A Killer Still on the Loose

updated 08/24/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/24/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

He may be sitting next to you as you read this. He has committed a rage of murders unmatched in American history, yet not even his victims may have known his name. In the past five years, according to Seattle area police, he has killed at least 37 women (top, and on following pages), and perhaps many more. Yet he remains a mystery. They call him the Green River Killer.

Five years ago last month, the killer first made himself known. Two boys were bicycling along the Green River—a paltry, undistinguished stream near the Seattle-Tacoma Airport. They found the body of Wendy Coffield, 16, beneath a bridge. A few weeks later, the body of Debra Bonner, 23, washed up on a sandbar. Then a man rafting down the river in search of bottles and cans saw what he thought was a mannequin; at the end of that day investigators had found a total of three bodies. And so it has gone, along logging trails and in back of Little League fields, in mountain country and down in ravines and almost in people's backyards: For five years the bodies of murdered women have been appearing around Seattle and northern Oregon, 37 so far, with at least 9 others missing and presumed murdered. The most recent discovery was in June, when the body of Cindy Anne Smith, missing three years, was found. Despite a $10 million investigation, thousands of leads and hundreds of thousands of hours of police work, the killer is still unaccounted for.

Although the bodies of his victims are still being found, police think he may have stopped killing three years ago. They are not sure he stopped; they cannot be sure that he will not start again. Even so, the public outcry for his capture has grown faint. His confirmed victims have been white, black and Native American—most of them girls, really, still in their teens. Many of them have been runaways, and many were last seen along the Pacific Highway's Sea-Tac strip, an area of cheap motels and tawdry lounges frequented by prostitutes and their clients; 32 of the 37 whose bodies have been found were connected with prostitution.

Because their habits were irregular and their associations hard to trace, police say that investigating their deaths is difficult. And because of the circumstances of their deaths, polite society has not always acted outraged by these crimes. Already, the all-out manhunt for the killer has been scaled down. Tragically, because he chose unpopular victims, this killer might get away with his murders.

"To the person (or persons) responsible for the disappearance of our daughter, Tracy Ann Winston, and also for the deaths and disappearances of many other young women.

For almost four years, our daughter has been missing and is suspected of being one of the Green River victims, one of your victims...we still love our daughter and if you have taken her life we would receive great comfort in knowing where her body was left so that we can give her a Christian burial, a final resting place, rather than have her left in the woods, alone, forever..."

Last month, nearly four years after the disappearance of their daughter Tracy, Charles and Mertie Winston issued that heartfelt open appeal. At a chain restaurant a few miles from the Green River, Mertie Winston, 44, talked about the pain that lay behind her desperate plea. "I believe that Tracy Is likely to be dead," she said. It has taken her years to be able to speak these words. Over the past five years, there have been 37 times when police have recovered a young woman's body, and on most of those occasions Mertie Winston has waited for the inevitable moment.

The Winstons hope that even the killer can understand their sorrow. "I don't believe he is a monster," says Mertie Winston. "It's hard to believe that Tracy was killed by an absolute, amoral monster. It's so awful. If I believed that, my mind would conjure up the worst possible scenario for her death, and I couldn't deal with it.

"Tracy liked a lot of outdoor things and sports," Mertie Winston says. This mother has to force herself to remember to use the past tense. "She played girls' basketball and softball and she was the first girl on the town's Little League baseball team." It was Tracy's mothering instinct, says Mertie, that led her to get involved with a boy who was bad news. Mertie doesn't dwell on details, she just says, "Tracy thought she could turn him around." Parents and daughter clashed. "There came a time when our wanting to keep her away from this fellow was more of a restriction than she could deal with, so she took off." Tracy moved downtown, took a job in a nursing home, another in a fast-food place, but always kept in touch. She came home for visits and holidays, talked of getting the high school diploma she had missed by a hair and of going to business college. Her parents never knew that she had been arrested for loitering for purposes of prostitution, but they soon learned that throwing stones is the national sport of more countries than the game of soccer.

