Hunting A Serial Killer Task Force Tracks Elusive Quarry
A woman found murdered. No suspects. No motives. Few clues.
That frightening refrain has sounded across Spokane 18 times since 1984.
Now a special task force is trying to catch a serial killer or killers thought to be responsible for at least seven of the deaths - three in 1990 and four last year.
The four detectives assigned to the task force are trying to determine if the clusters are connected.
They’re also investigating the other 11 unsolved murders, looking for elusive clues that may help solve some or all of the crimes.
Authorities fear more women may die if the detectives can’t crack the killings. Two women already are missing.
It’s a daunting task.
Some of Spokane’s best detectives investigated the earlier homicides without success. A task force assembled in 1990 worked for more than a year without producing an arrest.
That’s not unusual, according to investigator Robert Keppel of the state attorney general’s office, an expert on serial murder.
“Only the most experienced homicide investigators can recognize the common denominators and predictable changes from one crime scene to the next in a series of murders,” Keppel wrote in his 1997 book, “Signature Killers: Interpreting the Calling Cards of the Serial Murderer.”
Sometimes, even they fail.
Keppel and a task force of other senior investigators have been unable to solve the Green River killings of Western Washington, which claimed 49 victims in the early- to mid-1980s.
Although the actual number of serial killings in the United States is “an impossible figure to track,” Keppel believes they are increasing.
“We have lost count of the number of times a terrorized public has suffered through the menacing presence of a crazed killer on the loose, grazing on a local population of victims until he is caught, dies, or simply moves on to his next feeding ground,” Keppel wrote in “Signature Killers.”
But today, the pressure is increasing to solve the Spokane murders. The community is starting to ask why so many of its daughters, sisters and mothers are winding up dead.
“Our whole community is touched by the murders,” members of Spokane’s Central United Methodist Church said in a press release. “Join hands with us as we proclaim united prayer for the horror of this violence to cease, and for the perpetrator to be rapidly apprehended.”
Some family members of the victims think authorities gave the unsolved murders short shrift because most of the victims worked as prostitutes or abused drugs.
“I really believe if the recent task force had been formed sooner, Shawn and somebody else would still be alive,” said Kathy Lloyd, whose sister Shawn McClenahan was found dead the day after Christmas. “It makes me sick.”
Task force commanders deflect the criticism.
“It certainly isn’t our position to stand and be defensive or to even get into that,” said police Capt. Chuck Bown, a task force commander. “What I will say is that there are two bodies discovered in August. Two weeks later, we resurrected the task force from 1990. That is a reasonably quick response time for a joint investigation and two agencies.”
The resolution of the cases isn’t likely to be so quick.
Each victim has a network of friends, relatives and criminal associates that must be questioned. Laboratory samples must be analyzed and compared. Thousands of tips pouring in from the public must be sorted through.
“It is a step-by-step, methodical search,” Bown said. “There is an awful lot of legwork going to following up on where people were last seen, contacting relatives, associates, that type of thing. I think it’s unrealistic and a false way of doing business to start establishing timelines like that.”
The investigation begins with the death of Debbi K. Finnern. The 30-year-old woman was found stabbed in the 1800 block of East Front in June 1984.
The trail ends, for now, in an overgrown gravel pit near Carnahan and 14th, where the bodies of McClenahan and Laurie Ann Wason were found Dec. 26. They had been shot to death.
In between are the 15 others, either shot, stabbed or strangled. All were dumped outside - in alleys, along the Spokane River, in farm fields. Some were nude or partially undressed. At least one, 19-year-old Sherry Palmer, had a plastic bag pulled over her head.
The cases are frustrating for detectives.
Not all of them fit together, Bown said, but there are enough similarities that they must be compared.
Most of the victims lived in society’s shadows - women who got bad breaks or made bad choices.
They’re hard to track because they had aliases, often moved from city to city and only maintained sporadic contact with their families.
Donna Lynn Harris, found with her throat slashed on Easter Day 1996, arrived in Spokane only a few days before her death. It took detectives several days to determine her name and where she was from.
Like several others, the most recent victims - Laurie Ann Wason, Shawn McClenahan, Shawn Johnson and Darla Sue Scott - worked as prostitutes.
“These four victims were all highly mobile; were less likely to be reported missing,” said Capt. Doug Silver of the Sheriff’s Department, also a task force commander. “Some of them were delayed in being reported missing.”
That allowed the trail to grow cold.
In addition, many potential witnesses have criminal records or use drugs. Police make them nervous.
“They generally are not real open with law enforcement as far as giving good, accurate information,” Bown said. “So the investigation is going to be hampered to some degree.”
Spokane authorities made the right decision when they joined forces to create the task force, Keppel said in a telephone interview Friday. Now, detectives need time, support and the freedom to be creative in their investigation.
“You have to keep an open mind, and you have to go over and beyond what you do routinely,” Keppel said.
The attorney general’s office is supporting the Spokane investigation with its Homicide Investigative Tracking System, he said.
The HITS computer program compiles data from homicides in Washington and Oregon, then sorts the cases for common clues, patterns and names.
Local authorities also have asked for help from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Agents from the FBI’s Violent Criminal Apprehension Program will arrive in Spokane on Jan. 19.
Still, some people aren’t optimistic.
“I don’t think they’re ever going to catch this person,” said Lloyd, victim McClenahan’s sister. “I don’t think my sister’s killer is ever going to be brought to justice.”