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A setting made for murderer: Prostitution provided the setting for a killer
Thursday, November 6, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 a.m.
By Tomas Guillen and Carlton Smith
At just past 1 in the morning on June 24, 1982, a woman calling herself Giselle Annette Lewis stood near the intersection of South 156th Street and Pacific Highway South.
A man drove by in a late-model car. The blond-haired, blue-eyed Lewis caught his eye. The man stopped. A short conversation ensued.
Then, if the man followed his usual procedure, within minutes Lewis' hands were handcuffed behind her back, and her 5-foot-3-inch, 130-pound frame was securely buckled into the contoured passenger seat.
Lewis was on her way to jail.
This scene was repeated scores of times on the South King County "airport strip" during 1982. Though neither knew it at the time, the way prostitutes pursued their trade and the way county vice officers enforced prostitution laws were both to contribute significantly to the ease with which the Green River killer abducted his victims and eluded capture.
Lewis was 17, which legally made her a juvenile. But she had added two years to her age, and falsified her last name. Like most prostitutes, she was certainly aware that adult courts were more lenient to adult prostitutes than to teen-agers.
For one thing, juveniles had to put up with a probation counselor, who probably would tell them, tediously, about the dangers of prostitution. All adults had to do was promise not to do it again and pay a small fine.
Lewis' real name was Giselle Annette Lovvorn, and less than a month later she would be one of the first seven victims of the nation's most prolific serial killer.
But on this early morning of June 24, neither Lovvorn nor the man who had arrested her, King County vice detective John Lindner, had heard of the Green River murderer.
Of the 240-odd women the county police were to arrest for prostitution in 1982, the vast majority were like Lovvorn: young, often naive about the dangers they faced, yet brashly confident of their street savvy.
It was misplaced confidence: Of the 46 victims police later attributed to the Green River murderer, 33 were under 21.
For Lindner, the arrest of Luvvorn was but one more in a summer that was to be crowded with them; simply business as usual. The county vice squad's supervisor, Sgt. Donald Christianson, said later that prostitution enforcement was never-ending: "It's like p---ing on fires," he said. "You do it when you can, where you can."
Luvvorn was booked into the women's unit at the overcrowded King County Jail, where she joined four other young prostitutes arrested the same night by county police. The county's count for women arrested for soliciting since the beginning of the year edged past 80.
It had been another long day for Lindner. Earlier that night, he had gone into the My Place Tavern three times to look for hookers to arrest.
The My Place, a topless-dancing emporium on the west side of Pacific Highway South just north and across the highway from the Red Lion Inn, was one of only two taverns left in King County that mixed alcohol and topless dancing. Each time Lindner went into the tavern that night, he bought a beer.
Lindner was allowed even encouraged to drink on duty. The smell of alcohol on their breath, vice officers believed, helped convince prostitutes that they were not undercover cops.
The tavern parking lot was a hangout for women who solicited customers "johns" from the tavern, though the operators of the tavern evicted prostitutes if they entered the building.
After leaving the tavern, Lindner headed north. Just after 11 p.m. he arrested a 29-year-old woman at South 144th Street and Pacific Highway South. Back on the highway just after 1 a.m., he encountered Luvvorn and made his third prostitution arrest in less than 12 hours.
A LOSING WAR
The vice unit had been fighting a losing war against prostitution on Pacific Highway South for three years. Despite increasing arrests of young women, the numbers of prostitutes continued to rise.
Throughout most of each day and well into the early-morning hours, scores of prostitutes clustered at intersections along the highway, the main arterial access to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
Thousands of business travelers arrived daily at the airport. Many checked into the hotels and motels arrayed along "the strip," the five-mile stretch of highway from about South 135th Street to the Kent-Des Moines Highway.
When the street-prostitution invasion began in the mid-1970s, many of the women were from elsewhere, often Los Angeles, San Francisco or Las Vegas.
Accompanied by drug-bearing pimps "boyfriends," in the vernacular of the street the women rode a circuit of Western cities, stopping long enough to work for a month or two while getting arrested several times. Then they would take off for a new city, new johns and new police and often new names.
