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A case that kept eluding the police: Police slow to act on their suspicions
Thursday, November 6, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 a.m.
By Tomas Guillen and Carlton Smith
Although it happened more than five years ago, Marilyn Harrison still remembers the telephone call vividly.
It was late afternoon when Tony called. He was her son-in-law. Harrison hated him, but usually tried to be polite.
Tony was a pimp.
Harrison's 16-year-old daughter Kase (pronounced "Casey") Ann Lee was Tony's "ho," as prostitutes are known in the language of the streets. Tony and Kase had been married just over four months.
"Tony was in a panic," Harrison recalls. "He said Kase was missing. He said she'd gone to the store to buy some hamburger for lunch and that she hadn't come back. It had been two days. Tony said he'd called the police to report her missing. He said he told the police that he thought the Green River killer had gotten Kase."
The words "Green River" chilled Marilyn Harrison. Even in Spokane, where she lived, news about the murders of prostitutes had received extensive coverage. Now Tony was making the killings seem palpably real. Adding to Harrison's fears was the knowledge that Kase had known some of those who had already died.
Two weeks before Kase disappeared, the Green River killings had burst into public awareness on Aug. 15, 1982, with the discovery of three of the killer's victims in or near the Green River near Kent. That made five victims found at the same river location in less than a month. Harrison believed her daughter had known at least two of the dead women.
The discovery of the bodies of the three Marcia Chapman, Cynthia Hinds and Opal Mills threw the police investigation into turmoil. It wiped out what had seemed a promising lead into the deaths of Deborah Bonner, whose body had been found in the Green River on Aug. 12, and of Wendy Coffield, whose body had been found in the river in July.
The day the three new bodies were found, King County Sheriff Bernard Winckoski was fishing at Neah Bay on the Olympic Peninsula.
A VETERAN TOP COP
Winckoski was a career law-enforcement official. He had spent 27 years with the Detroit police and seven years with the U.S. Department of Justice. He'd served as administrative assistant to former King County Sheriff Larry Waldt. When Waldt retired, King County Executive Ron Dunlap appointed Winckoski to the top job.
Winckoski thought the first two bodies found in the river were possibly victims of unrelated killings. Then he received a phone call from Jim Nickle, his chief of operations. The discovery of three new bodies instantly told Winckoski that he and his department had a big problem.
Even the dimmest bulb, Winckoski said in a recent interview, had to conclude that a serial murderer was at work. Winckoski called off the rest of his vacation and headed back to Seattle.
The next day, Winckoski organized a 25-member task force to investigate the killings, drawing on officers from his own department and the cities of Seattle, Tacoma and Kent.
He also asked the FBI's behavioral-sciences unit in the Washington, D.C., area to prepare a psychological profile of the murderer. Drawing on evidence police retrieved from the places where victims' bodies had been found and on the agency's knowledge of patterns in other serial killings, agent John Douglas told Winckoski's task force that he believed the murderer was a white male, between 25 and 35 years old, a man for whom seeing women "openly prostituting themselves . . . makes his blood boil."
Aside from the profile, Winckoski did not have much to work with.
King County Police had no detectives who specialized in homicide. Three of the department's most experienced detectives Bob Keppel, Lockheed Reeder and Roger Dunn, all of whom had work on the so-called "Ted" serial murders later linked to Ted Bundy had left for other jobs.
To head the investigation, Winckoski chose Maj. Richard Kraske, then the commander of his Criminal Investigation Division.
But though police immediately made a major manpower commitment to the search for the killer, almost from the beginning important aspects of the unfolding case seemed to elude them. Because of that, the killer was able to go about his business undetected for months.
The day after Kraske's appointment, police staked out the Green River. It wasn't much of a secret, however.
On the first day, police stopped and questioned a newspaper photographer, and later a television station's helicopter flew over the stakeout area and televised the officers' concealed positions.
Police were furious. The incident probably made no difference, however.
