True Crime, a ficto-memoir
We photograph things in order to drive them out of our minds.
My stories are a way of shutting my eyes.
In the oncoming dusk, clouds of
black moths were zapping themselves in the electric light on the picnic
table. My father and his law
student Bill Stevens stood warming themselves by the grill, talking and tending
the steaks. I sat on the lawn near their feet, picking hay from the dog’s
coat. I was seven.
“She’s gonna be a knock-out,” Bill said, leaning down to squeeze my shoulder.
I thought he meant I would be good at punching and
kicking when I grew-up, like my dad’s favorite fighter, Oscar La Hoya. My brother and I did fight sometimes
but I didn’t try to hurt him too bad.
I made a mental note to ask my father about Bill’s comment later.
After Bill left, I found my
father standing on the porch, looking out in the direction of the red barn, the
bay, and beyond that, the silver-blue glow of the Olympic Mountains.
“Knock-out,” my father laughed,
“means you’re going to be so pretty that the boys will just fall down without
you having to hit them.”
I had come to
expect this weird sort of thing from adults, especially my dad’s friend Bill
Stevens. He drove a police car and
sometimes an ambulance. The first
time I met him, he took me for a ride in the ambulance and put a lab coat on
me, had me listen to my own heart with something that looked like a wishbone.
Last Halloween I was sitting in a bar drinking whiskey neat and reading the Seattle Times. I glanced at my cell phone for the time, shifted on the tall stool, and ran my hands nervously across the lacquered bar top. At least I could distract myself from
my date’s lateness by watching the costumed punks pass on the sidewalk. I was comforted by the thought that I
could see them, but they couldn’t see me in the bar’s low light. There were
more drag queens on Broadway that night than there are in the Castro district
on a normal evening. Halloween had always been my parent’s favorite holiday,
when they had their biggest parties and we all dressed up. Once we wore cellophane bags filled
with crumpled paper over white leotards.
We called ourselves the white trash family.
One year my mother was a priest, my father a nun, and I was
an altar boy. It’s odd that we
were all also in drag the night my mother began to realize my father was
sleeping with a family friend named Linda. Linda was not clever.
That night she was dressed unimaginatively as a hula girl wearing blue
eye shadow. I wondered seriously
how the eye shadow, fake eyelashes and blonde teased hair had anything to do
with Hawaii, but my dad danced with her all night, and they even moved their
slow dancing into the bedroom. I knew my father was drunk from his silly grin
and ruddy face. I watched as he
whirled Linda around and around—her fake grass skirt opening to reveal
long smooth thighs. What I remember
most is how awful my mother looked in a cassock and fake mustache on the way
home that night, crying and arguing with him.
I have since carried on with an
enthusiastic Halloween tradition, despite negative associations with the
holiday. I’ve always found that
dressing-up for Halloween was a way to set the tone of the new year for myself;
and I usually spend hours making my own elaborate costumes to represent
something I hope to embody—or something I fear. This year I had not been
so creative, although the joke was a personal one. I was dressed up as a
murdered 1920’s prostitute, made slightly less tasteless only by the era
costume, and was enjoying the feeling of sticky fake blood running down from my
throat gash into my red corset.
When I glimpsed my old friend
Josh, I stood to hug him. He’s a
tall man with a heavy jaw covered in a red beard, and black tattoos down to his
wrists. He was hilariously dressed
as a backwoods knife murderer, with dead leaves stuck in his matted beard. Ironic, I remember thinking, since this
pairing was unplanned—and I’d even switched my cause of death from strangulation to blade-induced. The
tight-collared jacket and snap-front hat made him look like a mix between a
murderous lumberjack and a Maoist.
“Hi.” He said, squeezing my arm. “Looks like you need a killer.
“We’ve got at least one available,” I answered, pointing at the front page of my paper. He glanced down at the headline that read “Ridgeway Confesses to Being the Green River Killer.”
While I ordered Josh a Guinness,
he picked up the paper and stared at the picture of Gary Ridgeway’s passive
doughboy face. I leaned over his
shoulder and realized that Ridgeway looked very much like the guy who had
managed the Mexican restaurant we both worked at when we were sixteen. Ridgeway also looked surprisingly like
my dad’s law student Bill Stevens, minus about fifty pounds.
“So I guess your Dad’s friend
didn’t do it, huh?” he said.
I glanced down at his huge hand, gently dog-earing the
edge of the paper.
“Yeah. I guess not.”
“C’mere Kate. I want to show you
something,” my father said.
