Former King County Sheriff Dave Reichert answers questions from students April 23 at Kent-Meridian High School about the Green River Killer case. STEVE HUNTER, Kent News

Former King County Sheriff Dave Reichert answers questions from students April 23 at Kent-Meridian High School about the Green River Killer case. STEVE HUNTER, Kent News

Reichert shares details of Green River Killer case with Kent students

Former King County sheriff tells about Gary Ridgway and how the crime was solved

The killing of at least 49 women over about 16 years became so routine for Gary Ridgway, aka the Green River Killer, that he would treat the murders as another routine activity.

Dave Reichert, a former King County Sheriff and the initial lead detective in the case, explained what Ridgway did with a few of the bodies during an April 23 presentation to forensic class students at Kent-Meridian High School.

“He would drive to work, pick up a female, rape her, kill her and put her in the back of his pickup truck and continue to drive to work (at Kenworth Truck Company in Renton) with the body in the truck with a canopy over it,” Reichert said. “He’d come out at lunchtime, get in the truck, drive to a dead end street and have sex with the dead body. Then he’d go back to work to finish his shift.

“He’d bury the body (after leaving work) and then go home and have dinner. ...that’s how sick this guy was.”

Reichert spent more than an hour sharing details of the Green River Killer case with forensic class students from each high school in the Kent School District. The details were at times graphic, which caused Reichert to hesitate to share them until a teacher told him each student has parental consent forms to be in the class.

Lisa Horton, a forensic teacher at Kent Laboratory Academy, said there’s high interest in the classes and that Reichert was invited as the lead investigator in the Green River Killer case.

“The work he did, and the passion he had for solving the crime, if he didn’t have that passion then the Green River Killer might not have been caught,” Horton said as she introduced Reichert, a Republican U.S. representative from the 8th District (2005 to 2018) who is running this year for governor.

King County Sheriff’s Office detectives arrested Ridgway in 2001 because of DNA evidence that connected him with four of the 49 killings, which began in 1982 and ended in 1998. Ridgway, 75, remains in the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla serving 49 life sentences without the possibility of parole. He strangled each of his victims.

Reichert, 73, who graduated in 1968 from Kent-Meridian, kept the attention of the students as he broke down the case from the start.

The first cases

Working as a homicide detective for the Sheriff’s Office, Reichert handled the initial cases in the summer of 1982 of bodies found in or near the Green River, which eventually led to the Green River Killer name. The first body found was Wendy Caufield, 16, who had been floating in the river in Kent.

Then more and more bodies were discovered, including two by a rafter who saw two bodies in the river with rocks piled on top of them. That rafter exchanged greetings and a wave with a man on the riverbank who then went up the bank and entered a pickup truck.

“We would find out years later we were steps behind Ridgway,” Reichert said. “He was the guy on the bank. In 1982, that’s how close we were.”

Reichert said they found another body in the grass and blackberry vines along the riverbank while trying to find the path the suspect might have taken to the river. With three more bodies found, the count was up to five.

That led to the start of a task force in August 1982 that included 25 detectives in an effort to find the serial killer. But by the end of the year, the task force had been disbanded. A new sheriff in 1983 brought the task force back in January 1984. That task force included detectives from throughout the Seattle area.

“We were finding bodies every week,” Reichert said. “Some weeks we’d collect six bodies. We think Ridgway killed 65 to 70 young women and girls. We had over 10,000 pieces of evidence and over 40,000 tip sheets.”

But Reichert explained to the students none of that information was on a computer, which were just starting to come into use.

“We did it by Rolodex, files of paper with knobs on the end of a spindle to organize names to find,” Reichert said.

By 1990, the King County Council and executive decided to disband the task force because it was costing too much money and hadn’t caught the killer, Reichert said.

When then-King County Executive Ron Sims appointed Reichert sheriff in 1997, he reopened the Green River Killer case.

DNA solves case

Reichert said evidence kept included bodily fluids (semen) from the victim, even from 1982. Those samples were initially sent to a lab in 1999 on the East Coast, but were too minute or degraded to run for DNA. Then in 2001, the Washington State Patrol Crime Lab ran the samples and matched DNA found on the bodies with saliva from Ridgway.

