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June 13, 2021

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Investigators hope new DNA-enhanced sketch of ‘Bones 17’ gives Green River victim a name

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Her bones were found at the bottom of a steep ravine near a cemetery west of Auburn – a site soon recognized as one of the Green River Killer’s preferred dumping grounds.

Ever since, investigators have tried in vain to restore a name to the remains, likely of a teenager, who for decades they’ve known only as “Bones 17.”

Now, 35 years after her grim discovery, an enhanced composite genetic profile of Bones 17 has been developed with DNA recently extracted from her remains. Investigators hope the resulting computer-generated image – a young female with blond hair, bluish-green eyes and a light complexion – will finally lead to the name of one of the last unidentified victims of Washington’s most prolific serial killer.

“This is relatively new technology, so we’ve got our fingers crossed that it will get us to whoever her family is and help us give her her name back,” said Dr. Kathy Taylor, a forensic anthropologist for the King County Medical Examiner’s Office.

Through a grant, the King County Sheriff’s Office was able to submit samples from Bones 17 to Virginia-based Parabon Nanolabs, which isolated snippets of her DNA. Scientists used a DNA phenotyping process to reverse-engineer the victim’s probable physical characteristics.

That generated a much more comprehensive profile than previously known, including her predicted hair, eye and skin color, facial shape and other physical characteristics. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which previously had created a composite sketch of Bones 17 based on her skull structure, has since used the new details to create an enhanced composite.

“It really fills in a lot of information about her that we didn’t know and simply couldn’t tell just from the bones,” Taylor said.

The hope is that the updated composite will capture the attention of a relative who will come forward to submit DNA that can be used to make a positive identification.

“There is renewed urgency in this case,” Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht said in a statement Friday. “Thirty-five years have passed since Bones 17’s discovery and investigators want to connect with family before memories and other evidence fade.”

The enhanced composite is the latest use of DNA to help solve the remaining mysteries of a notorious case that predated such genetic technology, but advances in the science have led to stunning breakthroughs – including the killer’s capture.

“Not forgetting these victims”

By January 1986, as a mounting number of at-risk young women and teens were turning up dead or missing in South King County, a sheriff’s task force worked to solve a serial murder case first recognized with the discovery of victims in or near the Green River four years earlier.

Bones 17 was found on Jan. 2, 1986, down a deep, wooded gully on the outskirts of Mountain View Cemetery just west of Auburn. Investigators also discovered two other sets of remains: those of a young woman who came to be known as Bones 16, and of 16-year-old Kimi-Kai Pitsor, whose skull had been found at the top of the same ravine two years earlier.

As the number of victims climbed, the case remained unsolved. But in 2001, DNA evidence linked Auburn truck painter Gary Ridgway to several of the victims.

Following Ridgway’s arrest, then-King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng agreed not to seek the death penalty in exchange for Ridgway’s cooperation in finding the remains of dozens of victims. Ultimately, Ridgway admitted to nearly 70 slayings, but at the time prosecutors said they had evidence linking him to only 48.

Among them, four were “Jane Does” – including Bones 17.

Tom Jensen, a retired King County sheriff’s detective who dedicated most of his career to the Green River case and still volunteers his institutional knowledge with investigators, recalled Friday that Ridgway confessed to leaving three victims near the cemetery.

“He said he killed them, strangled them, then took them down the hill and put them at the bottom of this ravine,” Jensen said. “Then, he talked about going back and picking up one skull and taking it up to the top of the hill, where he dropped it and couldn’t find it in the dark. He moved things around. ‘Just to throw you guys off,’ is what he would say.”

Since his conviction, Ridgway, now 72 and serving a life sentence at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla, has pleaded guilty to a 49th murder, admitting to killing Rebecca Marrero. She disappeared in 1982.

DNA also has helped to identify two of the four unidentified victims, including the other Jane Doe found with Bones 17. In 2012, investigators used a relative’s report and DNA to identify her as 20-year-old Sandra Denise Majors.

After the nonprofit DNA Doe Project recently used DNA genealogy to help King County investigators identify another victim as Wendy Stephens, a 14-year-old runaway from Colorado, now only two Green River victims remain unidentified: Bones 17 and Bones 20.

Forensic evidence indicates Bones 17 was probably in her mid- to late teens at the time of her murder. The Sheriff’s Office also has sought to use familial genealogy to identify Bones 17, but so far have had no luck.

“This composite is sort of our half step to get there,” said Sheriff’s Office spokesman Sgt. Tim Meyer. “Our hope is it will help bring a relative forward.”

Over the years, investigators have uploaded DNA and dental profiles into national databases and reviewed dozens of missing persons and runaway reports, to no avail. They’ve also had isotope analysis done on the remains to determine a region-of-origin of the victims, based on “where they were drinking water as they were growing up,” Taylor said.

It suggested Bones 17 may be a native of the northeastern United States or Canada, she said, though it’s possible she’s from the Northwest.

“It’s very possible she was a runaway who came to Washington and was supporting herself in the only way she knew how and sadly became a victim,” Taylor said.

“I applaud the Sheriff’s Office for not forgetting these victims,” she added. “These cases already have been adjudicated, but we’re not forgetting these victims. We’re not forgetting they still need their names.”

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