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Amid the confusion, a task force is born
Thursday, November 6, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 a.m.
By Tomas Guillen and Carlton Smith
The night was April 17, 1983. Two teen-aged girls 20 miles apart were about to disappear forever. The Green River killer was working overtime.
The King County Police vice squad had the night off.
The night before, vice detective James Covey had brought to a close a lengthy, expensive undercover investigation of an illegal gambling game that had been under way on the Eastside for some time. Other vice officers took part in the raid. Eight people were arrested.
For all the squad's work, not much happened to the defendants. Five were later found guilty of illegal gambling and given probation, one was acquitted by a jury, and the judge dismissed charges against a seventh. The eighth skipped town and, four years later, police are still looking for him.
During his three-week investigation, Covey reported 22 hours playing cards in a Tukwila lounge and in private homes, losing the county's money steadily _ $2,600 altogether _ to convince other gamblers he was just a bad card player, not a cop.
Because Covey was playing cards, the county's eight-man vice unit was short-staffed when it came to enforcing prostitution laws. Until the night Covey shut down the gambling game, county officers had arrested only three women for soliciting during the month of April, and no men. That was substantially down from the county's monthly average of nearly 20 arrests, mostly of women.
The diversion of Covey to look into illegal gambling underscored the county police department's major commitment to such investigations. Enforcement of laws against street prostitution was a far more routine _ and certainly less glamorous _ endeavor.
While Covey and his fellow officers took April 17 off, Sandra Kay Gabbert, 17, walked the street on Pacific Highway South near South 142nd Street. Darryl Gladue, identified by police as Gabbert's ``boyfriend,'' later told police he last saw her about 8 p.m. at the 7-Eleven store near that intersection.
One hour later, 16-year-old Kimi Kai Pitsor was last seen getting into a green pickup truck in downtown Seattle.
Eight months later, Pitsor's skull was found near a cemetery just west of Auburn. Four months after that, on April 1, 1984, Gabbert's remains were found wedged against a log on a hillside just east of Star Lake, about five miles north of where Pitsor's skull was found.
Gabbert's remains were accompanied by a dog's skeleton, as if her murderer had also killed the dog at the same time. Later, rumors about the animal bones were to spark widespread speculation about Satan worship in relation to the murders, although police insisted the killings were instead the work of a single psychopathic killer.
THE BIG IF
If the dates and times Pitsor and Gabbert vanished are at all accurate _ a big if, but police say they're the best estimates they have _ the deaths of the two women suggest there could be more than one person involved in the 46 Green River murders.
The driving times and distances between the places where the women disappeared and the places where the bodies were later found makes it seem less likely _ although still possible _ that the same person was responsible for both crimes.
If the dates and times were more accurate, police today would have a better chance of knowing whether they're looking for one man acting alone or two people acting together. That could be crucial information in clearing or implicating hundreds of possible suspects among the thousands of names police have on file.
The fuzziness of the dates and times is but one consequence of the county police decision to handle vice-law enforcement as if nothing unusual were happening during the spring and early summer of 1983, and of the homicide investigators' decision to focus on taxi driver Melvin Foster as the most likely suspect.
By the time Gabbert and Pitsor disappeared, in fact, many county officers were convinced the Green River murders had ended. So were many prostitutes.
One who had doubts was King County Executive Randy Revelle.
In a recent interview, Revelle revealed he and his deputy executive, Harry Thomas, both were uneasy about the lack of progress on the Green River investigation.
Revelle resolved to make the murders a top priority of the incoming sheriff. Even that proved difficult because an extraneous event interfered.
Revelle's choice for sheriff was Vern Thomas, 55, a ranking veteran of the Seattle Police Department who was highly regarded in local law-enforcement circles.
In August 1982, Revelle appointed Thomas _ who had recently retired from the Seattle force _ to run the county jail. The two men had an understanding that Bernard Winckoski would be asked to leave as sheriff at the beginning of 1983 and that Thomas would replace him. Winckoski stepped down in January and Thomas was promptly confirmed by the County Council as the new sheriff.