THE MISSED CHANCE
In fact, police later bitterly realized that if they had searched the river more thoroughly when the body of Deborah Bonner was discovered by a slaughterhouse employee Aug. 12, they might have caught the murderer dumping his fifth victim.
Bonner's body was found about 1:30 p.m. From telephone records, police also learned that Opal Mills had been at Angle Lake Park on Pacific Highway South at about 12:50 p.m. on the same day.
Police believe the murderer picked up Mills, killed her, drove her body to the river area and was dumping it when Bonner's body was found less than 200 yards away. The murderer would have had only 40 to 50 minutes to accomplish all those tasks. Given the 20-minute drive time from the park to the river, that would be cutting things particularly close, police agree.
But in support of this theory, police point out that Mills' body was found face down on the river bank, rather than in the water as the four other victims were. Police say that indicates the murderer panicked and dropped Mills' body haphazardly in a rush to get away. It is logical, police say, to assume that commotion from the discovery of Bonner's body downstream sparked the panic.
If police are wrong about Mills' disappearance time and they admit they could be that would mean they would have had an excellent opportunity to catch the killer if they had had the river staked out on the afternoon and evening of Aug. 12.
Instead, they spent about three hours where Bonner's body was found, then left leaving no surveillance behind. This was in spite of the fact that Bonner's body marked the second time a dead woman had been found in the river in 27 days.
When Mills' body was found three days later, along with the bodies of Marcia Chapman and Cynthia Hinds, the killer was long gone.
It took police less than a week to learn that all five victims had some connection to the street-prostitution scene then burgeoning on Pacific Highway South, and to conclude that the killer was likely a "john," or customer of prostitutes.
BUSINESS AS USUAL
Nonetheless, county police did not alter the way they dealt with street prostitution for more than two years. During that time, all but two of the 46 identified Green River victims disappeared.
Police "prostitution decoy" operations against men who patronized prostitutes stopped altogether after Aug. 15. They did not resume, and then only sporadically, until 1983. Before Aug. 15, police had arrested 29 men over seven months, 13 in July 1982 alone.
A stepped-up campaign against men seeking sex for sale probably would have produced more murder suspects, and might have driven the murderer away from the Seattle-Tacoma Airport strip as police now believe later decoy patrols did in 1984.
King County's vice-unit supervisor at the time, Sgt. Don Christianson, was unable to explain why decoy patrols were suspended after Aug. 15.
"I suppose we were busy with something else," he said in an interview.
However, other department sources contend that the main reason the patrols were halted after the first murders was fear that decoy operations could be too dangerous for the women officers asked to pose as prostitutes.
Not immediately going after potential suspects and instead zeroing in on potential victims had two serious consequences: It deprived homicide investigators of scores of possible leads, and sent a message to prostitutes and their pimps, however inaccurate, that police were more interested in enforcing prostitution laws than they were in catching the murderer.
Deborah Boyer, a researcher who holds a doctorate in cultural anthropology from the University of Washington and has spent the past decade working with prostitutes and prostitution issues, contends the worst mistake police made was failure to establish lines of communication with prostitutes immediately after the killings came to light.
Police contend their homicide investigators did do a good job of communicating with the Sea-Tac strip's prostitutes in the weeks after the murders were discovered. But Boyer points out that while homicide detectives were trying to get the women to cooperate, vice officers were simultaneously trying to arrest them and that it was unrealistic to expect them to cooperate under those circumstances.
"A cop is a cop to a prostitute," Boyer says. "Prostitutes don't trust police officers. They've all had bad experiences with them at one level or another.
"There are several mistakes they've made," Boyer says of the police. "One is that and I've had officers tell me this they depended on their relationships with prostitutes to get information."
The trouble with that approach, Boyer says, is that prostitutes "have a lot to protect, (because) they're illegal persons. They are subject to arrest and harassment and murder and they have no protection. They're non-persons. And they understand that. So they're not going to give up a lot to a police officer."
