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When Serial Killers Strike: The Green River Killer

NEED TO KNOW
  • Gary Ridgway has pleaded guilty to killing 49 women in the Seattle area between 1982 and 1998
  • Prosecutors called him 'the nation’s most prolific serial killer'
  • Ridgway picked up prostitutes, strangled them after sex, then hid their bodies

The victims of the Green River Killer

Gary Ridgway pled guilty to killing 49 women, including Wendy Coffield, and claimed he killed many more.

“I killed so many women I have a hard time keeping them straight.”

In the spring of 1984, Gary Ridgway took his son on a weekend camping trip to Oregon.

Then 35 and divorced from his second wife, Ridgway lived in a small house on 32nd Place South in SeaTac, Washington. He had worked as a painter at Kenworth Motor Truck Company in Renton since he was honorably discharged from the Navy in 1971.

Ridgway loaded up the trunk of a Plymouth Satellite with his son’s clothes, the boy’s bicycle, and the partial remains of Denise Bush, Shirley Sherill and, according to him, a third woman.

He drove south toward the town of Tigard, Oregon, not far from Portland. He paid for all of their food and gas with cash and left no record that the trip had occurred.

Court records state Bush and Sherill were last seen alive in King County, Washington in October 1982. Their remains were found off a rural road in Tigard in June 1985.

The third body Ridgway claimed to have dumped there was never found.

At the time, there was speculation that the Green River Killer—a serial killer responsible for the deaths of dozens of prostitutes in the SeaTac area—had moved south.

Which was exactly what Ridgway wanted authorities to believe.

***

“I don’t know if it was an illness, or just, uh, I wanted to kill.”

“For two decades, citizens of King County were terrorized by the nation’s most prolific serial killer,” prosecutors wrote in a summary of the evidence against Ridgway filed in 2003. “The nightmare is over. Gary Ridgway will never kill again.”

The document was prepared in conjunction with Ridgway’s guilty plea in King County Superior Court to the murders of 48 women.

He was called the Green River Killer because the remains of five of his earliest victims were found in and around the Green River in the summer of 1982.

Between 1982 and 1984, the killer claimed many more victims—mostly teenage girls with a history of prostitution. Some of their bodies were found discarded in wooded or remote areas. Others were not found at all.

In a statement acknowledging his crimes, Ridgway explained how he selected his victims and how he decided where to dump their bodies.

“The plan was: I wanted to kill as many women I thought were prostitutes as I possibly could,” Ridgway said.

He said that he hated prostitutes and did not want to pay them for sex. He chose them as victims because their disappearances might not be noticed at first, if at all, and he assumed police would not look as hard for them as for other women.

“I picked prostitutes because I thought I could kill as many of them as I wanted without getting caught,” Ridgway said.

Ridgway said he discarded the bodies of his victims in “clusters” because he wanted to keep track of where they all were. He sometimes liked to drive by the clusters thinking about what he had done.

The terms of Ridgway’s plea deal were very specific. He agreed to provide “complete, truthful and candid information” about his crimes, answer all questions asked by detectives and disclose the locations of all undiscovered remains.

In return, prosecutors did not seek the death penalty. Ridgway was also required to plead guilty in any future cases in King County where his confessions could be corroborated by additional evidence.

Gary Ridgway would spend the rest of his life in prison, and his victims’ families would finally know the truth about what happened to them. The ones he could remember, at least.

***

“Once I’ve killed ‘em, I didn’t keep it in memory. I just knew where…I dumped ‘em.”

The actual number of victims killed by Gary Ridgway may never be known. In interviews with investigators, he allegedly stated that he may have killed as many as 71 women. Other times, he estimated it was closer to 60.

Over the course of five months, Ridgway was interviewed extensively by detectives. He led them to many areas where he had left his victims and described how he killed them.

While Ridgway had an excellent memory for the locations and “clusters” where he hid his victims’ bodies, detectives found that he rarely remembered details like their names or specific physical characteristics.

“My mind doesn’t want to give it up,” he said at one point.

Early in the interview process, according to court documents, Ridgway acknowledged he was a pathological liar and told detectives it would be difficult for him to tell the truth after deceiving people for decades.

Prior to Ridgway’s 2001 arrest, investigators had compiled a list of 49 likely victims whose disappearances or murders matched the pattern of the Green River Killer. In his confessions, Ridgway revealed several additional women he killed, but there were some victims on the original list who he could not be linked to.

He adamantly refused to take credit for crimes he did not commit, stating he took pride in killing and he did not want to take that away from someone else.

“You can put her on the list of mine,” he said of one woman, “but I’m not going to, I’m not going to say I killed her because I didn’t kill her.”

The 48 murders Ridgway was charged with in 2003 included only the cases where prosecutors felt they had enough evidence beyond Ridgway’s word to prove he was responsible.

