A suspect faces charges over one of America's worst crimes. ANDREW GUMBEL reports.
LOS ANGELES - On the last Friday in November, unassuming 52-year-old Gary Ridgway finished work at the Kenworth Truck Company in Renton, Seattle, where he had been a painter all his adult life.
One of the managers walked with him to the gate, and asked him what he'd be doing over the weekend. There wasn't time for an answer.
Police officers swarmed all over Ridgway, slapped him in handcuffs and drove him off. He was under arrest for murder.
And it wasn't just any murder. The evening news announced Ridgway was wanted for America's most notorious unsolved crime, the serial killing of as many as 49 young runaways, drug addicts and prostitutes who disappeared in the early 1980s along a stretch of highway just south of the Seattle-Tacoma international airport.
Some of the women had never been found. Others were pulled from the nearby Green River showing signs of sexual assault and strangulation. Others were discovered only months or even years later, carefully concealed or buried and beyond recognition.
The newscasters could scarcely contain their excitement. Admittedly Ridgway was being accused of only four of the deaths, the ones where DNA evidence was apparently strong enough to implicate him directly.
But this was a case that had dragged on for almost 20 years, bogged down by police bungling, political infighting, and sheer bad luck.
Now, it seemed, the Green River Killer had been caught at last.
Or had he? This was always a murky, maddeningly elusive case, right from its earliest days in July and August 1982, when a half-dozen bodies popped up in the river.
At first, detectives thought they simply needed to keep the Green River under surveillance and the killer would show up.
But a television news crew blurted out on air that the river was being watched and the operation was scuppered.
No good leads appeared that summer, and precious few when the bodies started turning up away from the river in the woods.
Just tying the cases together was a nightmare. Some of the women, for instance, had been brutalised and killed in similar fashion, strangled with their own knotted panties and dumped with stones shoved inside them. But one, 22-year-old Carol Christensen, was found with dead trout on her face and chest and a pile of sausages in her hand.
Was this the work of the same Green River Killer, or could there be more than one murderer? The question has never entirely gone away.
For the first two years, the police were almost entirely reactive in their work, struggling to keep up with the body count and doing little or nothing to investigate the seamy world of the "Strip", the stretch of Pacific Coast Highway South dotted with by-the-hour fleapit motels where most of Seattle's prostitutes and pimps plied their trade.
The police insisted it was impossible to take most reports of missing prostitutes seriously, since so many of them left town without warning. If it was a pimp who reported the disappearance, they were especially unsympathetic.
As Carlton Smith and Tomas Guillen, authors of a true-crime account of the murders called The Search for the Green River Killer, characterised it: "Detectives rebelled at seeing themselves as a property-recovery service for drug-dealing, low-life scumbags wearing gold chains and driving hot wheels."
But as the body count rose, this attitude came under increasing attack from women's advocates who accused the police of skimping on their duties because of who the victims were. Some people even began murmuring that maybe the murderer was a cop.
In 1984, after an internal inquiry, the authorities set up a Green River Task Force, sending officers out undercover to learn more about the world they were investigating, and moving operations from the sheriff's department in downtown Seattle to a district office a mile from the Strip.
The trouble was that, by then, most of the prostitutes had left in terror and most, if not all, of the killing had stopped. Bodily remains kept being unearthed, but little could be done except go back over and over the voluminous files and hope some pattern or clue would emerge.
Investigators started cracking under the pressure. A county investigator, John Blake, became fixated with a lawyer he thought was the murderer, and was discharged from his job on mental disability grounds. The King County sheriff, Vernon Thomas, resigned in 1987, largely because of the failure of the Green River investigation, and shortly afterwards the budget for the task force was slashed, making further progress near impossible.
Suspects were identified and processed, but never to much avail. All sorts of rapists and kidnappers came out of the woodwork - apparently inspired by the killings - but none fit the killer's profile.
A cab driver who first came forward to volunteer information to the police was considered a suspect for years because he seemed to know a lot about the dead women.
But there was never any hard evidence against the man, Melvyn Foster, and inordinate amounts of time were wasted tailing him or responding to his ever more indignant complaints about his civil rights being infringed.
Other major errors occurred - the media-circus arrest of a suspect in 1986 who turned out not to be a suspect at all, the failure to follow up on a driving licence belonging to one of the murdered women, which was found by a cleaner at Seattle airport (the licence was destroyed by airport police after six months, as were the passenger manifests for relevant flights) and a years-long obsession with a pink glass-like substance found at many of the crime scenes, which turned out to be fragments of garnet stone sprinkled all over the Pacific Northwest by the eruption of Mount St Helens in 1980.
And then there was Ridgway. The police could have got to him as early as 1983, which was when the father and boyfriend of 17-year-old victim Marie Malvar tracked down the truck that had picked her up and found it in the drive of Ridgway's home. At the time, investigators were not interested.
They did catch up with Ridgway in 1987, when a couple of new investigators saw a convergence of incriminating evidence, all of it circumstantial.
He had links to three of the murdered women. He had a history of frequenting prostitutes, including one who accused him of trying to strangle her, and he liked to scavenge for junk car parts near the Green River.
Employment records showed that he had not been at work at the time of any of the murders, either because he was not on shift or because he had called in sick.
And his house was near an intersection with the Strip where four of the murdered women had been seen last.
Matt Haney, the detective who put all this together, felt Ridgway was the one, but could not back up his hunch with forensic evidence. DNA testing was in its infancy, and although Ridgway gave a saliva sample nothing could be done with it at the time. And so, for 14 years, nothing happened.
There are two schools of thought on where the case now stands.
One is that Ridgway was always going to be the man, and that it was just a matter of time before the police and technology could come up with the proof. That seems to be the official view of police and prosecutors.
The other view arises from questions left unanswered by the case. Why did the murders stop if the perpetrator was still at large? How many murders were there exactly? (Aside from the official 49, there are another 38 maybes in the Seattle area alone, plus question marks about several dozen more in Portland, Vancouver and San Diego.) How can we be sure that they are all connected?
One powerful reason these things are likely to remain unknown is money.
Putting Ridgway on trial is likely to cost $US12 million ($28.7 million) - more than King County can afford without federal help.
There is never going to be enough money to chase down every lead in the more than 500 volumes of police documentation.
But more evidence is emerging all the time. In the past few days, police searching Ridgway's old homes and vehicles have found a hidden bone and tufts of hair. Ridgway's ex-wife has told police he kept rolls of thick plastic sheeting in the back of his pick-up and often came home wet and dirty without explanation.
The police admit they have barely begun to assemble evidence of a motive, and even the outstanding lab tests will take months. Ridgway is not volunteering any help. His lawyer says he knows his client will plead not guilty, but that's all he knows. The mysteries of the Green River killings are not over yet.
A suspect faces charges over one of America's worst crimes. ANDREW GUMBEL reports.