FBI criminal profiler John E. Douglas misidentified an anonymous 1984 letter from Green River killer Gary L. Ridgway in the midst of the nation's worst serial-killing spree.
Douglas wrote that the letter was "a feeble and amateurish attempt" by someone who "has no connection with the Green River Homicides."
He was wrong.
Ridgway, as part of his confession to police, admitted earlier this year that he wrote that letter. Police say that had they known that, it could have helped them catch him earlier.
The Ridgway letter and Douglas' analysis were released yesterday by the Green River Task Force under the state's open-records law.
Yesterday, Douglas at first denied he would have written such an opinion; then, when shown the letter, he conceded it was his signature but said he remembered nothing about it.
"This thing, it's amazing, I have no recollection but I'll stand by it because I'd use some of those terms and that's my signature," he said.
Douglas had been seriously ill with stress-related viral encephalitis from December 1983 to May 1984. He reviewed the Ridgway letter in August 1984. "Maybe I wasn't ready mentally after coming back to work," Douglas said.
Ridgway had killed at least 40 women by the time he sent the anonymous letter, two more between then and the date Douglas analyzed it, and at least six more afterward, according to his confession.
Ridgway, 54, of Auburn, has pleaded guilty to 48 charges of aggravated murder in return for a sentence of life rather than death.
Special Agent Douglas, now 58 and retired in Fredericksburg, Va., had developed the science of criminal-personality profiling in 1979 based on prison interviews with serial killers including Ted Bundy, Charles Manson and David Berkowitz. Douglas' work helped solve many cases, including the Wayne Williams child killings in Atlanta.
He was a key contributor to the Green River Task Force with a psychological profile of the killer. Later, Douglas became the model for the FBI profiler in the movie "Silence of the Lambs." He has written or co-written eight books.
But this is the one that got away:
Ridgway told police he typed and mailed the letter to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer on Feb. 20, 1984.
The typed letter has no spaces between words and is titled, "whatyouneedtonoaboutthegreenriverman." It was signed "callmefred." The letter was marked "dontthrowaway" and the envelope was marked "very important."
The P-I gave a copy of the letter to Green River detectives.
They noticed it contained some details of the crimes that had not been made public, notably that some victims' fingernails had been cut off to eliminate trace evidence, that the killer had had sex with some victims after they were dead, and that one victim was posed with a wine bottle and fish.
"Some of the information contained in the letter has not been made public, which leads us to believe the person writing it may somehow be involved," Tonya Yzaguirre of the King County Department of Public Safety wrote when sending the letter to the FBI for analysis in July 1984.
Douglas' opinion was sent back a month later by registered mail to Detective Bruce Kalin of the task force.
"It is my opinion that the author of the written communiqué has no connection with the Green River Homicides," Douglas wrote.
"The communiqué reflects a subject who is average in intelligence and one who is making a feeble and amateurish attempt to gain some personal importance by manipulating the investigation.
"If this subject has made statements relative to the investigation which was not already released to the press, he would have to have ACCESS to this information (Task Force)."
Yesterday, Douglas wasn't sure why he suspected the letter writer could have had inside information from the task force.
Douglas found it surprising that Ridgway didn't follow up on the letter after the newspaper and police "sloughed it off." He said the fact that police reported no communications from "callmefred" between receiving the letter in February 1984 and his analysis six months later might have made him believe at the time that the letter was a fake. "Usually when they start calling or writing, they keep doing it," Douglas said.
He also said he should have talked with the task force, rather than evaluating the letter in isolation. Records released by King County yesterday show no other communication between Douglas and the task force about that letter.
The Ridgway letter did have a mixture of truth and falsehoods, which Ridgway said were designed to throw off police. Douglas said the falsehoods wouldn't have changed his analysis.
"That's typical because they're not that stupid that they're going to lead us to them with a name and address," he said.
Finally, Douglas said he doubted it would have helped the investigation even if he had said the letter was surely or possibly written by the real killer.
"Let's say I say that is him. Now what do we do? It's typewritten. If it was handwritten, we could release information publicly. ... Did I hold up the investigation? There was never another communiqué. He never did anything again after that, other than to continue the ways of his killing."
Douglas emphasized that his overall psychological profile of the Green River killer was accurate. He was unhappy with recent comments by King County Sheriff Dave Reichert that the profile was too vague and missed key points.
Douglas said the profile, which has not yet been publicly released, predicted the killer would return to crime scenes and contact police, as Ridgway did.
Douglas also said he told the task force not to rely on a polygraph to eliminate suspects.
Ridgway had contacted King County police in May 1984 — three months after writing the letter — to offer information on a woman who had disappeared. He passed a polygraph then. In 1987, Ridgway was put under surveillance and his house was searched, but with no evidence found, he was again dismissed as a suspect.
Asked how he felt about making a mistake on the one true communiqué from the Green River killer, Douglas said, "I feel that you can't bat a thousand, and that's great, but I truly believe that he could have been caught sooner."
Just this week, Douglas started a Web site, www.johndouglasmindhunter.com selling books and merchandise including T-shirts, caps and mugs. Its opening page reads, "He has hunted some of the most notorious and sadistic killers of our time" and cites his work on the Green River cases, among others.
Duff Wilson: 206-464-2288