Catching a serial killer is a lot tougher than knowing one is at work.
Spokane police and sheriff’s detectives learned that in 1990 when three women were murdered over a three-month period.
Investigators were convinced that the same person killed Yolanda Sapp, 26, Nickie Lowe, 34, and Kathy Brisbois, 38.
Their bodies were found at separate locations along the Spokane River, east of the city. All had ties to drugs and prostitution. All had been shot.
“We knew we had the same guy back then, but we were just never able to identify him,” said one of a half-dozen retired detectives who investigated the murders.
But authorities at the time didn’t say publicly that they knew a serial killer was on the loose.
The 1990 cases remain unsolved. They are now under renewed scrutiny by a task force looking at four serial killings in recent months.
Detectives haven’t ruled out the possibility that the 1990 killings might be associated with the recent murders.
‘They were just dumped like trash’
The 1990 victims, like many of those killed in the last six months, were addicted to heroin or other drugs, and worked as prostitutes along East Sprague.
Police, social workers and others knowledgeable about the 1990 deaths still offer the theory that the women may have been in debt to their drug suppliers.
There was no particular “signature” to the killings, such as mutilation or posing of the bodies, the former investigators said.
“They were just dumped like trash,” one retired detective recalled.
The victims were killed elsewhere, possibly in a vehicle, so detectives couldn’t analyze the crime scenes where the murders occurred. Most physical evidence in homicide cases is recovered from crime scenes.
Investigators working the 1990 murders concluded the same .22-caliber handgun was used to kill the three women.
But detectives also were intrigued with another common denominator: Tiny traces of greenish carpet fiber were found on each of the bodies.
Extensive laboratory analysis eventually led detectives to the manufacturer of the carpet, which was produced for about two years.
The glue-down carpet was commonly used in expensive SeaRay boats, but may have had other applications, too, detectives learned.
That led them to Trudeau’s, an East Sprague dealership that sells SeaRay boats.
Prostitutes working nearby were plying their trade in boats parked on streets and in adjoining lots, detectives learned.
Prostitutes also were taking carpet remnants, used for shipping new boats, from a lot at First and Grant where the boats are unloaded.
“The police talked to us about that back then and asked us not to say anything about it,” recalled Bill Trudeau, who owns the dealership.
Trudeau said he and his employees didn’t know that prostitutes were using their boats until told by police.
“We moved a boat one day and this bum with a bedroll came scrambling out, and kind of surprised all of us,” Trudeau said. “That’s the only incident I remember.”
The marina now keeps its boats in lots surrounded by a high fence, with locked gates. Boats aren’t left on the street overnight.
Trudeau said he told detectives that prostitutes would use discarded carpet remnants as seat cushions.
“After we closed for the day, they’d sit out front in the evening,” Trudeau said. “The next day, we’d often find the carpet remnants out there.”
The businessman said detectives were particularly interested in one color of carpeting, which he described as a teal green.
“They even questioned my customers who had boats with that color of carpeting,” Trudeau said.
But the fiber evidence didn’t produce any solid suspects.
Sorting through 500 names
Investigators then wondered if the carpet may be in the back of a van or other vehicle used to carry the bodies to the dump sites.
Following that theory, detectives sorted through the names of 500 possible suspects. They identified a car salesman who worked on East Sprague and frequently hired prostitutes.
The man drove a van, but eventually was eliminated as a suspect, according to detectives familiar with the case.
Their attention then turned to a North Idaho man who was arrested for abducting an exotic dancer at gunpoint and assaulting her. He was convicted of that charge and later admitted that he killed his mother with a baseball bat.
Detectives eliminated him as a suspect after learning he was elsewhere when the three women were killed.
Eventually, the leads dried up and the detectives were assigned other cases. Most of the detectives who worked the 1990 murders are now retired.
Former Spokane County Sheriff Larry Erickson, who now lives in Olympia, says his hunch is that there is a link between the 1990 killings and women murdered in recent months.
“I think these two strings could very well be connected,” said Erickson, now executive director of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs.
“My best guess is the person was in jail for a time, and is now back out there killing women.”