Still unsolved?

Detective Tom Jensen is "just getting started" in Green River killer case.

HOURS BEFORE Green River murder suspect Gary Ridgway was charged with four counts of homicide last week, King County Sheriff's Detective Tom Jensen was searching for the Green River murderer. A week later, he's still searching, and may be for years to come. "I don't know" if Ridgway is the Green River killer, allows Jensen, who is an expert on the serial slayings and has been a one-man task force for most of the 19-year investigation. "Maybe. But until we get into this a little more, and he tells us, maybe, of his involvement, I couldn't say."

The investigation into the 49 slayings of young women thus remains wide open, including the four aggravated murders charged to Ridgway, 52, an Auburn truck painter. DNA lab tests have allegedly linked him convincingly to one murder and less convincingly to two more; the evidence is circumstantial in the fourth case. DNA tests were unable to link him to a fifth murder victim, sources report. Ridgway's defense attorney, Tony Savage, plans to challenge the testing on several grounds including chain of possession of the evidence. He may also raise questions about the police grilling of Ridgway without an attorney for 90 minutes after his Friday arrest.

Investigators also say the same DNA testing that allegedly connects Ridgway to America's largest unsolved murder case eliminated another leading suspect, a cab driver, and a third man. But both are still suspects in Green River cases not linked to Ridgway, along with other "persons of interest." Jensen says, "We certainly don't want to ignore anyone else who might be responsible," including potential accessories, copycats or, as Ridgway's attorneys are arguing, the real killer.

Jensen believes the evidence is solid against Ridgway. But the detective has been at this quirky and complicated hunt too long to believe he and others have suddenly come up with an all-inclusive happy ending. "Who knows? Maybe someone else will surface," he says. "We are already re-evaluating others we have looked at in the past."

Besides what officials call the "newspaper count" of 49 dead women thought to have been killed here between 1982 and 1984, a dozen more local killings may be connected to the case. The killing number exceeds 100 when similar murder cases are added from up and down the West Coast and Hawaii.

Officials are obligated to review those cases, but as one King County investigator puts it, "there's a lot of politicking and case-dumping involved. Everyone wants Ridgway to be their man, too."

THOUGH HIS arraignment is set for next week, Ridgway's trial could be months, if not years, in the making. King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng last week said he was sure an impartial panel could be seated. "This has been a huge story, and rightfully so," he announced to a jammed press conference. "But we will try it in the courtroom and no place else." In the first week of coverage after Ridgway's arrest, roughly 400 Green River stories were published or aired by local media (some erroneously: For example, Ridgway never, as was widely reported, sought out authorities to offer his Green River theories—"Never happened," says Detective Jensen). Ironically, it was reporters asking Maleng last week if Ridgway could get a fair trial. The prosecutor promised to "dim the spotlight on this case" as he handed out a press release and 18 pages of court documents finitely making the case against Ridgway.

Though the 5-foot-10-inch, 155-pound suspect is accused of strangling his victims—prostitutes he'd picked up on what police say were regular rounds at the SeaTac strip and elsewhere—prosecutors are relying not so much on the killer's methods but on what they say is his DNA calling card. Investigators feel DNA convincingly ties Ridgway to one case, that of Carol Christensen, 21, whose body was found in May 1983 in Maple Valley. Maleng alleges that a DNA sperm swab from Christensen's body matches Ridgway's DNA—a biological fingerprint that is unique to Ridgway, the prosecutor says.

Similar but less consistent DNA profiles allegedly tie Ridgway to the bodies of Opal Mills, 16, and Marcia Chapman, 31, both found in August 1982. Though comprehending such arcane evidence can be taxing, there typically is little jury reluctance to accept DNA science when expertly handled. Circumstantial evidence links Ridgway to the murder of Cynthia Hinds, 17, who, like Chapman, had a small rock inserted into her vagina, prosecutors say.

"DNA advancements have outpaced our wildest expectations," Maleng says. "Under the first method of DNA testing which appeared almost 15 years ago, a sample at least the size of a quarter had to be collected to be of any evidentiary value." Now, a small amount of material can be expanded and grown in the lab and be used to solve cold cases decades old.

Prosecutors believe the newest DNA test methods are so persuasive they will revolutionize the legal evidentiary process. Maleng and Sheriff Dave Reichert are pushing for state funding to build, in Maleng's words, a "crime lab in Washington state that is second to none."

Jensen, the manhunter, likes that notion. He awaited the Green River lab findings while on vacation. When he returned he got the uplifting news of a "hit" connecting Ridgway to three of the victim samples they submitted. "It's odd," he says. "After almost 20 years, it [the breakthrough] made me feel like we're just getting started."

randerson@seattleweekly.com

 
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