“DNA solved the case,” Reichert said. “We matched the DNA bodily fluids from 1982 and the science from 2001.”

That led to charging Ridgway initially with three of the killings.

When detectives went to Kenworth Trucking in Renton to arrest Ridgway (he painted trucks at the plant), detectives approached Ridgway as he left the facility with his lunch bucket and headed toward his truck. Detectives asked if he was Gary Ridgway, Reichert said.

“He said ‘yes,’ and they told him he was under arrest for the killing of four women,” Reichert said. “He said, ‘OK’ and handed them his lunch bucket.”

Detectives also used microscopic paint fibers to match Ridgway to more killings. The same paint fibers were found on a couple of the victim’s clothing and matched fibers found on the coveralls Ridgway wore at work. With three more murder cases filed against him, Ridgway through his attorneys decided to plead guilty.

In exchange for the guilty plea, Ridgway escaped the death penalty and agreed to tell detectives about other women he killed and where their bodies were located.

While the first bodies were found near the Green River, others were found in woods along Star Lake Road up the Valley toward Federal Way, Reichert said. Others were found near Peasley Canyon Road, up toward Federal Way and Interstate 5. Others were found out near Mount Rainier, near Interstate 90 and even in Oregon.

Ridgway early suspect

Detectives had looked in the 1980s at Ridgway as a suspect, but couldn’t find enough evidence to arrest him. One woman survived an attack by Ridgway. She gave detectives a description and picked out Ridgway in a photo montage. Detectives had his photo because he was arrested in 1982 for patronizing a prostitute. Most of the women he killed were prostitutes, some were runaways.

“She was a catalyst when we searched his house in 1987,”Reichert said. “We were on to him but there was no physical evidence at all at his house or in his truck.”

But detectives collected a saliva sample from Ridgway in 1987, which 14 years later connected him to the murders.

Des Moines Police came close, too, in 1983. They received calls about a man driving around in a truck with a young girl in it. They found his truck at his house. Officers went to his door and asked Ridgway if he had a young girl in his truck and he told them he didn’t.

“Later we find out she was already dead in the house when they knocked on the door,” Reichert said. “She fought and bit him on forearm. He had bite marks on his forearm, so to hide it he poured battery acid on his arm to burn the bite marks off.”

Ridgway lived in several different areas during the killing spree, including Kent. He lived in Auburn with his third wife when he was arrested.

No remorse

A student asked Reichert during a question and answer session if Ridgway ever showed any remorse for all the killings.

“That is the million dollar question,” Reichert said. “His answer was ‘because I could.’ That was it.”

Reichert said they found out later Ridgway had issues with his mother, something that often comes up with serial killers.

“We found out he was angry at his mother,” Reichert said. “He thought she was cheating on his dad and got angry at her.”

Reichert said Ridgway also had an unusual relationship with his mother.

“His mother bathed him and showered him all the way through being a teenager,” Reichert said.

Reichert said it didn’t bother him that the women and girls Ridgway killed worked as prostitutes. He said they all had futures ahead of them and could have turned around their lives.

“I don’t care what they did on the streets,” Reichert said. “They are the daughters, sisters, granddaughters of people who are friends and neighbors that live in Kent, Federal Way Auburn, and the Renton community. They are human beings.”

Reichert said it did bother him it took so many years to solve the case.

“I’d go home every night and think if I don’t solve this case, someone else could be killed,” he said.

Eventually, because of DNA technology, the case was solved.

“Never give up,” Reichert said. “Never say never. There is always a way, that’s what our task force mantra was.”

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Dave Reichert, the initial lead detective in the Green River Killer case, speaks to forensic class students at Kent-Meridian High School. STEVE HUNTER, Kent News

Dave Reichert, the initial lead detective in the Green River Killer case, speaks to forensic class students at Kent-Meridian High School. STEVE HUNTER, Kent News

Students at Kent-Meridian High School listen to Dave Reichert talk about Gary Ridgway, the Green River Killer. STEVE HUNTER, Kent News

Students at Kent-Meridian High School listen to Dave Reichert talk about Gary Ridgway, the Green River Killer. STEVE HUNTER, Kent News

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