I kicked off my boots, muddy from feeding the horses, and
walked into my dad’s office.
“Sit down,” he said.
I bounced myself up onto the old
green leather chair across from him, my feet dangling above the floor, and
stared at the black and white print of the Beatles crossing the street in their
long white bell bottoms. The desk between us was highly polished cherry. I ran my fingers along its beveled
edge. He pulled out a large black object that I recognized as a gun. It looked similar to the ones on TV,
but bigger than I’d imagined.
“Do you want to hold it?” he asked.
“Sure.” I reached my hand out to
take it, and as he shifted the weight from his fingers to my palm, the weight
surprised me and the back of my hand hit the desk lightly. I used both hands to pull it into my
“It’s not loaded.” My father told
me, “but still don’t point the barrel at yourself or anyone else.”
“Okay. I won’t,” I said, picking
up the gun and stretching my small index finger to barely reach the trigger.
“What kind of gun is it?”
“It’s a handgun. A forty-five.”
“Oh,” I said, not knowing what
My dad read the blank look on my face.
“Forty-five just means it’s a
“Okay,” I said. “Where did you get it?”
“It’s commission from Bill,” he
answered. I frowned. “Commission means that sometimes when I
go to court for someone they give me stuff instead of money. That’s commission. The checker cab is commission.”
“Okay,” I said again, mindful
that I may have been starting to sound stupid.
My wrist ached from holding the gun, but for some reason
I felt reluctant to hand it back to him.
“All right, that’s probably enough for now,” he said, reaching easily across the width of the desk to take it from me.
“Uh, thanks,” I said.
“I guess I’m glad that it was this guy instead of Bill,” I told Josh, “but to tell you the truth, it makes less difference than I thought it would. The girls are just as dead either way.”
“But at least you know you’re dad didn’t work for the super-bad killer of all time,” he replied, glancing down at my forearm as if he wanted to grab hold of it.
“I suppose.” I said, “but does it matter if he thought he did? Regardless, Bill was a bad guy,” I told Josh, sipping my third scotch. “My dad always used to say; ‘Bill was a criminal, but he wasn’t a killer.’ I guess it was a comforting thing to tell himself.
“How much do you think your dad knew about Bill’s earlier
child pornography charges and stuff when they were friends?” Josh asked. I
looked down at the brass bar runner just in reach of my toes. “I don’t know, I
sincerely doubt my father knew about those charges before he became his
lawyer,” I answered a bit defensively. “Hey, will you do me a favor? It’s pretty messed-up.”
“That sounds good—”
“Well I just want you to pretend
to kill me, in an alley maybe. I,
I want to take some photos…for, a, uh, graduate class project. I have a tripod. I’m writing something, and I guess I
just want some images of myself getting murdered, or I just want to, you know,
act it out a bit.”
“Sure—whatever you feel
like you need to do,” he answered tentatively, furrowing his brow and smiling
at me quizzically.
brother Nick and I were out by the edge of the field picking blackberries. It was 1989, and I was twelve. It was August and I was sick of the
heat and being paranoid that I’d get stung by the million bees that seemed to
be buzzing around only my head.
Dad had taken pieces of wood and tossed them down into the blackberry
brambles to make a path through the thorns. At first, it was kind of magical being there surrounded by
the sharp vines tangling green and heavy all around us, but as the berries wore
thin and the sweat popped up on our foreheads, we both started to whine. Unfortunately, we had another pallet to
fill. As I shook a small white
spider off the back of my hand, Nick pointed at the sky. I looked up and saw a navy blue
helicopter flying over our house.
It made a whirring and whooshing sound. I heard Lin yell for us from the porch, and grateful to be
done picking, we grabbed our buckets and ran up to the lawn. The helicopter was so low that I
imagined I felt a breeze from its blades.
The way it hung in the air reminded me of a bald-faced wasp.
“Did you know I
wasn’t allowed to visit my dad for almost a year when we were about twelve?” I
“Uh, I knew
there was something about not being able to see your dad, but didn’t know when
that was, other than being glad that you were around all summer.”
“There were a lot of people who suspected his involvement with Bill was more than purely professional—since Bill had been one of my dad’s law students and they were friends. It was a big case at the time. The FBI calling, Time magazine was calling. I guess the press was hanging around to see if they could find any dirt on my dad, but I have no idea why they’d fly
over the house—for pictures of our house I suppose. After the helicopters, everyone decided Nick and I had better stay with my mom in Olympia for awhile.”