While the traveling show was in town, the pimps often recruited local talent, many of them juveniles. Local young men, often jobless and without formal education, saw the pimps' financial success and tried to emulate them.
Many girls, escaping abusive family situations, fled home and congregated in areas like Seattle's First Avenue, Tacoma's downtown, Pierce County's Ponders Corner (near Fort Lewis and McChord Air Force Base) and along Pacific Highway South, all of which saw booms in the merchandising of human flesh by 1980.
In recruiting, the pimps were favored by a 5-year-old "reform" of the state's juvenile-justice law. Following a 1976 U.S. Supreme Court decision, which struck down laws that applied only to children, the Legislature set up an elaborate plan to deal with troubled youngsters. The legislators gave the responsibility to the courts, the Department of Social and Health Services and the police.
Then the state, pleading money shortages and a large increase in the number of kids in trouble, reserved places in state-run facilities only for the worst offenders. Other troubled teen-agers were placed in state-subsidized private boarding houses, sometimes run by adults with no training.
Since the law gave juveniles much the same rights as adults, the police no longer could do much to either keep them off the streets or in custody. Even if they could have kept them in custody, there were few good facilities for them.
BLAMING THE LAW
The law known as the Juvenile Justice Reform Act of 1977 has been blamed by Superior Court Judge Terry Carroll and families of Green River victims, among others, for handcuffing police and the courts in their efforts to deal with incorrigible or abused and neglected children.
Carroll and other critics say the law directly contributed to the large numbers of juveniles available for pimps and other child abusers to prey upon and thus helped set the stage for the Green River murders.
Of the 46 listed Green River victims, more than half were 18 or younger. All but four were 25 or under. Many had extensive experience with juvenile authorities, who were powerless to prevent them from turning to prostitution.
Some spent time in juvenile lock-ups in several counties only to be released to the state-subsidized bed-and-board "receiving homes," where some owners set up bunk beds in the basement to collect the state stipend of $11 a day per child.
Some of the homes provided little real supervision. A few abused the children they were hired to protect.
Other girls avoided the juvenile-justice system by posing as adults, linking up with other prostitutes, and moving from motel to motel.
Still others married their "boyfriends" to shield them from charges of promoting prostitution. The pimps were often the only people who could, or would, give the young women any psychological and material support.
"They become non-persons," says Debra Boyer, a researcher who has spent the past decade working with prostitutes and prostitution issues. "A woman who prostitutes loses rights over her body," Boyer says.
"So she can be maimed, she can be beaten up, she can be arrested, she can be photographed, she can be killed, and it will take a long time before people recognize it, before they turn their heads and realize that something very, very bad is going on."
Boyer holds a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology. She studied prostitution in Seattle and King County intensively from 1977 to 1985, working first with anthropologist olumnist Jennifer James. The two interviewed scores of teen-aged prostitutes to learn how they became what they were and what happened to them when they did. Later, Boyer conducted her own study of 40 juvenile prostitutes, boys as well as girls, in 1984.
Boyer has watched police deal with prostitutes and has talked with many vice officers and their supervisors, mostly those in Seattle. She offers this observation of how police deal with the problem:
"I think they respond to community pressure around prostitution, and enforcement strategies always tend to reflect community pressure. They seem to want to respond at a very emotional, moralistic not moral, but moralistic level. And when you try to wipe out prostitution, you end up creating more problems than you solve."
The impact of community pressure and the way police enforce prostitution laws combined to create problems on King County streets. The situation wasn't helped any by the fact that the Seattle area's two major police agencies rarely coordinated their strategies.
When the county felt prostitutes were becoming too numerous on the airport strip, it increased pressure, and prostitutes and pimps simply went inside city limits. When the numbers grew too large for the city to tolerate, the same people were flushed back out to the strip.
"They (Seattle police) step on one end of the board," said King County Sheriff Vern Thomas recently, "and it comes up our way. We step on our end, it goes up their way. It rocks back and forth. It's done this since I've been a policeman."
