God’s Grace and the Green River Killer

Dave Reichert pursued the country’s most notorious serial killer for two decades. Then, he did something few law-enforcement officers would care to do: He shared with the murderer a message of forgiveness.

by Paula Schlueter Ross

King County Sheriff Dave Reichert sat across the table from a man he has called “pure evil”–a man who killed just for the pleasure it gave him.

It was just the two of them–Reichert and Gary Ridgway, the most prolific serial killer in U.S. history. Over a 20-year span, Ridgway, the so-called “Green River killer,” murdered dozens of women, many of them teenagers as young as 15.

His method was usually the same: cruise the Seattle streets for a teenage prostitute, or maybe a run-away looking to make a few bucks–the younger, the better–get her in the car, take her to his house, pay her, have sex with her, strangle her, take back the money, dump the body.

Some victims begged for their lives, he said, but it made no difference. They–daughters, sisters, mothers–were all “just garbage,” he told investigators, and his goal was to kill as many as he could.

Now Reichert, sheriff of King County where Seattle is located, sat face to face with this monster.

“I really believed that I was talking to the devil himself,” said Reichert, who, as the lead investigator in the case, had seen the decomposing bodies of Ridgway’s victims–48 in all (although Ridgway claims more than 70 victims and Reichert believes the real total could be closer to 100).

The cop looked into the killer’s eyes, eyes he described as barren and almost sub-human–”two dark holes that go into a deep, dark pit”–and steeled himself for the message he had come to deliver: Jesus Christ died for your sins, Gary Ridgway, and He will forgive you if you are truly sorry for what you have done.

That meeting with Ridgway, on Dec. 31, 2003, had not been an easy step for Reichert to take. But the sheriff saw it as a necessary one, he said. One that provided more “closure” to the case than the satisfaction of seeing Ridgway in prison for life. (Ridgway’s life was spared in exchange for months of interviews in which he provided details on the murders and led investigators to bodies.)

Always a ‘peacemaker’

Ever since he was a kid, growing up in a tough neighborhood as the oldest of seven children, Reichert’s mottos have been “there’s always a solution” and “never give up.”

He is, he says, “the kind of person who takes it like a challenge if somebody tells me, ‘you can’t fix that’ or ‘there’s no solution.’’’ He was the kid on the block who wasn’t afraid to stand up for the underdog–or to intervene when the situation looked hopeless.

Once, when his mother had a disagreement with a friend in the neighborhood, Reichert, then about 12, knocked on the neighbor’s door and asked her to make up with his mom. Even though the tactic didn’t work–both women chastised him for meddling–he says he always saw himself “as kind of a peacemaker.”

With matinee-idol good looks and a strapping, six-foot frame, the silver-haired Reichert cuts an imposing figure, especially in uniform. Now 53, he’s been interviewed by numerous reporters about the Green River case, including Dan Rather on television’s “60 Minutes II.” He’s currently running for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, in Washington’s 8th Congressional District.

He’s at once gentle and stern, a no-nonsense type of guy whose easy smile shows off trademark dimples. He’s an elder for his congregation, Lutheran Church of the Cross in Kent, mentors a teenage member, and attends Sunday-morning Bible class.

“He’s certainly sincere and committed to caring for people,” said his pastor, Rev. Dino Pacilli.

The forgiveness question

On Aug. 12, 1982, a 20-year odyssey began for Reichert when he was called to the Green River in Kent, Wash., where the body of 23-year-old Debra Lynn Bonner was pulled from the murky water.

As years of investigation ticked by, more bodies were found and the Green River killer remained at large. But Reichert remained “100 percent certain” that the case would be solved.

Although Gary Ridgway had been questioned as a suspect as early as 1983–a year after the first bodies were discovered–hard evidence eluded investigators until 2001, when improved DNA testing methods linked Ridgway to the murders and he was arrested.

The arrest, and Ridgway’s confession a year later, were what Reichert had been praying for his “whole career,” he said.

At that time, it never occurred to the sheriff that someone like Gary Ridgway would have any chance of seeing heaven. If anyone deserved the eternal fires of hell, he thought, it had to be this calculating killer who showed no remorse for his crimes.

But then Reichert’s pastor decided to use the murderer as an example in a Bible study. The focus was on Psalm 32, which starts out, “Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered,” and the class was discussing “for whom did Christ die?”

“I said, ‘Is there forgiveness for Gary Ridgway?’” recalled Pacilli, “and there were lots of surprising answers.”

As humans, Pacilli said, we want people like Ridgway to pay for their crimes. After all, the horror of what he did is much worse than anything we would ever do, we say.

“But the minute we point our finger, we realize we should pay, too,” Pacilli said. “Because all sin separates us from God, and we are all guilty.”

By His life and death, “Jesus paid for every one of the murders Ridgway committed,” as well as all of our sins, explained Pacilli. “Christ died for all. He died for Hitler. He died for Genghis Khan. He died for me. And all have fallen short. We’re all in desperate need of His forgiveness.”

