Sunday, November 06, 2005

Green River, Running Red: the real story of the Green River Killer - America's deadliest serial murderer

by Ann Rule (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004)

I chose this book out of what was on offer in paperback in a small airport bookstore. Aside from the fact that there was little else in my price range, I chose it for two reasons. One was that I had recently read Desert Blood: The Juarez Murders [see my review in this blog] and I wanted to continue my education on femicide and compare the two books. The other reason was that I had heard about feminist protests around the Green River murders in the 1980s, but had not seen any details about the killer being caught. Rule only published this book in 2004, after his conviction, though she had been keeping notes for many years.

Rule is a writer who specializes in true crime stories. Unlike Truman Capote, she is not very literary. Her style is clear, but tends to be repetitive, and this book could have been edited somewhat for brevity. It weighs in at 661 pages, not including the acknowledgments. The only book this long I can remember reading all the way through was The Sot-Weed Factor by John Barth, which had the redeeming feature of being very funny. I'm not sure if I will ever finish this one, so I am writing it up though I'm only on page 383.

If I do finish reading it, it will be for the same reason she says she finished writing it at such a length -- i.e., because of her commitment to giving a human face and a personal story to most if not all of the women who were murdered by Gary Ridgway. There are 47 women's faces pictured at the front of the book. All of them are named during the course of it, and their situations described; and in many cases their friends' and families' reminiscences are included. Many of them were teenagers, and many but not all of them made money from street prostitution, a class of persons that Gary Ridgway both patronized and despised. Quite a few of the women had children. Some came from unhappy homes, others not. Many lived with their boyfriend/pimps; others with mothers, real boyfriends, husbands, or friends. Some were young and rebellious; some financially desperate; some were hitchhiking; some were only in the wrong place at the wrong time. Many were white and many black. Some were pregnant. There's a feeling of the cautionary tale hovering about this story, but because Rule is scrupulous about including masses of detail, the cautionary aspect is not played up. True, you could get killed for being a teenager sexually out of control; or, you could be killed because you walked down the street to visit a relative.

As a crime writer, Rule works closely with the police, and she devotes a good part of the book to their work. During the course of the so-called Green River Killer's sequence of murders, Rule writes, the term "serial killer" was coined, the use of computers for police work was pioneered, the art of profiling suspects was further developed, and forensic science went through major changes. The amount of money and the numbers of people working full time on solving this long series of murders also grew vastly. There were several changes of command. According to Rule, the police withheld most of what they were doing from press and public in order to build a prosecutable case when the killer was found. They also had to wade through tens of thousands of leads and many false confessions, and eliminate many likely suspects. They did have police watching the area where women picking up johns were most frequently abducted, and they also had police decoys. Eventually, through reading this, I'm sure I'll find out what it was that worked for the police, how they caught the killer.

In taking the part of the police, Rule gives short shrift to the feminists, stopping just short of demonizing them for causing the police additional grief. If you want to find that section, turn in the paperback to page 281 ff, where Rule talks briefly about the Women's Coalition to Stop the Green River Murders and the U.S. Prostitutes Collective having a parade in March of 1984. I'll quote from page 282:

". . .Women's Libbers were often strident because they felt there was no other way. 'The issue is the killing of women,' [Melissa] Adams said. 'But we are showing unity with prostitutes who are the victims of this killer --and victims of a sexist society.
"'Violence against women is an all-American sport.'
"Perhaps it was. . . . But the coalition had chosen the wrong target, and it wasn't the Green River Task Force, whose members yearned to catch the man. . ."

Rule breaks up the story by jump-cutting back and forth among descriptions of the women and their lives at the time they disappeared; their families; a few people who interjected themselves into the case as psychics and police wannabes; the finding of bodies (mostly in clusters); the identification of the mostly skeletonized dead; stories by people who knew and interacted with the killer; and, the most imaginative part, a description of the life and state of mind of the killer himself, apparently boiled down from interviews with Ridgway. Her portrait of the murderer shows a not very smart child who was dissed by his family and found power in killing animals, went through a phase of religious fundamentalism, suffered some losses in divorce, and discovered prostitutes as both a source of pleasure and easy marks, whom he could rationalize killing. He was both a sex addict and a murder addict.

Most shocking from a female point of view is that Ridgway seems to have managed to appear like a reasonably nice guy and even a gentle lover or a normal husband to some women, while abducting and killing others. And he was good enough at dissembling that even though he'd been questioned by police, other people seemed more likely suspects.

The crux of this book seems to be that it's unlikely one can tell by looking whom to be afraid of, and it's unwise to trust your guts about whom to trust. I'm reminded of the credo of Vancouver Rape Relief: "Every man is a potential rapist." But shouldn't there be better ways to tell which ones are?