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Police net catches the wrong man
Thursday, November 6, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 a.m.
By Tomas Guillen and Carlton Smith
In mid-September 1982, a man named Melvin Wayne Foster called King County Police. A 43-year-old taxi driver, he'd been married five times, had done a stretch in prison for auto theft and had grown up in South King County.
Foster wanted to give the cops information about the Green River murders.
As a cabbie, Foster frequently came in contact with prostitutes, both in downtown Seattle and on the Seattle-Tacoma Airport strip. After the first bodies were found, Foster began thinking about some of his fellow drivers. He decided to tell the police his suspicions.
Police promptly made Foster himself their prime suspect.
It was a critical mistake. Homicide investigators focused their attention almost solely on Foster, overlooking information that could have helped them understand that the real killer was still at work.
Police still publicly insist that they were right to make the hapless cabbie their prime suspect.
"Foster looked great," recalls King County Sheriff Vern Thomas. "It was a judgment decision. You can go back and second-guess that until the cows come home.
"The issue is, did we have reason at the time to consider him? We did consider him, and we took the appropriate steps."
Then-King County Executive Randy Revelle, however, says police told him in July 1983 that they had made a major blunder in focusing too soon on a single suspect. And police acknowledge that time and resources spent investigating Foster detracted from efforts to come up with other leads or identify other suspects.
Because police believed he fit the FBI's psychological profile of the murderer, Foster was put under 24-hour surveillance from Sept. 15 until well into November. They searched his house in Lacey twice in two months, taking hair and blood samples from him both times. They gave him a lie-detector test, which Foster failed. Ultimately, they placed a hidden camera on his house that remained there until the fall of 1985, according to sources familiar with the investigation.
When Foster put his car up for sale in 1985, the sources said, a plainclothes officer from the task force carrying plenty of cash answered Foster's newspaper ad.
The officer flashed a driver's license, plunked down about $1,200 in public money and left. Foster never found out that the task force purchased his car.
Upon obtaining the vehicle, detectives inspected it minutely for trace evidence such as hairs, carpet fibers and bits of fabric. Pieces of the car were even sent to the FBI's laboratory for more analysis.
Foster insisted throughout that he had nothing to do with the crimes. He told police he had a nervous condition that made it impossible for him to pass polygraph tests.
Finally, in late 1985, the FBI told Green River Task Force detectives that Foster was almost certainly not their man, the sources said.
It was a pointed irony. Had it had not been for the FBI psychological profile, Foster might never have been a suspect in the first place.
When Foster first came to see them in September 1982, King County Police were particularly interested in talking to people who wanted to "help" them. The FBI had told investigators that wanting to assist police was a frequent psychological trait of serial murderers.
Detectives took a close look at Foster's background and were especially interested in his time in prison, his admitted predilection for relationships with younger women and his cab driver's proximity to many of those involved in prostitution.
When Foster said he had not known the first five Green River victims, and the polygraph test indicated that he might be lying, police were even more suspicious.
Then Foster flipflopped and said he had known the victims. He said he had just become confused between their names and photographs.
By this time, police were convinced Foster was the killer. But he would not confess. There was another problem: no evidence.
So Foster went free. But police began extensive surveillance of his movements in mid-September 1982.
Foster said he watched police follow him to his house in Lacey, then sit outside while he was home. Every time he got in his car to drive somewhere, he said, police followed him. On Oct. 4, 1982, he retaliated. He called reporters and told them police were harassing him. Foster said he wanted police to "lay an egg or get off the nest."
That only further convinced officers that Foster was the killer. He was now challenging the cops. That, too, was a supposed psychological trait of serial offenders.
But by the time Foster went public, police had had several new opportunities to test their theories about him. They were to have several more before the end of the year.
For a variety of reasons, some of them clear and some not, police overlooked those chances. As a result, the investigation wandered into a thicket of confusion. By the time it was extricated more than a year later, 37 more victims had fallen at the hands of the real killer.
Between Aug. 15, when the killer's known toll reached five, and Sept. 15, when Foster says police began watching him as a possible suspect, two other women had disappeared Kase Ann Lee and Terri Rene Milligan. Two other women, Giselle Lovvorn and Amina Agisheff, had disappeared in July, but were not connected by police to the Green River crimes until their remains were found in Agisheff's case, nearly two years later.
Then, on the same day police began watching Foster, 18-year-old Mary Bridget Meehan disappeared sometime after 8:30 p.m. at South 165th Street and Pacific Highway South.
Five days later, Sept. 20, Debra Estes using the name Betty Jones was last seen by police detectives themselves at a motel in Federal Way. And on Oct. 7 and 8, 17-year-old Shawnda Summers and 23-year-old Denise Bush vanished in the area of South 144th Street and Pacific Highway South.
How could Foster have been the killer, when police had him under constant surveillance at the same time all these victims were disappearing?
As Foster put it late in 1984, "Ubiquity being a physical impossibility, I could not be where those girls were when . . . I could not set foot off my residence without being in direct and clear sight of two King County policemen."
