There’s no right way to catch a serial killer, no foolproof formula for flushing a human predator into the light.
There are only best guesses, hunches and techniques used before with varying degrees of success.
Authorities pursuing a serial killer in Spokane are trying to determine what works and what doesn’t, and to learn from the experience of others.
In September, they formed a four-detective task force to investigate 18 unsolved murders since 1984.
Detectives believe a serial killer or killers committed at least seven of the murders - three in 1990 and four in 1997.
All of the victims were women. Many had worked as prostitutes or abused drugs. The most recent victims were shot in the head and dumped in vacant fields or remote stands of trees in or around Spokane.
The task force is looking for links among all the crimes and to see if the 1990 cases are related to the most recent ones.
Local authorities won’t talk specifically about what the task force is doing to catch the killer.
Police Capt. Chuck Bown said detectives are following up leads pouring in from the public and compiling information. A group of FBI agents was in Spokane last week to take a look at the cases as well.
“The task force sounds so glamorous. It’s not glamorous,” said Bown, a task force commander. “It’s generally routine work. It’s day-to-day drudgery.”
Even the clue-hunting software being used is a fairly common computer program.
“It’s not any kind of super-secret, crime-fighting technology,” Bown said. “It’s basically just database-management software. Instead of the information going into the database being about manufacturing or what have you, it’s about case management.”
The task force is trying to reconstruct the movements of the victims through telephone and paging records, court records show.
Since November, task force member Fred Ruetsch has requested nearly a half-dozen search warrants for information on pagers or telephone numbers thought to be used by the victims.
One of the two women discovered dead the day after Christmas had a piece of paper in her pocket with a telephone number written on it, Ruetsch wrote in an affidavit last week.
Ruetsch tracked the number to a Seattle pager service and has requested the records concerning the use of the pager.
In November, the detective tried to track down a pager used by Jennifer Joseph, a 16-year-old girl found shot to death in eastern Spokane County.
The pager was still active nearly three months after her death, and Ruetsch hoped to find the person paying the bill, according to court records.
Authorities won’t say if he was successful.
While routine detective work is necessary in any murder investigation, more creative techniques also are necessary.
Most serial killers aren’t motivated by the same things that prompt other people to commit murder - anger, greed, jealousy, profit or revenge - former FBI profiler John Douglas wrote in his book, “Mindhunter.”
“Serial killers and rapists also tend to be the most bewildering, personally disturbing and most difficult to catch of all violent criminals,” Douglas said.
After eight prostitutes were murdered over five years in Riverside, Calif., the police and sheriff’s departments in that community formed a task force in February 1991.
Tire tracks, shoe prints and other similarities at crime scenes convinced the California investigators that they were chasing a serial killer.
All the Riverside victims were strangled, and some were also stabbed and mutilated. Like the Spokane victims, their bodies were dumped in undeveloped areas.
Twelve detectives were assigned to hunt for the killer, who was eventually captured following a routine traffic stop.
But the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department has 1,350 sworn officers, compared with 193 in Spokane County, and the Riverside Police Department has 340 officers, compared with 291 at the Spokane Police Department.
“We have to go with what our resources allow,” Spokane County sheriff’s Capt. Doug Silver said when asked why only four detectives are assigned to the Spokane task force.
Other detectives, on a part-time basis, are handling some leads developed by the task force, Silver said.
Instead of working at their usual desks, detectives from the two California agencies worked side-by-side in a makeshift task force office set up in a jury room.
“You’ve got to be communicating,” said Sheriff’s Lt. Al Hearn, who headed the Riverside task force.
“You do that in a task force by working side-by-side, in the same room, building trust and confidence in each other.”
Ideally, Hearn said, the task force shouldn’t work out of the sheriff’s or police offices, but away from the daily grind of police work.
Until last week, Spokane task force members worked at their regular desks in different offices in the Public Safety Building.
A temporary office was found and now serves as the task force headquarters.
“Part of the delay in getting the office is related to logistics,” Silver said. “Every inch of space here in the Public Safety Building is spoken for, and it was difficult to find space for the task force office.”
Spokane authorities decided to keep the task force in the Public Safety Building so it can be close to resources it needs to track the killer, Bown said.
Hearn said Riverside authorities also learned it was important to designate a lead investigator and lead agency in serial killer investigations.
“If you catch the guy, who’s going to interview him?” Hearn said. “Who’s going to make crucial decisions if there isn’t a lead investigator?”
