Kate Beles
NONFICTION
 
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.

-Franz Kafka


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 lap.

“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 that meant.

My dad read the blank look on my face. 

“Forty-five just means it’s a powerful handgun.”

“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.

~

 

My younger 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 asked Josh.

“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 you-better-apologize-for-that look.

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, grinning.

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.

“Yeah Hon?”

“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 doll…”

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 window.

~

 

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 they died.

For 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.

Of 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.


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