Green River Killer Case : TV ‘Near-Hysteria’ Scars ‘Suspect’ and News Media
The long-awaited news came cascading over Seattle from Channel 4’s “5 o’clock Report”: The nation’s worst unsolved serial murder case appeared to be coming to an end.
Bill Ross of KOMO television had it first. “Our sources say a breakthrough in the case could be close at hand,” he reported. “My gut feeling is that something is really going on this time.”
It was a scoop that caught the other two network affiliates flatfooted.
The police believed they finally had caught the man who had killed at least 34, and perhaps as many as 45, young street women, mostly prostitutes--that they had caught the dreaded Green River Killer.
Soon reporters and camera crews had gathered on the lawn of a little house on the south side of Seattle, with Eyewitness News scouring the neighborhood for bits of insight into the man, bringing live solace to a public weary of the horror in their midst and hopeful that the police had brought it to an end.
“They believe this is their man, " KIRO television reporter Hilda Bryant said in one accusatory report, “that he’s responsible for the majority of the 34 Green River murders, that he’s not the only murderer . . . but they think that their evidence tonight does link the man they’re questioning to most of the Green River murders.”
Bryant told viewers also that “sources” had told her news team that “the suspect” had been known to mutilate dogs.
With an official ban on the release of information, reporters groped for scraps. KIRO’s Brian Wood, live at what he called “an undisclosed location,” said that neighbors “describe the couple . . . as both driving imported vehicles.” On camera in front of the house, he ad-libbed: “Clearly, something is up. Something big may be happening right now.”
Inside, police officers and FBI agents combed the residence of Ernest William McLean in search of incriminating evidence--a paint chip here, a rug fiber sample there. And, not far away, at the headquarters of the Green River task force, McLean, 52, was finally realizing the sort of trouble he was facing.
“Jesus Christ!” he recalls thinking. “Here’s this map with pictures of all the (dead) girls--and my picture right in the middle. And a full-length file cabinet with my name on all the drawers, and all these file boxes with my name on it.”
They questioned him.
They offered him psychiatric treatment in exchange for a confession.
They gave him a lie detector test. Four times.
But, four hours later, McLean was released. No charges were ever filed, no arrest was ever made, there was no overt indication that the police had ever had their man.
McLean passed the lie detector test every time, and, he and his wife say, investigators have cleared him.
6,000 Pieces of Evidence
The highly visible incident has since raised public questions about a $2-million-a-year investigation that generates 2,000 pages of paper work a month and has produced at least 600 latent fingerprints, more than 6,000 pieces of evidence and 10,000 “persons of interest.”
But it has also focused attention on the news media’s behavior and its impact on two people caught in the teeth of a powerful criminal drama that has been unfolding here for nearly four years.
A Seattle media critic, Richard Labunski, an assistant professor in the University of Washington School of Communication, fears the effect of the television coverage on public attitudes toward the media.
“There are a lot of people who believe reporters do not care enough about the harm they can inflict, that, in their enthusiasm to get the big story, they will leave victims in their wake,” he said. “This coverage confirms some people’s very negative views of the media. I’d like to believe that reporters would not get so caught up in the excitement of a story.”
“They just ruined us,” Bill McLean says. “Everyplace we go, anyone we meet, people we’re going to meet. I can’t help but think we’ll be paranoid forever: People are looking.
“You wouldn’t want to read their mind.”
“It’s like a sick nightmare,” Fay McLean, 28, says of Feb. 6, “somebody’s idea of a sick joke. Every once in a while, I think, ‘Did this really happen?’ ”
But it did.
The serial murder case began on July 15, 1982, when two boys on bicycles spotted the body of 16-year-old Wendy Lee Coffield floating in the Green River.
All told, police have linked 34 victims to the same killer, and they list 11 other missing young women as potential victims.
“It’s definitely a conservative estimate,” said King County Police Capt. Frank H. Adamson, commander of the Green River Task Force, which is investigating the killings.
In addition, the partial remains of a female, age 15 to 25, were found March 27 about one mile from the spot where the first Green River victim was found. Pending an identification, those remains are not yet listed as a Green River victim.
Although bones of victims have been discovered as recently as Jan. 2, all those who have been identified disappeared between July 7, 1982, and Feb. 6, 1984: 34 lives in 19 months. One of the officially missing women was last seen on March 21, 1984.
So, did the Green River Killer’s reign of death actually end two years ago?
“It’s possible,” Adamson said, that the killer “has moved on or been incapacitated. But, on the other hand, I’ve been particularly cautious at jumping to the conclusion the guy has left.”
