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Gary Ridgway, the Green River Killer

In the late 1990s I asked a colleague of mine, an avid fly fisherman, if he knew of any good fishing spots along the Green River, near where I’d recently moved. “No, I don’t fish the Green River,” he replied. “It’s had a certain stigma ever since the murders.”

He was referring to the Green River serial murders, so-called because the bodies of five young women were found within a one-mile stretch of the river in Kent between July and August of 1982. This was just the beginning of a long, real-life nightmare that would see at least 48 prostitutes, most ranging in age from the teens to their early twenties, strangled to death throughout the 1980s and beyond. The remains of most victims, often already skeletal and “clustered” together, were found in wooded or isolated parts of South King County. A few others were found elsewhere in the county and in Oregon. There’s a very good chance that yet more victims remain undiscovered.

They had disappeared from the “SeaTac strip” along Highway 99 south of Seattle. Prostitution boomed here in the 1970s and ‘80s when the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport began buying adjacent neighborhoods to demolish for an expansion. Whole blocks of vacant homes attracted more prostitution, drug dealing and general unruliness to an already chaotic area.

The King County Sheriff’s Office formed a Green River Task Force to investigate the case. Led by Detective Dave Reichert, various incarnations of the task force doggedly hunted the unknown killer over the years. They often faced setbacks in both the investigation and public relations. Media hype, “assistance” from attention-hungry locals, and accusations of indifference plagued them. On his side, the culprit had dumb luck and a prostitution subculture hesitant to help police. Scrutiny of two likely suspects went nowhere, wasting valuable resources. As the years wore on, some evidence was lost and many leads went cold.

The longer I lived in the area, the more I understood my friend’s apprehension about the Green River. The unassuming suburbs of South King County seemed to be cursed with a dark and morbid undercurrent. With the Green River Killer still at large, and the area’s backlog of unsolved missing person cases from the 1980s, many residents still felt a subtle, “watch your back” uneasiness.

Everything changed on November 30, 2001, when Gary Leon Ridgway—who had gradually become the prime suspect—was arrested as he left his job in Renton. He’d provided a saliva sample to police in 1987, and a new technique in DNA forensics had shown a match between his saliva and DNA evidence taken from three victims. As Ridgway awaited his day in court, police interviewed friends and relatives, piecing together his background.
He was 52 and had lived in Washington since he was 11. Prior to this, his family constantly relocated due to his father’s job as a truck driver. This may partially account for his consistently poor performance in school. His young mother, Mary, is said to have been very temperamental and domineering, prone to yelling at her husband and two sons at the slightest irritation. She tended to dress provocatively and wear lots of makeup, according to Gary’s second wife.

Gary was a bed-wetter until about age 13. Mary typically bathed and scolded him after these incidents, even as he got older. Needless to say, this strange relationship raises many implications. Around this time he began feeling an urge to kill. He mutilated small animals and, in his mid teens, stabbed a 6-year-old neighborhood boy to see, as he put it, “what it felt like to kill somebody.” The boy survived, and somehow Gary was never brought to task for the incident.

He graduated from SeaTac’s Tyee High School in 1969 at age 20. He enlisted in the Navy and got married, but his wife met another man while Gary was on deployment in the Philippines and the marriage fell apart after only a year. Afterwards, Gary bitterly complained that she “became a whore.”

A second marriage in 1973 soon produced a son, but rather than becoming a family man, Ridgway seemed to retreat into a secret life outside his home. Throughout the rest of the ‘70s he would come home progressively later, sometimes dirty or wet, offering no explanation as to why. He was sexually voracious and developed an interest in bondage. He would often get his wife into chokeholds or scare her from behind, then claim that he was “only playing around.” Eventually, all this got to be too much for her to deal with, and she divorced him in mid-1981.

