`I'm Gonna Get This Guy': The Green River Murders, 10 Years Removed

Seattle Times reporter Tomas Guillen and former Times staffer Carlton Smith spent years reporting and writing about the Green River serial killings for The Times. They also are the authors of the book, "The Search for the Green River Killer."

The following article is a previously unpublished story resulting from their research for that book.

The initial investigation into the Green River murders began with Kent Police Patrolman Robert Kellams, one of the first officers on the scene when the first body was discovered in Kent in July 1982.

Not long after the investigation began, Kent decided it could not afford to keep Kellams on the case full time, indefinitely - especially after King County entered the investigation. Kellams was told to give his files to the King County Police. Losing the case to the county especially angered Kellams because county investigators had refused to share their investigative information with him. When the Green River Task Force was formed in 1984, Kent still could not afford a full-time Green River investigator.

Not until human remains were found on the banks of the river in Kent in 1986 was Kellams assigned to the task force. For the first time, he got an opportunity to read the files on other victims and get a sense of the similarities. But after four months with the task force, Kellams, once again, was needed in Kent and was off the investigation.

This is a story on the discovery of the body and Kellams' role at the beginning of the biggest unsolved serial murder case in the nation.

Despite its occasional wild beauty, the Green River is not usually an attractive place to go swimming. That is why on July 15, 1982, two boys riding their bicycles across a narrow bridge over the river 13 miles south of Seattle knew instinctively that something was wrong.

The swimmer the boys had noticed was clinging to a rotten piling that protruded from the river, just about 50 yards north of the bridge. The swimmer seemed very tired. The water was very shallow. Why didn't she just stand up? The boys noticed that the swimmer was very brown; in fact, it appeared that she was covered with mud. The incongruity of the image slowly crystallized into a powerful yet foreboding awareness; suddenly the boys became very much older. They realized the swimmer was dead.

Mounting their bikes and pedaling off the bridge, the boys quickly found a telephone and told the rest of the world about their discovery. It was just before 4 p.m. on a cloudy Wednesday afternoon on the western edge of the city of Kent, and at the start of the worst serial murder case in American history.


After decades as semi-rural farming country, Kent was, like much of the rest of King County, slowly turning into a jungle of hurriedly drywalled bedrooms, pizza houses, convenience stores, gas stations and condominiums. Kent was now home to about 23,000 people, many of them cheek-to-barnyard with former cow pastures, egg ranches, wood lots and truck farms. Old roads were being eclipsed by new highways, shopping centers were popping up in previously empty fields, and the traffic of thousands of cars poured morning, noon and night across the city's old downtown in a wild rush from home to job and back again.

All the recent growth was straining the little city's resources to the limits. The police department, for example, had nearly doubled in size over the preceding decade, but somehow there was just never enough time, or people, to do everything that needed to be done.

Police Chief Jay Skewes tried to put a good spin on the situation, nonetheless. In Kent, all police officers were considered "generalists." That sounded good in presentations to the City Council, but in practice it meant the uniformed patrol police did almost everything, whether they knew how to do it or not. Four embattled detectives were available to the patrol cops for assistance and advice, but it was the uniforms who got all the on-the-job training, and it was because he was a "generalist" that Kent Patrolman R.D. Kellams paid close attention to the call over his police radio about the body that had been found in the Green River.

Finding bodies in the Green was not unheard of, but still unusual, Kellams knew. He decided to roll over to the area and see what he could see.


The Fire Department was already there. So was Kent Patrolman Randy Bourne, who had the patrol car district next to Kellams', and in whose district the body had been found. The Fire Department was waiting on the bank with a green plastic tarp. The firefighters went into the river and maneuvered the body away from the piling and onto the tarp. Folding the tarp over the body so that just one tennis-shoed foot could be seen, the firefighters carried the dead weight up the river bank and put it down.

The body was covered with silt. A greenish algae had already started growing on it. Bourne looked at Kellams. The body was that of a woman whose pants had been twisted tightly around her neck. Except for her shoes and socks, the woman was entirely naked.

Soon the Police Department's top brass arrived. Arrangements were made to bring in a team of Fire Department divers to search the river, and the King County Medical Examiner's Office was called to take care of the remains, assist in the identification of the victim and to establish a cause of death. Something nagged at Kellams. He had seen this woman before, he was sure of it, but couldn't remember where or when. Frustrating not to be able to remember, thought Kellams, when you're seeing your first murder victim.

Kellams was 26, a native of Wahoo, Neb. He and his twin brother had joined the Kent department just less than two years earlier. The Kent job was the extent of Kellams' paid police experience.

Kellams sometimes thought how interesting it might be to investigate a murder. But this case would go to Bourne, who patrolled the district where the body had been found.

Bourne looked at Kellams again. "I'm supposed to take my vacation next week," he said. "I can't investigate this."

"I'll take it for you," Kellams offered.

"Thanks," said Bourne.


