Despite its title, the new graphic novel Green River Killer: A True Detective Story is only partially about Gary Ridgway, the killer responsible for at least 49 murders. The book--the first of its kind to use a comic-book method to tell the Ridgway story--is more about a man named Tom Jensen, a veteran King County Sheriff's Office detective who spent the better part of his career investigating and obsessing about Ridgway.
Seattle Weekly spoke with Det. Jensen's son Jeff, a journalist with Entertainment Weekly and the author of the new book.Seattle Weekly: So how did you become interested in the Green River Killer case?
Jeff Jensen: My dad spent his career as a police officer with the King County Sheriff's Office.
The first body attributed the Green River Killer was found in the summer of '82. The department was authorized to form the Green River Task Force force in 1983 with homicide detectives, vice cops, and other officers. My dad was the only one who wasn't a homicide or major-crime detective to be approached to be part of the task force when it was assembled in late January of 1984.
I was, like, 13, so like everyone at that time in Seattle we had all heard of this so-called Green River Killer. It was this dark ominous thing that hung over Seattle culture. So when my dad came home and said "I'm gonna be part of this task force," we all knew exactly what the case was.
Little did we know he'd become so closely involved with it.
What was that like for you as a kid?
I remember very vividly when the first bodies were found and pulled out of the river. I was saying with my grandmother in 1982 in a very, very small town in Eastern Washington. It got about 10 issues of the Seattle P-I every day. I remember going down to the general store and picking up a newspaper and reading about these bodies that were found, and it was very clear that something very awful was happening in Seattle that summer.
At the same time it seemed to be contained in this world of prostitution. There was a kind of attitude that "It's just prostitutes."
We were aware of the case, so to see my dad become a part of it, initially, I was, like, "Wow! My dad's involved with a big case. That's exciting."
That excitement ended up taking a turn through the years that passed, because my dad never talked about the case. And it felt very conspicuous, his silence.
How did it affect your dad?
My dad would work on the case and come home and want to go down to his workshop and pound the shit out of something. Tearing apart this house and rebuilding it became his outlet for this case.
When we tried to pump him for info, he'd say nothing.
It was very clear this was hard, troubling, difficult work, and he never talked about it.
By 1988, as the case wore on, they had investigated a couple suspects and had to let them go, and the task force came under attack from the media for failing to make progress. And there was this mounting sense of defeat.
My friends would sometimes make comments like "When's your dad gonna catch this guy?"
In 1988 I graduated and I left Seattle. And in 1990 the task force was finally debunked and my father was asked to stay on as the only full-time officer working on the case. All though this time we could tell it weighed on him. He tried to present it to us as it being just a job. He was very involved with all our lives, and the case was just a job. I never got the sense that this was personal for him
But as the '90s wore on and he was the only one working on this, I was worried for his self-esteem. Did he feel like he was wasting his career?
What happened when they arrested him?
My dad had come to visit me and he said "Jeff, can you keep a secret?" I said, "Dad, I'm an entertainment journalist, of course I can keep a secret."
He said "We're gonna arrest the Green River Killer." And I was so happy for him.
Little did we know that a very weird end game was about to begin.
Why a graphic novel?
The reason I chose a graphic novel was I'm a really big comic-book fan. My dad used to read comics to me. Comics were in our home: Justice League, Batman, Superman. It was something that was personal. I'd never seen a graphic novel done that tackles this kind of material. So I thought it would be a really unique, personal way to tell my dad's story.
How has working on this project affected you?
It definitely changed my relationship with my father in a great way.
I have the greatest respect for my father, but there was always a part of his life I wanted to get to know more. Working on this book gave me the permission to ask all the questions I wanted to, like who he is and where he came from, like why did he fall I love with my mom, and why did he want to be a police officer.
The case was always something that was very hard to talk about with his family because of the horror of it all, so he kept it inside. By telling me his story and then being able to dramatize it with this book, he's able to finally share himself and share this part of his life with his family.
What was the most interesting thing you learned about Gary Ridgway?
It's cliché to talk about the banality of evil. But if anyone embodied that, it's Gary Ridgway.
Here's the shocker, and the perspective I pursued in the book: Is it possible for a serial killer to know love and be in love?
In researching Gary and reading transcripts, what surprised me the most was when they finally captured him, he had found what he was looking for most of all, and that was a woman who loved him wholly and completely.
In meeting his third wife Gary's demons were quelled.
How a man that could be that evil, a man who once tried to kill a young boy as a teen just to see how it felt. That a man like that could fall in love with a woman and be tamed and live a somewhat normal life, it's really unsettling, and it bursts your notions of what evil is.
One of my favorite little stories is an epilogue in which Gary was asked to rate his evil on a scale of one to five and he gave himself a three.
I thought "Wow, if Gary Ridgway gives himself a three, where are we?"
Jeff Jensen is a journalist with Entertainment Weekly. Green River Killer: A True Detective Story is written by Jensen and illustrated by Jonathan Case. It's available now through Dark Horse Comics and can be purchased online here.
Here's an excerpt provided exclusively to Seattle Weekly.
(Frame transcript--since it's hard to read: Top right: "I'm sure we'll have this thing wrapped up in no time..." June 15, 2005, Nineteen years later. Middle left: "Tom..." Middle right: "He's here".)