Galen Hirschi and his friend Robert proceeded into the water to retrieve the shoes. As Galen grabbed hold of the mysterious object containing the shoes, Robert yelled, “Stop!” The boys realized they had just grabbed a dead body.
This year marks 20 years since the capture of the “Green River Killer”
By Brandon Yip, Senior Columnist
The Green River is adjacent to Puget Sound and begins west of Seattle. It is“L-shaped” and the city’s only river, stretching 65 miles (105 km) in length. The river flows out of the Cascade Mountains just north of Mount Rainier. It then continues through Flaming Geyser State Park and down to Elliott Bay through the following communities: Auburn, Kent and Tukwila. The river is enjoyed by fishermen, cyclists, swimmers and families who appreciate the serenity and picturesque view the river provides.
On July 15, 1982, in Kent, Washington, two teenage boys, Galen Hirschi and his best friend, Robert, were riding their bicycles—enjoying the nice warm summer day. The boys were on their way home when they stopped on the Meeker Street Bridge overlooking the Green River. The boys stared at an old dock and post nearby. Galen noticed an object pushed upwards against the post in the current. The boys decided to have a closer look and saw a pair of brand-new white tennis shoes.
Galen and Robert proceeded into the water to retrieve the shoes. As Galen grabbed hold of the mysterious object containing the shoes, Robert yelled, “Stop!” The boys realized they had just grabbed a dead body. A jacket was wrapped around its head with hair floating under the current. The body was later identified as 16-year-old, Wendy Coffield—the first victim of the notorious “Green River Killer”: Gary Ridgway. This year marks 20 years since his arrest after he had eluded police and became one of the most prolific serial killers in US history.
By August 1982, four more bodies were retrieved from the Green River: Debra Lynn Bonner (aged 23), Marcia Chapman (aged 31), Cynthia Hinds (aged 17) and Opal Mills (aged 16). As more bodies were discovered, local police deduced they were dealing with a serial killer. The Pacific Northwest was also the area where another infamous serial killer, Ted Bundy, had committed dozens of murders in the 1970s.
The Green River killings made news headlines in the US and Canada. Ridgway preyed on women who were sex trade workers; many were also runaways. He frequently drove his pickup truck to pick up women along Pacific Highway South—an area known as the “strip.” Ridgway’s crimes have been the basis for books, articles, television segments, movies, podcasts—and a new crime docuseries on Netflix called Catching Killers. The segment interviews three former Green River Task Force members: Detectives Tom Jensen, Dave Reichert and Fae Brooks. “These were daughters, granddaughters, sisters,” Reichert said as reported by oxygen.com. “They were human beings. I mean, that’s the bottom line.”
Fae Brooks, a detective for the sex crimes unit with the King County Sheriff’s Office, has a personal connection to her work. “I’m a survivor of sex abuse,” Brooks said. “When I became a sex crimes detective, it was sort of like therapy because I was able to arrest people who were misusing, abusing people. So that drove me to want to catch the killer.”
Tom Jensen retired in 2012 and later signed up to be a volunteer at the King County Sheriff’s Office. In 2020, he was there when authorities announced they had identified Ridgway’s youngest victim, Wendy Stephens—who was 14 years old. “The investigation keeps going because we have unidentified victims,” Jensen said. “As long as we have unidentified victims, we’re not done.”
Gary Leon Ridgway was born on February 18, 1949, in Salt Lake City, Utah and later moved with his family to SeaTac, Washington. According to a profile about Ridgway on britannica.com, his father drove busses, while his mother was employed as a sales clerk. Ridgway later claimed his mother engaged in inappropriate behaviour. He was known to frequently wet his bed, a habit that continued into his adolescent years. Ridgway alleged his mother would then wash his genitals each time he wet his bed. He later began having fantasies about killing his mother and during the late 1960s, he stabbed a young boy. Ridgway graduated from Tyee High School in 1969 at age 20. He then served two years in the US Navy. Ridgway married three times and has one son.
Ridgway later worked as a painter for Kenworth Truck Company in Renton, Washington for over 30 years. Some of Ridgway’s coworkers often discussed him, facetiously referring to him as “Green River Gary”—due to speculation because Ridgway had been considered a longtime suspect in the “Green River Killer” murder case. Bob Schweiss was a former colleague who worked for the same company as Ridgway (in another department), before being laid off in 2000. He told the Seattle Times in 2001 his impressions of Ridgway: “We’ve all had people who tried too hard to be your friend. That was Gary. He was out-of-the-way friendly. Creepy-friendly. Just goofy.”
Janine Mattoon, a former neighbour who lived next to Ridgway, recalled him exhibiting odd behaviour. She remembered Ridgway warning her about prostitutes being in the neighbourhood. “He’d go door-to-door and tell neighbours, ‘Did you know prostitutes are having sex in cars on the street and throwing condoms out the windows?’” she said to the Seattle Times. “He made sure we were aware of that, and I always thought, ‘Gosh, this guy is kind of fixated on this.’”