"OK, Kellams," said the lieutenant, Dave Everett, "let's look it over." Everett squatted down next to the body with Kellams. They looked at the pants, a pair of blue jeans knotted around the woman's neck. Beneath the pants the two men saw a green-and-white striped blouse of some sort, also knotted around the neck. Everett wiped some of the silt off the body. On the side of the left breast he uncovered a red-and-black tattoo in the shape of a butterfly.

Soon a pathologist and an assistant from the Medical Examiner's Office arrived. Dr. Harry Bonnell, one of three pathologists employed by the county, examined the body. Bonnell looked through the pockets of the jeans for any identification. He found a single copper penny in the right front pocket; that was it. Bonnell dictated his inspection into a hand-held tape recorder while Bourne, Kellams and Everett stood nearby. The doctor examined the woman's mouth and hands. Then Bonnell and his assistant, with help from Bourne and Kellams, carried the body off to the county's gray morgue van as the television people recorded the procession. The tape would turn out to be a classic piece of stock footage, shown over and over again during the next seven years.

Kellams drove back to police headquarters, running the face of the dead woman through his mind, trying to remember. Nothing. He made arrangements to be taken off his patrol shift to investigate the murder, and asked that a detective, Larry Wandry, be assigned to work with him on the case. Then Kellams drove home.

That night, Kellams stayed up late, thinking about his first murder case. How would he do it? He saw himself arresting the killer. In his mind's eye, the murderer readily confessed to the crime, once confronted with all the evidence the brilliant Detective Kellams had assembled.

Wait a minute, thought Kellams, first things first. He didn't even know who the dead woman was. That was first.

How could he identify the dead woman? Where she had been killed? If I get those things, I can start thinking about who the murderer might have been. But already, Kellams knew he would take this case personally. This would be his homicide, his first. It would be a contest of wits, a test of his ingenuity and persistence.

"I'm gonna get this guy," Kellams told his wife. "I'm gonna get him." But he was wrong.


The following morning Kellams and Wandry drove downtown to the Medical Examiner's Office at Harborview Hospital in Seattle, the county's public health facility, to watch the autopsy. Wandry was big, nearly 6 feet 5 inches tall, and bearded. He had been working drugs. He was good, experienced. Kellams thought he might learn something from Wandry. Wandry had seen autopsies before, for one thing. Standard investigative practice required detectives to attend such post-mortem examinations. This would be another first for Kellams.

"It was more than I expected, to put it bluntly," Kellams said later. "It was just a kind of a blase atmosphere there, where you take this body and . . . these people don't seem to be attaching any kind of personality to it. I was attaching a personality to it. I was thinking, `My God, this was a warm, living human being.' And now . . . I mean, it was like a meat locker."

The medical examiners took photographs. Six different tattoos were noted, including several butterflies, a unicorn, and a pair of wings with the word "Harley" inscribed in the middle. Kellams took his own photographs of the tattoos. He was thinking the tattoos would be helpful in identifying the victim.

A possible clue was found in the blue jeans. Inspection of the pockets showed two initials written in blue ink on the inside of the jeans: W.C.

Then the cutting began. Kellams began feeling woozy.

"I just wasn't accustomed to that," Kellams recalled later. "I don't think anybody would be . . . I'm just the new kid on the block. I watched them while they did it. Again, I was still going through the how matter-of-fact this all was to everybody. But finally, I worked up enough courage to go over and stand by Bonnell. After the cutting was all done and the organs had been removed. I remember trying to ask him what the cause of death was."

Bonnell showed him a bone in the neck that had been fractured.

Bonnell pointed to the woman's arm. A dark bruise was on the left forearm. Higher up on the arm, Bonnell showed Kellams how the ends of two broken bones grated when moved. "What does that mean?" Kellams asked.

"Well, there's a lot of bleeding around the fracture site itself," said Bonnell.

"What does that mean? Tell me what that means."

"Well, it occurred prior to death, that's what it means. The arm was broken before death." The woman and her killer had been in a violent struggle during the course of the murder.

The entire autopsy took no more than an hour and a half. Kellams thought it took forever. He wanted to leave, but he was afraid to go. He didn't want the others to think he was faint-hearted. "You know, it's the macho image thing," he said. "I thought the case was important enough to tough it out." But years later, Kellams could still see the eviscerated body on the table, before and after the cutting. He kept thinking, damn, I know her, I recognize her. But he still could not remember.

Who was the woman? Until he knew, Kellams would be at a loss to proceed. He and Wandry drove back to Kent. They put out a description of the woman and her tattoos, and looked into several reports of missing people that did not match up.

The media coverage had done Kellams a favor. Two days after the autopsy a tattoo artist named Joseph Yates called the Kent department and told them the designs sounded like his work. Yates was asked to come in. Police showed him the pictures of the tattoos.

Yeah, those are mine, said Yates. I did those. Her name's Wendy.

