youngest victim and the first Jensen found was identified. Bones 10 was Wendy Stephens, who had run away at age fourteen; it was thirty years after being murdered that she was identified. Jensen states he will carry on working until all the victims are identified.
You’ve got to send these girls home retired — Tom Jensen
It has been said that the police are the voice of the victims; it is fair to say that the victims of Gary Ridgway could have done a lot worse than have Detective Tom Jensen and Dave Reichert fighting their case.