Welcome to Gregg Olsen, our guest for Murder HE Writes. I was lucky enough to “meet” Gregg on-line, and we became fast friends. Partly because he writes AMAZING books — both dark, twisty psychological suspense and dark, twisty true crime. Partly because I became his mentor through International Thriller Writers. But mostly because Gregg is one of the most genuinely nice guys you’d ever meet. You’d never know he writes about murder, mayhem and the macabre. And for those of you with YA’s in the house (or those like me who enjoy a good YA thriller) — Gregg also has a bestselling YA supernatural thriller series. (And, he’s often a commentator on the news related to true crime stories.) Enjoy Gregg’s fascinating (and scary!) blog. ~ Allison
On living in the Pacific Northwest: The serial killers around us
It’s as true as there are Starbucks on every corner. When it comes to the Seattle area and serial killers, if you swing a dead cat (fitting, right?) you’ll surely hit a body dumpsite. We’ve had so many of them here. We don’t brag about it, of course. But we don’t deny it, either. We just know that serial killers are a part of the northwest.
They just are.
When I look at the trajectory of my life I can easily see where my path has crossed that of a serial killer. More than a time or two. In fact, at least three. Of course, I didn’t know it at the time. The first serial killer that I’ll mention here was the inspiration for Fear Collector my latest thriller.
When I was sixteen, my parents took my brothers and me to Lake Sammamish State Park, east of where I grew up in the suburbs of Seattle. It was July 14, 1974. When we arrived it was so busy, so wall-to-wall packed with people, cars and boats, that we could not find a place to park the car. My dad circled the parking lot once or twice and gave up.
So much for a family outing.
Shortly thereafter we’d learned that two young women went missing from the park that very day. I can still see Denise Naslund and Janice Ott’s photographs in my mind. I think many of us in the Northwest picture those girls. They were beautiful, young, with cascades of dark hair.
They looked like many of the girls who would fill the pages of the Seattle Times for many years.
With Denise and Janice’s disappearance, we finally had a name for the menace who was stealing our sisters, girlfriends, daughters. “Ted.” We also knew he had a VW. His arm was in a sling. He’d asked some girls to help him get his sailboat onto his car. Some refused. Janice and Denise had helped the stranger.
Theodore Robert Bundy had been at Lake Sammamish that same day my dad circled the parking lot before giving up and heading back home. We – meaning all of us in the Pacific Northwest – were in the midst of a murder spree that changed and challenged what we thought who and what might be evil incarnate. Ted was handsome. Educated. He was charismatic and charming. He trolled college campuses for women, who some psychologists later said resembled a girlfriend who had jilted him.
As nearly everyone who studies crime knows, Ted is one of the worst serial killers in the annals of crime. Not for his number of victims – another of Seattle’s own, Gary Ridgway beats Bundy’s horrific kill count by almost double. Ted admitted to killing 35 before being put to death in Florida’s electric chair. He was the worst because he just didn’t seem like the type. There was nothing “weird” or “creepy” about him.
Before Ted we always thought a murderer looked scary. Not like the boy next door.
Songs always bring me back to the time and place. The number one song at the time we went looking for that parking space at the lake was “Rock Your Baby” by George McCrae.
Ten years later, when I was 26 and newly married, my wife and I worked at camping company creating the content and art for its membership magazine. The offices were located near SeaTac Airport and our apartment was in Federal Way, about ten miles south. Every day we’d commute on Military Road past Star Lake, a dilapidated shopping center, and a pet cemetery. During that time the news had covered a series of murders dubbed the Green River Killer – for the location of one of his primary body dump sites.
Swing a dead cat? Oh yes.
In March of 1984, the remains of four women – Delores Williams, 17, Terry Milligan, 16, Sandra Grabbert, 17, and Alma Smith, 18 – a cluster of young victims was discovered. There were others there too, Gail Mathews, 23 and Carrie Rois, 15.
All the time I was working at the camping company, Gary Ridgway, a truck painter, who lived a mile two away from our office, was hunting in our midst – and had been since 1982 when the first victims were found along the banks of the Green River. His MO was simple. He invited young prostitutes into his vehicle, took them home or to a remote site, and strangled them to death.
While we were going on with our normal lives, going to work, out to dinner, catching a plane for a vacation from the northwest gloom, Ridgway was doing what he did. Relentless. Shark-like. No one knows for sure how many he killed – he admitted to 49 so that he’d be spared the death penalty. Some experts think the number of his victims could be doubled.
He’s a killer, a coward, and the state showed more mercy than he ever did.
The number one song that Star Lake cluster of bodies was found was Footloose by Kenny Loggins.
When I was in my mid-thirties and the father of two, we decided to move our family to Olalla, Washington, a tiny community in the country across Puget Sound from Seattle and Tacoma. It seemed like a better place to raise to young girls. On my first day in there, a woodworker, told me about Dr. Linda Burfield Hazzard and her serial killing spree around the turn of the century. I was intrigued and eventually wrote the book, Starvation Heights. Today, I live on land that was platted and named for by one of her victims.
But Dr. Hazzard is not the serial killer whose path I crossed that I’m including here. I’m thinking of another.
On August 25th, 1995, word circulated that a woman’s body was found up on Peacock Hill Road here in Olalla. She’d been wrapped in a sleeping back and tucked into a ditch on the side of the road about a mile from where I live. Her name, we learned, was Patricia Barnes. She’d been many things in her sad life, including homeless. She’d last been seen in the Seattle area.
It was only later that we learned that Patricia was a victim of Robert Lee Yates, Jr., a man who’d murdered more than a half dozen women (most of which were prostitutes) in Spokane, and other parts of Washington state. He’s spree went on undetected by his wife or five children for years. Like Ridgway, he targeted street girls (though oddly, his first victims many years earlier were a young couple out on a date).
While most victims were dumped in rural areas like near our home in Olalla, one had been buried outside Robert Yates’ bedroom window in Spokane – right under his wife’s nose.
The Yates case was a messy story of an Army National Guardsman, a pilot, an upstanding citizen, masquerading as normal. It was about a man who sought power and sex and showed not one whit of mercy. While I don’t favor the death penalty as a rule, I’m glad that he’s now on Death Row. I wish Ridgway was there, too.
For a long time, when I drove down Peacock Hill, I tried to find the spot where Patricia had been dumped like garbage. There was no marker like there often are for accident victims. I haven’t thought about her in awhile. And yet I know someone out there misses her.
The number one song the week Patricia was murdered was the Macarena by Los Del Rio.
I’m sure wherever you live, you can think of terrible crimes that happened nearby. Maybe the next town over? From where I live, all I have to do is look around.
The serial killers in the northwest were – and maybe still are – all around us.
What about you? Is there a place near you live where a terrible true crime occurred? Do you ever pass by? If so, where is it? What do you think about?