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Investigators probing slayings of Green River killer Gary Ridgway look to Canada for closure

By Bill Kaufmann, Calgary Sun

Green River Killer Gary Ridgway stands to be escorted out following his arraignment on charges of murder in the 1982 death of Rebecca "Becky" Marrero, Friday, Feb. 18, 2011, at the King County Regional Justice Center in Kent., Wash. Authorities hope a facial reconstruction of a girl who was slain by a Seattle-area serial killer will help identify the victim, who tests show may have spent time in several Canadian provinces. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Elaine Thompson

Green River Killer Gary Ridgway stands to be escorted out following his arraignment on charges of murder in the 1982 death of Rebecca "Becky" Marrero, Friday, Feb. 18, 2011, at the King County Regional Justice Center in Kent., Wash. Authorities hope a facial reconstruction of a girl who was slain by a Seattle-area serial killer will help identify the victim, who tests show may have spent time in several Canadian provinces. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Elaine Thompson

Kathy Taylor admits the Green River killer was a career inspiration.

As a high school student in the 1980s, the Washington state woman said she became fascinated by the darkness unfolding in her region, as the nation’s worst-ever serial murderer’s handiwork was revealed.

“I remember picking up a newspaper every night to read about the latest bodies being discovered and it got me interested in forensic anthropology,” she says.

Two decades later as the forensic anthropologist for the King County Medical Examiner’s Officer, she began working on the remains left behind by sexual sadist Gary Ridgway.

“I got to work on the case so it’s very much come full-circle ... these girls mean a lot to me,” says Taylor of Ridgway’s female victims.

She’s been dissecting the aftermath of the Green River killer’s crimes for 13 years.

That work includes identifying remains and determining how those people might have met their end.

Within that task is an abiding determination to put names to three sets of bones found where Ridgway dumped them after strangling those he targeted.

They’re known as Jane Doe 10, 17 and 20 — the latter two which have been connected by advanced chemical analysis to a possible life in Canada.

Of Ridgway’s 49 known victims, they’re the last awaiting identification.

Taylor says any Canadian connection might be explained by a trend more than three decades ago that saw female runaways and others head south, resorting to the sex trade.

“Back in the 80s there was an open corridor between Vancouver, Seattle and Portland,” she says.

Speaking of Jane Doe 17, who was between 14 and 18 when Ridgway strangled her, likely after having sex, “we’ve done everything we can to identify her locally.

“Ridgway pleaded to her but he couldn’t identify her,” says Taylor

Identifying the remains of Jane Doe 10 is even more of a long shot because the way her skeletal remains were initially processed precludes isotope analysis, she says.

And gaps in DNA data-sharing between Canada and the U.S., says Taylor, remain another obstacle.

The goal is to bring closure to the victims’ families, which would also mean a dignified burial.

But the clock is ticking, says Taylor.

“We’re running out of time — their parents might not even be living,” she says.

So for now, the three sets of skeletal remains — uneven in their completeness — reside at her office, waiting to be lovingly claimed.

“They’re in my care, well-cared for until they go home,” says Taylor.

* * *

On Nov. 30, 2001, Vietnam war veteran Gary Ridgway, a man described by those who knew him as a nice guy, was leaving his truck-painting job at a Kenworth factory in Renton, Wash. when the police came.

They arrested him for the deaths of four women, a link made to the then-52-year-old man through DNA evidence.

But the full horror of Ridgway’s crimes would only be revealed in the coming years as the serial killer avoided the death penalty by guiding authorities to where he’d left his victims, and by admitting to other deaths.

In the previous years, Ridgway held the Seattle area in a state of dread, after the bodies of his first five victims were found in the Green River, giving the killer his name.

In the following years, bodies would be found unburied throughout, testifying to Ridgways’ contempt for his victims who were prostitutes, runaways or drug addicts.

To him, they were trash to be tossed away in wooded areas.

But they were worthy enough of a post-mortem return; he’d often retrace his footsteps back to his dead victims to have sex with them.

He was a suspect in the killings as early as 1983, at the height of his crimes but passed a polygraph test.

It was later determined he had faked it.

To throw police office his trail he transported the bodies of two of his victims to neigbouring Oregon, where he left them.

During his reign of terror, exasperated investigators even turned for help to imprisoned serial murderer Ted Bundy, who correctly suggested police stake out the site of a freshly-dumped body should their killer return.

Born in Salt Lake City, Ridgway soon developed a stinging resentment towards a mother he said emotionally abused him.

Because he was reluctant to wreak physical vengeance on her, he vented his anger on small animals and eventually a young boy when he was 12 or 13 years old.

“I stabbed him in the side, didn’t kill him,” he says during one videotaped interview.

But his seething hostility towards his mother couldn’t be quenched, leading him to fantasize about strangling her, he told an interrogator.

“I didn’t have any guns, it’d have to be my hands,” he says.

That proved darkly prophetic; Ridgway would go on to pick up his female victims in his car, have sex with them and then strangle them with his bare hands.

When that resulted in defensive injuries, he began using a ligature.

To set his victims at ease, Ridgway would show them photos of his young son.

But one time, the killer said his young son was with him when he murdered one young woman.

“Matthew was next to me in my seat when she hopped in,” says a soft-spoken Ridgway, who presumably committed the crime outside the vehicle and out of the boy’s sight.

“I’m pretty sure my son didn’t see it ... I didn’t want my son to see it happen because I was really killing a lot of them.”

But his luck ran out when advances in DNA technology applied to evidence collected earlier led back to him.

Ridgway — who’s incarcerated at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla — claims to have murdered nearly 80 women and has said he committed so many killings, he lost count.

But none beyond the 49 have been proven.

* * *

Dr. Christine France had never heard of the Green River killer when she agreed to help identify some of his victims.

That was in early 2016 when she was approached by the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children to put her skills as a paleontologist and chemist to work.

Using chemical isotope analysis, France was able to determine both Jane Doe 17 and 20 have markers within their bones to suggest they might have lived in Canada.

Jane Doe 17 provided an entire molar and part of a femur, her fellow victim a humerus bone and tooth that were tested by France and at times an intern last summer in a lab at the prestigious Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

The test isolates the kind of drinking water the young women would have consumed — in both cases pointing to Canada.

“Those isotopes are heavily linked to latitude — towards the north, you have less of a heavy isotope and more of a light one,” says France, who’s been doing the work for the past 13 years.

But it’s hardly able to pinpoint precisely where those victims lived, she added.

“It gives a broad swatch of latitudinal area where the person might have spent time,” says France.

Still, there are hot spots from the tests, which suggest the females lived west of the Great Lakes and in the northern U.S. or Western Canada, she says.

The scientist says she doesn’t spend much time pondering the notorious nature of the case, insisting she’s too busy concentrating on the work.

“I don’t like to know and need to know a lot of the details,” says France.

But she says its background and timely nature did lead the lab to take it on without charge.

“I feel good about the pro bono aspect — I am a parent,” says France.

“I do appreciate an opportunity to be able to help out.”

As for Kathy Taylor of the King County Medical Examiner’s Office, she has no wish to confront the killer whose acts encouraged her into investigating his crimes.

“I don’t have any desire to meet him — I’m a forensic anthropologist,” she says.

BKaufmann@postmedia.com

On Twitter: @BillKaufmannjrn