Last summer my father called. I was reading Speak, Memory and drinking coffee. His voice was almost a whisper. It was my brother’s 22nd birthday.
“I had a heart-attack Kate. They had to airlift me off the Island.”
I was struck silent, so he continued.
“I never want to take another
helicopter ride again. I was alone
with this kid who was younger than your brother and he looked as scared as I
was…and I was turning blue.” He chuckled breathlessly. “I have to go in for
surgery.” For the first time ever,
I heard my father’s voice break, as if he were afraid.
“It’s occurred to me that I may have drastically over-estimated my life span.”
“Dad—no.” I just wanted him to stop talking. I actually felt angry that he was saying those things, sounding so weak.
“I’m sorry, Kate,” he said, as if he had read my mind. “I’ll call you if I can when I get out. Just remember I love you more than anything in the universe.”
He hung up without waiting for a
reply. When the line was blank I had a vision of throwing my fist through the
windowpane. Instead I lay down on the living room floor, wrapped my arms around
my shoulders and waited for sleep to find me. When it did, finally, I dreamt of a little boy on a white
horse wearing a gun on each hip.
He was riding toward a black ocean under a blustering storm. Wind and rain were washing cliffs away
all around and under him, but somehow he managed to stay above water even as
the trees crashed violently into the water and the horse ran out into the
choppy waves under the falling forest.
“Kate! Kate! Wake up!”
Someone was shaking my shoulders. My calves were sore, as
if I had been standing on tiptoe for hours. I realized I was in my home office
in the middle of the night.
“Are you awake?” Josh asked me.
“I think so.”
“I woke up and you weren’t in bed
so I went looking for you and you had crawled under your desk and claimed to be
an FBI agent looking for your father.
You even warned me to stay away from you since you had a case to solve,
but then you got up and started looking under beds and in closets. At one point
you could see me and kept asking me if I knew where your dad was. It was really weird. I couldn’t get you to wake up.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, shaken. “I think I’m back now.”
Around the time Bill first went to
trial, we caught an early ferry from Vashon Island, since Dad wanted to take
Nick and I into the city to have lunch with a wealthy colleague. I hated to go, since I knew the man’s
daughter would be there, staring at me with her little pink mouth hanging open. I knew she’d talk about her clothes, pick at her food, and ask me if I took French classes or something.
Dad had to make phone calls from his
office first and I wasted time wrapping and unwrapping the mints on his
secretary’s desk, staring intently at the red/white/red as they unwhirled in
the plastic. Nick started poking
me in the ribs once he got bored, so I hit him on the shoulder. He ran into dad’s office to tell, and I
followed to defend myself.
“Holy Christ!” I said, before dad gave me a
All three walls of the vaulted
ceiling were covered in royal blue velvet hangings upon which were pinned
police badges, one for every state.
They were polished and shining in the sun from the windows. “Whoa,” Nick
said when he saw the walls, forgetting entirely about his case against me.
“Were these Bill’s?” I asked,
astonished by the glare of the sun setting in metal shields and stars.
“Yeah,” my dad answered,
My father looked excessively proud as he took down the
Washington badge and pinned it to my brother’s Jefferson Airplane
tee-shirt. I took a step or two
back and watched while Nick pretended to arrest my father by pulling his large
hands together and slapping-on invisible handcuffs.
My father and I are rarely alone
together, and when we are, the TV is usually on. He watches mostly the news and
“cops,” my least favorite show. But on this occasion, he was driving me up to
my house in Bellingham to help me install red carpet in my office. He had climbed over a hundred rotting
steps and scaled a hillside with this bright roll of carpet on his back after a
very expensive house slid off of a cliff on Vashon Island during flooding. When he learned about the fallen summer
home, he went to scavenge, claiming he knew I’d like the carpet. The ride was quiet for a long time,
while we listened to what seemed like 45-minutes of Jim Morrison howling “Come
On Baby Light my Fire,” but eventually I found the courage to speak.
“Dad?” I began, quietly.
“Were you glad to hear about Gary
Ridgeway confessing to all the murders?”
“I guess so. There were actually seventy-two in all,
but I’m not sure how much it matters now.
It’s been awhile.”
“Do you think there’s any chance
that Bill Stevens was involved?” I asked, tentatively.
“Well,” he started, taking a long
breath. “I suppose he could have
been. I don’t think we’ll ever
know for sure.”
“Would it bother you if he was?”
