Born to catch a killer

Most lawmakers come to Congress with a claim as to how they arrived.

In their former lives, many were ordinary concerned citizens, holding jobs such as pig farmer, exterminator, wrestling coach and trapper. They were teachers, attorneys, school principals and accountants.

Of all the different paths that members traveled to Washington, none could say he snagged a brutal serial killer. Until now.


 
 


In 2001, Rep. Dave ReichertDavid ReichertLawmakers, small businesses praise employee stock ownership plans Bipartisan group of House lawmakers introduces tariff bill Business ups pressure for tariff relief MORE (R-Wash.), then sheriff of Kent County, Wash., caught Gary Ridgway, the “Green River Killer,” who murdered an estimated 80 prostitutes and terrorized a region in his 20-year killing spree.

The 54-year-old lawmaker with cotton-white hair and earnest blue eyes sits in his first-floor Longworth office calmly talking about the sociopath who plagued him for two decades. Even now, four years after Ridgway was arrested, Reichert has to hold back a reservoir of tears.

“I hate it when I do this,” he says, choking up on the best part of the story, when DNA evidence he collected in the 1980s proved Ridgway to be the killer.

The tears? They are the relief he felt in that moment. They are the sadness still in the pit of his stomach for all the families who lost their daughters. They are the darkness and the pain and the death threats Reichert, his wife and his three children endured on the road to catching a killer.

While the aftermath of what Reichert experienced during the decades he spent Chasing the Devil, as his autobiography is aptly titled, is still murky, some things are clear: Reichert doesn’t want your pity, and he doesn’t want you to hail him a hero.

Still, hearing his story leaves a crystalline thought: Reichert was born to catch Ridgway.

Reichert, the eldest of seven children, had a father who beat his mother and inflicted terror on everyone in the household. The lawmaker, an extraordinarily brave man in most arenas of his life, grows quiet when asked to describe his upbringing.

“My memories of my childhood are pretty scattered,” he says. “I’ve always felt this strong desire to help people. I’d run to someone’s rescue on the playground. I’d break up blue-collar Friday-night fights.”

Reichert’s father was a steelworker. Their two-bedroom house wasn’t big enough, so the garage was converted into a bedroom where Reichert slept with his brothers. “I fought a lot,” he says. “You grow up trying to protect yourself.”

He remembers his mother watching out the window as one of his brothers was getting beaten up. Her advice to Reichert: “Get out there and kick that kid’s ass!”

School wasn’t much of an outlet. “I was always very shy,” the lawmaker admits. “I wasn’t a good student. My parents didn’t seem to care, so I didn’t care too much. I always got written on my report card, ‘Dave is not working to his full potential.’”

Reichert partially blames the violence in his home on the fact that his parents came from diverging religious backgrounds — his dad a Catholic, his mom a Lutheran.

The lawmaker suddenly grows silent and looks away. “Yeah, It’s kind of tough,” he says, explaining his reluctance to talk about the hard times. “We’d all come to my room, and we’d hide in the closet. I wouldn’t say [my father] was an alcoholic, but he would drink and get mad.” Time after time, he intervened against his dad in household fights.

At 16, Reichert tried to live a normal teenager’s life. He bought the family car, a white, nine-passenger Chevy station wagon with the back seat facing backwards. It needed paint and other work, but he tried to make it cool. At 17, he owned a Mercury and ran away from home for three and a half months, during which he lived in the car.

His parents eventually divorced, and Reichert did not reconcile with his father before his death. The lawmaker does not seem to regret this. “He died of emphysema,” he says. “For three years, he suffocated to death.”

Once he joined the police force, Reichert continued fighting other people’s battles as he rose through the ranks, moving swiftly from cadet to lieutenant to sheriff. In total, he spent 33 years in law enforcement, seven as sheriff.

Reichert’s life in the force sounds like something out of an episode of “Law & Order”: he has faced bullets coming out of a house and once stood toe to toe with a man who held a shotgun in his belly for an hour. His throat has been slashed, and he has chased down dangerous criminals in the street.

