by Michael Hammerschlag
When it turned out one of the snipers was from the Seattle area, I wasn’t surprised. About 50% of the world’s serial killers seem to come from a 200 mile radius around Seattle: Ted Bundy- 50-80 victims, Gary Ridgway (Green River Killer)- 55, Robert Pickton (Vancouver BC)- 54, Robert Yates-18, Willie Mak-13, Hillside Stranglers-15, Westley Dodd- 3 children, Randy Roth-3 wives, Kevin Coe-raped 42. Most cities have had a serial killer or 2- but Seattle/Washington has had a dozens. When I moved there 16 years ago, women’s bodies were being found in the bushes twice a week and it wasn’t considered news- buried on page C14. (Huge 10 part Seattle PI series on serial killers with chart over 50 years.)
That was incredible- 100 murdered women a year. I wondered how long it would be before I was affected by a serial killer- 5 years, I thought. 2 ½ years later a friend/landlord’s son’s wife’s mother was chopped to death by an axe murderer that had terrorized the genteel historic district of Queen Anne. My friend had to go over there and clean up the mess. The killer turned out to be a pudgy harmless-looking panhandler that I had probably strolled by in the University (of WA) district dozens of times. My friend’s place, where I had stayed briefly after returning from expeditions, ceased to be a refuge when his traumatized son and wife moved in. They wouldn’t open the door when the doorbell rang and wouldn’t even allow the windows to be opened in 100 degree summer heat. Madness had come calling and it could return anytime. A year later the wife committed suicide. One night in my camper, I slept by the Green River where Gary Ridgeway had tossed his hooker victims in a 20 year reign of terror. It gave me the creeps- he was only caught this year, though 2 women reported him attacking them by ’84, replete with license plate. This rash of serial killers was dealt with by scrupulous denial- the only time I saw the papers really deal with it was when the Seattle Times published an incredible map of 10 uncaught killers in Washington State, each of whom had murdered over 5 people (1990?).
One theory for the preponderance of monsters in the Northwest is the depressing rain, or drizzle, which used to be fairly constant from Nov. to April (but is less lately). But it is more likely the result of the massive homeless and alcoholic problem. Drawn by the immense beauty, mild weather, lax law enforcement, and great reputation; huge numbers of disparate characters are swept west and north; and wind up on the streets. Per capita Seattle may have the worst homeless population in the country: in 5 blocks of the University district one passes 10-20 panhandling kids; foul alcoholic derelicts sleep on the benches and urinate in public in the entertainment district of Pioneer Square. They are considered historic monuments and go unmolested- “Skid Row” came from Skid Road, where they slid the logs down the hill there into the frigid Puget Sound 110 years ago. But the casual acceptance of the homeless ignores their desperation, mental illness and occasional dangerousness. I was once assaulted twice in 2 weeks by lunatic street people.
But there is something else: despite the surface friendliness and high intelligence, there is something missing from the character of many Seattlites- they are often shockingly treacherous, and amazingly blithe about it, as if they aren’t even aware they’re doing anything wrong. It’s no accident that Bill Gates and Microsoft, having grown up there, act in the ruthless coercive way they do. This may have something to do with the fact that huge numbers of Western Washingtonians are uprooted immigrants like in LA: in their trek westward they abandoned many of their moral principles. Coupled with the high frequency of mental imbalance, this cold selfishness can have horrifying results- as the disproportionate number of maniacs proves. Seattle maybe the most beautiful major city in the world, sited on a hilly isthmus between salt and fresh water; surrounded by massive mountains (on 3 sides), bays, lakes, islands; but it’s also a breeding ground for psychopaths.
John Williams Muhammad, who grew up and was stationed in Tacoma (40 mi south of Seattle), showed many of the signs: growing mental imbalance, sometimes great charm and appeal, growing cumulative rage, periods of homelessness, Svengali-like manipulative ability, abusive anger at women; he was a bomb waiting to go off. What did the people he proudly showed his sniper rifle to think he was going to do with it in his random travels? Shoot ducks at county fairs? Had he not gone critical so long in DC, he could have killed people around the country for years with impunity, especially if he had gotten a silencer for the rifle. For the shell-shocked citizens of Va. and Md. trying to make some sense out of the random terror and death; perhaps this provides some answers.
Michael Hammerschlag has written commentaries + articles for Seattle Times, Providence Journal, Honolulu Advertiser, Columbia Journalism Review, Media Channel, & Moscow News, Tribune, and Guardian; was a TV reporter and produced documentaries. His website is http://mikehammer.tripod.com e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org