Although the county maintains that officers arrested prostitutes wherever they could be found, the record shows that by far the most arrests in 1982 and 1983 occurred in two areas, both on Pacific Highway South near the airport:
The street corners on Pacific Highway in the Riverton Heights area between South 140th Street and South 150th Street. Prostitutes arrested there frequently worked out of nearby motels. They tended to be racially diverse, slightly older and more experienced, frequently addicted to drugs such as heroin or cocaine, and were generally tougher and more likely to rob a customer than those in other areas, according to the police. Many carried weapons. The johns tended to be blue-collar workers.
The intersections around South 188th Street and Pacific Highway South. The "Red Lion corner," as it was called on the street, tended to attract younger prostitutes and more whites. Johns were higher-income and often were from out of town. Some of these prostitutes worked out of the Red Lion Inn's two lounges or from the cocktail lounge at the Denny's restaurant across the highway from the hotel. Others set up shop in the Red Lion parking lot or that of the My Place tavern. Younger girls strayed farther south, some to Angle Lake Park or beyond.
In rare cases, a prostitute could earn as much as $500 a day, although much of it went to the "boyfriend" or for a drug habit.
Because a prostitute's time was money, many in both areas dispensed with using motel and hotel rooms altogether and entered cars and trucks driven by johns. "Car dating," as it was called, usually saw the john or "trick" pick up the woman in his vehicle and then drive to a secluded spot just off the highway.
This practice was often risky for both sides. Johns occasionally were robbed. And while women were beaten, robbed and raped by their customers, most continued to get into cars because of the potential to earn money quickly and because they often felt compelled to do so by their pimps.
Today, police say prostitutes' willingness to enter the vehicles of complete strangers was the main reason the Green River killer was so successful.
At the time, however, the practice of using the car for "dating" fit perfectly into vice officers' procedures. Normally, according to Sgt. Christianson, supervisor of the county vice unit at the time, an officer who saw a suspected prostitute would approach her in his leased automobile and, after some preliminary chitchat, the woman usually entered the car to close the deal.
THE HANDCUFF ROUTINE
It was common knowledge among the women that the arrest procedure called for them to be handcuffed and secured with the seat belt. So if the Green River killer posed as a policeman, as some officers speculate, chances are that he would have received little initial resistance from his victims. That could explain why no one ever escaped the killer, so far as is known.
Those arrested for prostitution were usually released from jail within a day or so on their promise to appear for their court date. Being freed on personal recognizance, or "PR'd" as they called it on the street, required that the person arrested have a verified address and sometimes a verified means of income.
Luvvorn, who had been arrested as Giselle Annette Lewis, had the address, a small apartment on First Avenue South she shared with a taxi-cab driver and his friend. Luvvorn's arraignment was set for 1 p.m., July 15.
When that day came, two things happened: Luvvorn did not show up, and Kent police found the body of 16-year-old Wendy Lee Coffield wedged against a piling in the Green River near the Meeker Street Bridge. She wore only her tennis shoes. The killer had strangled her with her own blue jeans. A single penny remained in the change pocket of the jeans. Police were at a loss to identify her.
Two days later, a Saturday, Luvvorn left her Burien apartment about 1 p.m. to go to the strip, wearing brown boots, a tan shirt and blue jeans. Her cabbie roommate later recalled that Luvvorn only wanted to work in the afternoon because two of her friends had been arrested the night before.
Luvvorn walked down a sidewalk and never came back. Three days later, her roommate turned in a missing-person report to King County police. The report was assigned for routine follow-up to Detective Earl Tripp of the county's major-crimes unit.
The same night Luvvorn vanished, Pam Peek really Debbie Bonner, soon to be a victim of the killer herself was arrested at 1 a.m. in the Red Lion Inn by Officer Dan Ring, who also worked part time as a private undercover security man for the hotel.
If either Bonner or Ring had read the paper the following day, they would have seen a small story in The Seattle Times that reported:
Wendy Lee Coffield still had not been identified. But the Green River murders had begun.
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