The Sheriff’s Department has been designated as the lead agency in the investigation, Silver said, because bodies of the last four victims - Darla Sue Scott, Shawn Johnson, Laurie Ann Wason and Shawn McClenahan - were found in the county.
The Riverside task force ultimately sorted through 22 prostitute murders.
“I know the amount of information that has to be followed up in task force investigations like this,” Hearn said. “We kept our 12 task force detectives busy all the time, and there’s a need for that many investigators on a case like this. It’s just got to be overwhelming up there in Spokane.”
The task force that investigated the 49 unsolved Green River killings in Western Washington during the 1980s quickly became buried in information, according to the book, “The Search for the Green River Killer,” by Carlton Smith and Tomas Guillen.
Usually, police concentrate on their best suspect and work to incriminate that person. That was nearly impossible in the Green River case because there were hundreds of viable suspects.
So the Green River Task Force - which in January 1984 included 40 officers - approached the cases differently.
“The only way to make sure the real killer was identified was to go in reverse: Try to prove that Suspect A simply could not have done the crimes,” wrote Smith and Guillen.
In that way, the task force eliminated suspects from its list and moved on to the next name.
Bown has said the Spokane task force has studied the make-up of the Green River group and how it operated.
Getting help from outside agencies also is a technique used by task forces that have chased serial killers in other parts of the country.
The Spokane task force has requested assistance from the state Attorney General’s Office and the FBI’s National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime.
The Attorney General’s Office is monitoring the Spokane cases for links to other murders in Washington and Oregon, said Robert Keppel, an investigator with the agency and an expert on serial killers.
Agents from the FBI’s Violent Criminal Apprehension Program (VICAP) and the Child Abduction and Serial Killer Unit were in Spokane on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday to review the murder cases.
VICAP is “a nationwide data information center designed to collect, collate and analyze crimes of violence - specifically murder,” according to the FBI.
VICAP agents enter serial murder cases into a database, where they are continually compared to all the other cases in the computer. That helps determine if any killings might be linked.
The FBI agents helped local detectives look for clues that could weed out cases not tied to the serial killer or killers.
Preliminary findings of their review may be available next month, task force members said.
Local authorities have not yet asked the FBI to compile a profile of the killer. Silver said the task force won’t do that until it has exhausted all other leads.
A profile - or probable description of the killer’s personality and lifestyle - can help investigators narrow their pool of suspects.
Other experts warn investigators looking for serial killers not to put too much faith in profiles.
In California, it wasn’t the task force or an FBI profiler who caught the serial killer, but an alert traffic cop.
The fact that patrol officers and others on both departments were getting daily briefings about the investigation allowed that to happen, Hearn said.
Investigators learned a lot about the killer by scrutinizing evidence found on the victims. They had samples of carpet fiber and hair from a cat owned by the suspect.
“From the footprints we found, we even knew the brand name of tennis shoes he was wearing,” Hearn said. “He had them on when we arrested him.”
William L. Suff, then 42, was arrested in January 1992 when a patrol officer saw a van make an illegal U-turn after the driver was seen talking to a prostitute.
In Suff’s van, police found rope, a bloody knife, a tattered sleeping bag and fiber samples matching those found on victims.
Suff, who worked as a stock clerk for Riverside County, had helped move furniture into the task force office.
Investigators determined that Suff would pick the women up in his van for acts of prostitution, then strangle them. Sometimes, he dressed the victims in his clothes, and took theirs.
Prosecutors said he was suspected of involvement in the murders of at least 22 women, dating back to 1986.
In 1995, he was convicted of murdering 12 of the women and sentenced to death. He’s currently on California’s death row.
, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: THE TASK FORCE The four detectives assigned full time to the task force investigating the murders of 18 Spokane-area women have nearly 75 years of law enforcement experience among them. They are: Rick Grabenstein of the Sheriff’s Department. Grabenstein was hired as a deputy in 1975 and promoted to detective in 1982. He is attached to the crimes-against-persons unit. Fred Ruetsch of the Sheriff’s Department. Ruetsch was hired as a deputy in June 1978. He worked in the investigative support unit, crime analysis and property crimes. Ruetsch was promoted to detective in January 1995 and is assigned to the crimes-against-persons unit. John Miller of the Spokane Police Department. Miller was hired in 1979, promoted to detective in 1994 and joined the major crimes unit in 1996. Minde Connelly of the Police Department. Connelly was hired in September 1985, promoted to detective in 1992 and is assigned to the major crimes unit.
Click here to comment on this story »