A Gathering of Serial Killers

The Seattle Times
January 15, 2003
By Alex Tizon

Can we blame it on the rain? Do the dark green forests that blanket the land bring out the monster in a few of us? These questions might seem frivolous if the facts were not so damning: Police continue to unfold the grisly details of three of the nation’s most notorious serial-murder cases, all within a 280-mile radius of Seattle, the emerald hub of the region. In the universe of serial killings, the Pacific Northwest, if only in public perception, may be one of its capitals.

It’s an impression not new and not based solely on data. Many experts dismiss it as misinformed, fueled by a hyperactive news media and a prolific troupe of true-crime writers who’ve chosen — perhaps because of the rain and the dark green forests — to live and work in the Northwest. But even the region’s defenders must have paused at the steady stream of news over the past two years. Take one 72-hour period last fall:

• On Oct. 2, Canadian authorities charged Port Coquitlam, B.C., pig farmer Robert William Pickton with five more counts of murder, raising the number of women he is accused of killing to 15. He is a prime suspect in the disappearances of as many as 63 women in the Vancouver area. Investigators believe Pickton’s victim pool will eventually spill over into Washington. A preliminary hearing in his case began this week in Port Coquitlam.

• On Oct. 3, Robert Lee Yates of Spokane was sentenced to death for the murders of two Pierce County women. Yates has confessed to 15 slayings, but investigators believe his actual victim count may be twice that high.

• On Oct. 4, the Green River Task Force announced it would spend another weekend scouring a wetland near Kent for more victims of the Green River Killer. Gary Leon Ridgway, an Auburn truck painter, has been charged with four of the 49 Green River killings. There’s no consensus on the number 49. True-crime writer Anne Rule says the Green River killer (or killers) could easily have slain another 25.

These amount to stunningly high body counts, even in the ever-expanding universe of serial killings. In any previous era, such clusters of killings discovered in such close proximity would have been considered a horror. Today, such cluster-killings and the investigations that follow and drag on for years have come to seem routine. Vancouver, though on the other side of an international boundary, is a mere 140 miles from Seattle, and is in culture and topography more a part of Washington than of the more populous regions of the Canadian East.

Few from the Northwest like to call attention to this more nefarious side of the region’s lore — except cops, especially cops-turned-authors, such as Rule and former Los Angeles detective Mark Fuhrman, who lives in Idaho. Though thoroughly discredited in the O.J. Simpson case, Fuhrman has gained some credibility as a true-crime writer. He says it plainly in his latest book, “Murder in Spokane.”

“There’s something about the Pacific Northwest that seems to breed serial killers. John Douglas, the famous FBI profiler, once called the region ‘America’s killing fields,’ ” he writes. “The weather — weeks on end of dreary rain punctuated by rare, brilliant days — probably has something to do with it. Or the fact that this is where the frontier ends and America literally runs out of room.”

Looking for bodies

The sharpshooters accused in the deaths of 10 people in the Washington, D.C., area last fall likely were, in the lexicon of criminologists, “spree killers” who kill in an outburst. Lee Boyd Malvo and John Muhammad were seen as being on an extended rampage that may have included killings in Tacoma, Alabama and Louisiana.

By contrast, a serial killer kills strangers, usually women and girls, in different locations and at different times over long periods: months, years, even decades. They tend to be white, heterosexual males with above-average intelligence. Very often they are sexual psychopaths who hunt and kill for the thrill.

A lot of them end up in or near coastal cities. Many of what Rule calls the “old school of serial-killer watchers” ascribe to this notion that serial murderers subconsciously gravitate to the geographic extremities as a form of fleeing — fleeing from authorities, and perhaps even from something in their own psyches.

This partially explains, Rule says, why most serial killers have been captured on the edges of the continent: the East and West coasts and the Gulf of Mexico. The Pacific Northwest — and by extension most of British Columbia — represents in many ways the outermost edge. It is still largely wilderness, still wild. It might not be coincidence that Canada’s most prolific serial killer before the Pickton case came along — Clifford Olson, who murdered at least 11 in the early 1980s — also lived and operated near Vancouver, B.C.

