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Phone call from family member leads to discovery of woman’s remains in Green River case

By Jennifer Sullivan, The Seattle Times –

SEATTLE — After Sandra Denise Major, 20, climbed into a truck in North Seattle almost 30 years ago, she was never heard from again.

Some members of her family in upstate New York assumed she had met the same fate as dozens of prostitutes who worked in the Seattle area in the early 1980s: death at the hands of Green River killer Gary L. Ridgway, according to the King County Sheriff’s Office.

But it wasn’t until April that Major’s cousin, after seeing a Lifetime channel movie about Ridgway, called the King County Sheriff’s Office. At the end of the show there was a plea for anyone with information about Ridgway’s unidentified victims to call.

It was the first time anyone from the missing woman’s family had reached out to law enforcement, said sheriff’s Detective Tom Jensen.

“He knew his cousin had come out here in ’82. He said she was involved in prostitution and she disappeared,” said Jensen, a longtime member of the Green River Task Force.

That phone call led to the announcement Monday that a woman’s remains found in 1985 in Auburn were those of Major, ending another mystery tied to one of the nation’s most prolific serial killers.

A friend of Major’s had reported her missing to Seattle police on Dec. 24, 1982, several days after she was seen getting into a truck. Police never forwarded the report to Green River detectives, and it’s unclear whether the missing-person case was investigated.

After the call from Major’s cousin, police in Rochester, N.Y., collected DNA samples from the missing woman’s two brothers and sister, authorities said. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children asked the University of Texas Center for Human Identification to speed up the testing, according to the Sheriff’s Office.

“I just always had a feeling from the beginning. She fit the physical description of the victim. The circumstances were right. I felt like this is it. This has got to be her,” Jensen said.

Since their discovery in 1985, Major’s remains have been referred to as Jane Doe B16, or bones 16. It was the 16th set of unidentified remains found, authorities said. Three sets of remains remain unidentified.

Major’s remains were found down a steep embankment on the outskirts of Mountain View Cemetery in Auburn on Dec. 30, 1985, according to court filings in Ridgway’s case.

After Ridgway’s arrest in 2001, then-King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng agreed he would not seek the death penalty against him in exchange for his cooperation in locating 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 cases.

When questioned in 2003 as part of his plea agreement, Ridgway “claimed that he could not recall any specifics” about Major or another set of remains found nearby. Ridgway told investigators that he killed one of the victims, then killed a 16-year-old girl identified as Kimi-Kai Pitsor, and then killed another woman.

The three sets of remains were found around the cemetery; Ridgway pleaded guilty to all three. Until now, Pitsor was the only one of the three who had been identified.

The third victim’s remains found near Mountain View Cemetery have not been identified. She is believed to be a Caucasian female in her teens, court filings said.

In February 2011, Ridgway pleaded guilty to a 49th homicide, admitting to a packed Kent courtroom that among his first victims was a 20-year-old prostitute named Rebecca “Becky” Marrero. She was last seen walking out of a SeaTac motel Dec. 3, 1982.

Most of Ridgway’s victims were young runaways, prostitutes or drug addicts picked up on Pacific Highway South.

Mystery still surrounds three Ridgway victims, whose remains have been found but never identified. Ridgway implied that the three were killed in spring or summer 1983.

According to the Sheriff’s Office, the remains belonged to:

—A white female, possibly as young as 12; found March 21, 1984, in the Burien area off Des Moines Memorial Drive South.

—A white female, between 14 and 17; found Jan. 2, 1986, near Mountain View Cemetery in Auburn.

—A white female, between 16 and 20; found July 2003, in a wooded area along Kent-Des Moines Road.

Also in 2003, Ridgway claimed to have killed three other women — Kelly Kay McGinness, 18; Kassee Lee, 16; and Patricia Osborn, 19 — whose remains have never been found. He wasn’t charged in their slayings because of a lack of sufficient evidence.

Ridgway is serving a sentence of life without parole at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla.

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