Looking at wives of serial killers

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Linda Yates slept for two years in a bedroom that had a body buried outside the window.

Ralphene Brudos' husband forbade her from visiting the garage; she had to call him on the intercom when she wanted something from the freezer.

Alice Carignan found a button from a woman's dress in her husband's car and began wondering about his trips to Canada.

Their husbands would become notorious in newspaper headlines as convicted serial murderers: Robert Yates, Jerome Henry Brudos, Harvey Carignan.

Yates pleaded guilty to 13 murders in Washington state last year. Brudos is serving a life sentence in Oregon for multiple murders there. Carignan is in a Minnesota prison for killing women near Minneapolis and is suspected of murders in Washington state.

The wives, meanwhile, became the focus of the stark question: How could she not have known?

Judith Ridgway doesn't have to answer that question just yet. She is the third wife of Gary Ridgway, who has been charged in four slayings attributed to the Green River killer but remains innocent until proven guilty.

Experts offer this: Serial killers wear a "mask of sanity." Wives don't ask questions. Marriage — any marriage — is complex.

Take Linda Yates' 26-year union with her husband. In an interview with The Spokesman-Review, one of the rare times she's spoken publicly at any length, Linda Yates divulged details of a troubled marriage: Suspicions of infidelity. Squabbles over money. Romance long gone.

She stayed for the children. "They loved their dad, and I just kind of suffered through it," she said.

Such marriages are many. Such outcomes are few. Experts say serial killers are rarely married during their killing sprees, although many marry — sometimes several times — at some point in their lives.

"They go through the motions, just like any other 'normal' person," said Michael Newton, author of The Encyclopedia of Serial Killers, who estimates he has the names of 2,000 killers in his head. "Some of these men have been married more than Elizabeth Taylor, and it never sticks because they can't sustain any kind of relationship."

Little research exists on the women who marry serial killers, or the nature of those relationships. Those serial killers who stay married tend to have wives who are submissive, nonassertive, unquestioning and perhaps fearful of losing their men. When their husbands are discovered, the women stand to lose much more, including their privacy.

"I think people get the impression that a serial killer is someone you can spot a mile away," said Keith Kirkingberg, a chaplain at the Spokane County Sheriff's Department who worked with the Yates family. "That only adds to the burden of the wife, because when they say, 'I have no idea,' folks are saying, 'Oh, come on, how can they not know?' "

In retrospect, Linda Yates told NBC's "Dateline" last year, there were clues — for instance, who goes on a "hunting trip" wearing cologne, as her husband once said he was doing? But, she said, "He always had answers to everything. Already prepared in his mind, I think."

Serial killers can become pros at leading double lives, often hiding behind what several experts have termed a "mask of sanity."

"I don't think (the wife) 'had to know.' There are a lot of women who don't really know what their husbands are doing," said Ann Rule, a best-selling true-crime author and former Seattle policewoman.

"The average woman will imagine everything, including 'Is my husband gay?' or 'Does my husband have another woman?' before she thinks, 'Is my husband a serial killer?' "

Contrast that woman with the hundreds who have called Rule since 1982 to relay stories of bizarre and frightening behavior by their husbands or ex-husbands.

"The women I hear from are women who have suspicions they just don't want to believe," Rule said. "The men were gone odd hours, coming home dirty, wet, nervous, sleepy, drunk, smelling funny, without an explanation. ... All of these women heaved sighs of relief when I told them there were so many wives with the same stories whose husbands didn't turn out to be the Green River killer."

But like Linda Yates, there are plenty of women — suspicious or not — who stay in relationships that are far from perfect.

Laurie Strong has seen it many times in her work with couples as a clinical social worker.

"The reality is, marriage is very complex and meets a lot of needs. What's acceptable for one person may not be acceptable for another," said Strong, executive director of Jefferson Mental Health Services in Port Townsend. "My belief is that people stay in marriages that are uncomfortable for all kinds of reasons. It's far more complex than we as outsiders can blithely say."

The bottom line: It's not fair to judge the wife of the serial killer.

"The wife, if she sticks around, has to be either ignorant or submissive in some way," Newton said. "But there may be enough of a division there in (the killer's) personality ... I suppose we shouldn't rule out the possibility that even a monster can fall in love."

Pam Sitt: psitt@seattletimes.com.