How the Green River Killer is still robbing his victims

Media coverage of Gary Ridgway's recent overtures from Walla Walla misses the point: Why he was able to get away with it for so long. His victims deserve more.
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Gary Ridgway

Media coverage of Gary Ridgway's recent overtures from Walla Walla misses the point: Why he was able to get away with it for so long. His victims deserve more.

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.

Wendy Coffield started seeing a 21-year-old man, but her home life became unbearable after her boyfriend took up with her mother and moved into their apartment, reports a 1992 Seattle Times article. She was then in and out of foster care before disappearing.

That piece editorializes about Wendy Lee's death: "Getting murdered was just about as self-destructive as you could get."

Somehow, in this narrative, this 16-year-old homeless girl got herself murdered.

The coverage last week of Gary Ridgway was particularly traumatic to one listener, Jenny Graham. Graham is the sister of Debra Estes, another of Ridgway’s victims. She was only 17 when her 15-year-old sister disappeared. Her stepfather had sexually abused her sister, herself and their brother, she said, and the abuse is what helped drive her sister to the streets, and her brother to suicide.

Some of the graphic details included in the KOMO news story gave her nightmares and even made her physically ill. September 7 was Graham’s sister’s birthday, and September 20 marks the anniversary of her sister’s death. Graham has been actively lobbying to change laws in Washington state, and helped get legislation passed to extend the statute of limitations, so that victims have until they are 30 years old to report abuse, instead of only one year.

She also supports the idea of a memorial for the victims. “The whole idea behind the memorial is to try to bring the community together, to help in healing,” Graham says. “This is also to honor the law enforcement,” she added, noting that many investigators, volunteers and others in the legal field dedicated years and even decades of their lives to finding the killer.

The individual stories of the girls and women that Ridgway killed can be depressingly bleak, but shining a light on their circumstances can also create empathy for a population that’s often either dismissed as disposable, or viewed simply as sex workers.

"Prolonged and repeated trauma usually precedes entry into prostitution," a 2003 paper published in the Journal of Trauma Practice reports. The study of over 850 prostitutes in nine countries found that between half and 90 percent report being sexually abused as children, by an average of three people.

Society often sees prostitution as a choice, but the vast majority of women participating in commercial sex are under the control of a pimp. After acquiring criminal records and lacking resumes, they do not have viable job alternatives. Most prostitutes also exhibit symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that can surpass even those of treatment-seeking Vietnam war veterans. according to research by sociologist Melissa Farley.

It’s this backwards thinking of blaming victims for trying to survive that the founders of OPS, are hoping to change.

Gomez, 40, is herself a survivor of prostitution who was kicked out of her home as a teenager and put on the streets by a pimp. Eight years ago she was able to break free of that life. In addition to working as an addiction counselor, Gomez spends almost every night of the week doing some kind of outreach, bringing home-cooked meals to the girls and women out on Aurora Avenue, handing out condoms, inviting them to attend art therapy sessions at the Aurora Commons.

In August OPS gathered together a few dozen supporters, including survivors and social workers, for a potluck on the grass at Denny Park, where prostitutes used to hang out, waiting to be picked up by johns, hoping to make it back again alive. The park is one location the group has considered for the memorial. Survivors have been doing paintings and other art projects, brainstorming around the concept and the design. They plan to eventually present a proposal to the city.

The outreach and the work that OPS is doing is unique, said Gomez. “Up until we started our group, there's never been anything like that in Seattle, at all.”

“Seeing the progress and the change in other women — that's what keeps me going. That's the way you can heal is to help other people. We're trying to help people who are still around."


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About the Authors & Contributors

Stacey Solie

Stacey Solie

Stacey Solie is a Seattle-based reporter, writer and editor and an adjunct at the University of Washington where she leads narrative non-fiction workshops for scientists. She has contributed to The New York Times, The Daily Beast, The Seattle Times and was the founding editor of The Science Chronicles, an environmental conservation monthly. Follow her @staceysolie