In his office in the old junior high school that now houses his task force, the building where McLean was initially questioned, Adamson says that the killer is definitely a man. He cites a weapon, the manner of death, signs of sexual assault, a peculiar signature left by the killer--but he refuses to be specific for fear of compromising the investigation.
However, one court document does refer to “certain recurring phenomenon.”
Investigation, evidence and tips have generated 10,000 names. “Out of 10,000 names, it’s obvious to me a lot are not the suspect,” Adamson said. “There’s probably somewhere around 1,000 that require additional work, that merit follow-up. We have processed about a quarter of that number. You have to realize the work; we have 11 volumes of material on one of those. Another name we spent at least two months on.”
The FBI entered the case last September after the remains of two women, 18 and 23 years old and missing since the fall of 1982, were found two days apart, dumped in Tigard, Ore.
But the FBI’s Profiling and Crime Assessment Unit at Quantico, Va., had previously provided local investigators with what it calls a “personality profile of the subject who would most probably perpetrate this type of criminal offense.” The profile listed 12 characteristics--undisclosed--of the Green River Killer.
In some respects, McLean apparently matched the profile.
About November of last year, an unidentified source told a task force investigator that he knew of someone who should be considered a Green River suspect. He added, Adamson said in an affidavit for the warrant to search McLean’s house and vehicles, that he knew of McLean through trapping.
McLean--a fit man with a passion for trapping and the outdoors--was, the informant said, intimately familiar with each of the areas where bodies had been discovered.
Task force records contained two earlier suggestions to police that McLean should be a suspect in the killings, and soon the construction worker and trapper took on an appearance larger than life: “McLean was totally impervious to weather conditions and discomfort,” Adamson’s affidavit said. “He could operate trap lines in snow, rain, hail or cold for hours and hours . . . .
“In the woods, McLean was like a machine.”
The 32-page affidavit for a warrant to search McLean’s home then spelled out the sites of McLean’s trap lines and their proximity to the bodies of some Green River victims. It hinted also that the Green River Killer might have trapping skills.
“I believe,” Adamson concluded in the affidavit, “it is probable that (McLean) is the Green River Killer . . . .”
A psychological profile, a passion for trapping--in an almost Orwellian twist, Bill McLean had become what Adamson calls a “person of interest.”
(But, after the investigation that ensued, the McLeans say, they were told by federal investigators that McLean is no longer under suspicion.)
Not long after the November tip to police, Roger Nelson of KOMO radio was to receive his own tip--McLean’s name--"from the federal level,” Nelson says. That led Nelson to obtain McLean’s prison records from the Washington Department of Corrections: 249 pages of information on McLean’s juvenile and military records and his two convictions for burglary in 1961 and 1964. (However, McLean has not been in trouble since his release in 1967.)
Nelson would later broadcast those records, shattering the fragile secret that McLean and his wife had long kept from friends, neighbors, co-workers and many in Fay’s family.
The tip allowed Nelson to gain leverage with the task force also. He left a phone message at the task force for a source to call him “regarding Mr. McLean.”
Made Deal With Police
It had the desired shock effect; in exchange for his cooperation in not naming McLean as a suspect, Nelson says, police agreed to tip him off when they moved against McLean.
They did, on Feb. 6. About 4 p.m., McLean, a cement finisher, was leaving a construction site in Preston, Wash., where walls were being poured for a warehouse. He left in a truck with the boss’ son driving.
“One (car) pulled up behind us,” he recalls, “and one pulled up in front and started flashing blue lights. We stopped. They all jumped out with their coats pulled back and hands on their guns. They said they were with the Green River Task Force and they wanted to ask me some questions.”
Other agents were moving in on Mrs. McLean, as she finished her work training developmentally disabled adults. Unaware of what was happening to her husband, she was taken to the federal building in downtown Seattle. “They said they wanted to ask some questions about Bill,” she recalls, “his background, whether he forced me into kinky sex, just bizarre, off-the-wall stuff. They asked about his trapping, if he frequents prostitutes.
“The first indication I had something was really up was when they said my house was being searched. They said I could give them the keys or they could break in.”
The authorities descended on their little house on the south side of Seattle. Employees of a neighboring business called news organizations to report the massive police activity. What even some in Seattle broadcasting call “a circus” and “a zoo” quickly ensued. One merchant sold snacks and soda to press and onlookers.
And at 5 p.m. KOMO broke the story, with a vague report that “a breakthrough in the case could be close at hand.”
It was a scoop that put competitors under pressure to catch up, pressure that one anchorman cites for his own acknowledged excess that night. The McLeans, their lives, their secrets soon were unwound for all to see and hear as news organizations battled over the biggest story in Seattle.