Notably, it seemed imminent that an arrest in the “Green River” case would be made—two years after bodies were first discovered. According to the same oxygen.com article, in 1984, a public service announcement aired entitled, Someone Out There Knows Something. A woman named Rebecca Garde, contacted local police to report that she had been sexually assaulted in 1982. Garde told authorities her assailant worked at Kenworth Trucking Company. She later identified Ridgway as her attacker after perusing a police photo album. Unfortunately, the police did not have enough evidence to charge Ridgway. He would be set free to kill repeatedly. Garde would be Ridgway’s only survivor. He attempted to strangle he but she broke free and escaped. “He always had weird evil eyes,” she said in the A&E documentary, Invisible Monsters: Serial Killers in America. “Every photo and every picture that I see of him. I see those eyes. I remember them.”
Ridgway was arrested on November 30, 2001. Crystal Ponti wrote in a blog about Ridgway, published on aetv.com in November 2021 that “a DNA sample from Ridgway matched with semen recovered from four of the victims’ bodies.” While in custody, Ridgway spoke on camera with authorities about the murders he committed. In the 2011 television program, Born to Kill? excerpts from Ridgway’s interview with the police were shown. Ridgway stated after he picked up a sex trade worker along Pacific Highway South, he drove them to his home or a secluded area and engaged in sexual activity. Ridgway confessed after finishing, he then strangled his victims (while behind them) and later disposed their bodies into nearby areas (woods, river, dump sites). Oftentimes, he returned to some areas where he had placed his victims and engaged in sexual intercourse with the corpses.
Ironically, after his arrest, Ridgway wanted to be shown mercy; something he never gave any of his victims. In November 2003, The New York Times reported Ridgway, through his lawyer, made a plea deal with the prosecution. Ridgway would be spared the death penalty, in exchange for pleading guilty to 48 counts of first-degree murder. As well, Ridgway agreed to provide authorities information on the locations of the remains of other victims.
In December 2003, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported Ridgway was sentenced on 48 counts of first-degree murder: with no possibility of parole. Another conviction was later added bringing the total to 49. Family members of Ridgway’s victims later read victim impact statements. Many statements expressed anger towards Ridgway for the pain and suffering, he had caused. Tim Meehan, brother of Mary Meehan, whose body was discovered November 13, 1983—hoped Ridgway would suffer in the same manner as his late sister and the 47 other women had. “It’s garbage like you, not these victims that you took their lives, that doesn’t deserve to live on,” he said as reported by the Associated Press. “I can only hope that someday someone gets the opportunity to choke you unconscious 48 times so you can live through the horror that you put our mothers and our daughters through.”
However, Robert Rule, the father of 16-year-old, Linda Jane Rule (who was murdered by Ridgway), showed compassion for Ridgway. “Mr. Ridgway, there [are] people here who hate you, I’m not one of them,” Rule said as reported by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. “I forgive you for what you have done. You’ve made it difficult to live up to what I believe, and what God says to do, and that is to forgive. And he doesn’t say to forgive certain people, he says to forgive all. [So,] you are forgiven, sir.” Ridgway was then seen using a tissue to wipe away tears.
Ridgway later addressed the victims’ families as he stood in front of Judge Richard A. Jones, reading a prepared statement. Although, he expressed regret and said he was sorry for what he did—his attempts to show contrition seemed insincere. And considering the crimes that he committed, the word “remorse” did not seem part of Ridgway’s DNA. Ridgway is currently imprisoned at Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla.
“To every serial killer, human beings are objects in the homicides that they commit,” said Dr. Helen Morrison, a forensic psychiatrist in the same 2011 program, Born to Kill? “They’re never going to remember the name. They’re never going to remember the face. They’ll remember the concrete action of where those bodies are.” Morrison then added, “The Green River Killer was definitely born to kill. He was an individual who has this changed gene. And culminated in a tremendous number and intensity of homicides.” According to biography.com, in 2003, Ridgway claimed in an interview that he had murdered between 75 to 80 women. This led to speculation whether Ridgway was being transparent or simply seeking attention.
The legacy of Gary Ridgway is one of a cold-blooded and manipulative killer, who had no compassion for his victims. During his many interviews with police after his arrest, Ridgway boasted about his killings. “Choking is what I did,” he once told police (quoted from Crystal Ponti’s blog about Ridgway), “and I was pretty good at it.” He stated he preyed on prostitutes because he hated them and they were easy targets. “Low-risk victims would be prostitutes who’d eagerly get in your car for, for money,” Ridgway said in an interview with police that was played in the same A&E documentary. “And they wouldn’t be missed. Prostitutes are not, they’re not as valued as much as a, a college person.”
Pennie Wood, the author of the book, Green River Serial Killer: Biography of an Unsuspecting Wife, states there was a stigma in how the media portrayed Ridgway’s victims—because they were sex workers. “When the news started reporting about the bodies being found along the Green River, there was an outrage in the public,” she said in the same A&E documentary. “There was an anger and a frustration. It was like because all of the victims are prostitutes and runaways. Are they less important?”
Significantly, on the day of Ridgway’s sentencing, Judge Jones made a concerted effort not to make the focus entirely on Ridgway. Judge Jones wanted to acknowledge Ridgway’s 48 victims. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported on December 18, 2003, before Judge Jones addressed Ridgway and his victims’ families, “he asked for 48 seconds of silence to [honour] the 48 slain women.” Later, Judge Jones encouraged the victims’ families to let go of their feelings of hate and revenge. And instead, channel those emotions to honour the memory of their loved ones—by embracing other young women who do not have loving families: “I ask you to remember those 48 young women as people who had unexplored dreams, hopes, aspirations and families that loved them deeply. Hold on to those memories. Cherish those memories and try to abandon the others.”