Chasing the Devil
By Sheriff David Reichert
Little, Brown Copyright © 2004 Dave Reichert
All right reserved. ISBN: 0-316-15632-9
Chapter One Somebody's Daughters
It may be hard to believe that every time I took an emergency call at my home, my mind shifted smoothly from family life to murder, but that's the way it works for most experienced detectives. We have the usual human desire for peace and comfort when the workday is done. And like most people, we try to move between home and work without much cross-contamination. The only difference is that homicide is one of the most disturbing acts that human beings commit, and homicide detectives have to deal with it every day.
On August 15, 1982, I received a call about a double homicide-two female victims. I knew that the site where the bodies had been found-a spot on the Green River in the Seattle suburb of Kent-was going to be difficult to search. Sinewy blackberry plants sprout on both sides of the river. Covered with thorns and almost impossible to snap, the vines are six feet and higher, and they grow amid reeds and grasses that are just as tall. Besides the thick brush, the river is banked by steep slopes of rocks, placed there by the Army Corps of Engineers to contain the river as it rises every spring with the runoff from melting snow in the mountains.
In Kent, access to the river is along a winding, two-lane country highway called Frager Road. For an area that's just twenty miles from downtown Seattle, it's a remarkably rural place, just farms, nurseries, and a few private homes. The only substantial business around there was a slaughterhouse called PD&J Meat Company, which overlooked the river just south of the Peck Bridge.
What bothered me most as I drove down Frager Road in my unmarked car was that I had been there just three days earlier -to PD&J Meats, in fact -to investigate the death of another young woman. In that case, a slaughterhouse worker had gone outside to smoke a cigar. He had looked down at the river, to a place where a spit of sand broke the surface of the water and a few logs had become stuck. Up against the logs he saw what he took to be a large animal carcass. Curious, he followed a path used by fishermen to the water's edge. As soon as he broke through the blackberry vines, he realized that the sandbar had captured not an animal, but a human being.
In that case, I had photographed the scene, called divers to collect the body, and helped bring it up the bank for the medical examiner. For me, dead bodies were a normal part of my work, and I was trained to regard them as evidence. I also treated them with deep respect. A body represents a person who was once loved, who once looked forward to the future, and who was robbed of the experiences and feelings that future promised. And sometimes the body can speak to us, offering clues and evidence that might bring justice to the person who once lived inside. For that reason, I take extreme care with the remains we find.
In this case, the sun had beaten down on the body's R exposed skin with such intensity that parts of it were charred. Other portions of the body had been submerged and were beginning to bloat. Worst of all, egg-laying insects had been especially active, and larvae were crawling all over it. I paused for a moment to steel myself and then, like the other officers on the scene, did what was necessary to gently rescue the corpse and carry it to shore.
Once we had the body on the riverbank, we could see that though the young woman was unclothed, she was offering us some clues to her identity. She wore a ring and an earring. She also had a few tattoos. The most notable was the word "Duby" inside a heart tattooed on her right shoulder.
The official cause of death would be determined by an autopsy, which I would attend the next day. But on the scene, the medical examiner was able to estimate that the body had been in the river for at least two weeks. He found no water in her lungs-which meant she was dead before she reached the river-and no significant wounds or trauma.
During the investigation, I contacted a local tattoo artist named Joe Yates, who had once helped identify another body via the victim's tattoos, but in this case he was stumped. However, checks with area police departments, which record key features whenever they arrest someone, eventually turned up the name Debra Lynn Bonner. Twenty-four years old, she was the same height and weight as the woman found in the river, and she had the same tattoos. She had been arrested for prostitution at least eight times while using several different names.
