They were called the Green River murders, the astonishing toll was 49, the last of them being Cindy Anne Smith, 17, killed March 21, 1984. That was 15 years ago this week, and only friends, relatives, and Tom Jensen still think about such fading history. Where once, in the dazzle of strobe lights and headlines, a task force of 55 officers and agents searched for Cindy Smith's killer, now only Tom Jensen searches. Fifteen years down a cold and lonely trail of America's largest unsolved serial murder case, the King County police detective is the Green River task force, luckless but still hopeful.
"It wouldn't be fair to the 50 or so victims, 100 or so parents, and countless detectives and volunteers who have put time into this case," says the one-man force, "for me to stay with this if I can't maintain a positive, optimistic attitude."
But his burden grows. A new string of unsolved murders has cropped up around him—10 slayings since November 1997 by a Spokane killer. At least two of the murder victims were discovered this side of the mountains, the most recent being Connie L. LaFontaine, 35, found shot to death in October near Parkland. Naturally, Spokane police began comparing notes with Tom Jensen. LaFontaine had in the past been arrested for drugs and prostitution, a lifestyle similar not only to other Spokane victims but the Green River victims as well.
"There are no known links" between the two cases, Jensen says (the Spokane killer shoots his victim, the Green River killer regularly strangled his). "However, we do keep in touch and share information that might be helpful. I think that it's safe to say that any 'person of interest' who rises above the rest is investigated for possible involvement in both cases."
Still, what does he tell a frustrated public wondering why police can't catch someone who kills 10 or, good Lord, 50 times?
"The lifestyles of many of the women who fall victim to these serial killers makes police investigation difficult," Jensen explains—victims are not quickly missed, bodies are often decomposed, crime scenes are far-flung, and case links are not apparent early on. "I suspect," he adds, "these victims have been chosen because of their vulnerability," and not because of a killer's mania, say, to rid the world of sin.
The lack of Green River success distresses Jensen and his predecessors. However, it outright irritates Tomas Guillen. He covered the serial killings for The Seattle Times in the 1980s and early 1990s, and wrote a book about the case with Carlton Smith. Now a Seattle University professor, he has reconsidered the investigation and says it's time for a dramatic push—creation of a new task force, for example. Gillian always thought it was a mistake by the county to downsize the original force—formed in 1984, disbanded in 1990—and jettison boxes of records without coming to some declarative conclusion. Before the trail almost permanently freezes over, he proposes forming a contingent of America's top working or retired homicide experts who could swoop in and take a run at the case.
"Importing seasoned investigators," he argues, "would bring fresh eyes and perspective" to review old evidence and the new detail Jensen has collected. The county is aware of his proposal, but as Guillen said the other day, "So far I don't get any sense that police are interested in reopening or revitalizing the case."
It's fine with Jensen though. "Go for it," he says. "I have never cared by whom, how, or why the answers are found." But it would take a new team a year just to read the files, he thinks. "If they didn't [review everything], I could almost guarantee that they would end up doing things that have already been done. The guys from the FBI [on the original task force] were some of the real hot shots from around the country. I doubt there was anything that was not considered."
Among those early probers was FBI profiler and author John Douglas, who has inspired TV shows and movies—The Silence of the Lambs—and who has now launched a Web site that profiles the Green River case, collecting tips that are forwarded to Jensen. "We're very proud of the Web site," says a spokesperson for Douglas. "It's sparking interest in older cases."
Yet, so far the site, APB Unsolved (www.apbonline.com), which offers a panoply of detail on dramatic crimes as well as complete FBI files on historic figures, is producing little on the Green River crimes. "Most tend to be tips from girlfriends, ex-wives, so on," says Jensen. "They'll say, 'I don't know if he was ever in Seattle, but . . . '"
Jensen fields Internet queries and phone calls from his offices at the Regional Justice Center in Kent, always hopeful the next tip is the one he's long awaited. He reminds himself—by rereading a favorite quote from Sherlock Holmes—that, "The most difficult crime to track is the one which is purposeless." Each long day he adds at least another name to the list of suspects now totaling 554,969, nearly equivalent to the population of Seattle.
Maddeningly, somewhere on that list is almost certainly the murderer's name, and, equally maddening, a federal computer program that might have helped—searching for new strings and patterns in the huge database—has been shut down, $30,000 short in county funds. The optimistic Jensen tries to shrug that off, too. "Perhaps the money would be better spent on DNA lab work," he says.
So each new day the detective reviews his files and listens to his 49 ghosts for an overlooked clue. He updates his list of most-likelies, even though his top suspects "have been pretty much 'worked' to the fullest extent possible," he allows. Callers and writers offer at least one new tip a day "depending," he says, "on the cycle of the moon." The information is often sensible, but the nonsense pours in too—about the strange man next door, the creep in the office, the loudmouth at the bar: "He just looked like a killer," said more than one tipster.
"But I listen to each and every one of their stories," Tom Jensen says patiently, awaiting his next call. "Someday, one of them might be on the right page."