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Green River Killer's youngest victim identified decades later using genetic technology

The youngest known victim of the infamous “Green River Killer,” who terrorized the Seattle-area during the 1980s, has been identified using genetic genealogy almost 37 years after her remains were found by a baseball field in a suburb outside the city, the King County Sheriff’s Office announced Monday.

Wendy Stephens was 14 when she ran away from her home in Denver in 1983. A year later the remains of an unidentified girl were found in a wooded area next to a baseball field in what is now the suburb of SeaTac on March 21, 1984, after the groundskeeper’s dog came home with a leg bone. Investigators believed she had been strangled to death a year or more earlier.

It wasn’t until recently that the King County Sheriff’s Office teamed up with researchers at the DNA Doe Project, a volunteer organization that uses publicly available DNA databases to find relatives of unidentified victims, to help make the identification.

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Since 2003, Gary Ridgway, dubbed the Green River Killer, pleaded guilty to killing 49 women and girls. Four of those victims, including Stephens, had not been identified even by the time he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. 

“Ridgway’s murderous spree left a trail of profound grief for so many families of murdered and missing women,” King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg said in a written statement. “We are thankful that Wendy Stephens’ family will now have answers to their enormous loss suffered nearly 40 years ago.”

“Today’s development is a testament to the tireless efforts of detectives, scientists and other professionals who employed the latest in emerging DNA and genealogical technologies in Wendy’s disappearance,” the press release continued, according to The Denver Post. “Cases once thought unsolvable are now within reach thanks to this pioneering work … It is our hope today’s development brings those who love Wendy one step closer to healing.”

In this Feb. 18, 2011, file photo, Green River Killer Gary Ridgway listens during his arraignment on charges of murder in the 1982 death of Rebecca "Becky" Marrero at the King County Regional Justice Center in Kent., Wash.  (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)

In this Feb. 18, 2011, file photo, Green River Killer Gary Ridgway listens during his arraignment on charges of murder in the 1982 death of Rebecca “Becky” Marrero at the King County Regional Justice Center in Kent., Wash.  (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)

Genetic genealogy has increasingly been used to track down unidentified criminal suspects and help solve scores of cold cases in recent years, some of them more than a half-century old or involving other serial killers. It unmasked the Golden State Killer, Joseph DeAngelo, who pleaded guilty to 13 murders and 13 rape-related charges that spanned much of California between 1975 and 1986.

Cairenn Binder, who led the DNA Doe Project team that identified Stephens, said that by entering her DNA information into a genealogy website they were able to locate distant cousins on both her mother’s side and father’s side. By building out a family tree with census, birth and other records, they pinpointed where the families intersected — Stephens’ parents.

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It only took a few weeks for Binder’s team to come up with Stephens’ name. But it could have been even quicker: Years ago, one of Stephens’ parents entered DNA into the database GEDmatch in hopes of finding her or any children she might have had, Binder said. That would have provided a quick DNA hit.

But in 2019, GEDmatch changed its policies, better protecting the privacy of users by requiring them to opt in if they wanted law enforcement to be able to use their DNA in investigations. Because the parent had provided their DNA before the policy change, and they had not subsequently opted in, Binder’s team didn’t see the parent’s DNA profile when they searched.

Researchers at the DNA Doe Project don’t contact victims’ families, Binder said, but as the mother of a 14-year-old daughter, she could imagine the trauma they endured.

“It was a lot to think about how youthful this victim was and what she had gone through in her life,” Binder told the Associated Press. “It’s really upsetting her youth was taken away from her, but it also gives me some measure of comfort and a feeling of success because we were able to restore her name.”

Stephens’ family requested privacy and declined to speak with reporters, said Sgt. Tim Meyer, a spokesman for the sheriff’s office.

Ridgway preyed on young women in vulnerable positions, including sex workers and runaways, mostly from 1982 to 1984. He sometimes showed them photos of his own young son to gain their trust.

He was long a suspect in the Green River killings — so called because the first victims were found in the Green River, which runs through several south Seattle suburbs. Detectives were unable to prove his role until 2001, when advances in DNA technology allowed them to link a saliva sample they had obtained from him in 1987 to semen found on several victims.

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Ridgway claimed to have killed dozens more women than he was charged with — so many, he said he lost count. He pleaded guilty in a deal to avoid the death penalty after agreeing to help investigators find additional remains. He is now 71, spending the rest of his life at the Washington State Penitentiary.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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