Sister of Green River Killer victim pens memoir

Twenty-five years ago, Gary Ridgway killed Arleen Williams’ sister, irrevocably changing her family. In her first book, Williams tells the tale of growing up on a remote parcel of land on Tiger Mountain in the Issaquah Valley. Her sister, Maureen Sue Feeney, was killed at the age of 19, just a month after moving out of the family home and into a Seattle apartment.

  • BY Wire Service
  • Monday, October 6, 2008 8:04pm
  • News
Author Arleen Williams speaks last week at the Issaquah Library about her book.

Author Arleen Williams speaks last week at the Issaquah Library about her book.

Twenty-five years ago, Gary Ridgway killed Arleen Williams’ sister, irrevocably changing her family.

In her first book, Williams tells the tale of growing up on a remote parcel of land on Tiger Mountain in the Issaquah Valley.

Her sister, Maureen Sue Feeney, was killed at the age of 19, just a month after moving out of the family home and into a Seattle apartment.

“Like all victims of violent crime, Maureen was more than just a number,” Williams said.

“This is not another book about Gary L. Ridgway. There are plenty of those out there,” she said of her book, “The Thirty-Ninth Victim: A Memoir.”

“I wrote it not only to remember my sister, but also to understand the circumstances that led to her death.”

King County Court documents listed Feeney as Ridgway’s 39th victim when he was sentenced in December 2003 to life in prison for killing 48 women.

“My truest memories of Maureen are of this beautiful little girl,” Williams said, remembering her sister’s blond curls and love for nature and animals. Nicknamed “Maurie,” Maureen later became interested in working with young children, first in a daycare and later hoping for a career in the early childhood development.

“The 39th Victim” was published earlier this year by Blue Feather Books, and describes Williams’ life as the middle child in a family of nine.

“I am no longer a middle child,” she said in an interview. “When there is a death, of course it changes that whole structure.”

The writing started as a cathartic process — something Williams said she needed to do for herself and her own teenage daughter as much as for the rest of her family and the community — and, of course, for Maureen.

“ … I tell Maureen’s story, because she can no longer tell it,” Williams writes in the book.

Now a resident of West Seattle, she is an English professor at South Seattle Community College and has taught the English language for more than 30 years.

She believes in communication — so strongly, in fact, that she believes lack of communication caused the unraveling of her large family and also that Ridgway could have been arrested decades sooner if detectives and officers had communicated more effectively.

The book is an attempt to point out the vital need to clearly talk with others in our families, our community and our society at large.

A silent family

Williams describes her family, her upbringing and her relationships in a level of detail that is both excruciating and addictive for the reader.

“Making the decision to publish was extremely difficult,” Williams said. “In publishing this book, I have broken every family rule it was possible to break.”

To be as conscientious of her family’s feelings as possible, she tried to limit the material she included in the book to only those things that had a direct impact on her and her life. And, she changed the names of some people — no easy feat given that her parents named each of their six daughters with a name that ended in “een.”

The Feeney family went through many difficult times, long before Maureen went missing. While Williams said she believes that her parents were doing the best they could to parent nine children in the turbulent times of the 1960s, it simply became more than they could handle. When their oldest daughter was 17 and they felt she was no longer within their control, the parents called the police and had her taken away. Two other older siblings left home or were disowned, and Williams and the younger kids weren’t allowed to ask questions, talk about any of what had happened or even mention the missing siblings’ names.

“ … I don’t think we ever learned to communicate among ourselves because we never learned to communicate with our parents,” Williams writes in the book. “We imitated the silence that they modeled.”

That fact continued later on, when no one in Williams’ family told her that Maureen was missing until a month had gone by. Living in Mexico at the time, Williams finally received a letter from their mother telling her of Maureen’s disappearance.

“I needed to break the cycle of silence,” Williams said.

Intertwined with Green River case

The Feeney family moved from Seattle to 10 acres in Issaquah in 1959. The land where the family plowed a road through, laid water lines and built a house sat less than 10 miles from where Ridgway left the body of Maureen Feeney near the intersection of Interstate 90 and Highway 18. The children’s mother worked as a nurse at Echo Glen, just a short distance from the spot where Maureen’s remains were found 31 months after she went missing.

Life in Issaquah certainly wasn’t all bad. In fact, some of Williams’ childhood memories were quite rosy — gathering blackberries with her brothers and sisters, playing in the woods and riding horses along the Bonneville Power Administration access line among hosts of daisies. They even made chores into games.

“For a while, we really were that big, happy family building a dream.”

In the book, Williams touches on other coincidences and oddities, such as the fact that nearly her entire family was gathered together — something that happened only a handful of times after the elder children began leaving home — to celebrate their father’s 80th birthday on the day that Ridgway was arrested. They had no warning of the arrest, and woke up to see the headlines the next day.

Their father died about two months later.

“I was a basketcase. My husband said, ‘You’ve been talking about writing forever. Maybe now is the time to do it,’” Williams said. “I had put it off for so many years.”

So, she began researching and found a course through the University of Washington extension called “Turning Journals Into Memoirs.”

Through that class, and with the help of writing coaches and a writing group at Louisa’s Cafe, the winding story of Williams’ family and Maureen Feeney’s early death came together about five years later into a book that invites compulsive reading.

Issaquah resident Suzanne Suther, whose family were the only “real” neighbors the Feeney family had, lost touch with them after Maureen’s funeral. She recently spotted a listing about Williams giving an author’s reading at the Issaquah library, and reunited with Williams last week.

The Feeney kids played with and babysat for Suther’s four children, the youngest of whom was the same age as Maureen.

“I think it’s a very courageous journey you’ve been on,” Suther told Williams after the reading at the library.

First — and last — visit as friends

The last time Williams saw her sister alive was when Maureen visited her in Mexico City, where she was working and living in the early ‘80s.

Maureen stayed with Williams and her husband for a three-week visit. The two siblings, six years apart in age, began to get to know one another as adults for the first time. Maureen had been only 11 when Williams moved away from home.

They went sightseeing in Mexico, awkward together at first but beginning to glimpse a true relationship between one another.

While she does have happy memories of spending time together and watching Maureen go parasailing and swimming, Williams said she regrets not remembering their last conversations and moments together more clearly.

“I didn’t know that she’d be murdered 13 months later, or that I’d never see her again,” Williams wrote. “So I wasn’t affixing her face, her voice, her smell in my permanent memory. I wasn’t present in the moment, and the moment was lost.”

She does, however, have a snapshot from the day they dropped Maureen off at the airport for her return flight to Seattle. The photo shows Williams and Maureen, grins on their faces and arms thrown around one another.

“I wish I had never let go.”

To read more about the Feeney family and the years before and after Maureen Feeney’s death, visit Williams’ Web site at www.arleenwilliams.com or look for the book at www.bluefeatherbooks.com.




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