He says his transition to Washington lawmaker earlier this year came easily. Former Rep. Jennifer Dunn (R-Wash.) knew of his work with the World Trade Organization riots in 1999 and his involvement in catching the Green River Killer and encouraged him to run. “He was a glove fit for the area,” explains his spokeswoman, Heather Janik.

Hearing Reichert weigh differences between his old life and his new is like hearing descriptions of two different men. “To be a cop, you really have to touch people’s hearts, and I think that is what this job requires,” he says. “Do I miss being a cop on the street? Yeah, but really the last time I was a cop on the street was 1979. At 54 years old, I’m way past that.”

He reasons, “Life experience is more beneficial than technical experience and education. Every day that I woke up as a cop I knew and I expected stuff to happen. The other thing that I expected was that I was always going to move through it, always going to solve it. Here, it is the same way.”

Reichert says he looks at Congress as akin to a bear fight: “You figure out who the good guys are before you take action. I’m a pretty independent guy. I don’t like to be pushed, bullied or threatened.”

Has that happened? “Here and there,” he replies with a smile. “There’s always those little comments, ‘You’ll do this and I’ll do that.’”

Appropriately, Reichert landed a spot on the Homeland Security Committee as well as the Transportation and Science committees. He sits on eight subcommittees. In the four short months since he was sworn in, Reichert has become a national personality. His story has been told on NBC as a two-hour “Dateline” special and on “60 Minutes II,”ABC’s “20/20,”  the History Channel and A&E. There is talk of a TV movie, and conversations have taken place to buy the rights to his story. Strangers recognize him in malls in Virginia and on the sidewalks of Eastern Market. He can’t make it to a vote without being and stopped and praised by Capitol Police.

So how did he catch the killer?

For years, Ridgway was on the list of thousands who had patronized prostitutes in the early ’80s. In 1987, police searched Ridgway’s home in connection to an assault, but the place came up clean.

“I wish I could say [I knew] it was Gary Ridgway all along,” Reichert says, but “it would be arrogant, and it wouldn’t be truthful. We had been on so many roller coasters over the years. We thought we had the guy, and it wasn’t him.”

With police unable to track down the killer, Reichert did the next best thing: He collected evidence and spent countless hours warning prostitutes about the danger that lurked in their midst and worked to get some of them into foster homes.

“Standing on the river bank [where the bodies were left], I took everything [as evidence]. I went over bodies with a fine-tooth comb.” And in 1987 he did the most important thing of all: he asked Ridgway to chew on some gauze and put it in a test tube to freeze.

Over the years, Ridgway proclaimed, “’I’m not the guy,’” Reichert describes him as “a little weasel of a guy who looked down and was very unsure of himself” and “a very non-threatening person who stuttered and stammered.”

In retrospect, he says, “He’s a psychopath. He’s a pathological liar.”

Reichert and another detective visited the famed serial killer Ted Bundy on death row in Florida. Before he was executed, Bundy had written Reichert to offer him his expertise, apparently irritated by the attention the Green River Killer was getting. These were tough times. Another Green River suspect, Melvin Foster, threatened to kill Reichert and his family.

But “I was always confident we were going to get this guy,” Reichert says, and in 1988 police began using DNA to identify criminals. The lawmaker remembers vividly the day the envelope with the DNA results arrived at the office. As it was passed to Reichert, he remembers saying, “I don’t even need to open it. It’s Gary Ridgway.”

The last time Reichert spoke to Ridgway was Dec. 31, 2003, when Ridgway told him, “I killed 71, and you’re too stupid to find them.”

In exchange for giving police information on the whereabouts of several of the dead women he killed, Ridgway was spared the death penalty. He received 48 life sentences. He will spend his remaining years at Walla Walla State Penitentiary.

Reichert muses, “So now you can say you’ve talked to a compassionate Republican.”

With a look around his office, he asks, “You tell me, what job can be higher pressure? This job?” His voice trails off as he answers his own question with a simple “No.”