Beginning in the early 1980s, the cities of Seattle and Tacoma, Washington were gripped by fear. Scores of women, mostly prostitutes and runaways, had disappeared from Pacific Highway South, their bodies dumped in wooded areas along the Green River. In total, forty-nine women would be found murdered.
Gary Ridgeway, the seemingly mundane husband and truck painter, would later admit to having strangled more than seventy women. It wasn’t until August 2001 that investigators finally arrested Ridgeway, ending his twenty year reign of terror. The Green River Killer: A True Detective Story, a graphic novel by writer Jeff Jensen and artist Jonathan Case, goes beyond the headlines and offers a compassionate portrayal of the victims, their families and the efforts by the King’s County Sherriff’s Office to catch the worst serial killer in American history.
Jensen, a pop culture writer for Entertainment Weekly, had an insider’s view of the investigation. His father, Tom Jensen, joined the Green River Task Force in December 1983. Despite the best efforts of dozens of detectives and millions of dollars, by the early 1990s, lack of success and budget pressure caused the task force to be dismantled, leaving Jensen the sole full-time investigator assigned to the case. It is his experiences upon which much of The Green River Killer: A True Detective Story is based.
The book is in the tradition of other true crime procedurals like David Simon’s Homicide. But there is little preoccupation with forensic science; the focus is on people. Early in the book, Jensen and his partner dig around some badly decomposed remains. “Ready for the clue goo?” he asks. Jensen reels back in disgust. “Gas from the corpse gets released when you work the dirt,” he’s told. Homicide investigators often create psychological barriers between the kinds of things that are outside normal human experience and their private lives. But it’s inevitable that those barriers sometimes break down.
Soon after his arrest, as part of a controversial plea agreement which saw him avoid the death penalty, Ridgeway spent five months in lengthy interview sessions with police. It was their hope that Ridgeway would help lead them to undiscovered victims. “I guess there’s a lot I’ve forgotten over time,” he informs them. “Interesting,” Jensen says. “It’s been twenty years for me, too, and I haven’t forgotten anything.”
Reminiscent of the independent comic revolution of the 1980s, Jonathan Case’s black-and-white illustrations are appropriately restrained. The book is at its most effective when navigating through rough terrain. Detective Jensen and other investigators are led by Ridgeway on an “outing” to a possible dump site. The scene then shifts back in time to April 1984, to a similar wooded area just off the highway. It was there that the splayed skeletal remains of four women were found. In scenes like this, Case displays a deep sense of sensitivity where lesser talents would have gone for cheap thrills.
Jensen, the author, correctly offers few insights into Ridgeway’s psychopathy. The focus is on the investigators and the toll their job takes on their lives. In the afterward, he admits that the book was “inspired” by true events: “It’s not intended as history or memoir.” But truth is something far more elusive than fact. Holocaust scholars would call it “bearing witness,” the act of remembering personal experience. In that regard, The Green River Killer: A True Detective Story by Jeff Jensen and Jonathan Case is an important book with a unique perspective that deserves multiple readings.