Friday, August 13, 2010

She Could Have Been Me

DATELINE: Greater Seattle Area - 1982

I was 17 years old at the time, living just a ferry ride away from downtown Seattle and for many years already the Pacific Northwest boogeyman was Ted Bundy. His was the name that carried horror with it, that no one really wanted to talk about, and that replaced the name of Charles Manson as the boogeyman, at least for folks living in northwest WA. Bundy was finally arrested for the last time in 1978 when I was 13 years old and in the 7th grade. Slowly, over the next few years some of the details of his crimes became public knowledge and there was every reason to give him the title of boogeyman. His crimes were every parents worst fear, come to life.

By 1982 Bundy was safely locked away in jail in Florida and going through multiple court trials that eventually led to his conviction and execution. But 1982 brought a new name to the Pacific Northwest that quickly replaced the name of Ted Bundy. Rather than a name, I should say a title: The Green River Killer. The public didn't know it was Gary Ridgeway for another 19 years, when he was arrested and the news broke that the monster responsible for killing all those girls and young women was finally caught.

At the time, he was just The Green River Killer. Even though he targetted prostitutes on the street, there was no such thing as thinking among my friends and myself that "we're safe" because no one really knew who he was, where he was, or if he'd target other girls too (or already had). Even though he was thought to be in the Seattle area, we all knew how easy it was to get on the ferry and be in our town, as we did it ourselves all the time going the opposite direction to see concerts in Seattle, go to Pike's Place Market, Seattle Center, etc. Almost none of us went out alone after dark, unless we had no other option. In the fall of 1982 at 17, I took night classes at the local college and the few times I had to walk home alone after dark, I carried my keychain in the palm of my hand with each key sticking out between my fingers. That was something I'd read in the local paper, on how to use whatever you had handy, to defend yourself.

At that age, knowing a serial killer was lurking around somewhere nearby was a pretty sickening feeling. My friends and I didn't dwell on it, and most of the time it never even came up, but it was something we all knew about and was always in the back of our minds. I can still recall how we used to speculate on who it was and if they'd ever catch him. Thankfully, they did indeed catch him, even though it took nearly 20 years.

If you're wondering why I shared all that with you it's because I watched a movie last night that literally tore at my heart and mind. Movies almost never do that to me but this one most certainly did. The name of the movie was The Capture of the Green River Killer which originally aired on Lifetime tv back in 2008, based on the book written by Dave Reichert, Chasing the Devil: My Twenty-Year Quest to Capture the Green River Killer. Dave Reichert was with the King County Sheriff's Dept., and a leading member of the Green River Task Force. As I started watching the movie and heard his name it almost felt like it was the early 80s again as I remembered so many times on the evening news, that name being mentioned in association with reports of breaking news or updates on this case.

The reason the movie touched me the way it did was because of a fictional element written into it that the book didn't have. Throughout the true story of the investigation, the movie showed us a slice of life of a teenage girl from a desperately broken background that eventually found her way into the life of prostitution and ultimately, became one of the victims of Gary Ridgeway.

The reason that had such an impact on me was because of the conversations my friends and I used to have about that very thing, whenever it came up in conversation. As I said earlier, we didn't really talk about it much (it was too surreal, too scary, too real) but we did talk about it. We were the same ages of the girls the investigators kept finding dead, and we were so close - just a ferry ride away. I can't remember how many times we used to say or hear "man, that could have been one of us". While we were not living the same lifestyles they were, we still connected with them for the simple reason they were local girls our age. We always wondered how they got into that life and how they let themselves become victims of a serial killer. At the time, we didn't realize that lifestyle brought with it "getting into a car with a total stranger" an acceptable risk that they took every day, multiple times a day. The thing is, many of those girls were thinking about this every day as well since at least some of them actually asked Gary Ridgeway if he was the Green River Killer. Of course he laughed it off and likely changed the subject just to make them feel at ease.

From what I've read today, the reason that fictional element was written into the movie was to give viewers answers, and to sympathize with the victims in a way that is unfortunately not always the case when the victim of a crime is a street prostitute. At least for this viewer, the fictional element worked very well, as I watched the movie and fought back tears and write this today and still feel my nose tingling and my throat getting tight, and my eyes welling up.

I know in just about every community across the US there are programs such as Children of the Night that exist solely to help these girls get off the streets, and turn their lives around. I thank the Lord for the people who dedicate their lives to such a cause, and we'd all do well to support such efforts in every way possible. Through volunteering, financial support, daily prayer, or however the Lord leads you personally to step up and make a world of difference in someone's life.

Protecting our children from predators should include protecting our community's children as well so that cases like this one and movies and books on this subject will never happen again, or at the very least, happen less often.

Graphic design by Carla Rolfe