As the murders continued, Boyer says, police sometimes came to her and others experienced in dealing with prostitutes for ideas.
SENDING A MESSAGE
One alternative solution offered, Boyer recalls, was to declare a moratorium on prostitution arrests. It would have at least sent a message to the women that someone cared about their lives. Boyer admits that solution might have run into "some problems." But it would have fostered better cooperation between prostitutes and police, she thinks.
Another strategy would have been to hire people familiar with the subculture, such as older prostitutes, to work with the women in getting information. Police weren't interested, Boyer says.
But they were interested in another suggestion: that the vice squad be used to enforce prostitution laws against customers at least until the murderer was identified.
That strategy was adopted in 1984. Vice unit officers' primary responsibility became running decoy patrols. Arrests of women in street-prostitution cases declined markedly. By the end of 1984, more than twice as many men as women had been arrested by the vice unit, and hundreds more had been questioned by undercover Green River Task Force officers.
The apparent results were twofold: Street prostitution on the Sea-Tac strip withered and the murders seemed to have stopped.
But in 1982, despite the murders, vice operations had gone on pretty much as they had before.
Christianson maintains that some of his officers took part in the initial investigation of the Green River murders by keeping a watch on known prostitution customers. But a review of arrest and expense logs indicates the Green River crimes occupied vice officers far less than their normal priorities gambling and massage parlors.
In 53 days from mid-August to early October, for example the period when six women, including Kase Lee, were last seen county vice officers visited massage parlors six times, dropped in on strip hotel cocktail lounges (where street prostitutes only rarely ventured) 22 times, and made 12 tavern gambling investigations and inspections. The records show that officers drank in virtually every hotel along the strip, watched topless dancers in several places and generally did little to assist the murder investigation.
Although seven of the killer's first dozen victims were last seen on either Saturday or Sunday, no vice officers were assigned to work weekends, even after the murders were discovered. Some worked part time as plainclothes security men at strip hotels on weekends. The hotels counted on them to keep prostitutes out of the lounges. That only added to the numbers of women committing street prostitution which provided more potential targets for the killer.
Three of the eight county vice officers took vacations in the weeks immediately after Aug. 15.
Finally, the department did not adequately coordinate vice and murder investigations. No overall attempts were made to analyze relationships between prostitutes to see whether there had been any new victims. At that point, police were convinced the killer would ultimately return to the river to dispose of more victims. He did not.
Before the end of the year, police disbanded their 25-officer task force and concluded that either they had intimidated the killer or that he had left the area.
Neither proved correct.
A SHIFTING SCENE
The discovery of the bodies of Mills, Hinds and Chapman changed life on the Sea-Tac strip almost immediately. Many prostitutes left. A group who had come to Seattle from Southern California pulled up stakes almost at once, leaving behind scores of court cases, many under false names.
When police later tried to unravel who might be victims of the murders, they were left holding a sackful of blind leads because of the false names.
Other prostitutes simply went to ply their trade elsewhere in the area.
Kase Lee, for one, shifted to downtown Seattle and was arrested on Aug. 21 by Seattle police on charges of prostitution and lewd conduct.
On Aug. 24, she was taken to Airport District Court, where she pleaded guilty to earlier prostitution charges. Judge Gary Utigard released her on her promise to appear for a pre-sentence interview on Aug. 27. Lee went to the session, told the interviewer the murders had scared her badly and that she no longer intended to hustle in the airport area.
The next day, she vanished.
That was five years ago last month. There has been no trace of her anywhere.
Each time Marilyn Harrison hears that another skeleton has been found, the waiting begins. Her eyes go to the telephone. She knows that someone in Seattle is patiently inspecting bone fragments, teeth, X-rays. It takes time, sometimes days.
More than 30 times so far, Marilyn Harrison has waited for news, for the awful finality that she knows so many other families have experienced.
But now the telephone never rings.
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