Then Riley Frost, a jail inmate, died after a neckhold was applied by a guard during a scuffle. An inquest jury found the death justified. Both the death and the verdict were intensely controversial. Because of the problems at the jail, including severe overcrowding, Revelle decided to keep Thomas as the jail administrator at least until a qualified replacement could be found. That took until April 19 _ two days after Gabbert and Pitsor disappeared.
A CORRECT DECISION?
When Thomas finally stepped into his new job, Revelle said he told him of the need to evaluate the Green River murder investigation.
Winckoski had scaled down the search for the killer, Revelle said, and, ``I wanted to know whether that was a correct decision or whether we should be devoting substantially more resources to it.''
Thomas now says he cannot recall whether the impetus for re-emphasizing the investigation was his idea or Revelle's. ``I'm an old homicide man myself,'' he said. ``So I was interested.''
In any event, Thomas reviewed the matter. He collected the case files on the six victims police had officially linked to the killer and began to wade through them. By that point, the files had grown so large they had simply overwhelmed the five investigators the county still had on the case.
While Thomas was getting up to speed, the killer was keeping busy too. Gabbert and Pitsor were the fourth and fifth young women to fall in the first third of 1983.
Two weeks later, the sixth victim of 1983 also disappeared, and with that police investigators got a promising lead in the case. But it took three years for them to recognize it.
The night of April 30, 18-year-old Marie Malvar accepted a ride from a dark-haired man in a green pickup truck while she was standing in a parking lot of a motel near South 216th Street and Pacific Highway South.
Malvar's boyfriend, who was nearby in his own car, watched as Malvar got in, and followed as the driver of the pickup drove north on the highway. The boyfriend pulled his car even with the truck and noticed that Malvar seemed to be arguing with the driver. He also noticed that the green truck had a primer spot on the right front fender.
The dark-haired man pulled into another motel parking lot at South 208th Street. The boyfriend watched Malvar and the man continue talking. Then, abruptly, the truck pulled out of the parking lot and sped south on the highway.
The boyfriend again followed. But the green truck entered the left-turn lane at South 216th Street and caught the green arrow. The signal changed red before the boyfriend could make the turn. He lost sight of the truck as it sped east on South 216th Street. He reported Malvar missing to Des Moines police on May 3.
One morning several days later, the boyfriend returned to the neighborhood with Malvar's father and brother. The three men scoured the streets north and south of 216th Street in search of the pickup. About noon the boyfriend saw what he thought was the same truck, parked in a driveway.
The men called Des Moines police, who sent a detective to the house. After some conversation, the detective emerged and said there was no woman inside.
But it was not until July that the information was delivered by Des Moines police to county homicide investigators.
The Des Moines report linking the man in the pickup truck to Malvar's disappearance was overlooked by county investigators until September 1986, more than three years later.
Then Green River detectives comparing case files noticed that the owner of the truck was the same man they had already questioned earlier that year regarding the disappearance of a second prostitute, in November 1983. No one had asked the man about Malvar at that time because investigators were unaware of the Des Moines report that she was missing.
The man had passed a lie-detector test early in 1986, and was for a time dismissed as a suspect. But the discovery that he might have been involved in Malvar's disappearance invalidated the polygraph examination, police said.
They searched the man's house in April 1987. Some materials taken from that search are still being analyzed by the state crime laboratory but most items have failed to incriminate the suspect. Police say the man has not yet been eliminated as a suspect, however.
The man has refused to submit to another lie-detector test or to cooperate with police in any other way.
In a mysterious footnote to Malvar's disappearance, her driver's license was found in a closed concourse of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport about four weeks after she was last seen. But it was not until 1985 that this incident received any thorough police follow-up, even though it showed that Malvar's killer could have been at the airport terminal the day the license was found.
