Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘The Green River Killer and Me’: Rene Denfeld looks back on a harrowing moment from her youth

Gary Leon Ridgway appears at a pretrial hearing in King County Superior Court, March 27, 2003, in Seattle. Ridgway, known as the Green River Killer, pleaded guilty to the murders of 48. He was convicted of killing 49. Author Rene Denfeld writes about her experiences with a man much like Ridgway in an essay for Lithub. (AP)
By Rene Denfeld For the SpokesmAn-Review

As a young girl, I lived on the streets. I woke up in dirt under overpasses. I begged for change. I ate rotting food out of trash cans. I did things I’d rather not remember to survive.

On the streets, people look through you – unless they want something more, which is usually bad.

Like other homeless kids, I came from a background of abuse. My stepdad had been a registered sex offender, and a parade of pedophiles had walked through my life. By the time I left home, it may have looked safer, but the damage had been done. On the streets, I felt I had a fighting chance – not just to survive, but to define myself.

On the streets, I told myself, at least I could run away.

This was in the early 1980s when a serial killer called the Green River Killer was murdering homeless girls and women up and down the West Coast. Despite dozens of victims, the police had been sluggish to react. No one seemed to much care because he was killing “prostitutes.” The homeless children he raped and murdered were dismissed as “teenage runaways.”

One night I got into a truck with a man. I did this, sometimes, to survive. There were few programs at the time for homeless children. There still are not. I was hungry. Food, as we all know, costs money. There was only one way to get it.

The man looked like all the men in the cars – he looked ordinary. But ordinary men, I had discovered, could be the most dangerous of all. His eyes were hidden behind dirty glasses. He wore a jacket and plain trousers.

He drove me out of the skid row area, into the industrial area outside downtown, far away from where the men usually stopped. The streets there were empty. As the abandoned buildings passed, my fear grew. I thought of the girls who had gone missing and turned up dead.

“Please stop,” I asked him. His eyes were flat as discs behind his glasses. He kept driving.

I asked again.

Then, smiling, he delicately poked his tongue out at me. Once, twice, like a serpent.

Cold terror filled me.

Living on the streets, you become numb to fear. It is hard to discern one horror-filled moment from another in such a jumbled up, red-hazed nightmare. But in that moment, I woke up to life. And because I knew I was at risk, I suddenly realized my own life had value. This had never occurred to me before.

When you are homeless, you stop thinking your life even matters. It’s hard to believe you even exist when so many people look right through you.

I begged for him to stop as he drove. I told him I would do whatever he wanted if only he let me go. But he only smiled and kept driving.

As he slowed down at an empty intersection I lunged for the door handle, and, before I knew it, was opening it and tumbling out. I looked up – he was backing up. I saw the red lights, blinked at me, and heard his angry cursing from inside.

I ran, limping, while he drove up and down the empty streets peering through his unrolled window into the night looking for me. Weeping, I got lost. Finally, I rolled down a freeway embankment, landing in thorny bushes. As dawn rose in the sky, cold to my bones, I limped my way back downtown. Shivering, miserable, I crept to a park and wrapped myself in old cardboard and cried myself to sleep.

Not long after this, one of my girlfriends went missing. Later her naked body was found dumped in the woods. The police said she was a victim of the Green River Killer. Was that him that night in the truck? It could have been one of many men who preyed on us. Death is ordinary on the streets, just like the men.

I lost so many friends. One boy jumped off an overpass after being raped. Others died of murder, suicide and overdose. AIDS felled my generation, a scythe through the street boys my age. People called it the Gay Plague and made jokes about the victims.

Since getting off the streets, I’ve become a novelist, a public defender and foster adoptive parent taking in kids not unlike myself. The ways I got off the streets – cheap apartments, living wage jobs for the poor – don’t exist anymore. My first job was at a McDonald’s, and on that skimpy income I was able to rent an apartment downtown. That same apartment is now a million-dollar condo. I presume they got rid of the cockroaches.

But the homeless children are still there largely unseen, ignored and victimized. The local medical examiner’s office actually lost the remains of one of the girls suspected to be a victim of the Green River Killer. How do you lose an entire body? By the time they actually caught him, he had murdered at least 50 victims. Think about that for a moment. Fifty girls just like me.

When I decided to write about homeless children for “The Butterfly Girl, I knew I’d be opening up old wounds. The memories came flooding back, including that terrible night. But other memories came back, too, and they surprised me with their promise. Sitting in the downtown Portland library while rain streamed down the windows surrounded by piles of books. Wandering the shelves there convinced the writers had left those stories just for me. Waking up in an abandoned building watching the sun stream through the jagged windows. Being filled with sudden, inexplicable hope.

The delight of life. The endless, eternal promise of it.

Writing “The Butterfly Girl” felt radical. It shouldn’t feel radical to depict homeless children as existing, or mattering, but few books do. Instead, kids like myself are used as plot devices, to be thrown away on the page as we are in real life.

I worry it keeps us from taking action. There is something we all can do. We can volunteer with shelters, advocate for more programs and push for a justice system that actually protects. We can dig into the root causes of child homelessness – the underfunded foster care system is a big one – and we can look out for the vulnerable children in our neighborhoods.

Someplace, back in time, the girl I once was is jumping out of a truck and saving herself. Someplace, right now, a child is stepping close to a car and hoping the man inside is safe.

By telling her story, I hope to change that answer.

Reprinted with permission from Lithub. Copyright Rene Denfeld.