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Thursday, November 6, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 a.m.
Could killer strike again? Probably yes — despite 46 murders, little has changed

By Tomas Guillen and Carlton Smith
Seattle Times staff reporters

Out on Pacific Highway South, the stage is set for another tragedy.

For the first time since the summer of prostitutes are frequenting the Sea-Tac strip in large numbers.

And after five years and 46 slayings, the Green River killer is still at large.

Could he strike again?

The answer is almost certainly yes. In fact, it is possible that he already has resumed killing.

Rose Marie Kurran, a 16-year-old who was strangled and dumped not far from the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport late last month, was typical of the killer's prey in many ways. Police are still trying to determine if the Green River killer was responsible for her death.


Sept. 13 - 18, 1987This is a six-part examination of how police and other institutions dealt with the worst known serial-murder case in the nation. The series is based on a year of work by two reporters with long experience covering the case.

Part 1: What went wrong?
Part 2: A setting made for murderer
Part 3: Case kept eluding police
            · Couple finds 'black hole'
Part 4: Police net catches wrong man
Part 5: A task force is born
Part 6: Could killer strike again?
            · What kind of man is this?

Even if the killer never reappears, another like him could. Serial murders have become a modern American plague. Almost every major city has had them.

Thus, reaching out to young women on the street seems an increasingly urgent need. Unfortunately, despite the Green River experience, little has changed in the way local institutions deal with the problem of juvenile prostitution.

Five years after the worst serial murder case in U.S. history began, the police, courts and the King County Department of Youth Services still don't have the means to quickly identify, find and intervene in the lives of young women who risk becoming prostitutes — and being killed.

Kurran is a good example.

She had a long history of involvement with the Department of Youth Services, including warrants issued for her arrest, drug and alcohol dependency, early sexual activity and estrangement from her natural father.

She was last seen walking north on Pacific Highway South near South 133rd Street at 5:30 p.m. Aug. 26. Her body was found in a grassy ditch near South 188th Street and Military Road. Police believe the killer often has used Military Road to take his victims from the strip to secluded areas where he dumps them.

Despite the obvious risks of prostitution, courts continue to treat it as a minor offense. Men charged with soliciting a prostitute are given nominal fines and no jail time, while women usually are released on their promise to appear later in court.

No one looks for women who fail to appear for their court dates, even though that may be an indication of foul play — as it was with many of the Green River victims.

The job of finding prostitutes who miss court appearances is the responsibility of the King County Police Warrant Section.

However, warrant-section supervisor Sgt. Charles Kringen says his unit doesn't bother with prostitution warrants because the costs of serving them are often more than the bail the county will receive if the person is found and arrested.

Despite the Green River murders, the state still lacks a workable legal framework to exert control over most teen-agers who are at risk of ending up on the street, according to judges and juvenile probation supervisors.

And the risk to juvenile prostitutes is demonstrably high. Kurran was only 16 years old; 18 of the Green River victims were 17 or younger, and all but a handful were no older than 21.

But because juvenile prostitution is considered a minor crime, the state rarely acts to place juveniles in secure facilities.

Under state law, the first three times a juvenile is arrested for prostitution, he or she is diverted to a community-based treatment program. Since earlier this year, most have been sent to Orion Center, an outreach program for street kids in Seattle.

On the fourth offense, county prosecutors have discretion to seek detention for the youngster, but rarely do so.

The result is unsatisfactory, according to Dick Carlson, court-services manager for the Department of Youth Services.

"I don't think that much of anything we do is very helpful when it comes to prostitution," he says.

One reason is that programs to divert youngsters from selling sex have been grossly underfunded, say youth-services counselors like Tyrone Karam-oko, who counseled three Green River victims and relatives of other victims.

Karam-oko deals primarily with repeat offenders. The problem, he says, is that young girls at risk of becoming prostitutes often accept abuse as an unavoidable fact of life — a condition they feel they deserve because they cannot see themselves as worthwhile people. Like battered women, they have been conditioned into having low self-esteem.

For these serious and deep-rooted problems, most juvenile prostitutes are sent to short counseling sessions many times before receiving any detention time. When they are detained, it is usually for less than a week. Few, if any, receive any long-term attention.


"The thing that bothers me most, the thing that I hear from caseworkers and others," says Superior Court Judge Terrence Carroll, "is that the kids know the system. They know how many arrests and convictions it takes before anything serious happens to them. . . .

"The law needs more authority to deal with kids, and we don't have that authority now.