All the facts of the Bonner case raced through my mind as I approached PD&J Meats on Sunday, August 15, but my most troubling thoughts were not of the body, but of Debra's mother. Just twenty-four hours earlier I had gone to one of the roughest neighborhoods in Tacoma and knocked on the door of her tumbledown house. Inside, the house was a monument to poverty and dysfunction. The furniture, what little there was, was beat-up and stained. Mice ran across the floor. Everything about the place said, "Here are people who have struggled through life." When we sat down and Mrs. Shirley Bonner heard me say her daughter had been murdered, tears filled her eyes and trickled down her cheeks. You might say that this woman had never been equipped to raise a child, and you might be right. But her grief was real and her sorrow was deep, and she cried a mother's tears. "I will not give up," I had told her. "I promise you, I will not give up."
Now I was headed back to the river, where two more young women, two more daughters of mothers who would weep when they got the news, waited to be recovered and examined. As the lead detective on the scene, I would take on these cases, too. That meant that I would be responsible for the crime scene, for identifying the bodies, and for every other aspect of the investigation, including making contact with grieving families. It was going to be a very long day.
The parking lot at PD&J was jammed with official vehicles, so I parked on the roadside. I grabbed the big, bulky Mamiya camera I used for crime scene photos, along with its huge battery pack and a logbook to record each shot. As soon as I got out of the car, some of the officers who stood on the roadside began filling me in on the scene: Robert Ainsworth, a rafter who collected old bottles and other junk that had been tossed into the river, had been drifting through the shallow water, poking at the bottom with a homemade hook. Whenever Ainsworth found something he couldn't bring up with his tool, he'd slip into the water and muck around in the silt and sand.
On this Sunday afternoon, Ainsworth had seen a man on the riverbank as he rounded a bend near PD&J. The two spoke briefly about an outboard motor submerged at that spot. Ainsworth also saw a man in a pickup truck on Frager Road, above the river. Moments later, after the two men departed, the rafter saw what he believed was a mannequin of a woman submerged in the water. He poked it with his hook and noticed that it was pinned to the riverbed by a large rock. Then, as he maneuvered the raft, he saw another female form lying submerged about ten feet away. Her limbs, hair, and hands were so perfectly formed, so lifelike, that he realized these were not mannequins at all but, rather, the bodies of young women.
In order to avoid contaminating evidence that may have been dropped by whoever put these women in the water, the officers already on the scene had made a fresh path through the blackberry vines and tall grass. Before I plunged ahead, I looked for one of them to take my photo logbook and accompany me to record each picture that I would take, noting the time, location, and other details. The duty fell to a rookie who had hung back while other, older officers had briefed me.
Officer Sue Peters had the good or bad luck (depending on how you look at it) to have been assigned to patrol this corner of King County. Barely five feet tall with brown hair and a youthful appearance, Peters looked more like a grade school teacher than a cop. About to have her first encounter with dead bodies, she was quiet as we climbed down the bank and walked north along the rocks to the spot where the bodies looked to be shadows in the shallows.
The first body we reached was lying facedown, unclothed, in three feet of water. She was weighted down with rocks that had been laid on her foot, knee, buttocks, and shoulder. The silt that had begun to cover her up made it impossible to determine her race. I snapped pictures and called out the details to Sue, who managed to stay calm and composed by keeping her focus on the task at hand.
The second body, submerged ten feet farther upstream in water that was a little deeper, was lying faceup and was nude except for a front-closure bra that had been opened. This body had been secured with rocks on her right leg and hip, left ankle, and shoulder. But nothing held down her right arm, and as the water flowed around her, it raised her arm and made her hand flutter back and forth. Her mouth and eyes were open. She looked like she was waving to us and saying, "Here I am. Help me."
I was already wondering about the person-maybe "creature" is a better word-who was responsible for this little horror show. We all were trying to imagine how someone would have handled the chore of lugging the bodies to the water and then moving the rocks to keep them submerged. And naturally, we speculated about the connection to the girl with the Duby tattoo, Debra Bonner, who had been pulled from the river within sight of this spot.
Did these two young women have anything in common with Debra? Did they move in the same dangerous underworld of prostitutes, pimps, drugs, and johns? And what about the killer, or killers? Were all the people involved in this crime connected in some way?