“Kate, I was just a hired
hand. I’m a lawyer, not a
cop—and everyone has the right to a fair defense—that what I offered.” I could tell by his tone and the
finality of the last statement that he was done talking about it. He reached over and turned up the
volume on the music.
By the time I
was sixteen, Bill had died in prison, and willed my father even more vehicles. We had a white limousine, a white
Harley police motorcycle, the blue checker cab (original paint job) and a
police car. The police car was an
early 80’s ford with a V-8 engine and bouncy shocks. It raced so badly that the car would go nearly twenty miles
per hour on flat ground without a foot near the gas pedal.
It was the car I had learned to
drive in. On my sixteenth birthday, my dad let me take the police car out with
two of my girlfriends to drive around the Island. We were supposed to go to the movies, but instead went to do
donuts in a dusty abandoned field edging the far end of the trees on my
father’s five-acre property. We
kept spinning until my friends in the back started complaining of carsickness
and our voices became hoarse from screaming the opening lyrics to our favorite
song that began; “Jane says/ she’s done with Sergio/ treats her like a rag
After getting bored and dusty, we
drove down the main road to the town of Vashon, and since I was feeling grown
up and wild, I wanted to thrill the others by turning on the red spinning light
on the roof. I waited until I saw
the VW bug of some boys we knew and decided to scare them off the road in front
of us. When I tossed the spinning light onto the top of the car, they hit the
brakes so hard that we nearly rear-ended them, but as we sped past where they
boys had pulled over to await their fate, we veered around, laughing
hysterically at our own power and pressing our newly lipsticked lips to the
Once we had finished cutting and installing the new carpet and my
father had left for home, I decided to look up pictures of the victims. All the
girls had been between the ages of twelve and seventeen, the same approximate
age I had been myself when they were killed. In my childhood imaginings they looked like me, but in the
photos, most of them did not. Some
were heavy, some thin, a few were girls of color, others were blonde. It just looked like a series of high
school yearbook shots, and the photos did nothing to churn my stomach the way
imagining their faces once had.
Until I came upon one in particular. The photo was of a girl who had been thirteen when she was murdered, and the caption read Tracy
Ann Winston, Known Prostitute Unlike the other glamour shots, in this picture the girl was caught in a moment of genuine emotion; I could tell by the slight tilt of her head and how her eyes were rolled upward a bit. She was laughing with her mouth open—as if someone beyond the photographer had just told her a joke. Her teeth were adorably crooked.
After looking at the photo for a
long time, I tried to print it, but for some reason the image was too
washed-out for me to discern any features, so I book-marked the page and did a
search for the crime scenes. What I came upon next were photos of what looked
like excavation sites in a ravine next to the Green River. I could see that people had been
dumping their garbage by the bank, and that the police had shoveled it all into
one big pile in order to cordon off an area where the bones were being
uncovered. When I found a picture
of a detective holding a femur, I flipped back and forth between that page and
the photo of the thirteen-year-old named Tracy Ann, as if by having the bone
next to the flesh I could figure something out, but there was nothing I could
puzzle together. Her photo, like
the others, had no story attached—other than the title of “known
prostitute.” I thought about how the girls were buried whole, but it was only
their bones that were disinterred. Girls as fossils, I thought. I realized then that I would never have
any code for reading these bones.
There are no forensic studies that can reconstruct a laugh.
I remember Bill Steven’s hands in
detail. He had large palms, but
relatively stubby fingers; his hands were padded, round, and soft-looking, like
bear paws. I also remember his
voice, partially because I made the mistake after my father left my house to
listen to a recording. One of the
pieces of evidence that can be heard online through a FBI site is a phone
recording of him telling off his ex-wife.
He is so enraged that you can hear him spitting into the phone as he
calls her a fucking whore, as he tells her to become a prostitute or die, since
she has become only a prostitute to him. It was his ultimate insult, to imply
she was forever soiled—that she had been bought and sold enough times
that she was now worth nothing at all to him or any one else.
I was twelve when I learned that all of the girls had been killed by
strangulation. Some were killed
with bare hands, some with what was called a “ligature,” although I found out
this usually meant strangulation with their own clothes, often their own
underwear. One of the few women who escaped survived partially because the
fabric of her own panties kept tearing. This fact about strangulation, coupled
with watching too many Twin Peaks episodes and reading my stepmother’s true crime novels, led me to obsessive musings about the logistics of the girl’s deaths, and to the experience of death, particularly murder.
