Story of the Green River Collection
its serene-sounding title, the Green River Collection actually
claims an indirect connection to one of the most horrific series
of murders on record in American history.
Born in October of 1950, William J. Stevens II was the adopted
son of a prominent Spokane drug store owner. William, or Billy
as he was known, began assembling a collection of mainly Silver
Age Marvels and DCs in the early 1960s. Stevens' father operated
the 1,200-square-foot University United Pharmacy on a secondary
road by Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington, and Billy and
his younger brother Robert accumulated comics and boxes of trading
cards from the store. William meticulously cataloged and
stored this quickly-growing collection. Whether the brothers were
given permission to remove these items from the store or simpy
stole them is not known.
The books first began to reach the public in the mid 1980s when
Stevens, now in his thirties, began selling some of the books to
Craig Barnett, a local dealer who ran a store in Spokane called
The Comic Book Shop. Stevens would arrive at the store with stacks
of comics packed in brown paper grocery sacks whenever he needed
money. According to Barnett, Stevens was looking to raise money
for a microwave receiving station to track police calls as part
of his apparent fixation with law enforcement. Barnett has described
Stevens as very personable, and “a really nice guy, but
an incredible con man.” These transactions went on for about
a year and then stopped. Later, Barnett learned from Robert
Stevens that William had died as a result of cancer. What Barnett
did not know at the time of his purchases, was that William was
not only a con man, but a convicted felon.
Convicted of stealing police equipment from a Seattle warehouse
in 1979, Stevens served a two-year stint in prison. But in January
of 1981, he simply walked out of a King County jail work-release
program and dropped completely out of sight. Stevens traveled
extensively under several aliases and resided in the Portland,
Oregon area until May of 1985, when he returned to Spokane and
enrolled at Gonzaga.
Police discovered and arrested Stevens at his parents’ home
in January of 1989 after several phone tips resulting from the
television program “Manhunt Live: A Chance to End a Nightmare!”
At the time, Stevens was in his last year at Gonzaga University
School of Law and serving as the president of the Student Bar
Association. He promptly issued a statement denying any wrongdoing.
“I am not the Green River killer. They have made me out
to be a very bad person, and I am not,” he declared.
After a search of his parents’ home, where Stevens was then
living, police found 29 handguns, and a box full of phony driver’s
licenses and credit cards acquired under assumed names. Credit-card
fraud and robbery were apparently a means by which Stevens had
survived through the years. Also discovered were close to 150
police badges, 11 sets of car keys, a fake-identification machine
and a collection of 1,000 pornographic videotapes and 50 sexually
explicit Polaroids of naked women.
Stevens seemed a strong suspect in the series of murders in the
Seattle-Tacoma area that began in the early 1980s. In all, the
Green River Killer had tallied 48 victims between 1982 and 1984.
The killer systematically left his victims, all women, near the
banks of the Green River outside of Seattle. Many were prostitutes,
but several runaways and hitchhikers became the unfortunate victims
of the most prolific killer in American criminal history. After
his arrest, Stevens was exhaustively interviewed about the Green
River murders, but a series of alibis placed him on trips with
his parents out of the Seattle area at the time of some of the
murders. Police eventually released Stevens and took him off the
list of suspects. Stevens died in a Spokane hospital of pancreatic cancer on September 30, 1991.
In 2003, Gary Ridgway, another longtime suspect, confessed to
all of the murders.
Craig Barnett has not kept a detailed list of the nearly eight
hundred books he purchased from William J. Stevens, but after
Stevens’ death in 1991, Barnett announced the as-yet-unnamed
collection in one of his market reports in the Overstreet Monthly
Price Guide Update.
In an April 2004 e-mail to a collector, Craig Barnett recalled
some of his 1990-1991 dealings with William Stevens:
"Bill kept me on the hook as far as what other books he had and
mentioned over and over that he had between five and fifteen Amazing
Spider-Man #1’s and would bring them in as soon as he found
them. Considering some of the quantities of some of the
books he did bring in I really had no reason to doubt him.
I don’t remember having any quantity of the major keys so
it's unlikely that he sold me more than one or two of any keys
that he did have, but I really don’t know which ones they
might have been and in the grades they were in, they would have
sold rather quickly. He did bring in quite a few annuals
and specials. I remember getting several copies each of the FF
and Spider-man annuals and specials early on as Bill thought they
would be worth more because they were larger but I have no idea
as to what quantities of each there were; most of the books were
grouped together in threes and fours with an occasional grouping
of five. I don’t remember getting more than five of anything."