Within a few months—even after joining a dating group for single parents and developing relationships with several women—he embarked on the longest and deadliest serial-killing spree in modern-day America. As he would later describe in court via a prepared statement:

In most cases, when I murdered these women, I did not know their names. Most of the time, I killed them the first time I met them and I do not have a good memory for their faces. I killed so many women I have a hard time keeping them straight. ...I killed most of them in my house near Military Road, and I killed a lot of them in my truck, not far from where I picked them up. I killed some of them outside. ...The plan was: I wanted to kill as many women I thought were prostitutes as I possibly could.

I picked prostitutes as my victims because I hate most prostitutes and I did not want to pay them for sex. I also picked prostitutes as victims because they were easy to pick up without being noticed. I knew they would not be reported missing right away, and might never be reported missing. I picked prostitutes because I thought I could kill as many of them as I wanted without getting caught.

As for disposal of the bodies:

Another part of my plan was where I put the bodies of these women. Most of the time I took the women’s jewelry and their clothes to get rid of any evidence and make them harder to identify. I placed most of the bodies in groups, which I call “clusters.” I did this because I wanted to keep track of all the women I killed. I liked to drive by the “clusters” around the county and think about the women I placed there. I usually used a landmark to remember a “cluster” and the women I placed there. Sometimes I killed and dumped a woman, intending to start a new “cluster,” and never returned because I thought I might get caught putting more women there.

The most gruesome detail of Ridgway’s deeds came to light when he admitted to engaging in necrophilia with some of the bodies. This plays into a classic trait of psychopaths: feeling that they “own” their victims and relishing their control over them.

Ridgway loved the media attention given to his sinister exploits. He was a fan of fellow South King County resident and true crime author Ann Rule. He attended a few of her book signings and secretly hoped she would someday write an account of his crimes. She eventually did, but 2004’s Green River, Running Red probably wasn’t the ego-bolstering narrative he was hoping for. The book offers extensive biographical profiles of the victims. It puts human faces on them, countering his belief that he would get away with the murders because nobody cared about prostitutes.

In 1985 Ridgway’s then-girlfriend moved in with him, and they got married three years later. In many ways, she was his perfect match: unsuspecting, loyal, and respectful of his privacy to a fault. When police interviewed her immediately following his arrest, she was genuinely shocked that anybody would suspect him of such heinous acts.

As for Ridgway, it seemed the third time was a charm for marriage. The murders gradually subsided, to the point where many came to believe the Green River Killer—whoever he was—had somehow died or moved from the area.

In 2003, I was surprised to see a search-and-rescue team combing through a ravine just outside my neighborhood. This was consistent with reports of similar activity throughout the county that year, where the skeletal remains of several more victims were found in various locations. This sparked speculation, later confirmed, that Ridgway had copped a plea deal and was coming clean. It stirred up significant controversy when officials admitted it. The deal: Ridgway would avoid execution if he revealed the locations of unrecovered victims.

Critics were quick to argue this decision would skew the application of capital punishment in Washington. If Ridgway wasn’t eligible for execution, how could any other murderer be? The counterargument was the extraordinary circumstances of the Green River case warranted this exception in order to bring closure to victims’ families. Still, as critics predicted, lawyers have since argued against the death penalty based on the precedent set by the Ridgway case.

On December 18, 2003, Gary Ridgway was sentenced to 48 consecutive life terms in prison, one for each victim on the official record. Raw emotion punctuated the hearing as Judge Richard Jones allotted three hours for the victims’ families to address Ridgway directly. Some of them called Ridgway evil, cowardly, garbage and worse. He listened intently, but only cried when a few offered him forgiveness. It was the last contact he had with the outside world before he was taken to permanent solitary confinement.

At long last, that certain stigma on the Green River and South King County began dissipating. More affluent neighborhoods are cropping up, and property values are higher after several years of relative stagnation. The SeaTac strip has undergone some beautification projects, and prostitution in the area is, if not entirely gone, at least not as evident. Detective Dave Reichert, the lead investigator on the task force, went on to become King County Sheriff, and was later elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Though permanently affected, both the victims’ families and Ridgway’s have accepted the outcome and prefer to look forward, rather than back. In short, life continues flowing, much like the Green River.

Weird Washington


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