Once again, forensic science has led to murder charges against 54-year-old Gary L. Ridgway, the Auburn truck painter already charged with killing four women linked to the Green River serial killings of the 1980s.
Police and prosecutors say microscopic paint dust on the clothing of three women ties Ridgway to their deaths. The paint dust, they say, matches paint dust from the Kenworth Trucking Co. in Renton where Ridgway worked for years.
Ridgway was charged in Seattle yesterday with aggravated first-degree murder in the slayings of Wendy Lee Coffield, 16, and Debra Lynn Bonner, 23, whose bodies were found in the Green River near Kent in July 1982. He also was charged with killing Debra Lorraine Estes, 15, who disappeared in September 1982. Her remains were found in 1988 near the intersection of South 348th Street and First Avenue South in Federal Way.
Ridgway, who faces the death penalty if convicted, has denied all charges.
Until Ridgway's arrest a year and a half ago, the 49 Green River serial killings made up the largest unsolved serial case in the country.
Ridgway already was charged with killing Carol Ann Christensen, 21, who disappeared May 3, 1983, and was found dead in the woods off Highway 169 near Maple Valley five days later. And he is accused of killing Opal Mills, 16, Cynthia Hinds, 17, and Marcia Chapman, 31, whose bodies were also found in or near the Green River outside Kent in the summer of 1982.
In filing the newest charges, prosecutors contend that Ridgway, as a truck painter, unwittingly carried with him tiny markers that would reveal him as a killer more than 20 years later.
In announcing the latest charges, prosecutors said that some of the victims' personal items, including Coffield's jeans and Estes' sweater, had microscopic traces of paint spray on them. The paint traces matched the paint then used at the truck plant where Ridgway spray-painted Kenworth cabs. The scientific analysis was done by Microtrace, a forensic laboratory specializing in trace evidence, prosecutors said.
Paint spray that dries while airborne instead of on a surface is small enough to become embedded in the weaves of fabric and clothing. The tiny, colored balls of paint, invisible to the naked eye, can easily be transferred from person to person, prosecutors say.
Microtrace reported to investigators that it found such microscopic bits of DuPont Imron paint, a specialized commercial paint, in the clothing samples it tested.
Ridgway worked in the paint shop of the Kenworth truck plant in King County where truck cabs were spray-painted with DuPont Imron paint during the time when Coffield, Bonner, Estes and the four other victims Ridgway is charged with killing all were slain.
Ridgway, who has pleaded not guilty to aggravated first-degree murder in the first four cases, is scheduled to be arraigned on the new charges next week.
It was advances in forensic DNA technology that led to the four murder charges filed against Ridgway in 2001. Although he had been a suspect early in the case, and police had a saliva sample from him, there hadn't been enough semen from samples from some of the victims to do a DNA analysis using the science available at the time.
Ridgway's lead attorney, Tony Savage, said he was surprised by the last-minute addition of three more charges. "I thought they had their act together when they filed originally," he said. "Apparently, they did not."
But Savage said he was not worried about the charges, and undeterred from presenting his basic defense that, "seeing as Gary didn't do it, someone else did."
"What's in those papers is what (prosecutors) think they want to prove, not what they can prove," Savage said.
Savage wouldn't predict whether the latest charges would prompt the defense to ask for more time or money before the case goes to trial, currently scheduled for next spring. Defense costs have been estimated to top $5 million by the end of this year.
The cost of prosecuting Ridgway has been of particular controversy, especially directed toward the cost of providing Ridgway with a team of publicly paid defense lawyers. In an effort to keep monetary decisions from interfering with his impartiality, King County Superior Court Judge Richard Jones took the rare step of appointing a special master, former U.S. Attorney Kate Pflaumer, to oversee defense funding.
Savage said it's almost guaranteed they won't need more defense attorneys, but it's a possibility they could need more investigators or paralegals.
King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng said he will oppose any effort to postpone the trial date.
The families of the three young women whose deaths are now tied to Ridgway were told of the new charges before they were announced to the public, said King County Sheriff Dave Reichert.
Shirley Bonner, the mother of Debra Lynn Bonner, said she was overwhelmed by the news.
"This has been going on too long," she said from her Tacoma home.
Debra Bonner was last seen on July 25, 1982, near the Three Bears Motel at South 216th Street on Pacific Highway South. Bonner, nicknamed "Dub," grew up in Tacoma and was described as fun-loving, kind-hearted and rich with friends. An attractive girl, she dropped out of high school after she fell in with the wrong crowd and started abusing alcohol, said her mother. After a few unsuccessful jobs, she met her boyfriend and pimp, the man her mother blames for her downfall.
The two traveled through the Western United States living in hotels and picking up a string of arrests for prostitution. Despite the hard times, Debra Bonner always called home once or twice a week just to stay in touch, Shirley Bonner said.
"It's been almost 21 years since she was murdered ... she'll always be in my heart," Shirley Bonner said. "I've got pictures of her all over the house. I miss her ... I know that."
Debra Lorraine Estes was only 15 when she disappeared Sept. 20, 1982, from Pacific Highway South and became the 10th victim in the Green River killings. Her body wasn't found until May 30, 1988, when a construction crew digging post holes for a fence at a new apartment site off South 348th Street in Federal Way discovered her skeleton buried in the soil.
The fair-skinned young woman who went by the nickname "Muffin," and dyed her blond hair black, was last seen by her family in Auburn that June before she sneaked out one night.
Her parents, Tom and Carol Estes, still live in the Auburn home where they last saw their teenage daughter. Tom Estes yesterday acknowledged that charging Ridgway in his daughter's death was good news, but he declined further comment.
The body of Wendy Lee Coffield, 16, of Puyallup, was found floating in the Green River on July 15, 1982. She was the first victim found in the Green River case, but police don't think she was the first victim of the killer who terrorized what was then called the strip, a section of the former Pacific Highway South in what is now the city of SeaTac. The strip was frequented by prostitutes, several of whom became victims of the serial killer.
Coffield was born in Renton, and her parents divorced early. She was shuffled into foster care. Before she died, police in South King County often found her with runaways and prostitutes.
Christine Clarridge: 206-464-8983 or email@example.com
Ian Ith: 206-464-2109 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Seattle Times staff reporters Jason Margolis and Michael Ko contributed to this report.