Highway 99: A boulevard full of ghosts

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In one way, it is a highway like many others: a long, narrow strip of double-lined asphalt intersected by strip malls, signals, turn pockets, gas stations and a grab bag of roadside eateries and sleeperies.

For me, it's a thoroughfare of ghosts, where a serial killer stalked some of his victims.

I put my rental car onto the road at its beginning, near West Marginal Way in South Park, drive a bit and almost immediately notice one change: what used to be the Highline, Highway 99, then Pacific Highway South, is now known as International Boulevard as it passes through Tukwila and the new city of SeaTac. But this is only the first of the changes in what had been, in 1982 and 1983, the killing ground for the person who became known as the Green River killer.

Time has a way of erasing things, smoothing over rough spots, eroding the edges of events that once promised to be unforgettable. What is left, for those who were there when they happened, are the ghosts, the reflections of people once as alive as any of us, but now dead. These emanations can't be seen by those who never experienced the actual events, but they are there.

Gone now is the White Shutters, a nice restaurant-bar at the north end of the highway, a neighborhood dining establishment where one might have taken the family for a special occasion.

I once made it a habit to check the bar, looking over the middle-aged men slumped on their stools, nursing their drinks, trying to envision a serial killer among them.

Once, when I showed a picture of a missing woman to a bartender, a patron reported me as a suspicious person to what was then the King County police. The patron, it turns out, was a police reserve officer. While I was wondering about him, he was wondering about me.

And while I was later kidded by police for being a suspicious character — "a person of interest" — it remains an indicator of the paranoia generated in those days. Back then, it could have been anyone.

Across the street were three motels: the Ben Carol, the Spruce and the Moonrise (since renamed the Boulevard Motel), headquarters for so many of those thrust by choice or circumstance into the sex trades, euphemistically referred to as "the life."

A more important landmark was a bus shelter just south of the Ben Carol, a shelter where so many "dating" transactions occurred — a place where a number of victims were last seen.

During the killings, police patrols made a habit of checking the women who congregated at the bus shelter, both sides caught in a peculiar sort of dance: the police trying to enforce loitering laws while checking whether the women were safe; the women trying to avoid arrest while looking for police protection. The bus shelter is still there. I wonder if those who sit in it today know of its history.

Farther south, I see that the Barn Door tavern is no more, wiped out by progress. Now a restaurant, the tavern was a typical Northwest beer parlor: a bar scarred by cigarette burns, a pool table, a rotating rack of hot dogs, electric beer signs, peanut shells and a plethora of pull-tab remnants.

Carol Christensen, a Barn Door barmaid, was last seen there one day in May 1983. Items found with her body when it was discovered in Maple Valley a few days after she disappeared will be among the evidence in the trial of Gary Leon Ridgway, the Auburn man charged in her death and in the deaths of Cynthia Hinds, Opal Mills and Marcia Chapman.

Police say Ridgway may have killed them and 45 others. For me, they all are ghosts who still haunt the highway.

West of the Barn Door, down South 146th Street, was the Highline Little League ballfield, a favorite trysting spot for people of the night. In those days, a number of houses north of the airport were jacked up on wooden pallets, ready to be moved.

Halfway down South 146th, not far from 24th Avenue South, the skeleton of Shawnda Summers was found in October 1983, not far from an apple tree. Today, there is the relatively new Boeing Spares Distribution Center of the Customer Services Division. Farther west, just beyond the center-field fence of the ballfield, the skeletal remains of two other victims were found. Today, a storage facility stands where police once searched for human bones.

Back on the highway, not far from the Ben Carol, is the Country Vittles Family Restaurant, as popular then as it is today. At the Country Vittles, I introduced Frank Adamson, then the Green River Task Force commander, to a man who claimed he knew who was killing young women from the strip.

The man, a disbarred attorney from Washington, D.C., was wrong. I later learned he had previously played a minor role in the Watergate scandal. Last I heard, the man had had a nervous breakdown and was arrested while standing naked in the middle of a street in North Seattle, repeatedly shouting, "I found the Green River killer!" until police took him away.

Across from the Country Vittles, a 7-Eleven still stands. Denise Bush was headed there from a motel room one night in October 1983 to buy cigarettes. The killer got her, too.

As I drive south, I catch a glimpse of Bow Lake, where I spent New Year's Eve 1983 with the King County police. An officer was escorting me on a tour of the strip when word came that a Western State Hospital escapee armed with a semiautomatic pistol had attempted to hold up a hotel near the lake. By 2 in the morning, just about every available King County police vehicle had the lake surrounded.

Believing the man was hiding in bushes near the shore, police brought in a piece of new equipment: a gigantic acoustic antenna, hoping the robber would betray his position by making otherwise undetectable noises.

