Forensic anthropology is in her bones: Taylor helps identify youngest Green River Killer victim

Mercer Island High School graduate receives Pathfinder Award.

As a high-schooler, Kathy Taylor vividly remembers opening the front door, scooping up her family’s copy of the Seattle Times and perusing the latest details of the Green River Killer case.

Members of the King County Sheriff’s Office were locating skeletons of victims, and Taylor was intrigued.

“I remember just reading that and thinking, ‘How are they figuring out who this is? How are they figuring out it’s a female? How are they determining how old she is? And all of that from bones when it’s skeletal,” said Taylor, who graduated from Mercer Island High School (MIHS) in 1984.

People were horrified that a serial killer was on the loose, Taylor said, and noted that she and her friends would travel in groups when they went out on weekends.

At the same time, Taylor, who was into detective stories and crime dramas, developed a burgeoning interest in one day working on a Green River Killer-type case.

Fast-forward to 1996, and Taylor — by now a forensic anthropologist and death investigator for King County — found herself involved in the actual Gary Ridgway case. After discovering that they still had unidentified skeletal remains in holding from some Green River Killer victims, Taylor got to work. She laid out nearly an entire skeleton of who was referred to as Bones 10 and found herself drawn to this victim.

“I knew she was young, she was 12-15 years old. I don’t know why, but for me that was a mission to get this young lady identified as well as it was for King County and Tom Jensen with the Sheriff’s Office,” said Taylor, noting that they were also looking into Bones 16 and Bones 17 at that time.

It was huge to be a part of this case that she had begun following about 14 years earlier, said Taylor, now 55 and a resident of the Renton Highlands. In late 2004, Taylor’s job became full time while Ridgway was leading the Sheriff’s Office to other sites with victims’ remains.

Late last year, the case became monumental when forensic genealogy and DNA experts combined their efforts to identify Bones 10 and give her a name: Wendy Stephens.

The 14-year-old runaway from Colorado in 1983 was Ridgway’s youngest victim. After the genealogy team at the DNA Doe Project identified Stephens, members of the King County Sheriff’s Office located her mother and took a cheek swab to deliver to the Bode DNA laboratory.

“We got word that it was a positive match. Literally that brought tears to my eyes and dancing around my office. Green River is what got me interested in the field. I got to work on the case and we solved the one that was really on my bucket list,” said Taylor, noting that they went public with the identification announcement in January.

Over the years, Taylor and many others involved with the case scoured websites for missing people, checked dental records, placed DNA in CODIS (Combined DNA Index System) and more before calling upon the forensic genealogist to help crack the case.

Taylor is proud that her bone-reading expertise played a part in identifying Stephens.

“The only thing you own your entire life is your name. It’s bad enough that he was taking these girls’ lives, but to steal their name, too. Everybody needs their name when they die, everybody deserves to be remembered,” she said.

On talking to Stephens’ mom, Taylor recalled, “I did get to explain to her how important Wendy was to me and has been for the last 25 years, and reassured her that her remains were always safe with us and that I considered myself her caretaker for the last 25 years. That was important to me.”

It was also a crucial identification for the King County Sheriff’s Office and its detectives — especially the now-retired Jensen — the genealogist, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, Bode, NamUs, The Doe Network and countless others.

“I applaud the Sheriff’s Office because they never forgot these victims, either. He (Ridgway) pled, these cases are technically solved. In our minds, they’re not solved because we don’t know who these young ladies are, and the Sheriff’s Office never forgot. We don’t forget our unidentifieds — ever,” Taylor said.

Ridgway, 72, is currently serving life imprisonment without parole in the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla for the 48 murders of women he pleaded guilty to in 2003. Taylor said that Bones 16 was identified in 2012, but Bones 17 and Bones 20 remain unidentified.

An Islander Pathfinder recipient

On March 31, Taylor returned to MIHS to receive a Pathfinder Award for distinguished graduates. The awards will be presented during the Mercer Island Schools Foundation Spring for Schools Showcase and Auction virtual event on April 25.

Taylor — who is the state’s only forensic anthropologist — said she’s honored to receive the award, for which she was nominated by Lauren Bouju Davies, a 2017 MIHS graduate who is now studying forensic science at Seattle University.

“For me, she was someone to look up to and say, ‘Hey, I could do that too!’ That is priceless,” Bouju Davies said in a Mercer Island School District press release. “In this tumultuous time of conflict with law enforcement, having intelligent and skilled women in forensic science and medicolegal death investigation interacting with multiple branches of law enforcement can be an enormous asset to our community.”

A day before heading back to MIHS for the award presentation, Taylor spent some time reliving her MIHS past. After being drawn to the medical field through the Green River Killer case, she took a bio-med course during her senior year.

As part of their course agenda, the students witnessed a non-forensic autopsy at a King County hospital, “which was awesome,” Taylor said.

While some of the students were backed against the wall of the autopsy room, Taylor was positioned right up front, pointing at organs and answering the doctor’s questions. Taylor had a blast, she said with a laugh.

“You don’t really realize how good your high school education is until you get to college and you’re with students from all over the country that didn’t have the advantages I had at Mercer Island High School. They were amazed that I saw an autopsy when I was a senior in high school,” she said.

Following her MIHS experience, she received her bachelor of science degree in anthropology and zoology from the University of Michigan and her master’s and doctoral degrees in anthropology from the University of Arizona. As a sophomore at Michigan, she took her first anthropology class on human evolution and studied fossils. She became absorbed in the process of getting an abundance of information about an individual’s life history by reading their bones.

Through her fascination and love of bones matched with her ability to thrive in the deductive-thinking realm, Taylor decided to pass on medical school and dig into forensic anthropology.

Taylor discovered her passion, which remains with her to this day.