As Mertie Winston recalls it, the Green River deaths at first brought a public outcry—for the elimination of prostitution, not the apprehension of the killer. "Our kids were being penalized again," she says. "It sounds silly—how can you be penalized anymore after you've been murdered? But it was happening. We admit freely and openly that our kids had problems, but Tracy didn't deserve to die because she wasn't living what was perceived to be a perfect teenage life." She was 19.

Lt. Dan Nolan of the King County Sheriff's Department has spent the last three and a half years searching for Tracy's killer. "The man we're looking for is a shade of gray," says Nolan. "He's very innocuous. He fits right in with the community." To protect their investigation, the police have told little of what they know about the man. These few facts are public: He is probably middle-aged and an outdoorsman who knows the woods and streams of western Washington State intimately. He is a remarkably strong man who can carry the body of a 140-lb. woman through mountain or marsh to a secret hiding place. A few times, witnesses have caught glimpses of the victims with strange men before their deaths. Police deduce from these sightings that the man they want drives a light-blue, primer-spotted pickup truck. Other reports have said he smokes, drinks, and is white. And it is not mere happenstance that he has evaded capture: He is very, very clever.

The experts have a label for the killer: He is a sexual psychopath. Locked somewhere in his mind, perhaps in memories of his childhood, are the roots of a murderous rage. "Control is a big thing with him," says Pierce Brooks, a veteran detective and consultant to the investigation. "He's got to have control. Serial killers are the biggest cowards in the criminal subculture. These victims are teenagers, some of them 15 or 16 years old. He's got to be physically stronger than his victims." By preying on prostitutes, hitchhikers and runaways, the killer picked women willing to drive away with him without a struggle. Officially, police will not comment on the methods the Green River Killer uses to murder his victims; one psychologist who consulted with the investigators, though, has said that the killer has used a long, slow method of strangulation, which allows him to savor his victims' horrible deaths.

The government pages of the Seattle phone book contain a listing for the Green River Task Force, just as they list the numbers you can call to complain about your property taxes and your neighbor's howling dog. For a while, the Task Force seemed like a permanent arm of government, with 55 members drawn from the King County Sheriff's Department, the Seattle Police and other local departments, the FBI and the state patrol. It had its own headquarters in a onetime junior high school near the airport.

Now the schoolhouse is going back to the school department, and the Task Force Staff is down to 32 members. It takes investigators, on average, three to five years to track down a serial killer; the Task Force has been officially in business for three and a half. "We are most likely to solve it in the next two years," Nolan says. But he knows that the deadly riddle of a sexual psychopath takes persistence, ingenuity, luck, and most of all, time, to unravel. The payoff may be close—if the public will wait.

Since the Task Force became an all-out effort, in January 1984, Lt. Dan Nolan has been its second-in-command, under three different captains. He is a sharply creased and neatly barbered man of 50 who looks less like a big-city cop than a middle-level executive. The father of seven children and stepfather of three more, Nolan manages to juggle an intense family commitment with a passion for his job. His office is as spare and tidy as the man himself—only a few books, neatly shelved, on subjects like criminal procedure and serial killing, betray his calling. "All the people assigned to the Task Force were handpicked because of their abilities in investigation or their reputation as excellent officers," Nolan says. Like his colleagues, Nolan came to the job gung ho. He was a detective with 11 years of experience, a steel-nerved cop whose family had long since learned to live with his passion for his job.

"The feeling certainly was that we would solve it within a year," Nolan remembers. "When that didn't happen, I think we were all frustrated and pretty disappointed. We kind of hit the wall in January 1985. A lot of people started pointing inwardly and saying, 'Am I doing my job well enough? Is it all screwed up? Is it possible to solve?' We got clinical psychologists to come out and talk to us about the stress we were going through." For weeks, the members of the Task Force met and talked about their frustrations. Finally, says Nolan, the group discovered a new resolve: "We got to a point where we agreed that this was the most difficult investigation we would ever be involved with, and by God it certainly was worth it, and we were going to pick it up and stay with it until we solved it."

