Dec. 7, 1988. I’m pretty sure I didn’t sleep more than a few minutes that night. What I remember the most is being terrified.
That was the night the TV special “Manhunt: Live! A Chance to End the Nightmare” aired. It was two hours of riveting and fear-provoking programming that I could not stop watching.
My father was fast asleep after his standard 18-hour work day and my mother was running our leather crafts booth at a shopping mall two hours away. Naturally, I took advantage by watching a show a 12-year-old shouldn’t be watching.
It didn’t help that we lived in rural southwest Missouri, where every gust carries an eerie whisper, and the moonlight scatters ominous shadows in every corner. As ridiculous as it seems now, it was perfectly reasonable that a serial killer on the West Coast could be lurking in the closet of our home in the Midwest.
As it turns out, the killer wasn’t anywhere near Lebanon, Missouri. But he was watching the same TV show that night, and he didn’t stop killing for more than another decade.
“A Chance to End the Nightmare” was a desperate effort to stop the man known as the Green River Killer, who killed dozens of women, mostly prostitutes. It also was the beginning of my fascination with true crime.
A few years later, I bought the book “The Search for the Green River Killer” by Tomas Guillen and Carlton Smith, reporters at the Seattle Times and finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of the case.
I read the book in one sitting and will never forget the authors’ final paragraph: “In the real world things are not so neat, and in this case there is no ending, no resolution. In the real world, the unknown man is, more likely than not, very much alive, driving somewhere in America, looking for someone special to take to a very special place.”
That is the definition of an amazing ending. Horrifying, absolutely, but summed up the case perfectly.
A few years later, the Internet arrived. I started Yahooing (Googling wasn’t a thing yet) “Green River Killer.” The guy still was on the loose. There were plenty of suspects and a few interesting pages, including one by a man who claimed his late brother was the murderer (he wasn’t).
Once I started my career in newspapers in the summer of 1999, I had less time for surfing the Web or reading books about serial killers. Then, in early 2002, during a rare day off, I logged onto my computer and searched “Green River Killer” for the first time in years.
Amazingly, the nightmare was over. Gary Ridgway, the Green River Killer, was in jail, his DNA connected to four murders (he later admitted to nearly 50 murders and possibly killed as many as 100 women).
That night, I dug through storage and read “The Search for the Green River Killer” again. One man is mentioned as a suspect several times, though his name is not used. He drove a pickup truck covered in primer. He’d been arrested for soliciting prostitutes. He’d been identified by one of the victim’s boyfriends as her abductor. His name was Gary Ridgway.
He was no longer unknown, no longer driving somewhere in America, no longer looking for someone special to take to a very special place.