The Northwest also offers an ideal topography, says criminologist Steven Egger, whose book “The Killers Among Us” is a standard for students of serial murder. “It allows a killer to move from an urban area to a rural area in a fairly short period of time,” Egger says. “You have pockets of wilderness, lots and lots of pockets, where bodies can be dumped, and where they would be very difficult to find.”

It isn’t that the region actually creates killers; rather, says Fuhrman, who grew up in the Tacoma area, someone with a predisposition for these kinds of crimes would simply find more temptations, more opportunities to strike and not be caught. “Living here doesn’t make you a serial killer,” he says, “Living here just makes it easier.”

The terrain certainly made it easier for Ted Bundy to commit his crimes in the mid-1970s. The handsome law student from Tacoma usually abducted his victims from cities and then raped, killed and buried them in the countryside or mountains. Bundy admitted to 22 murders, but experts say he probably killed more than 50 women, most of them in Washington and Oregon. He was eventually convicted and put to death in Florida.

Though he was never tried for the murders in this region, Bundy was the man who first put the Pacific Northwest on the serial-killer map. He began the tradition carried on by men with names like Ken Bianchi, Westley Alan Dodd, Olson and Yates, and if they are convicted, Ridgway and Pickton.

A lowbrow subject

Whether more serial killers operate here is not provable by data because, all the experts will tell you, the data don’t exist. There has never been a comprehensive study done on the per-capita incidence of serial murder. Government agencies have shown no interest in funding such lowbrow, potentially prurient, sensationalistic research. “Now, if you tie serial murder to Homeland Security, you’d get a whole lot of money,” says Bob Keppel, another local cop-turned-crime author.

Tomas Guillen, a former Seattle Times reporter and co-author of the New York Times best-seller “The Search for the Green River Killer,” has said he doubts the Northwest is any different from any other region.

Keppel, though he acknowledges the bewildering coincidence of the three ongoing investigations, says it’s ludicrous to make such generalizations about any region because there’s no way to empirically confirm it. The reason so many killers end up in coastal cities is simply because the most populous urban centers tend to be along coastlines, he says. By virtue of sheer volume of people, there will tend to be more killers near large cities.

Seattle has a relatively low homicide rate; the Northwest states rank among the nation’s lowest: fewer than three homicides per 100,000 people a year. New Mexico’s murder rate is three times higher; Louisiana’s nearly four times as high. The murders in those states tend to be the garden-variety robberies or crimes of passion, although New Orleans now suspects a serial killer is on the loose in the city.

Keppel says the more plausible reason for the Northwest’s reputation has more to do with experts, like him, who write and speak on the subject of serial killers. For some reason, as unanswerable as the questions about serial killers, a vibrant community of true-crime writers has formed in the region. TV shows such as “Twin Peaks” and locally filmed movies like “The Vanishing” may send out the message that the Northwest is a creepy place.

Keppel’s voice of reason doesn’t convince all his colleagues. Experts like criminologist Maurice Godwin are convinced the Northwest does indeed have more, or at least more prolific, serial killers than other regions. “There’s no doubt in my mind,” he says. A former cop, author and professor at Methodist College in North Carolina, Godwin studied unsolved murder records in the Northwest as part of his doctoral dissertation.

He says there are unsolved murders in Washington and Oregon from the 1970s — “pre-Bundy” — most likely committed by serial killers, but the slayings were not connected because police didn’t have the experience or know-how to detect the patterns.

A criminal-justice Web site recently published a serial-killer atlas that located investigations on a U.S. map. White dots represented possible serial killings, yellow dots suspected ones. The red dots showed where serial killings were confirmed. Washington was the only state in the nation with two red dots. If the map had included Vancouver, B.C., there would have been another red dot next to Seattle, so close they would almost touch.