The Green River Killer's widely-publicized offer on KOMO News last week to help investigators find additional bodies upset activists and some of the victims’ family members.
They represent a growing community of advocates who would like to see less attention paid to the killer, and more public empathy and assistance for victims of sexual violence and exploitation. This nascent group is working to build support — holding community meetings and fundraisers — for a permanent memorial for the victims that Gary Ridgway killed, most of whom disappeared in the early 1980s and were still teenagers when they died.
But because many of his 49 confirmed victims were also prostitutes, their lives and deaths have not been honored in the same way as other murder victims, says Noel Gomez. Gomez is a cofounder of the Organization for Prostitution Survivors (OPS), a year-old local non-profit that provides services, meals, therapy and basic support to women involved in "the life."
Gomez compared the lack of public response to the Green River victims to that of the Boston Marathon bombing in April that killed three people. “Three days later there was a memorial," Gomez said. A spontaneous outpouring of grief resulted in a pile of memorabilia that prompted Boston's mayor to create a task force for a permanent memorial.
"We had over 85 women and children murdered here, and there's nothing for them," she said. "If they were college students — half of them were under 18 years old — this would be huge."
In 2003, in a plea deal that allowed Ridgway to avoid the death penalty, he confessed to and was convicted of murdering 48 girls and women within King County. An additional victim, Becky Marrero was added in 2011 after her remains were found in an Auburn ravine.
In what many perceive as a bid for attention from his prison cell in the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla, Ridgway is now offering to help detectives locate 30 or more victims’ remains. However, his admissions have yet to lead investigators to any new bodies. Any murders that occurred outside the county could expose him to further prosecution, including the death penalty.
The recent media attention lavished upon the man, initiated by a KOMO News "Voice of Evil" story, was picked up and echoed by multiple national news outlets, such as the New York Daily News and the Huffington Post. But, for the most part, the story missed an opportunity to examine the social conditions that allowed Ridgway to do what he did, victims’ advocates say.
Many women working as prostitutes, both then and today, were running away from abuse at home before falling under the control of a pimp, says Peter Qualliotine, who cofounded OPS with Gomez. Qualliotine has been working with both victims and "johns" — men who purchase sex — for over 25 years, and started one of the first "john schools" in the country. The program educates men arrested for soliciting sex about how a pervasive culture of male entitlement perpetuates sexual violence against women.
"It's not a moral issue, it's about social justice," said Qualliotine, who says that the vast majority of prostitutes were sexually abused as children. Qualliotine advocates decriminalizing prostitution and that buyers be held more accountable.
Most of the people Ridgway killed had been traumatized by abuse that made them, in one way or another, vulnerable to predation. Take the first known victim, Wendy Lee Coffield, whose 16-year-old body was found floating in the Green River on July 15, 1982.
A year prior to her death, she told her mother someone giving her a ride had raped her, reports Ann Rule in "Green River, Running Red," her 2004 book about the killings. Coffield's mother, divorced and raising her alone, had struggled financially, and the pair lived in a tent at one point. The girl served time in juvenile detention for the crime of stealing food stamps.
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