Police continued to focus on Foster, even when there were new disappearances, for two possible reasons. One was that investigators were ignorant of the latest incidents as in the cases of Summers and yet another young woman, Shirley Sherrill, 20, whose body was found nearly two years later near Bush's remains in Tigard, Ore. The second was because they didn't consider missing-persons reports as evidence of continuing murders as in the cases of Meehan, Bush and Agisheff.
Police continued to look for Estes, fruitlessly, for almost two years under her assumed name, Jones.
At the same time, police continued to believe that if there were to be any new killings, the remains would probably be found in some river. None was.
Police concluded that they had successfully identified Foster as the killer, and that their surveillance had prevented him from killing again.
CLUES WERE THERE
Clues pointing elsewhere were available, however.
Two of the five newest victims Bush and Meehan were the subjects of missing-persons reports provided to county police within two days of the women's disappearances. A third, Estes, while using the name Jones, actually had been cooperating with county sex-crimes detectives and the county prosecutor's office as a witness in an unrelated rape case when she disappeared.
It is uncertain whether Green River homicide investigators were told of the disappearances of Meehan and Bush in 1982, or that any detective from any county police unit tried to find them. Officers assigned to those cases declined to be interviewed.
Then, on Sept. 25, the body of Gisele Lovvorn was found in a wooded area south of the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. That told investigators that the killer had no particular attraction to the Green River and that he was as likely to dump his victims on land as in water.
On Sept. 29, police finally announced publicly that Lee and Milligan were also missing. Yet they said nothing about Meehan's disappearance. Nor did they mention Estes ones.
Had these two disappearances been made public as well, police might have obtained leads that were considerably fresher than those they came up with nearly a year later when Meehan was added to the list or almost two years later, when Estes was finally correctly identified and included.
Police also missed a chance to identify Estes correctly. Had her photograph been publicized at the time, as the Lee and Milligan photos were, they might have learned necessary background about her far sooner. Estes' parents had been searching for their daughter for months.
When Denise Bush was reported missing Oct. 10 only three days after a King County officer arrested her for shoplifting at Larry's Market at South 144th and Pacific Highway South, and a little more than a month after her arrest for prostitution in the same area police said nothing publicly about her disappearance, either.
Again, release of that information might have led police sooner to Bush's friends. After Bush's body was found almost two years later, those friends told police they vaguely recalled she had made a date with a man in a green pickup truck the night before she was last seen. But by then, memories were fading.
Public awareness that the pattern of disappearances was continuing throughout the fall might have persuaded some prostitutes to stay away from the airport strip or even the Seattle area altogether.
Instead, Foster's challenge "lay an egg or get off" prompted police to look even more intensively at him and led to a strong clash of personalities between the cabbie and the county's lead detective on the case, David Reichert.
Reichert was 32 at the time the investigation began. Foster was 43. Although the FBI advised county police to use detectives older than the suspects for interrogation to stimulate better cooperation during interviews the county chose Reichert for the job anyway.
Relations between Reichert and Foster deteriorated rapidly. Foster said later he was told that Reichert wanted to "get me in hand-to-hand combat. I sent a message back, `Anytime, punk. You ain't old enough to be that bad.' He doesn't want to fool with this old bear."
Reichert declined to be interviewed for this article.
By December 1982, King County Sheriff Bernard Winckoski's 25-member task force had disbanded. Most of the officers who had been assigned to the case felt Foster was probably the right suspect. Maj. Richard Kraske, who headed the investigation, felt that way.
So did Winckoski.
In January 1983, Winckoski resigned. The county's Green River investigation drifted for three months under the acting supervision of chief of operations Jim Nickle, as manpower was shifted away and onto new problems.
For the county's vice unit, things also returned to normal. Decoy prostitution patrols were finally resumed when police erroneously thought the killings had stopped. Vice officers roamed the strip in search of women to arrest. Undercover officers set up positions from which they could watch prostitutes proposition their customers "johns."
According to a number of reports on arrests for loitering, officers made no sustained efforts to record the license plates of johns. In fact, the reports indicated, often nobody even tried to get a description of the cars they drove.
But the killer was still at work. From March 1983 until late June, he murdered at least 10 new victims, strewing their remains from south of the airport to east of Enumclaw.
A little more than two weeks after the disappearance of 18-year-old Keli Kay McGinness on June 28 from the intersection of South 216th Street and Pacific Highway South, the man then in charge of the investigation, Capt. T. Michael Nault, held a press conference to coincide with the first anniversary of the discovery of the murders.
For the first time in almost a year, police acknowledged there were other missing women and that the killer was likely still prowling the airport strip and still picking up victims.
"Do not get into cars with anyone you don't know," Nault advised.
Because police had believed the killer had left or had been frightened by their investigation, news coverage of the killings had nearly faded away. And because the publicity stopped, prostitutes had returned to the strip in large numbers. That made it easier for the killer to murder his victims virtually unnoticed as the brisk sex-trafficking resumed.
But then, in July shortly after Nault's announcement that the killer was apparently still active county police began a campaign to drive the women and their pimps from the airport strip.
Most of the women went to downtown Seattle. So did their customers.
So did the killer.
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