Because it did not wrap up the case overnight, in TV gumshoe fashion, the Task Force itself became a victim of a fickle public. An editorial cartoonist dubbed it the "Task Farce." Its shortcomings have been front-page news: Three times in the past three years, the Task Force has homed in on a suspect who looked like their man; they have raided houses, taken samples of car paint and clothing fiber, brought people in for questioning—and, in the end, decided there was not enough evidence against any of the three.

A $200,000 computer system with software designed specifically for the investigation helps the Task Force wade through the 20,000 leads it has received on close to 7,000 possible suspects. Police believe that buried somewhere in all that data—tantalizingly beyond their reach so far—is the killer's identity. "We have a group of 500 to 700 people who are in the 'A' category," Nolan says. Slowly, methodically, his investigators pore over each suspect's file, looking for reasons why he might not be the killer. If a suspect cannot be eliminated, the detectives start building a paper chain of evidence. "We have to go through this process to get the guy who's responsible," Nolan explains.

There is a grudging acceptance now that their quarry is a man of deranged yet unusual acuity. The killer picks his victims well, usually leaving the Task Force lacking witnesses and uncertain exactly about when and where a woman disappeared. "Because he conceals his bodies, because he doesn't want them found quickly, the means of death often isn't known even after autopsy," says Nolan. "In most of the cases now, all we get back from the medical examiner is that the person died as a result of homicidal violence."

Though no new victims have been added to the official list for three years, Nolan in public can only speculate on why the killings may have stopped. "The possibility exists that he's dead, that he's in jail, that he's moved out of the area, or that he's quit killing—that's probably the least likely."

Seattle is a sensitive, caring community, one of those vibrant old cities that, in the past 15 years or so, have rejuvenated themselves, renovating an old marketplace, building a new downtown. Graffiti on inner-city construction sites carry such liberal-minded messages, such as "Bernhard Goetz is a Racist Murderer" and "Stop Aid to the Contras." But, in the tawdry streets where, late at night, lost young girls offer to sell their only marketable asset, no graffiti warn about the Green River Killer.

"We've been struck by the lack of outrage in the community," Cookie Hunt says. "Part of that is the way the police and the media painted the victims as being prostitutes and runaways. It sets the tone for the community not to care." Cookie Hunt, 34, a local newspaper editor, is the spokesperson for the Women's Coalition to Stop the Green River Murders. In 1984 she and the Coalition helped sponsor a Take Back the Night March in Seattle. Last year, she helped lead a sit-in at the investigation headquarters, protesting what the women saw as the lack of progress. Their criticisms have not endeared them to the police, but they have focused attention on an embarrassing reality: Seattle has become complacent about the killer.

To a degree, Lieutenant Nolan agrees. "If the victims were bank tellers or schoolteachers or housewives, there would be a lot more vocalization from that segment of the community than there is right now," he says. Although 22 of the 37 confirmed victims were teenagers, and most of the others were under 25, Cookie Hunt believes that society places little value on their young lives. "They're disposable," she says. "They're expendable. Nobody seems to care anymore."

Dan Nolan, only partly in jest, says that he is in the "sunset" of his career. In five years he can retire, and he may do so. But first he wants to meet the killer. "I don't have any idea what the guy's going to tell us," he says. "I certainly hope that he would sit down with me and tell the whole story, tell why he was driven to do this, tell us precisely how he did it. I'd love for that to happen. Whether or not it will..." he pauses just a moment..."Well, it's probably very unlikely."

Young women have started to work the Sea-Tac strip again, no longer very worried. "They don't think they'll be picked up by the Green River Killer," Nolan says. "They know if they don't go back on the highway, they will certainly be beaten by their pimp."

As Nolan says, the killer may have died, or gone to jail for some other crime; he could have changed his method, or his location. He could be anywhere. Nolan clings to his belief that the investigators will eventually close out the case with an arrest that sticks. "We think that somewhere in this investigation we have the lead, a name, a set of circumstances, a description—maybe a very ordinary activity that we haven't focused on yet. Maybe there's a milk truck that stops two or three days a week; that guy's innocuous; he's that shade of gray. It's routine. That milk truck pulls into two restaurants that are within two or three blocks of where the victims were picked up...."

He's still out there, a seemingly ordinary man, with such terrible secrets.

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