By the time a pimp put Noel Gomez to work on the streets of Seattle in the early 1990s, the Green River killer had slowed his killing spree of girls and women, many of whom were also caught up in the dark underworld of prostitution.
“But he was still out there, and whenever I worked Pacific Highway or Aurora Avenue, I was very aware that the next car I got into could be the Green River killer’s,” said Gomez, 39, who has been out of the life for seven years. “I was obsessed with him getting caught.”
She recalls watching “Judge Judy” on TV in her Queen Anne apartment in November 2001 when the program was interrupted by a breaking-news alert: Gary L. Ridgway, a then-52-year-old truck painter from Auburn, had been arrested. Gomez cried at the news.
Now, nearly a dozen years later, long after Ridgway pleaded guilty to 49 murders, Gomez and Peter Qualliotine are working to raise money and build public support for a permanent memorial to the girls and women Ridgway strangled and discarded.
The two are co-founders of a new Seattle nonprofit, The Organization for Prostitution Survivors (OPS). They are hosting community engagements at libraries and community centers this year to help educate the public about the dynamics of prostitution and the extreme sexual violence that prostituted girls and women endure.
In addition to the community engagements, Gomez and Qualliotine are holding weekly art workshops for prostitution survivors and plan to display their works in quarterly art exhibits. The women’s artwork, they said, will influence and inform the design of the memorial.
OPS has so far raised about $10,000 of its $225,000 goal. The money will be used to launch the fledgling organization, pay for supplies and salaries (Gomez and Qualliotine have been working for free), provide housing, job skills and other services to survivors of prostitution, and go toward funding the design and siting of the memorial.
“In my world, in the world I roam in … it has not gone away,” Gomez said of the trauma caused by the Green River killings. “I think there’s a lot of people who don’t think about it or even know about it. But what people don’t understand is that in certain circles, it’s still a huge freaking wound.”
Gomez, a chemical-dependency professional who works with juveniles in the King County Juvenile Detention Center, previously worked for The Bridge Program, a Seattle residential-recovery center for prostituted youth.
Qualliotine, who also worked for The Bridge, designed one of the country’s first “john schools” in Portland for men who have been arrested for patronizing prostitutes. The schools examine men’s accountability in creating demand for prostitution.
U.S. Congressman and former King County Sheriff Dave Reichert has pledged to help Gomez and Qualliotine. As a 31-year-old detective in 1982, Reichert began investigating the Green River cases.
Reichert said he thought about a memorial for the victims years ago, but worried the grief was still too raw for families who had to relive horrible memories every time a new victim was found.
There has been no closure for the families whose daughters’ lives were violently cut short, he said. And for law-enforcement officers, there are aspects of the killings that they’ll never forget.