God’s law says the sinner must be punished; His Gospel says the punishment already has been paid. “Ultimately, all you can do is leave [Ridgway] in God’s hands. … It’s between him and God,” Pacilli said.

Even though the pastor had talked to the sheriff about his Bible-study topic beforehand, Reichert admitted it was, at first, hard for him to conceive of forgiveness for Ridgway.

“It was hard because we’re human, and I saw what he did,” he said. He’ll never erase the vision, he said, of informing victims’ families, and watching as heartbroken parents buckled to their knees in horror.

But Pacilli’s Bible class got the sheriff to thinking that he hadn’t done enough, as a Christian, in his conversations with Ridgway. All the interviews had been one-sided: extracting information from the killer that might prove useful to investigators. No one had bothered to relay information to Ridgway that might provide him with eternal salvation.

An answer to prayer

It was now clear to Reichert that, even though the killer had been convicted and sentenced to life in prison, someone had to go back and share God’s Word with him. So he contacted Ridgway’s attorneys and asked for one more interview with the prisoner.

Dressed casually in blue jeans instead of his uniform, Reichert went to make sure Ridgway understood forgiveness in Jesus Christ. It was just the two of them, face to face, and he told the killer, “I’m here because I want to make sure you understand what it means to be Christian. And I want to make sure you understand, when you say you’ve been forgiven, what that really means.”

The sheriff had brought a Lutheran handout on Law and Gospel, and proceeded to explain the concept to Ridgway. At one point, Reichert told him, “You really have to be sorry for what you’ve done. … You really have to feel remorse. You took the lives of 48 people.” And he reminded Ridgway, who was known to read the Bible from time to time, of God’s commandment, “Thou shall not kill.”

“I wanted to make sure that I did what I needed to do as a Christian,” said Reichert, a lifelong Lutheran. “I told him, ‘Look, I don’t like what you did, but my faith tells me that I don’t want anybody to go to hell.’ And then I leaned across the table and I said, ‘I don’t even want you to go to hell. And neither does Jesus.’”

The sheriff was shocked, he said, when the cold-hearted killer responded by crying. Tears were “just pouring down his cheek” and he could not speak, Reichert recalled.

Then Ridgway reached into his jail coveralls pocket and pulled out a piece of paper. “This is a prayer that I’ve been saying every day,” he said, and he handed it to the lawman. In the prayer, Ridgway admitted he was a sinner and asked God to forgive his sins and save him from eternal damnation, praying in Jesus’ name.

“I looked at that prayer and I said, ‘You know what? That’s the right prayer to be praying,’” said Reichert, and he encouraged Ridgway to call him if he ever need¬ed to talk. That was eight months ago, at this writing, and the sheriff hasn’t heard from Ridgway since.

But he knows he made an impact. One of Ridgway’s lawyers, who visited the prisoner a few hours after Reichert, said she could not believe the change in Ridgway. He was amazed, she said, “‘that the sheriff himself took the time to come down here–not to interrogate me, not to interview me, but to make sure that I was going to heaven,” said Reichert, recalling the incident.

“I feel like he got the Law and the Gospel, and now it’s up to the Holy Spirit,” he said.

Said Pacilli: “We don’t deserve God’s grace. Neither does Gary Ridgway. But God’s grace is for all. Christ paid for the sins of all. And if that forgiveness doesn’t include Gary Ridgway, it doesn’t include us.”

Will Ridgway be forgiven? “Forgiveness is only received through faith in Christ, and only God knows Ridgway’s heart,” Pacilli said. Fortunately, God isn’t as unforgiving as we humans can be, he said: “God wants everyone to come to a knowledge of the truth, and be saved.”

“God’s love is great enough, even for this serial murderer,” Pacilli said. But the killer “needed to hear the [Gospel] message.”

The pastor recalled leading his congregation in prayer for Ridgway months earlier, asking God to “send someone who will get through to this man and turn his eyes to You before it’s too late.”

Dave Reichert, Pacilli says now, was “the answer to that prayer.”

‘Chasing the Devil’

Dave Reichert, honored as “Sheriff of the Year” in June [2004] by the National Sheriffs Association, has written about his 20-year quest to capture the Green River killer in Chasing the Devil, a book that was released in late July [2004] by Little, Brown and Co.

Profits from sales of the book will go to the Pediatric Interim Care Center, a Kent, Wash.-based charity that provides care for drug-exposed infants.

Reichert and his staff also have spoken with producers of an ABC mini-series about the Green River killer.

Paula Schlueter Ross is a contributing editor for The Lutheran Witness. This story appeared originally in the September 2004 Lutheran Witness. David Reichert is now serving his third term as the representative from Washington’s 8th Congressional District. LCMS congregations may reprint this article for parish use. All other rights reserved. Text copyright © 2004 by The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod.

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