Jessica Ridgeway: Killer’s ‘awareness space’ may lead to clues

A memorial near where Jessica\'s body was found.
Photo by Joel Dyer

This story is part of Boulder Weekly‘s Jessica Ridgeway package.

Map of Arvada and Westminster with Jessica’s home, where her body was found and where her backpack was found

Map of Jessica’s neighborhood

Killer’s ‘awareness space’ might lead to clues, by Joel Dyer and Jefferson Dodge

Sketches of a killer, by David Accomazzo and Elizabeth Miller

Local schools respond to Jessica’s death, by Elizabeth Miller

Boulder County sheriff: trick or treat with your kids this year, by Jefferson Dodge

Westminster Police: Ketner Lake attempted abductions may be linked to Jessica Ridgeway, by Boulder Weekly staff

Local law enforcement reacts to Ridgeway murder, by Jefferson Dodge

With the sad discovery of Jessica Ridgeway’s dismembered body last week, the task has now shifted from finding the 10-year-old girl to solving her murder as quickly as possible.

Speed is of the essence in this case, not only because Jessica deserves justice, but also because the evidence suggests that the perpetrator of this heinous crime will likely strike again.

Law enforcement officials from dozens of different agencies, including the FBI, have been gathering and analyzing forensic evidence from Jessica’s home, the location where her body was found and the area where her backpack and its contents were discovered. But unlike an episode of CSI, research on child abduction murder cases suggests that such forensic evidence will not be particularly useful in solving this murder case. In fact, in most cases of child abduction murder, the main role of forensic evidence such as DNA is to help secure a conviction once the murderer has been caught by other means.

When it actually comes to solving child abduction murder cases, the research suggests that the two most important elements, barring an eyewitness to some portion of the crime, is determining the relationship between the murderer and the victim and examining the murderer’s “awareness space.”

As for the relationship between the victim and the perpetrator, this can run the gambit from family members to complete strangers. Police have already announced that Jessica’s parents have been cleared of any wrongdoing. In the vast majority of cases of child abduction murder, the victim and perpetrator are at least familiar with one another, having actually met or at least noticed each other at school, church, a friend’s house, walking within the neighborhood or along some route or transportation corridor that the victim frequently traveled. The most rare type of relationship in child abduction murder cases is that of complete stranger.

Criminologists believe that murderers fall into one of two categories: the organized offender and the disorganized offender. Murderers who are complete strangers to their victims tend to fall into the organized category, as do murderers who take steps to make a victim’s body more difficult to locate or identify through tactics like mutilation or the scattering of body parts to different locations. Serial killers also typically exhibit traits that lead them to be classified as organized.

In the Jessica Ridgeway case, it is too early at this point to say what the relationship between victim and murderer will turn out to be. We do know that the gruesome condition of the child’s body when discovered exhibited the characteristics of an organized murderer, having been dismembered and left on the roadside lacking certain identifying elements, which made her identification more difficult and time-consuming for authorities. The horrific condition in which Jessica’s body was found is a primary reason why both law enforcement and criminal profilers believe that her killer is likely to strike again.

At this point, perhaps the best path to solving this particular murder rests with the ability of law enforcement’s geographic profilers to identify the killer’s awareness space, which is defined as that geographic area that individuals have become familiar with over their lifetime. It is composed of those places that have been incorporated into a person’s memory by repeated exposure.

A person’s, including a criminal’s, awareness space is centered around those locations that are most important to them, starting with their home and including other locations such as work, a friend’s house, the primary stores where they shop, favorite walking paths, etc. It is also composed of the transportation corridors used to connect those locations to one another.

Defining the perpetrator’s awareness space is critical to solving Jessica’s case, because in the vast majority of child abduction murders, as well as other crimes, researchers have found that the perpetrator lives within his awareness space, commits his crimes close to home and within that awareness space, and disposes of his victims and other evidence at the outer edges of the awareness space, generally along the space’s transportation corridors.

This is because when it comes to operating in our comfort zones, criminals, even sociopaths who murder children, have been found to be just like the rest of us. We tend to operate within the areas that we know best.

In the case of Jessica Ridgeway, we can start to see at least a portion of her killer’s awareness space depicted on the maps, based on where Jessica was abducted, where her backpack was found and where her body was ultimately dumped. The maps are located at (large map) and (inset map).

While the location where Jessica’s backpack was discovered, in a Rock Creek housing subdivision in Superior, at first seems disconnected from the locations of her abduction and where her body was found, driving among these three locations, within the murderer’s likely awareness space, actually provides a sense of connectedness among the three locations.

While there is no way to know where Jessica’s killer lives, statistically, based on research of other abduction murder cases in North America and England, it is more likely than not that the murderer lives in the same area of town as Jessica, possibly within a few blocks. This same research found that a surprising number of child abduction murderers even lived on the same street as their victims.

If, in fact, Jessica’s neighborhood is near the home of her killer, then looking for the transportation corridors out of that neighborhood that offer the quickest, least-inhabited, least-traveled and therefore safest pathways away from the neighborhood and into more secluded settings where disposing of evidence could occur would make good sense for investigators.

As can be seen on the maps, there are nearly continuous open space lands west of Jessica’s neighborhood, bordered by 82nd Avenue on the south, Marshall Road on the north, Highway 93 on the west and McCaslin Boulevard and Indiana Street on the east.