During May 1983, five women disappeared, three of them from Pacific Highway South. In June, there were three more disappearances from the highway.
During this period, vice enforcement on the Sea-Tac strip proceeded at about the same pace it had in the first half of 1982, before the murders were discovered. That year, vice officers made 104 arrests, 20 of them men for soliciting undercover women officers, from January through June. In 1983, officers arrested 111 on prostitution charges, 29 of them would-be ``johns,'' or customers, in the same period.
Police made no arrests of johns at all in May.
In July 1983, Thomas reported back to Revelle. The former county executive recalled it recently:
``Vern came back and said, `In my judgment this thing is much larger than we imagined, and we've go to dramatically increase the resources and commitment, and will I have your support?' Because he didn't want to go to all the work to prepare, and then have us tell him, `No, we're not going to do it.'''
According to Revelle, Thomas told him one other thing as well:
``One of the problems I heard about, when Vern came back, was that they (the original investigators) focused too early on one (suspect).''
That suspect was Foster, the Lacy cab driver. Had the investigators been able to clear foster months earlier -- and there was evidence available to do that -- police, press, public and prostitutes alike would have been on notice that the murderer remained active. That in turn might have provided better leads to investigators, and greater warning to the public.
Thomas, in interviews, is hazy on whether he told Revelle that the investigators had made a mistake in focusing too early on Foster.
``I don't recall that,'' Thomas said. ``...I'm not one who goes back, I'm not a second guesser... There could have been some hindsight and things like that, but that's not my approach.''
Despite the high-level review of the Green River case, no immediate changes were made in the way police dealt with street prostitution.
Asked why he didn't order his vice unit to coordinate operations with homicide investigators, or with city of Seattle vice operations, Thomas said he had too many other things to do -- such as trying to get the task force off the ground.
``That was my concern at the time,'' he said. ``It's easy to think I could have done a lot of other thing, but I had to focus in on what I thought was most important at the time.''
At the same time, Thomas said, he began receiving complaints from the local community about the prostitution problem out on the highway. As a result, prostitution finally became a high priority with both the vice squad and patrol units that serviced the Sea-Tac area, and a crackdown began on the strip.
`THAT'S OUR JOB'
Thomas and Lt. Dan Nolan, who was in charge of the uniformed patrols during the crackdown, both said no special efforts were made to alert Seattle police of the prostitutes who would be coming into the city, or to alert the police there to the prospect that the killer would not be far behind.
Seattle Police Chief Patrick Fitzsimons said in an interview that the city made no special plans to cope with the influx or the danger posed by the killer. ``We're always enforcing the vice laws,'' he said. ``That's our job.''
At least one county officer, however, contends that when county police first began discussing their crackdown, the point was made that the killer would almost certainly go into the city as a result.
``We pointed that out to them,'' said the officer, who was assigned to the county's intelligence unit at the time, ``but they said the murders were `a county problem.' ''
After July 17, 1983, all but three of the killer's final 14 victims were last seen on city streets _ some downtown, others in the Rainier Valley neighborhood.
Four victims disappeared in the city in the month of October alone.
Between August and December, the remains of seven victims were found, _ three in November in heavy underbrush near South 192nd Street and Pacific Highway South.
TASK FORCE UNVEILED
In January 1984, Thomas unveiled his task force. It was composed of 43 officers. It included teams of detectives to review the cases of the known victims and the likeliest suspects, and a special team of undercover officers to patrol the region's hottest prostitution areas and establish investigators' first contacts with the prostitutes.
Thomas pulled the vice squad itself off the Sea-Tac strip to improve the climate between undercover task-force members and prostitutes. Largely ignoring street prostitution, vice officers instead began investigating escort services, topless dancing clubs and massage parlors. With the exception of bolstered john patrols, the strip was left to the task force to come up with new leads.
For the first time _ a year and a half after the murders began _ detectives began systematically detaining and talking to the men who patronized prostitutes.
The murders stopped.
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