Dick Kraske, a former King County Sheriff's major who first headed the Green River serial murder investigation in 1982, saw the same thing happen with missing persons more than 15 years earlier. Kraske, who retired in 1990, was there at the beginning of the learning curve for police when serial killer Ted Bundy's murder spree was putting the Pacific Northwest on the map in the 1970s.
In the middle of the "Ted" investigation, before Bundy was unmasked, the failure to form a nexus between missing persons and serial murder blew up in the county's face.
"The missing-person issue stomped us bad back when Bundy was running around the country," Kraske recalls.
It happened over the disappearance of 19-year-old Vonnie Stuth of Burien on Nov. 28, 1974. Stuth was initially thought to be a Bundy victim. Stuth's husband, Todd, had tried to report her missing almost immediately after she disappeared, only to be rebuffed by a police dispatcher who cited a 48-hour waiting period then required by state law.
Six months later, Gary Addison Taylor, 40, an escaped Michigan mental patient suspected in the murders of four women and several sexual assaults in Michigan and Texas stretching back to 1957, as well as a string of freeway sniper attacks, was arrested in Houston. His long confession led authorities to her grave near the house in Enumclaw where he had moved a few days before killing Stuth.
Public outcry over Taylor and Bundy, especially loud because the victims were generally young college students or middle-class women, prompted reforms in the reporting system and helped bring back the death penalty to Washington state. Stuth's family helped found the non-profit Families and Friends of Missing Persons and Violent Crime Victims in Seattle, one of the first victim advocate groups in the nation.
Authorities said Stuth had been shot twice in the head during a desperate escape attempt.
What was frustrating, Kraske said, is that investigators on the Bundy case had been asking colleagues to give higher priority to missing-person cases.
"I thought, 'goddamn, some people just don't get the word,' " Kraske said.
"We didn't have too good a track record until 1974 when Bundy descended on us. Then we had a lot of discussion about the communications center people screening people to determine that a missing-person case was not just run of the mill. There was a consensus that it was being done wrong."
The Pacific Northwest seems to have had more than its share of high-profile killers, including some of the most infamous -- Bundy, Hillside Strangler Kenneth Bianchi and the Green River Killer among them.
Detective Katie Larson, a member of the Green River task force, reads through a victim case report in a storage room containing hundreds of binders with information on victims and suspects in the Green River murder case.
But Kraske and other veteran investigators and criminologists don't believe the Pacific Northwest's reputation as a breeding ground for sociopaths. They caution that serial killers are at work everywhere -- police in the Northwest are just better than most at detecting them.
"In some states, 'serial' is what they have for breakfast," said John Turner, chief criminal investigator of the state's Homicide Investigation Tracking System -- or HITS -- a unit of six veteran homicide investigators who use a computer to track violent crime statewide.
In a yearlong investigation, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer found major flaws in the way Washington law enforcement handles reports of missing persons and unidentified bodies, but it also found a startling fact: Washington's system is the best there is.
The HITS system, created in 1987 with a federal Justice Department grant, and now run by the state Attorney General's Office, is widely known as a national model and functions even better than the federal government's vaunted ViCAP, formed in 1985 to improve communication between law enforcement agencies nationwide.
HITS operates in a similar fashion within the state and, to a lesser degree, with police in Oregon and Idaho. The unit was founded by Bob Keppel, the Attorney General's chief investigator and a former King County detective who pursued Bundy. He has since retired.
HITS in 1991 expanded to include reports of "missing persons with foul play" in its database of murdered and missing. At last count, it held 7,404 murders and disappearances from Washington, but included some from Oregon and Idaho. Of them, 1,827 are unsolved, and 178 are missing-person cases believed to have potential for foul play.
"We get every murder, or at least pretty close to every one," said HITS investigator Jim Hansen.
What sets HITS apart, however, is its team of veteran homicide investigators, all retirees from local departments. Each is responsible for a region of the state in which they collect data on violent crimes from each police agency and provide confidential consultation about tough cases.
Programs such as HITS are critical in overcoming "linkage blindness," a term coined by Egger, the University of Houston criminologist, to describe the failure to recognize related crimes.
Serial killers, for example, often can escape detection for some time by crossing jurisdictional lines. Detectives tend to focus intently on the crimes they're investigating while often being hyper-secretive for fear that media exposure could damage a prosecution, tip their hand to a suspect or bring public pressure to make an arrest.
Sometimes, departments in the same region end up chasing the same killer for months before they discover that their cases have anything in common -- or officers may not make a connection when a string of people drop out of sight and are dismissed as flakes or runaways.
"Linkage blindness is basically a communication problem," Egger said. It's an Achilles heel in the nation's strongly decentralized police departments, which range from one-man departments to thousands.
But Egger said police nationally "have gotten better because the press has done a better job of identifying patterns and putting pressure on police."
"Police have done a better job of sharing information, but there is a long way to go," he said.