From Jessica’s neighborhood, both 82nd Avenue going west and McCaslin Boulevard going north fall along natural transportation corridors away from the neighborhood and possible home area of the killer. Both the body and the backpack were found along these transportation corridors, near the edge of these open lands. The body was located along an uninhabited section of 82nd Avenue, just about a half-mile from where that road would have connected to the more heavily traveled (and therefore less desirable) Highway 93. The body’s location was just 5.25 miles, as the crow flies, from Jessica’s point of abduction, which occurred somewhere in a 650-foot stretch of Moore Street between her home and Chelsea Park, where she was supposed to meet a friend before walking to school. The backpack was found four miles from Jessica’s point of abduction, just a block off of McCaslin Boulevard, on the east side of these same open lands. The subdivision where the backpack was found may have offered a more private setting for the killer to throw the pack from a vehicle, or it may have been placed carefully where it was found because child murderers are sick individuals and often seek to mislead or even taunt the law enforcement officers trying to track them down.

What matters in this case is that the research of other child abduction murder cases places the highest probabilities on the assumptions that both 82nd Avenue and McCaslin Boulevard are likely transportation corridors used by the killer because they are within his awareness space. Of course, these are all assumptions based on profiling, and may well turn out to be incorrect in Jessica’s murder case, but it does give insight into how investigations move forward with little to go on, and it also helps to explain which other criminal acts investigators will be looking into to find potential connections to this case.

Awareness space explains why law enforcement is looking carefully at several other criminal acts that have occurred in and around Jessica’s neighborhood.

For example, there have been at least two attempted assaults in recent years at Ketner Lake Open Space, which is located literally across the street from Jessica’s neighborhood school, Witt Elementary. In fact, third-grade students from Witt have adopted the property and help clean up trash around Ketner Lake.

Police are believed to be circulating the description of an assailant who attacked women in their 20s who were jogging at Ketner Lake in July 2010 and Memorial Day this year.

According to media reports, in the most recent incident, a 22-year-old woman reported that while jogging on the path that circles the small lake at 1:15 p.m. on May 28, she passed a man who was walking the opposite direction on the trail. When she rounded the loop again, the man had turned around and was walking the same direction that she was running. She told police that when she passed him, he grabbed her and tried to put a chemical-soaked rag over her mouth. She fought free, ran away and called 911.

The victim described the man as white, 5 feet 8 inches tall, with brown hair and an average build. He was wearing a blue cap, black T-shirt, jeans and small-rimmed sunglasses.

It is similar to the description of a man who chased and tried to grab another jogger at Ketner Lake in July 2010.

Westminster police refused to release the report on the May 28 incident to BW, saying it is still an open investigation.

What likely makes these two Ketner Lake incidents of interest to those investigating Jessica’s abduction and murder is not only the extremely close geographic proximity to the girl’s home and school (see inset map page 13), but also the brazen character of the crimes.

Ketner Lake is a small body of water in the center of a neighborhood park. The trail that circles the lake and that was the location of the jogger attacks, for the most part, is nearly in the backyards of surrounding homes and is virtually always in clear sight of dozens of homes and the surrounding streets.

On a recent excursion, BW staff hiked around Ketner Lake and found only a couple of short stretches of trail, no more than 10 to 15 feet in length, where an assault could have taken place without easily being seen from nearby homes and passing cars, and even those locations were hardly private. The idea that an attacker would attempt to abduct a woman in this open area across the street from an elementary school in sight of potentially many witnesses in broad daylight is extremely disturbing and exhibits a predatory character with almost no regard for potential consequences. It has been theorized that the two unsuccessful attempts to attack grown women in their 20s could give such a failed attacker cause to seek a younger, more defenseless target, such as a 10-year-old child.

The other two incidents being examined by law enforcement that likely fall within Jessica’s killer’s awareness space involve a man who police say tried to entice children into his blue sedan with offers of candy. One of the incidents occurred on Sept. 9, less than a month before Jessica was abducted, at Quaker Acres Park.

It should be noted that if you were to stand at the site on 82nd Avenue where Jessica’s body was found and look directly to the south, you would be looking across Pattridge Open Space to a housing subdivision on the hill above. Quaker Acres Park is just down the other side of that same hill from the homes that can be seen from where the body was found, a disturbing coincidence at best.

The other attempted child enticement that authorities believe involved the same suspect and blue sedan occurred three days later, on Sept. 12, at Fitzmorris Elementary School, which is approximately five and a half miles directly south of where Jessica was abducted. In both cases concerning the blue sedan, the perpetrator is described by Arvada police as “a white male, approximately 5’9”, thin build, sandy or brown hair and late teens to late 30s in age [see police sketch].” Again, it is worth pointing out that this description of the man in the blue sedan is nearly identical to that given in media accounts for the man who attacked the jogger at Ketner Lake in May.

At this point, the proven connections between the blue sedan incidents, Ketner Lake attacks and Jessica’s abduction and murder are solely the geographic locations of the attacks, and some similarities in the physical description of the perpetrators.

But when it comes to solving child abduction murder cases like that of Jessica Ridgeway, such geographic profiling is one of the most essential tools used to catch the killers.