Because McLean had not been arrested, some did not use his name; others did. Yet live cameras were on his lawn, his co-workers were interviewed and his neighbors questioned. Because he was not charged, reporters painfully called him not a suspect but a “person of interest.” Yet, moments after one reporter on the scene cautiously said McLean was not a suspect, the anchorwoman in the studio called him that.
Some accepted the words of sources, like KIRO’s Hilda Bryant, who continued her report this way:
“And here’s what else we’ve pieced together tonight from police sources, the man’s neighbors and others: He’s about 45 years old. He’s in his second marriage. He’s a cement worker. He’s had about 20 different jobs in the past three years, and some of that work took him to the Portland area , where our sources say that they have linked him to a string of prostitute murders in that city.
“Our sources tell us the suspect has been known to mutilate dogs that wandered into the traps he had set for wild game, and we’ve learned that animal parts have been found dumped with some of the Green River victims’ bodies.”
Portland police told The Times that, although six women with backgrounds in street prostitution have been killed there in the last five years, there is nothing linking them together or to McLean.
And McLean, displaying photos of small animals caught in his traps, which he says he nursed and returned to the wilds, denies mutilating any animals.
‘Biggest Story of Year’
Bryant defended her reporting as accurate representations of what her sources said. “We were competing on the biggest story of the year in a state of near-hysteria,” Bryant told The Times. “What we did was legal. I don’t know whether it was fair (to McLean).”
KING anchorman Aaron Brown, for his part, needed a 20-second filler in his 11 o’clock broadcast that night. He looked at two scripts on his desk and reached for the one he now regrets:
“The person at the center of this was described by a friend of his to us tonight as a real nice, easy-going guy, a hunter, as you’ve just heard, a man who traveled a lot, always carried a sharp knife with him. He is said to have once joked to co-workers about getting a prostitute on 1st Avenue, quote, getting what you want, and then killing her. One of his co-workers then said, ‘You’re probably the Green River Killer,’ and the man is said to have just laughed.”
“I wish I hadn’t done it,” Brown says now. “We were late (on the story), we were scrambling. We were a couple hours behind (the competition). Nobody feels worse than I do. If you left that 20 seconds out, I’d feel real proud of our coverage that night. We did not harm Mr. McLean.
“Except for me.”
And, on KOMO that night, a neighbor all but pronounced McLean the Green River Killer:
“I have a teen-age daughter and her girlfriend that used to live here, and I used to tell them to be careful when they’d go out because, you know, you never know who it might be. And, uh, it turns out he’s right next door!”
After questioning, police allowed both McLeans to leave, but not before Mrs. McLean had surrendered head and pubic hair and saliva samples, apparently for comparison with any similar evidence that might be found in the family house or car, and Bill McLean had repeatedly taken lie detector tests. He says that he was asked point-blank if he killed the women. “I said no,” he recalls. Like Adamson, he refuses to disclose other questions put to him for fear of compromising the investigation. “I think the guy should be caught,” he says.
Between the interrogation and the media coverage, Mrs. McLean says, “I would have to say the media coverage was the worst part.”
“I spent 20 years trying to hide some of my past--and boom! All of a sudden it’s nationwide,” McLean says.
“There are things in Bill’s past I knew of that he wasn’t proud of, that people in my family didn’t know about,” his wife adds.
“All my friends,” McLean says, “nobody knew.”
“That wasn’t near as bad as when Hilda Bryant said she got from a reliable source that Bill liked to mutilate animals,” Mrs. McLean said.
"(KING anchorman) Aaron Brown said he had a reliable source about the co-worker. I don’t think so. The statement was never made. I had no reason to make that,” McLean said.
The McLeans are still assessing the toll that Feb. 6 has taken on their lives. Mrs. McLean says she temporarily lost a part-time job.
“I’m getting some vibes trying to work,” McLean says. He cites some potential employers and adds, “They never have anything, they haven’t called.”
And there are the eyes, the eyes looking at them at the store, or wherever else they go. “It’s the looky-loos,” Mrs. McLean says. “The people who know us and love us stood behind us. But the woman across the street, she’ll always wonder.
“Everybody knows. I went to the bank, the lady says, ‘How’s it going?’ I said I’m doing OK. She says, ‘God bless you.’ ”
On Feb. 7, KIRO news anchorwoman Susan Hutchison asked reporter Bryant, “And what’s next for this man (McLean)?”
“Ah, I suppose (laugh) he’s going to be embarrassed for a little while, but his friends and neighbors have stood loyally by him and I don’t think it’s hurt his reputation . . . . “
“Easy for her to say,” McLean says. “She hasn’t gone through it.”