This is a true story. This happened. I am not making this up. What prompts me to tell this story is the recent discovery of a skull thought to belong to a victim of the Green River killer, click here for news story.
In the late 1990s, I and some of my co-workers were prolific readers of "true crime" books. In the course of our discussions, we concocted a theory about where we might run into the Green River Killer. So we went there. And, yes, we ran right into him...
...though it would take several years before Gary Ridgway was arrested and tried as the Green River Killer and we figured out our theory had been correct.
This happened sometime between 1995 and 1999, in Seattle. I had a job at a group home for the chronically mentally ill (you can keep your jokes to yourself, thank you) and, like many people who work in the field of psych, I had an interest in some of the more extreme manifestations of deviant psychology, such as multiple personalities and serial killers. I had some fun and interesting co-workers who were into the same stuff. We would loan each other books and feed into each other's interests.
Sometimes our interest in what we read about serial killers caused us to seek out real world connections: I visited the alley where Ted Bundy had kidnapped one of his victims, I saw the house where Bundy had rented an apartment, (there was a very high fence around the little house which was out-of-place in the neighborhood, obviously erected because of the notorious events which happened at the address) and I would tell me co-workers about these experiences. They had similar experiences to share.
It was like reading the stuff in books wasn't good enough. We wanted a connection. A firsthand experience. We wanted to stare right into the face of the monster and come back to tell the tale.
At this time, the Green River Killer had not been apprehended and, truthfully, I suppose most people thought he'd never be caught. Maybe he had died. Maybe he was incarcerated for another crime. Or maybe he'd gotten smart and decided to hunt his victims far from Washington State.
At this time, the "serial killer club" at work had all gotten around to reading The Riverman: Ted Bundy and I Hunt For The Green River Killer. To summarize that book, in a nutshell: while sitting on death row in Florida, serial killer Ted Bundy desperately tried to bargain for his life. Bundy contacted the Green River Killer investigation and claimed he had "insights" he could share which would be helpful in determining the identity of the Green River Killer. And so the investigators traveled to Florida and chatted with Bundy.
Bundy had an interesting suggestion to share: the police should sponsor a kind of "psychological sting operation." (My term for it, not Ted Bundy's) The idea was to offer up a rare and especially gruesome slasher flick at a limited time showing. Advertise the flick widely and make note of how rare, horrible, and borderline illegal it was. The rest of the operation was simple: keep track of who shows up. Take note of the license plates. Among the movie goers you will have a rather short list of who are the deviant, dangerous sex freaks in your neck of the woods.
So that was Bundy's big idea. That was Bundy bargaining for his life. Have a slasher movie fest and hope the killer shows up. Hope the Green River Killer is into slasher movies.
Bundy did not manage to save his life this way, trying to trade his insights. Bundy fried in the electric chair. And that had been back in 1989, so it wasn't like members of the "serial killer club" could send him a letter and make a personal connection.
But one day excitement rippled through our ranks: Ann Rule, the author of numerous true crime books, who had first risen to fame through her book about Ted Bundy, who she knew personally as a co-worker at a crisis hotline center, would be signing some of her books at the University Bookstore. We all wanted to go and see her just because she was Ann Rule and, geez, we had all read about a dozen of her books apiece.
But then one of our crew--a beautiful platinum blonde named Kirsten--had an idea, a brainstorm. What if the "Ann Rule book signing" was kind of like the "slasher film festival" discussed in "The Riverman." In other words, what if a serial killer would be attracted to this event and would show up there?
"Think about it!" Kirsten would say, to anybody who would listen to her idea. "This is the author who wrote about Ted Bundy. She's already written one book about the Green River Killer, even though the crime isn't SOLVED, yet. And it's OBVIOUS that if the Green River Killer is still alive, he lives right around here somewhere. So...."
So, went the inevitable conclusion, perhaps the Green River Killer will show up at this Ann Rule book signing.
We hatched a plan. A crazy, silly, rather naive plan. We would go to the book signing. But the whole time, we would be keeping an eye on the crowd. We would watch for somebody who made our spidey senses tingle and then...and then...
This is where the plan fell apart. What would we do? Photograph him? Follow him to his vehicle? Get his license plate?
The plan became even more daring as we figured out what resources we had, and how we could use those resources. We would have the beautiful blonde co-workers dress "a little on the slutty side" and plant them in the front row. We would see if anybody tried to strike up a conversation.
Ultimately, only Kirsten was brave enough to go through with this part of the plan.
We prepped ourselves for what we thought we might encounter: this man might appear ordinary. He might almost fade into the background. Or he might appear like an upstanding member of society and stand out from the crowd, like handsome Ted Bundy, the law student. He might be...anything. We had to watch for anything, to keep our senses open. And he would be watching for the watchers. So we may not have long to look at him.
And so the big day came. We all went to the book signing. Ann Rule was entertaining and, it must be noted, a humble woman. She revered the police and the work they did. They were, she thought, the real stars and not true crime writers...