Around this time I took up the habit of sitting on the edge of my
bed, hanging my head between my knees, and pressing both of my palms firmly to
the side of my neck just beneath my jaw until I passed out. I usually woke staring at the wall and
a long expanse of carpet. Although
I knew it was a strange pastime and probably killed a few brain cells, I was
addicted to the timeless empty feeling of falling, which later led me to wonder
about the potential origins of auto-erotic-asphyxiation, or those people
commonly known as “gaspers.”
Although I eventually made myself give up that particular habit, it led
me to speculating about what would have been the last view the girls had before
some reason, I was comforted when I could envision that the last view they had
was of trees. This vision could
take a couple of different forms, but in one version of the fantasy I imagined
that their heads were yanked back while standing so that they could suddenly
see the trees above them, and that the branches were spinning, like the view
you get if you lay on your back on a park merry-go-round. Sometimes I saw a view of a tree trunk
with a close-up of the bark, or perhaps of roots and ferns growing out of the ground
just in front of their eyes. I
also hoped they could smell leaves, or a wood fire, or dirt. I liked to imagine they could hear the
river nearby, or maybe even a plane taking off.
course this fantasy could not have been accurate. These days, most murdered women, including the Green River Killer’s
victims, are killed in bedrooms, bathrooms, and cars. I assumed, when I had to consider the issue more logically,
that their last view was probably of a watermark on a hotel ceiling, or a faded
bed sheet, or a shag carpet, a water faucet, or perhaps, a door to which they
still looked for escape or rescue.
I occasionally allowed myself to consider that the last view they may
have had was of hairy forearms, or worse yet, of a ruddy face, red and flushed
with rage and pleasure. If I
allowed myself to carry this even further, I could envision the possibility of
having to see one’s own terrified and bruised face staring back from the
mirrors of the sunglasses Bill often wore, even inside.
When I came to this point, my only consolation was to consider how everything would have become blessedly dark eventually and that despite all the unspeakable
pains he could inflict, he would not have been able to keep the girl from
shutting her eyes.
The controversy about whether Gary Ridgeway killed all of the girls
alone or worked in tandem with Bill Stevens continued long after the case
closed. Among those who published
books on the subject is Steven’s brother, claiming Bill was one of the killers.
Another author claiming Stevens was involved is an ex-FBI man who worked on the
case for most of the 1980s. Despite my odd emotional detachment from this part
of my family history, I haven’t been able to bring myself to read these books.
However, I was wandering a bookstore one day when I happened upon a glossy display table for a new true crime book about the murders entitled Green River Running Red by Ann Rule. Although I giggled at the cheesy cover
and the excessive alliteration in the title, I decided to buy the book,
believing that the campy humor of reading hyperbolic prose would help render my
memories more innocuous. But
despite the book’s melodrama, the darkness and shock of reading testimony given
by woman who escaped the killer about what I knew to be the inside of the
checker cab my father inherited from Stevens left me with sleepless nights. And
I did learn a number of facts that I hadn’t had access to previously. The thing that struck me the most was a
photograph that Rule had published among pictures of Bill Stevens, Gary
Ridgeway, and a few of the victims, including Tracy Ann. In his confessions, Gary Ridgeway
claimed that most of his victims were killed in his bedroom, and Rule had
provided a photo of this room.
The photograph shows a brass double bed in a room that is mostly
empty besides one table and a lamp, but the walls are completely covered in
highly realistic life-size photographs of trees; and there are ferns hanging
from the ceiling, giving the impression of a forest. Next to the photo of the tree-covered walls is a caption
that reads “The Green River Killer took his unsuspecting prey to his master
bedroom to have sex, knowing what would happen afterward. Ironically, he chose a wall mural that
resembled the lonely woods where he planned to leave their bodies.” Despite the use of the word “prey” to
talk about young women, I felt as if the top of my head was lifting off when I
first saw the photo. My childhood imaginings may have been both wrong and
right. The girls may have seen trees and ferns as they died, although it was
only a mimetic forest, devoid of a third dimension, lacking in sound or smell.
A little over a year ago, on my way down to Olympia to visit my
mother, I pulled off the freeway onto Star Lake Road, where the first girl’s
body had been found. I scrambled
down into the narrow gully by the water.
As in the crime scene photos, there was lots of garbage scattered among
the greenery. It was a particularly foggy autumn day, and contemplating the
time of year, I recalled that most of the women had been killed in
November—around the times of my teenage birthdays, the time of year when
the smell of leaves and wet northwest soil is the most pungent. As I walked
along the river, inhaling the smell of decay and cracking branches under my
feet, I felt I was still walking over somebody’s bones.