The officer I was with had to leave to run the new equipment, but before departing, he removed a shotgun from its car mount, racked a shell into the firing chamber and leaned it in the car's doorway.

"You know how to use one of these?" he asked. I realized then that if the robber made a break for it and somehow got past the police, I was supposed to use the shotgun to stop him.

Just after sunrise, a SWAT team moved in and found the robber, whose pants were frozen to the mud of the lakeshore, preventing him from moving even if he'd wanted to.

Just south of Bow Lake, on the west side of the highway, a new restaurant has replaced My Place, in those days a popular strip club.

Across the street from My Place, the Red Lion Hotel has become the DoubleTree Hotel. It was outside this hotel that Green River victim Connie Naon encountered the killer, who took her a few blocks away to South 192nd Street, where he left her body in the brush, surrounded by fir trees. She was 21.

Today, South 192nd Street has been widened and improved. An Alaska Airlines maintenance facility stands where Naon's skeleton was found, not far from the skeletons of Mary Bridget Meehan, Kelly Ware and Andrea Childers. Meehan was eight months pregnant.

Across from South 192nd Street, Angle Lake Park remains much as it was on the afternoon of Aug. 12, 1982, when Opal Mills made a call from a pay telephone there about 1:30 p.m. Two or three hours later she was dead, her body left on a bank of the Green River, about the same time police were removing the body of 23-year-old Debra "Dub" Bonner from the river. Police realized later that they'd almost had the killer in their grasp that day.

Farther south is the Bullpen Tavern at South 200th Street, seemingly unchanged from the old days, when the partially skeletonized remains of Gisele Lovvorn, 17, were found in nearby brush.

The fact she was found in brush in August 1982, when everyone was still looking in the river for victims, should have told us something. It didn't. In time, the Green River horror story would include 37 other victims found on dry land, which made the original discovery of the five in or near the river seem like an anomaly or possibly the work of a different person.

At South 216th Street, the Three Bears Motel, where Bonner was last seen in late July 1982, is still in business. The intersection is where Gail Lynn Mathews was last seen in a pickup in 1983. Also Marie Malvar. A left turn brings a vehicle down off the ridge toward the Green River. It also takes a driver close to a house where Ridgway once lived, just off Military Road South.

And that is when I remember that Military Road South parallels most of Pacific Highway South. A narrow, two-lane strip of blacktop, Military Road South turns out to be the back-door access to many of the places where victims were either last seen or later found. I remember Adamson, the former task-force commander, once telling me police were convinced the killer was a local man because of his seeming familiarity with relatively untraveled Military Road.

Then I come to the Green River valley itself. Just before crossing the Meeker bridge into Kent comes Frager Road. A right turn off Frager and I'm following the river around its large U-shape bend. In those days, there was a slaughterhouse on the riverbank at the end of the curve. Bonner's body was found there Aug. 12, 1982. Three days later and 100 yards south, the bodies of Mills, Chapman and Hinds were found.

I'm now going south on the West Valley Highway to South 272nd Street, then west. As the hill steepens, I make a left turn at South Star Lake Road. It's a small road, narrow, crowned with trees. Seeing it now, you would never suspect it once was the scene of one of the biggest media mob scenes in the history of Western Washington.

In spring 1984, a mushroom hunter stumbled over the skull of 17-year-old Delores Williams. Within the next few days, police discovered three additional skeletons: of Sandy Gabbert, 17; Terry Milligan, 16; and Alma Smith, 18.

By that time, South Star Lake Road was jammed with the cars and trucks of television, radio and newspaper reporters; helicopters were circling overhead, beaming the news to the world. Within the next year, another skeleton was located a short distance away: that of Carrie Rois, 18.

These are the ghosts of Pacific Highway South, those who lived and then died in the largest unsolved serial-killing case in U.S. history. The victims were young, some very young. The person who stole their lives, who left gaping wounds in the hearts of so many, stole more than he will ever know.

Today, as the traffic rolls on Pacific Highway South — or International Boulevard — the routine of daily living goes on. It is doubtful most people traveling there ever think of the four dozen lives claimed by the faceless person who has kept to the shadows for so long.

South Star Lake Road is quiet again; the police and news media are long gone. Instead of thick woods and brush, there are a number of fine, custom-built homes, many surrounded by the tall firs that once sheltered the dead. The breeze still rustles the branches, though, just the way it did almost 20 years ago.

Then, it was the sound of ghosts. For me, it still is.

Carlton Smith is on special assignment with The Seattle Times. Smith covered the case for The Times in the 1980s and co-authored a book on the subject.