“Green River Killer” and the Stuff of Nightmares

With a spare, black-ink-on-white-pages approach that could qualify as high definition police sketches, Jonathan Case underscores the harrowing story of the “Green River Killer” in a fashion that would likely not have the same effect were it washed in color. Writer Jeff Jensen dug deep for Green River Killer: A True Detective Story. It’s an often grim account of his father’s years-long hunt for a Seattle serial killer named Gary Leon Ridgway. And for the unnerving renderings that helped Jensen tell the story, a panel of comics industry professionals, writers, readers, and retailers sent Case home with a Stumptown Comic Art Award in April.

Gary Ridgway’s legacy is horrific, the stuff of nightmares. By the time he was readying to swap a death penalty sentence for leads about where he’d buried his victims, Ridgway was facing 48 counts of aggravated murder. The highly religious Navy veteran targeted female prostitutes and eventually estimated killing 60 women in total, choking them and leaving their bodies in a wooded area of southern Seattle. Ridgway attributed these acts in 2003 to a hatred for prostitutes by way of a written statement explaining that he “didn’t want to pay them.” Jonathan Case and Jeff Jensen guide us through Ridgway’s story in a manner that mirrors that of news documentarians, while we absorb Jensen’s father’s end as if it were difficult dramatic cinema.

In the most heinous corner of Gary Ridgway’s past is a killer drawn to a perceived disposable nature in his victims, the marginalized members of society who earned their money in pickup trucks parked down empty side streets. At news and commentary website Alternet, Silja J.A. Talvi pointed out that “dehumanization” of prostitutes “underlies the Green River Killer case, and yet prostitutes are the aspect of this story that has been least discussed.” Ridgway cruised for prostitutes in the early 1980s on a section of the Pacific Coast Highway called “the strip.” The area’s small residential roads, in a patch of south Seattle suburbs, were home to folks who didn’t mind living directly beneath a flight path of the Seattle Tacoma International Airport. But residents complained about the sort of dealings that were taking place near their houses, just off the highway. Loud plane engines didn’t bother them. They resented that their neighborhood was a high-traffic area for prostitutes.

In an investigative piece for Time magazine, writer Terry McCarthy discussed the wealth of “bars, strip clubs and motels that book(ed) rooms by the hour” in the region. “For 18 months, the cops could not get special funding for a full-scale investigation of the murders,” McCarthy reported. “Many people in Seattle felt the problem was not so much the killer but rather the proliferation of prostitutes on the strip.”

On a mildly warm August day in 1982, police uncovered the bodies of four women found in and near Seattle’s Green River. The women had been strangled, just as the dead teenager was whose body was found by some kids in the same vicinity a month earlier. “I knew they would not be reported missing right away, and might never be reported missing,” Ridgway said of the prostitutes he killed. In Green River Killer, we see Tom Jensen in 1983 as a patrolman, mulling the idea of joining a task force to hunt down the man who had by then been suspected of having killed 12 sex workers. A police captain references bureaucratic impediments to funding the case: “The (South King County) council has…been pretty fixed on potential cost. Apparently, it’s hard to convince people that an outbreak of murdered hookers represents a threat to public safety.”

New York Times metro writer Manny Fernandez referenced Gary Ridgway in an article about the prostitutes who were murdered on Long Island beginning in 2010. He makes a critical point about the number of serial killers in the U.S. who have historically targeted sex workers.

“Living in the margins of society, often trading sex for money with anonymous clients in anonymous places, struggling with drug addiction and estrangement from their families, prostitutes have long been invisible, vulnerable prey for the wicked and the depraved,” Fernandez wrote. “Few notice them when they are alive, fewer still when they are missing or found dead.”

In its portrayal of this characteristic of the case, Green River Killer doesn’t much differ from DC’s Gotham Central, a crime drama that unfolds in the offices of Gotham City’s detective bureau, with affecting doses of street grit as well as strikingly authentic, off-hours interaction between the officers. We get the play-by-play of Detective Jensen joining a task force for the Ridgway manhunt in 1984, a healthy helping of police procedural work that stretched on for years, and the crux of the book, which follows the elder Jensen on a series of interviews with Ridgway after his 2001 arrest. Rather than sink the pages with heavy-handed depictions of the violence, Jonathan Case balances the Green River Killer narrative with great care. Stomach-wrenching crime scene evaluations are positioned alongside wordless images of Detective Jensen at family dinners or fidgeting with home repairs, ever diffusing the strain of his emotionally arduous day job. Cinema-styled cross cuts show an officer trying to separate his home life from the task force. In this, it plays out like a very human story. Meanwhile, the elder Jensen’s interviewee is as close as inhuman as one can possibly get.

A chilling moment in Gary Ridgway’s timeline has the killer’s seven year-old son sharing the passenger seat of his father’s truck with a woman who would soon be dead. Minutes previous, Ridgway is eyeing prostitutes gathered along the highway and pulls over to pick one up. He advises his son to stay in the vehicle while he walks his next victim into the woods.

It’s a flashback for an incarcerated Ridgway in the book, toward whom Jonathan Case returns the focus, but not before we’re offered several excruciating panels of father and son in the truck. The resemblance in facial features, the same set of floppy bangs that gather in bowl rims across their foreheads–it’s too much to take. Ridgway fishes a twenty dollar bill from his shirt pocket so it’s visible to his target, and when she climbs into the truck, a volley of pleasantries emerge between an unsuspecting young woman and the man who would soon end her life. The dialogue is sparse, but each word weighs a metric ton. Ridgway’s son is inches from them, sharing an uncanny physical likeness with the grown monster behind the wheel. It’s an unsettling passage that I could barely shake for days after I’d seen it.

Jeff Jensen is clear about not intending Green River Killer for the “nonfiction” shelf. He stresses that names and minor details have been altered. But the work, with Case’s thoughtful contributions locking it in, feels as intimate as a letter from home–the kind best taken with strong liquor. Drink deep; it’s going to be a long night.