SEATTLE (WOMENSENEWS)–In the uproar surrounding the arrest of the suspected Green River Killer of at least 49 women and girls, the issue of violence against women, especially prostitutes, has been largely ignored.
For years, from media reports to well-documented books, the discussion revolved around the serial killer at large, making only glancing mention of the 49 Washington state women, mainly prostitutes, runaways and drug addicts, whose bodies were found along the Green River here between 1982 and 1984.
Even after the arrest two weeks ago of Gary Leon Ridgway, 52, a local truck painter now charged with aggravated murder in four of the deaths, King County officials and local media focused once again on the suspected criminal, only mentioning that many women were runaways, prostitutes and drug users. More recently local media has focused on how the county will pay for his trial and further investigations.
The victims may be being ignored because many people think that being raped or beaten is part of the job of being a sex worker, said Dee O’Brien, professor of sociology and women’s studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, California.
A spokeswoman for Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics, or COYOTE, a San Francisco-based organization which promotes the rights of sex workers, criticized the investigators’ and media’s focus on the murdered women as drug addicted social outcasts who were estranged from their families. The spokeswoman, who identified herself only as Miss Bliss and said she once had worked as a nurse, said that the illegal nature of the sex industry creates a violent environment for the women.
"The medical profession is filled with drug addicts," she said. "Doctors and nurses are notorious for writing themselves prescriptions. And there are many people who aren’t in contact with their families, not just prostitutes."
Police Seldom Help Prostitutes
Most prostitutes, she said, have learned to rely on each other, and not the police, for warnings of dangerous clients. She recalled the case of a plumber who used to beat prostitutes up with pipes. "Everyone on the street knew about him," she said, "but the police did nothing."
Most prostitutes view themselves as outside the protection of the law unless they are a overt witness to an event, she said. "Usually it’s the prostitute who gets arrested."
Sociologist O’Brien, the executive director for the Walnut Women’s Center in Santa Cruz, added that many men feel it is all right to abuse, assault and devalue women in the "whore" category. "But whoever did these killings is obviously a psychopath," she said.
Back in the Northwest, by the time the killer had apparently ended his two-year spree, 49 women, including at least 30 teenagers, had been raped and strangled; their bodies discarded into or near the Green River. At the time, as corpses and skeletal remains turned up almost weekly, blaring headlines described the victims as being down-and-out, often last seen at the Sea-Tac strip, an area between Seattle and Tacoma and near the region’s international airport, known for drugs, pimps and cheap motels.
Fourteen years after a $15 million investigation was stopped, the case has come back to haunt the Northwest with Ridgway’s arrest in early December. He is being held in King County’s "ultra high" security unit.
King County Sheriff’s had been watching Ridgway since September, when new DNA tests positively matched that to semen taken from three of the murdered women. The fourth was linked to Ridgway by circumstantial evidence: Her body was found tied to another at the bottom of the river. Tests on the remaining 45 have yet to be carried out.
Sen. Patty Murray, Rep. Adam Smith Seek Funds for More DNA Testing
Dec. 7, United States Sen. Patty Murray from Seattle and United States Rep. Adam Smith from Tacoma, both Democrats, landed a last-minute $500,000 federal appropriation to help King County conduct further DNA tests on evidence taken from the remaining 45 women.
"I grew up in Sea-Tac, and I know first-hand how much these crimes against women affected our community," said Smith, a former prosecutor.
"As someone who’s personally prosecuted cases of violence against women, I’m extremely pleased that the King County Sheriff has arrested someone who may be responsible for some or all of the Green River murders," he added.
The arrest has galvanized police networks throughout the Northwest and the unusual and unsolved murders and disappearances of prostitutes and other women are once again being reexamined.
In Vancouver, 50 Prostitutes Have Disappeared from Skid Row
In Vancouver, where prostitution is legal but verbal solicitation in public is not, almost 50 prostitutes have vanished since 1983 from the same 10-block radius in the downtown Eastside district, the city’s skid row. Vancouver police hope that Ridgway’s arrest will somehow lead to something in their unsolved case, which many also believe is the work of a serial killer.
Unlike the sheriffs in the Green River case, however, they have found no bodies so far and no clues to the women’s disappearance.
Vancouver Police Spokesperson Scott Drimo said that the department must be open-minded about the possibility of a serial killer in the Northwest and Canada.
"We can’t just believe that all of these women have moved somewhere and undertaken new identities," he said. "We’ve got 16 investigators working on them. But we have no bodies and no crime scenes."
But his concern, and those who worked on the case before him, has been questioned over the years by victim’s rights advocates and family members of the disappeared.
"Police interest comes and goes," said Reverend Ruth Wright, executive director of the First United Church, based in Vancouver’s Eastside neighborhood. "There was a memorial service held a few years ago," she said. "That got a lot of media attention."
"There are a few members of the police who have taken an interest in the fate of these women," she said. "They are known among the community as the, ‘odd squad.’"
And one unidentified family member told a local television station: "I got more response from the local Society for the Protection and Concern of Animals about my lost dog than from the police about my sister’s disappearance."
Vancouver Study: Most Prostitutes are 16 and Alone
At one time, in a pilot project, police gave out cell phones to prostitutes so that they could call 911 in emergencies. But interest quickly faded, Wright said.
"They used them while they were new," she said. "Then the novelty wore off."
The world of cellular communication is a far cry from many who show up at her church. According to a 2001 report released by a Canadian organization of past and present sex workers, the Prostitutes Association for Counseling and Education, the average age for sex workers in Vancouver is 16. Of those, 75 percent had left their parents or guardians. The report cited other sources that called Vancouver’s downtown Eastside streets as having the city’s highest HIV and hepatitis C rates in the Western world.
"The reality for a woman offering sex for sale on the streets of Vancouver is that she can be murdered and there’s little chance that anyone will be prosecuted. She can be raped knowing that the police will likely not protect her. She can be chased from neighborhood to neighborhood as the purveyor of disease, destroyer of families, or a brainwashed victim to be rescued from the ravages of patriarchy. Endless reports have found that the non-profit agencies that should be helping her are often too busy squabbling among themselves rather than coordinating their efforts," the report states.
Prostitutes often gather at Wright’s church, which provides hot meals, shower facilities and social services. They talk about those who disappear. They usually know long before the victim’s families, because most of the women have little or no contact with their families, she said.
Many are HIV positive or sick with AIDS, Wright said, and they often have no place to live.
"They are afraid of the killer," Wright said. "But they do not think about it too much. They have to go out there and earn an income."
Kim Palchikoff is a free-lance writer in Seattle.
For more information on the Green River Killer:
The Crime Library:
For Sex Trade Worker Links:
Education Wife Assault:
COYOTE, Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics:
Vancouver’s Sex Worker’s Alliance: