1982-86: A decision on the evidence

In July 1982, the body of Ridgway’s first known victim was pulled from the Green River in suburban Seattle, with a pair of jeans knotted around the neck.

Embedded in the denim used to strangle 16-year-old runaway Wendy Lee Coffield were the tiny spheres of spray paint that would take more than two decades to detect.

After four more bodies were found dumped in and along the Green River in a month, the King County Sheriff assembled a task force to track down a serial killer.

The killer continued to harass vulnerable women and girls, many of whom had run away or been involved in street prostitution, leaving the bodies in remote wooded tracts. Investigators compiled a list of hundreds of possible suspects and amassed a mountain of evidence from the dumps. turning over much of the material to the state forensic scientists for analysis.

Ridgway first came to the task force’s attention in 1983, when 18-year-old Maria Malvar disappeared after getting into a pickup truck with a man on Pacific Highway South. Her boyfriend and her pimp later saw what she thought was the same truck in front of the Ridgway house and reported it to police.

Ridgway told a detective that he knew nothing about Malvar’s disappearance, but he continued to resurface in tips and run-ins with sex workers over the next few months. He voluntarily spoke to detectives and acknowledged that he had been arrested before for soliciting a prostitute. He said he had continued to pick up girls working on the streets on a routine basis and had even come across two of the killer’s alleged victims. But he denied harming them. In 1984, he agreed to take a lie detector test and passed.

By then, the killer had left behind key microscopic evidence that could have helped unmask his identity, records and interviews show. Along with the jeans used to strangle Coffield, spheres of paint were trapped in the weaves of cloth that were eventually found with seven other bodies and bones, records show. A purple shirt. A pair of jeans. A black knitted sweater.

Gary Ridgway on a mugshot after his arrest in 1982 for soliciting prostitution. King County Sheriff’s Department, via AP

But with the volumes of evidence, staffing constraints and the workload of other cases across the state, crime lab officials had to choose which evidence to analyze, said Cwiklik, the lab’s trace evidence supervisor at the time. .

They chose to focus on analyzing hairs and fibersthat “generally would have been the most fruitful,” Cwiklik said in a recent interview.

Analysts assigned to the case «really did an incredible job» of sorting, analyzing and comparing thousands of collected hairs, fibers and paint chips and other debris, he said.

But focusing the analysis on hair and fibers meant the lab «basically ignored» smaller particles and dust on clothing and other items, Cwiklik said.

In early 1985, Ridgway again aroused suspicion after another woman reported that a man who showed her his Kenworth employee ID card tried to strangle her after she had paid for sex in 1982. When questioned by a detective, Ridgway claimed that he strangled the woman only after she bit him. The woman refused to press charges, according to the detective’s report.

The same year, Palenik, the renowned trace evidence expert, learned of the case. Palenik, then a principal investigator at the Chicago-based McCrone Research Institute, a leader in microanalysis, taught workshops across the country. He had just finished teaching a basic forensic microscopy course at the Seattle crime lab when George Ishii, then director, told him about the Green River murders, Palenik said in a recent interview.

Before leaving town, Palenik said, Ishii promised to seek his help if a suspect emerged. But she never heard from Ishii again, who died in 2013. Ridgway is known to have killed at least four women after 1985, when Palenik visited Seattle.

Microscopic slides of various materials sit on the desk of Skip Palenik at Microtrace in Elgin, Illinois.
Microscope slides with various materials on Skip Palenik’s desk at Microtrace.Taylor Glascock for NBC News

«Imagine in ’85, after I was there, if George sent us these things, we would find and identify the spheres as this unusual urethane paint,» Palenik said. “And then when they bring in a suspect and it’s Gary Ridgway, well, where does he work? He works at a place where he sprays the same unusual paint on trucks all day.»

But without that forensic evidence, Ridgway slipped out of the investigators’ clutches and kept killing.

1987-90: ‘We should have done it’

By 1987, Ridgway’s fondness for prostitutes and previous run-ins with known victims and other tips were enough to help investigators obtain a search warrant your home, vehicles and workplace.

In an affidavit, investigators wrote that they wanted to compare trace evidence collected at various dumpsites that could be linked to Ridgway, including green polyester carpet fibers and aluminum shards.

But the hair, fibers, clothing and other evidence that was seized did not definitively bind Ridgway to any victims, and slipped back into the muddy suspect pile as the decade ended.

In hindsight, Cwiklik said, the crime lab should have shifted its focus from hairs and fibers to testing for smaller particles in evidence recovered from landfills.

By 1990, Cwiklik said, the crime lab was using an infrared microscope, capable of detecting finer detail than a light microscope. For years, the lab had also been using techniques to capture smaller fractions of trace evidence that could have helped detect the paintballs, he said. But he still would have needed an outside specialist, like Palenik, to identify them and trace them back to their source, he said.

«Really, we were able to find these things, but we didn’t because we didn’t look at the small fractions,» he said. «It always bothered me that we didn’t do that, but it would have been hard to argue that we should prioritize that.»

«But later, when nothing was fruitful,» he said, «we should have done it.»

King County Prosecutor's Office via Getty Images)
Investigators are looking for the remains of one of Gary Ridgway’s victims.King County Prosecutor’s Office via Getty Images

1990s: a rejected application

By the early 1990s, when a new wave of bodies and bones was found, the Green River Task Force had already disbanded. But a smaller group of detectives who feared the killer was still working quietly kept the investigation alive. They zeroed in on a prime suspect: Ridgway.

In November 1992, detectives formally requested that the crime lab compare the hairs collected from Ridgway with those recovered from the new wave of victims, according to a detective’s report. note to lab obtained through a public records request. But crime lab officials, who by then had spent years futilely analyzing hair and fibers in the case, rejected the request as a pointless effort, retired King County Sheriff’s Detective Tom Jensen said.

Jensen, who has devoted most of his career to the case, was surprised to learn recently from an NBC News reporter that the ability to detect the paint spheres that linked Ridgway to some of the victims had existed years before.

He did not recall lab officials ever mentioning to detectives that smaller particles of trace evidence had not been analyzed, he said.

“I think we would have done the test if we had known,” Jensen said. «We were doing everything we could to find a shred of evidence.»

As the ’90s progressed, Jensen was left alone to investigate the Green River murders as leads dried up.

Jensen’s list of the killer’s alleged victims grew to nearly 90, including dozens of homeless or drug-addicted girls and women who disappeared or were abandoned in remote parts of western Washington.

Near the end of the decade, the killings seemed to stop. But they hadn’t.

When Patricia Yellow Robe’s body was found in the bushes outside a demolition yard south of Seattle in 1998, she was not considered the victim of the killer. The medical examiner ruled her death an accidental overdose.

Yellow Robe grew up in Montana as the eldest of nine children in a family torn apart by alcoholism. At 38, she had been in and out of rehab and suffered from chronic health problems. She spent the last few days of hers couch surfing and frequenting dive bars, police records show.

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