DNA cold case: Missing 14-year-old girl identified as victim of notorious Green River Killer

SEATTLE — More than 35 years after her remains were found near a Washington state baseball field, a 14-year-old Colorado girl has been named as one of the 49 known victims of Seattle’s Green River Killer.

Wendy Stephens is believed to be the youngest victim of notorious serial killer Gary Leon Ridgway, according to KIRO in Seattle. The King County Sheriff’s Office announced Monday that Stephens, who ran away from her Denver home in 1983, was identified through genetic genealogy, The Associated Press reported.

Cold case detectives worked with the DNA Doe Project and forensic anthropologist Dr. Katherine Taylor to identify the teen, KIRO reported.

“Every person needs their name,” Taylor said in a statement obtained by the new station.

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Cairenn Binder of the nonprofit DNA Doe Project said the team working the case entered the unidentified victim’s DNA information into a geneaology website, which gave back several of the girl’s distant cousins from both her mother’s and father’s side of the family, the AP reported. Using birth records, Census data and other information publicly available, they found where the two families met — with Stephens’ parents.

Investigators then learned that Stephens had been reported missing in 1983. Her DNA was subsequently matched directly to that of her mother and father.

In a news release from the sheriff’s office, investigators praised the technology that helped bring Stephens’ family answers about her fate.

“Cases once thought unsolvable are now within reach thanks to such pioneering work,” the news release said, according to KIRO. “It is our hope today’s development brings those who love Wendy one step closer to healing.”

A spokesman for the department told the AP that Stephens’ family, seeking privacy as they grieve, had declined to speak to reporters.

‘Bones 10’

Stephens was one of four victims who remained unidentified when Ridgway, a suspect in the long-unsolved Green River murders, was arrested in 2001 and later pleaded guilty to 48 counts of aggravated first-degree murder. His 2003 plea deal allowed him to avoid the death penalty by promising his full cooperation with authorities.

Ridgway claimed to have killed many more victims than those who have been found or identified. At one point, he claimed there had been as many as 70 or more victims but said he had lost count.

Besides Stephens, one more of the four unidentified victims has since been Ridgway’s sentencing. Sandra Denise Major, 20, was identified in June 2012 after a family member, who watched a movie about Ridgway, asked authorities to look into whether Major, who was last known to be in the Seattle area, might have been one of his victims. DNA proved that her body had been found in 1985 in a cemetery with two other Ridgway victims, CNN reported.

Beginning as early as the summer of 1982, he targeted prostitutes and runaways he picked up on the streets in and around Seattle. Ridgway continued killing until at least 1998, when his final known victim was slain.

The killer, named for the river in and near which many of his victims’ bodies were found, was sentenced to 48 life sentences without the possibility of parole for the murders. He received an additional 480 years in prison for tampering with evidence, charges that stemmed from the disposal of each of the dead.

In 2011, he pleaded guilty to a 49th murder, that of Rebecca Marrero. The 20-year-old vanished in December 1982 after leaving a motel located near the Seattle-Tacoma Airport.

Her skeletal remains were found in December 2010 in a ravine in Auburn.

Stephens’ remains were found March 21, 1984, in an area directly north of the airport, near some Little League fields in what is now the suburb of SeaTac.

According to “Riverman,” a book about Ridgway written by former detective Robert Keppel, a dog belonging to the caretaker of the Highline Baseball Fields had brought home a human thigh bone.

“The caretaker called police and a search began of a swampy, wooded area behind centerfield at the westernmost baseball diamond, just west of the intersection of 16th Avenue South and South 146th Street,” Keppel wrote.

Two of Ridgway’s other victims, Shawnda Summers and Cheryl Lee Wims, were found in the same area as Stephens. The body of Wims, 18, was found by a bloodhound March 22, 1984, about 200 yards north of where Stephens’ bones were recovered the day before.

The body of Summers, 16, had been found Aug. 11, 1983, about a half-mile from those of the other two girls. According to authorities, Summers had been killed and her body dumped in October 1982.

Keppel wrote that the area in which the three teens were found was one of Ridgway’s dump sites, what he called his “clusters.” He told authorities that he grouped some of his victims together so he would not forget where he had put them.

Ridgway sometimes went back to the bodies of his victims and sexually abused their remains.

Though her identity was still unknown at the time, Ridgway confessed to killing Stephens, who was known as Jane Doe “B10” or “Bones 10,” on the first day of his interviews with detectives following his arrest. He told investigators he believed he’d picked her up a few miles from the dumpsite.

Ridgway recalled killing her during the day and said he had to be certain she was dead because he’d tried to kill another woman nearby, but that woman had escaped, the book states. When taken to the area in June 2003, he was able to show investigators where Stephens’ body had been found nearly 20 years before.

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Ridgway initially said that Stephens was the only victim he’d placed in that dumpsite, but after authorities told him Wims’ body had been found, he admitted that he did not keep track of how many women he left at the location.

He remembered walking with a prostitute on a road just north of the ball fields before killing her, Keppel wrote. Aerial photos from 1984 showed a paved road in that spot.

Wims’ body was found under a spruce tree just off the roadway, the former detective’s book states. Decades later, Ridgway was unable to remember details about Wims, including her race, but was able to point to where he’d left her body.

“He explained that, after killing 60 women, he could not describe her,” Keppel wrote. “He had a better memory for garbage that he noticed strewn along the road while walking with his victim than for the woman he’d killed.”