Denise Scaffidi has been a criminal defense private investigator for the past 21 years. In 2001, after working on murder cases in Seattle and San Francisco, she was made the lead investigator for one of the most notorious serial killers in recent years—the Green River killer, Gary Ridgway. Before Ridgway eventually pleaded guilty to 48 victims in order to avoid the death penalty, Scaffidi and the defense investigation team under attorney Anthony Savage combed through hundreds of thousands of discovery documents and uncovered more crimes—many of which were not committed by Ridgway. In addition to running her business, Scaffidi is currently teaching at the University of Washington’s Private Investigation certification program which was recently ranked the best in the country by PiNow (and full disclosure, where I am currently a student). In this portion of the interview, Scaffidi talks about her work on the Green River Killer case. Read part one of the interview here.
The Green River Case
Crime Library: You worked on the Green River Killer case?
Denise Scaffidi: Gary Ridgway case, it was called. I did.
CL: You were working for his defense?
DS: Yes. There were eight investigators. I was the lead investigator, so I oversaw the work of all eight investigators.
CL: How long were you on that defense?
DS: Almost two years.
CL: How did you come to be on this case?
DS: Tony Savage was one of my attorney clients. Savage got the case originally. It was a private paid case. And then the King County judge said that there’s no way anybody could afford something like this. So he assigned ACA, Associated Council of the Accused. Tony remained the lead attorney and then he selected me as the lead investigator. So I actually worked for public defender funds out of the ACA office along with the whole ACA team. But the reason I really wanted the case is back in the eighties, when these killings were going on, I lived in San Francisco. And we would keep an eye on the cases. I mean women throughout the country were because the rumor was, that because these girls were prostitutes, the investigation wasn’t being done the way it should have been done. So my number one interest in it was to read the discovery, to see what had happened with the investigation by the cops. Yeah, and that turned out to be 700 plus thousand pages.
CL: What did you learn about the discovery?
DS: First of all, they had Gary Ridgway early on, they had an eyewitness that it was Gary Ridgway early on. It was the brother, I think, of one of the girls that got killed. He led them to Gary Ridgway years before and nothing ever became of that. [Also,] they stopped adding names to the Green River list. There were victims throughout the state they would not add. Because, my belief was, they didn’t get the funding that they needed from the federal government to do the investigation, so they didn’t need a bigger investigation. Number two, they didn’t want to show that they were not getting anywhere and in fact adding more names. But they didn’t add these names. We called these women, ‘The Red River List.’ Now some of these women cross referenced, in other words they were friends with the Green Rivers and they got killed. There were a lot of friends that got killed during that process. What we found was that a lot of the Red River victims, we thought were being killed by certain other suspects that we were investigating, so if they killed them we were looking to see whether they had access also to the Green River victims.
CL: Process of elimination.
DS: Yeah, and we had to look a lot into relationships between the different victims. There were cousins that were killed, there were even sisters that were killed, there were best friends that were killed and not simultaneously, throughout those years. I remember we looked at a lot of people who had access to these women right before they died. Most of those were in the Green River task force suspect list of twenty-six hundred names, so we narrowed that down to 50 or 52 main suspects.
CL: Were you looking at Ridgway’s killings?
DS: No, not at all. He was only charged originally with four victims. The three original Green River women that were found at Green River, in ’82, I believe. One other woman, I think her name was ‘Christensen,’ but I’m not positive of that. There was one investigator working the three murders because they occurred at the same time, same place, and one other investigating the single woman that was killed later, so we didn’t investigate the murder he was being charged with, we were investigating the murders of the Green River List, and the Red River List. Now, we started out by going through the Green River Task Force investigation, which was the police file. They had other suspects, and I believe they had 2600 other suspects. Three of us were on the “other suspects team.” We read every one of those files, and we narrowed it down to I think maybe 52 or 54 of the top suspects. Then we set out
and investigated those.
CL: And the end result for that was to get a plea from him, or for him?
DS: I think just to whittle down the cases he was being charged with is primarily what the goal was. This is probably the only case where I’ve not ever spoken to the client about the details of the case. We could talk about anything else, but we were not to talk to them about the homicides. So what we found were that there were several. First of all we found that the Green River Victims List was very limited. There were you know, 50 women or whatnot on the original Green River Victim List. As soon as I saw the list I knew that one person was missing and from there we found over 150 other women that should have been on that list. Because I had investigated a case several years earlier that involved a Green River victim that was not shown on this list.
We didn’t know who had done any of them at that point, but they were similarly situated women throughout Washington, Oregon, and California that were killed in the same manner and disposed of in the same manner. There was no reason why the Green River Task Force stopped that list, except that I believe they weren’t getting the monies they needed for that investigation and the media was so bad against them at that time that they weren’t doing anything. There was an artificial line drawn.
CL: A line drawn geographically?
DS: No, I don’t think it was geography so much as time. At some point they just stopped adding victims. And we called those other people, the other women, the Red River List. So a lot of those women were kind of dumped out into this area, or there was a whole series of women who were ignored along the Highway 2, whatever that highway’s called. There were a bunch in Oregon, a bunch in Spokane, Yakima.
CL: And these were all unsolved?
DS: These were all unsolved murders, and they should have all actually been on the Green River List as murder victims. So the three of us worked on that. We looked to see serial killers in the area that are in prison who were in this area during the time of the Green River killings who had similar types of victims or similar ways of killing or similar dumping, dumping of the bodies, and we did a lot of talking to serial killers.