"I have heard nobody suggest that street life is good for a child. It's obvious it's destructive to children. We either stop it and give the courts the authority to do so, or we create this fiction that we're concerned about it but really don't do anything about it."

Finally, there has been no legislative recognition that minors involved in prostitution are victims of crime, rather than merely participants in an illegal activity.

A law approved two years ago makes it a felony to patronize a juvenile prostitute. Yet the laws against prostitution by juveniles still require police and courts to treat minors as criminals.

Many of these problems were analyzed last year in a wide-ranging report issued by Harborview Medical Center's Sexual Assault Center.

With money from the federal Department of Health and Human Services' Runaway and Homeless Youth Program, the assault center studied the causes of youth prostitution, its consequences and its possible solutions.

The report drew on observations from Seattle and King County police, from lawyers who have defended and prosecuted juvenile prostitutes and from the state's Department of Social and Health Services.

Among those who contributed to the study was Debra Boyer, a cultural anthropologist who has studied juvenile prostitution in King County for the past 10 years. Boyer says too few people realize the large number of Green River murders is a direct outgrowth of the way juvenile prostitution is handled by society's institutions, including the police.

Among other things, the group recommended significant changes in vice-enforcement procedures. So far, few of those recommendations have been put into action, although victims'-rights advocates agree that police sensitivity to the issues underlying juvenile prostitution has greatly increased since the murders.


The report suggested that DSHS should reform the way it handles such cases by:

Creating specialized living quarters and resources for minors caught up in prostitution and improving the screening and training of parents in foster homes.

Establishing an interstate network for sheltering juvenile prostitutes. This could give those who choose to testify against pimps and other abusive adults the chance to relocate in a safe place.

In the area of legislation, the committee recommended:

Laws to allow police to arrest male motorists for loitering if they circle an area repeatedly while in search of a prostitute. The city of Seattle has such a law. The county does not.

Laws to permit the seizure of pimps' property — such as cars — on conviction for promoting prostitution.

Decriminalization of prostitution by youngsters under 15 and treatment of them as victims of exploitation rather than as offenders.

Recommendations for police agencies included:

Adding more staff to city and county vice units and putting more women on the vice squads.

Training vice officers to recognize and handle juvenile prostitution situations as cases of abuse, not as crimes committed by juveniles.

Instituting joint social-work

olice teams to reach out to teen-age prostitutes to learn more about what is happening on the streets.

Increasing police disapproval of men who patronize prostitutes by conducting regular "john patrols."

Police acknowledge they can't prevent such crimes as the Green River serial murders. But one way of lessening the possibility of their happening again is to take potential victims out of a killer's way.

The best that can be expected, they say, is earlier detection and a vigorous response when such crimes are detected.

"I don't want to say there's anything good that's come out of this," says King County Sheriff Vern Thomas. "That's the last thing I want to say."

But Thomas insists his department now is far better prepared and equipped to handle a serial murder case than it was five years ago.


The Green River case prompted police to obtain a sophisticated computer system capable of handling millions of pieces of information about the crimes that should help police set priorities for their investigation.

With a grant from the federal government, police bought a portable fingerprint-detection system capable of lifting fingerprints put down months and even years before.

And because of the murders, county police have vastly improved their ability to investigate the scene of a crime outdoors — often the most difficult to reconstruct because of the effects of weather and wildlife.

"I've got an outdoor-crime-scene team that's second to none," says Thomas.

The murder case has also provided on-the-job training for scores of detectives, and that will help the department in other cases in the future.

Finally, the department has created a missing-persons unit, though it still does not investigate reports of runway teen-agers.

Nonetheless, the murders remain unsolved. And with every passing week since August 1982, when the victims and the suspects alike were fresh, police follow an ever-colder trail.

The 18-month investigative lag — from the day the first body was fished out of the Green River to the time the investigation began in earnest with the Green River Task Force — is lost forever.

So is the evidence. Since the first bodies in the summer of 1982, virtually every body found has been reduced to a skeleton by months of exposure to the elements. Animals have scattered the bones. The microscopic fibers and hairs critical to identifying the killer have been blown away by wind, washed away by rain.

The lack of evidence has made it that much harder for the task force to know if recent murders, such as that of Kurran, are even the work of the Green River killer.

"Believe me," says Sheriff Thomas, "nobody wants to catch the Green River killer more than I do. I'd love to have it go away, so I can go concentrate on something else.

"It's made this department stick out like a sore thumb. And everything we do is patterned around Green River."

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