What emerged over the course of time was that in addition to the
books he sold to Barnett, William J. Stevens had bartered the
sale of nearly 1,650 of his books to attorney Craig C. Beles in
order to pay off some of the legal bills that had accumulated
as a result of his run-ins with law enforcement. After reading
through the Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide, Beles sent out
a letter to many of the dealers who advertised in the book, notifying
them that the collection was for sale.
[In November of 2007 I received the following note from Craig Beles - we appreciate the correction:
"I thought I would write you in order to correct a small misstatement on your Green River Pedigree Database site. I did not take Bill Stevens' comic books in payment for my representation of him during the Green River investigation. In fact, I was paid virtually nothing for the time I spent defending this former law student of mine. I was named Mr. Stevens' personal representative in his will. His rather extensive comic book collection had to be sold to pay his debts. It was in this capacity that I tried my hand at grading his collection and eventually selling it.]
John M. Hauser, a well-known dealer from Madison, Wisconsin was
alerted to the solicitation by a fellow Wisconsin dealer, Jef
Hinds. Hauser flew to Seattle and initially viewed about one hundred
of the comics. “After seeing these, I knew I wanted the
rest,” said Hauser. “I put in a competitive bid and
won out against the crowd of dealers.”
Hauser purchased the collection in partnership with James Haack,
another dealer. Each put up half of the $25,000 winning bid. The
collection they acquired contained a wide selection of DCs and
Marvels. “There were multiples of almost every annual I
received. I think [the Stevens brothers] stole more annuals, as
the cover price was higher and they thought they would be worth
more. Most of the annuals have graded at 9.4 or 9.6. Sadly, all
of the Flash’s I bought were water damaged,” said
Hauser. The Amazing Spider-Man #1 that Hauser and Haack purchased
was later graded a 7.0 by CGC.
At the time of the purchase, Hauser was unaware of Barnett’s
connection to part of the collection. Later, Hauser read in one
of Barnett’s market reports in the Overstreet Monthly Price
Guide Update that Barnett had sold multiple copies of Fantastic
Four Annual #1 and Spider-Man Annual #1. Hauser then contacted
Barnett, but by then most of the DCs and Marvels had been sold.
Barnett still retained a number of Gold Keys and books by other
Hauser and Haack first offered their books for sale to the public
in 1993 when the two dealers ran an ad in the March 26, 1993,
issue of Comics Buyer’s Guide. The books listed for sale
included nearly complete runs of Silver Age X-Men, Amazing Spider-Man,
Avengers, Daredevil, Journey Into Mystery (from Issue #91 up),
Sgt. Fury, and Fantastic Four (from Issue #8 up). The collection
also included a large assortment of DCs and some Gold Keys, as
well. Once Hauser and Haack had recouped their initial investment,
they split up the remainder of the books.
According to Barnett, John Hauser coined the name for the Green
River Collection. Once the name became better known, Barnett began
to put a certificate explaining the collection behind each backing
board, along with the shop stamp.
The collection was officially recognized as the Green River Collection
by Comics Guaranty Corporation in 2001. Mark Haspel, senior grader
and pedigree expert at CGC says that the collection was already
well-known when John Hauser began submitting books to CGC for
grading. The existence of the original sales lists made it that
much easier to document and verify the books in the collection.
In 2003, Craig Beles attempted to sell a raw copy of Daredevil
#11 on eBay. The book did not meet reserve and an interested collector
took the initiative and contacted Beles directly to negotiate
a price for the book. When Beles told the collector that he had
other books as well, a deal was struck for an additional 75 books.
The books that make up the Green River Collection number approximately
2,400, and are among the easiest to identify of all the
major pedigrees. The vast majority of these books carry a small
red arrival date stamped on the front cover. The books are characterized
by incredibly white pages, terrific cover gloss, great color strike,
tight cover wrap and an overall unread, right-off-the-newsstand
freshness. Edges and corners are razor sharp. When examined first
hand, it is hard to believe that these books are forty years old.
The collection contains single copies of many of the books, but
also cases of multiple copies, as mentioned; for example, the
original sales manifests compiled by Beles listed six copies of
Avengers #22, and nine copies each of Strange Tales #138 and Fantastic
Four Annual #3.
The majority of the collection has yet to be graded by CGC, but
those books that have been graded received outstanding marks,
ranging generally from 8.5 to 9.6. Books graded at 9.6 include
Amazing Spider-Man #29, Daredevil #11, and Tales of Suspense #83.
©2006 Brad Hamann