Once I finished taking pictures, Sue and I joined the others scouring the water's edge for evidence. The area was littered with cigarette butts, bottles, cans, and other trash that people had thrown out of car windows or left while tromping alongside the river. This was a popular fishing spot, and a couple of makeshift shacks for winter sportsmen sat between the road and the water. No one discovered anything of apparent value, but we collected everything we found just in case.
While the others worked nearby, Sue and I picked our way carefully down the steep bank, looking for any sign - footsteps, broken plants, litter-of the person who had dumped the two bodies. The underbrush was very thick, and we moved slowly, parting grass that was five or six feet high, carefully pushing blackberry vines aside to avoid the thorns. We couldn't see more than a foot or so ahead of ourselves, so I was surprised when, halfway up the bank, we moved through the brush and almost stumbled upon a body. "I've got another one!" I called out.
While I waited for other officers to come help mark the scene and check for evidence, I had time to examine the body. She was a young African American woman. She was lying facedown. Her legs were straight, her heels almost touching. Her right arm was raised, with the elbow bent at a ninety-degree angle. The only clothing she wore was a white bra, still clasped but pushed up. A pair of blue pants was twisted around her neck.
In my mind's eye, I saw the killer getting spooked by something -the man on the raft? a passing car? -and simply dropping this body before he could reach the river. He had obviously miscalculated, believing that this stretch of the Green River was more secluded than it was. I hoped that he had made other mistakes, missteps that would give us some clue to his identity.
The search for evidence would go on for hours. In the meantime, I would photograph the body and the scene, with Sue recording the details. Down below us, divers waded into the river to retrieve the first two bodies. I went down to help.
It was a gruesome task. The bodies were terribly bloated and starting to decompose. At one point I lost my grip on one of the bodies when the skin simply slipped off into my hands. When we were finally able to get both corpses to shore, we slipped them into body bags and then struggled up the bank, where the medical examiner, Donald Reay, MD, waited.
After we opened the first bag for him, Dr. Reay quickly determined that the first victim taken from the water was African American and that she had been in the water for three or four days. She had no obvious injuries, but there was a sizable bruise on her left arm. The second body from the river, also that of a young black woman, was more severely decomposed, and Reay thought it had been underwater for a week or so. She, too, showed no signs of trauma. In fact, of the three discovered that day, only the body in the grass bore any scrapes or cuts.
The third body still showed signs of rigor mortis-a stiffening that begins to ease about twenty-four hours after death -so it was obvious she had been dead for just a couple of days at most. Dr. Reay also noticed petechiae, tiny dots that appear on the face from broken blood vessels or hemorrhages. Petechiae form when the pressure in tiny capillaries is so high that the vessel walls burst. People can get them under their eyes or on their nose if they have a bout of severe coughing or vomiting. They are also a telltale indication of strangulation.
I looked down at the young woman and imagined her death at the hands of the beast who had wrapped those blue slacks around her neck and pulled hard, closing off her windpipe and draining the life from her. Her face looked both distorted and sweetly innocent, and I thought to myself, "Each of these women is somebody's daughter."
It would take several more hours for us to clear the scene. The rocks that had been placed on the bodies were evidence, so we gathered them up. But nothing in the trash that we found on the riverbank seemed to be important. We could only hope that as we discovered the identities of the three women and traced their relationships and activities, we would see something important.
Nothing at the river connected the bodies discovered on Sunday to Debra Bonner, who was pulled from the water three days before, except for the fact that they were all young females. This came up as I stood beside Frager Road and discussed the case with Major Richard Kraske and other investigators. Debbie Bonner's parents had admitted she was a prostitute and they had complained about a man she had called her boyfriend, who was really her pimp and drug supplier. His name was Carlton Marshall, and he had called them three weeks ago to say Debbie was missing.
Prostitution had been part of the picture in two other recent murders. In January, I had investigated the killing of Leanne Wilcox, who had been strangled and then dumped nearby on dry land.
Excerpted from Chasing the Devil by Sheriff David Reichert Copyright © 2004 by Dave Reichert. Excerpted by permission.
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