Some states now require that departments fight linkage blindness by sending case information to ViCAP. New York legislators, for example, passed such a requirement in 2001. A new, easier-to-use online ViCAP system has allowed more states to join in, and the number of cases in the system has grown from 17,000 in 1998 to 80,000 today.
Kirk Mellecker, a major-case specialist with ViCAP, said it now can effectively pinpoint the unique aspects of crimes, linking them in ways local police may miss.
"If it's a prostitute dumped nude in an alley somewhere, we probably won't be able to give as much help as we'd like," Mellecker said. "That's what happens to prostitutes.
"But if you've got a string of prostitutes dumped across five states and each of them are wearing a red bow tie, that's where we can step in and help police recognize patterns. The main benefit here is that through ViCAP, we're bringing police agencies together."
While ViCAP's star is rising, HITS has been the victim of declining support. The state program's budget has fallen from $1.6 million in 1993 to $1.3 million in 1999, forcing the elimination of one investigator's position.
Last month Gov. Gary Locke proposed a budget that would have eliminated HITS, but since has backed away, instead allowing the agency to live on slightly less money.
Robin Campbell, of the state Office of Financial Management, blamed the initial cut on a lack of information, and said lawmakers will instead be asked to fund HITS.
That reversal has made local police breathe easier. Over the years, the program has linked scores of seemingly unrelated cases and generated information to keep other cases alive -- just as it connected an Oregon man's crimes to similar attacks in Washington state, making him the only suspect in the murder of Tia Hicks.
Investigator saw more
A month after Tia's body was found, HITS received a Seattle police report of a woman who had been raped, choked and left for dead in May 1991.
The ashes of Tia Hicks sit on a shelf in a family cupboard at her mother's home in Federal Way. The mother is reluctant to cast blame on police officers.
The case was not being pursued because the woman, a prostitute, was intoxicated -- all factors making it a long shot that police would ever make a case -- but a HITS investigator saw more.
The assailant clearly intended to kill the woman, and his method of operation indicated that this probably wasn't a first-time attack.
Though the victim didn't know the man's name, he was thought to be a truck driver, a job that would make it easy to avoid detection for similar crimes elsewhere.
HITS helped activate the case and sent a bulletin to police agencies in the state and in Oregon, where investigators recognized similarities to the murder of two Portland prostitutes.
On Nov. 24, 1990 -- a week after Tia disappeared -- Rheena Ann Brunson, a suspected prostitute with no history of arrest, was found dead in front of a Portland Safeway store. She had been handcuffed and was stabbed in the heart. On Feb. 19, 1991, the partially clad body of Victoria Rhone, who had a prostitution record, was found in a railroad car in suburban Portland. She had been strangled.
Scott William Cox, a Portland man who has family in Tacoma, was linked by DNA evidence to the Brunson and Rhone murders. He pleaded no contest in September 1993 to two counts of intentional murder, and is serving a 25-year term in Oregon.
Cox, whose long-haul driving took him across the West from Canada to Mexico and as far east as Ohio, has drawn the interest of police nationwide who were examining at least 20 similar murders of known or suspected prostitutes.
He's also of interest to police in Mountlake Terrace.
Perusing the five binders compiled during an investigation now more than a decade cold, Mountlake Terrace Police Sgt. Craig McCaul said decomposition was so complete that there was nothing to indicate when or where Tia was killed.
"The evidence is very circumstantial," he said. "We don't know what caused her death."
Time had also eliminated any recoverable DNA that might have been used to match the victim to her killer.
Decomposition is just one factor. The lack of an initial investigation right after Tia was reported missing also means detectives had to try to piece together her movements right before her death long after memories had faded or witnesses had moved on.
Cox has not been charged in connection with the Hicks murder, but Mountlake Terrace police said they consider him their only suspect.
McCaul said investigators checking out Cox's long-hauling trips to Washington placed him in Mountlake Terrace between the time of Tia's disappearance and the discovery of her body. In fact, a delivery route to a car dealership would have taken him past the Silver Dollar Casino, McCaul said.
"We sent people to interview him twice. We had the (Snohomish County) Prosecutor's Office write a memo saying we want to close the case and would give him immunity, but he would never confess to Tia Hicks' case," McCaul said.
No blame cast
Oct. 2 would have been Tia's 32nd birthday. Each year, her family gets together with Tia's two sons, now teenagers and doing well, for a celebration of her life.
Leonard Hicks died more than three years ago, frustrated that Tia's killer was not made to answer.
Her mother, Deborah McDaniel, keeps Tia's ashes in a box surrounded by angel dolls and family photos.
Detectives kept her informed long after Tia's body was found and had indulged her frequent phone calls.
Despite the crucial early foul-ups in investigating her daughter's case, McDaniel is reluctant to cast blame on police officers. The problem, she said, is more systemic.
"I wish they had more manpower or they had searched harder," she said.
Yet, after a dozen years, "I would like some resolution, some closure," McDaniel said.
"If this person (Cox) is not the one, it's someone else who could be out doing something to someone else's daughter or child."
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