I was watching the crowd. Watching. Trying not to be too obvious. Another member of the group had a camera, or perhaps she had my camera, which I loaned her. This much I remember: the camera was not in my hands. But one of us had a camera. Back then, not many people used digital film, and I'm sure whatever we had was not a digital camera.
There came time for a question and answer session. The questions turned toward the subject of the Green River Killer.
At the front of the crowd a man stood. He was balding but still had plenty of hair. He was dressed in a long black dress coat, maybe a London Fog coat. He held a black leather bound book which looked like it might be a Bible. He held this book in front of himself, right at crotch level, and his legs were spread apart slightly more than necessary as he stood.
There was something about his face. Superior. Like he knew something. Like he knew so much more than Ann Rule, even though she was the star of the little show at the bookstore. He was doing his best to suppress the superior look on his face, but you could still see it...especially if you were a psych tech, actually trained in the art of reading body language, "facial affect," postures.
My senses went off. This was the guy. And there I was without a camera in my hands.
The guy asked a question of Ann Rule.
"Do you think they'll ever catch him?"
I remember how Ann Rule looked at him. It was odd. She was quiet in her answer and very careful. She said very little, but what she said was voiced quietly and carefully.
"Well, yes I do. I think there is physical evidence, and science is developing more all the time, and I think the police will connect these pieces and solve the crime."
Words to that effect.
At this point, I was in motion. Moving without attracting undue attention, I was trying to find the co-worker who had the camera. But like a puff of smoke...he was gone.
I sat down on a chair. I closed my eyes and burned every detail I could of that man into my memory. How he stood. What his face looked like. What he was wearing. What his voice sounded like.
None of my co-workers had seen him. They'd heard the question asked, yes, they'd heard Ann Rule's response...but none were facing the man in the crowd. And though I had seen the man, it wasn't like I could be SURE he was the Green River Killer.
So he carried an odd black book. So what? So his face had a superior look. So what?
We joked about our little excursion. How we'd implemented our plan, used our co-worker Kirsten as bait for the Green River Killer, and, yes, one of us saw a likely suspect. It was like telling a ghost story by the camp fire: yes, you get chills but...is it all just fun? Just pretend?
The authorities, as it turned out, long suspected Gary Ridgway. In fact, the University Bookstore incident would not be the only time Kirsten "almost sort of" crossed paths with the Green River killer. She was friendly with a high-ranking police contact, and this guy once told Kirsten that "everybody believes" the Green River Killer lives in Auburn, Washington and has a job painting trucks. I once re-connected with a female army buddy who lived in Auburn, Washington, and she told me: you know, a lot of people think the Green River Killer lives right here in Auburn, Washington.
Of course, Gary Ridgway did live in Auburn, Washington, and he had a job in a nearby town painting trucks. He co-workers jokingly called him "Green River Gary" because it was well known he'd been questioned as a suspect in the Green River murder case. But here he was running around loose. Here he was, eating lunch with co-workers. How can you believe the person coexisting beside you, who seems no more normal, no more quirky than the average person, is the manifestation of evil incarnate?
I was living in the midwest when an announcement came about an arrest in the Green River Killer case. I rushed to the internet to get a look at the suspect, thinking one thought: could it be the same guy I saw in the bookstore? Would the face match?
The face I saw was Gary Ridgway's mug shot from 1982. Knowing it was an old picture, I tried to mentally age the picture, crop the hair, and compare it with my recollection of that brief encounter in the University of Washington book store. The results were inconclusive. I couldn't say it was the same guy. I thought, well, probably not.
A few days or a week later, I saw another article about the arrest of Gary Ridgway. My heart jumped into my throat when I saw the mug shot, which was not from the 1980s but was a current picture of the guy who turned out to be the Green River killer.
It was him. It was the guy from the book store.
He didn't look EXACTLY the same, but only in one important and understandable way: he face wore a different look. He didn't appear superior. He looked defeated, he looked scared, he looked angry...but it was still the same guy.
I have never told this story in a public forum until now. Today I feel compelled to tell it.
You see, I check on ol' Green River Gary now and then. I want to know how he is doing and whether he will be charged with more crimes, whether he will be executed. Though I had already learned this lesson in life prior to that day's encounter with Gary Ridgway, there was something startling about that particular day, that revelation of reality: it is possible to casually knock on the door of pure evil and say hello.
You may brush up against evil in the grocery store, you may watch it drive by in the passing lane of the highway. It is possible to form a dangerous hypothesis and try it out: what if I did this, that, and that? Perhaps I would have an encounter with the devil incarnate. If you are young and dumb, or not a cautious person by nature, you may even try out your hypothesis.
Maybe Gary Ridgway will die in jail. Maybe the authorities will find a way to charge him for a victim not included in his massive plea deal, and execute him. But either way...it is discomforting and disquieting to know that pure evil is never as far away as we imagine.