Kellams went down to the department's little jail and asked a guard to check the records for anyone named Wendy. Another guard remembered a Wendy with fresh tattoos. She pulled out a jail booking form. The form showed that a Wendy Lee Coffield had the same tattoos that had been photographed by Kellams.

"That's her," said Kellams. "Those are the same tattoos. That's her."

W.C., thought Kellams.

Wendy Coffield had been arrested in a Kent burglary three months earlier. The arresting officer had been R.D. Kellams.

Wendy Lee Coffield was 16 years old. Kellams could not find an address for any relatives, but Yates told him that the girl's mother might live in a housing project just outside the city limits. Records at the apartment complex yielded the name of Virginia Coffield. A detective found a new address for Mrs. Coffield in nearby Auburn, and called her. Someone went to see Mrs. Coffield and showed her photographs of the dead girl. It was her Wendy, she said.

Mrs. Coffield told Kellams that her daughter had been living in a temporary foster home run by the state, because of her incorrigibility. The state had taken custody of Wendy because mother and daughter argued all the time, she said. Wendy was wild, said Virginia; she hadn't been able to control her at all. Wendy took drugs, and had been known to occasionally get money from prostitution in Tacoma and near Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

The last time she had seen her, Mrs. Coffield said, had been on Monday, July 12, the same day the medical experts had concluded that Wendy had been killed. Mrs. Coffield said Wendy had told her that she had permission to be away from the receiving home for the day. Mrs. Coffield didn't think that was right, but no one in the state Department of Social Services seemed to want to listen to her about it. Attempts to call the house mother at the foster home went unreturned. So Wendy seemed to be able to wander around at will.

Another detective went to the University of Washington and found an expert on river algae. The detective and the expert immersed a sheet of fresh pigskin in the Green River. Tests showed that the algae found on Wendy's body had probably taken two days to grow. That seemed to confirm the Monday death date.

Kellams and Wandry began working to reassemble Wendy's recent past. The detectives obtained most of Wendy's school notebooks and refrigerator notes from Mrs. Coffield, listing Wendy's friends, contacts that had accumulated over the past several months. There were hundreds of pages to go through. She told the detectives that Wendy had recently served time in Tacoma's juvenile detention center. Kellams and Wandry made out index cards for each of the names and places mentioned in the notebooks. An aunt told them that she had seen Wendy waiting at a bus stop in downtown Tacoma over the weekend before her body was found. Old boyfriends were contacted. No one knew anything.

But as they looked deeper into the life of Wendy Lee Coffield, a sorrowful picture emerged. Wendy's mother and father were divorced. Herbert Coffield worked as a janitor in Enumclaw, a small town about 20 miles southeast of Kent.

After the Coffields divorced, Virginia and Wendy had lived in various apartment complexes in south King County. Wendy had gone to live with her mother because Wendy and Herb also argued a lot. At an apartment complex in Auburn, Wendy had found a 21-year-old boyfriend. But then Ginny Coffield, who was 36, began a relationship with the same man. The boyfriend had moved in with Ginny, so Wendy moved out. She started sleeping at other apartments in the complex, and soon was being passed from man to man like a piece of furniture. Trouble in school led to suspensions.

After an arrest for stealing a man's wallet in early 1982, the county's Department of Youth Services had referred her to a psychologist in Seattle. Wendy was sullen and uncooperative. The psychologist gave her tests.

In short, Wendy Lee Coffield felt depressed about her life, unloved by her parents, angry at her situation, incapable of doing anything to make things better.

"Because of Wendy's anger, chronic dissatisfaction, pessimism and general discouragement, together with her meager coping skills," the psychologist wrote, "I suspect that she could well have self-destructive tendencies which could emerge when she feels highly upset." Getting murdered was just about as self-destructive as you could get.


Kellams and Wandry next went to the receiving home where Wendy had been living temporarily with three other teenagers, while awaiting a permanent assignment to a group home. The state paid the owner of the house, a Mrs. Powers, a little over $11 a day to feed and house each of the teenagers. Mrs. Powers told them that in late June and again on July 8 she had filed missing-persons reports on Wendy with the Tacoma Police Department. One time Wendy had been found drunk in Tacoma's downtown prostitution district, Mrs. Powers said. She had last seen Wendy on July 10. Wendy had told her she was going out for a walk. Mrs. Powers cautioned Wendy to be back by 6 p.m., but the girl never showed up. This time, Mrs. Powers did not bother to report it, because she had never rescinded the earlier report. She also figured that Wendy would turn up again sooner or later.

After several days, Wandry and Kellams decided to go undercover in downtown Tacoma, looking for something, anything that might shed light on Wendy's last day. They discovered that while Wendy might have dabbled in prostitution, she was not a regular streetwalker. Beyond that, no one seemed to know anything. Kellams and Wandry went back to Kent and stared at their three-by-five cards some more. It wasn't supposed to be this hard, thought Kellams.

But it was.

(Copyright 1990, 1992, Carlton Smith and Tomas Guillen)