He pled guilty in February 2011 to a 49th murder after the remains of Becky Marrero—a young mother who disappeared in December 1982—were discovered in a ravine near the spot where one of Ridgway’s other victims had been found.

Marrero was on the task force’s original list of suspected Green River victims, but Ridgway had been unable to provide enough specific details about her killing to support charging him with her murder in 2003.

***

“You can contact the Green River Task Force…They know me real well.”

Gary Ridgway was arrested for soliciting an undercover officer posing as a prostitute on November 16, 2001. According to court documents, when he was taken to King County Jail for booking, he asked investigators to contact the Green River Task Force instead of his wife.

Ridgway had first appeared on the task force’s radar in May 1983, when he was identified as a possible suspect in the murder of 18-year-old Marie Malvar.

On April 30, 1983, Malvar went to Pacific Highway South (PHS)—the area where Ridgway picked up many of his victims—to work as a prostitute. Her boyfriend saw her get into a dark-colored pickup truck.

He tried to follow the vehicle, but he lost track of it at the intersection of PHS and South 216th. A few weeks earlier, the boyfriend of another Green River victim, Gail Mathews, had last seen her at the same intersection, less than a mile from Ridgway’s house.

While searching nearby neighborhoods a few days later, Malvar’s boyfriend saw what he thought was the same truck—Ridgway’s maroon 1975 Dodge pickup—parked outside Ridgway’s house.

Two detectives went to Ridgway’s house on May 4 and saw the vehicle there. They questioned Ridgway, who admitted to soliciting prostitutes in the past but denied picking up Marie.

While detectives were at his house, Ridgway stood against a fence to hide scratches on his inner left arm. He later tried to cover them up by burning his arm with battery acid.

In 2003, Ridgway would admit that the scratches were caused by Marie Malvar as she fought back while he was killing her, according to court documents.

About a month after her disappearance, Malvar’s driver’s license was found at the SeaTac Airport. There were several reported sightings of her in the following years in California and Hawaii.

20 years later, Ridgway acknowledged that he put her license there to make it look like she flew out of town. He also scattered leaflets from airport hotels in the area where he had left her body.

Ridgway was interviewed by task force detectives multiple times in the 1980s and always seemed cooperative. At one point, he even passed a polygraph test in which he denied killing any of the women.

In February 1985, Ridgway was questioned by a detective in connection with an assault on a female hitchhiker picked up on PHS by a man with a Kenworth Truck Company ID badge. She identified him as Ridgway in a photo lineup.

Ridgway admitted he picked her up and paid her for a sex act, but he claimed he only tried to choke her as a reflexive reaction to her biting his genitals. The victim decided not to pursue the case and Ridgway was not charged.

When asked about that incident again in 2003, Ridgway acknowledged that he was trying to kill the woman but he wasn’t able to maintain a chokehold on her long enough.

In 1987, detectives served a search warrant on Ridgway’s residence, work locker and vehicles. They seized hundreds of items, but none linked him to any victim.

They also collected a saliva sample from Ridgway.

The next year, detectives sent evidence associated with several of the victims to a private lab, but the lab could not produce DNA profiles using the technology available at the time.

In 2001, Detective Tom Jensen—at that point the only one still handling the case—sent evidence to a state crime lab. A DNA profile consistent with Ridgway’s was found on swabs from three Green River victims: Marcia Chapman, Opal Mills and Carol Christensen.

On November 30, 2001, Ridgway was arrested for murder. He was formally charged with killing those three women and a fourth, Cynthia Hinds, whose remains were found a few feet from two of them.

Prosecutors intended to seek the death penalty, and they continued to gather evidence to charge Ridgway with more of the murders. In early 2003, as a deadline set by the court for filing additional charges approached, a forensic lab identified traces of highly specialized paint on the clothing of victims Wendy Coffield and Debra Estes.

The paint was used at the Kenworth truck plant where Ridgway had worked since he was 22 years old.

On March 27, 2003, three more murder charges were filed for the deaths of Coffield, Estes and Debra Bonner.

With Ridgway’s arraignment on the amended murder charges looming, his attorneys contacted prosecutors with an offer: if they took the death penalty off the table, Ridgway would plead guilty to those seven murders and 40 to 47 more, and he would confess to all of his crimes.

On June 13, 2003, prosecutors made the deal with Ridgway.

***

“They look in the bedrooms, nobody’s in there, nothin’s, you know, there’s my son’s room. Hey, this guy has a son, he’s not gonna hurt anybody.”

Ridgway liked to kill in his own home.

As he cataloged each of the murders he committed for detectives, his patterns became clear.

He would find a prostitute, usually on PHS, and watch her from a distance to ensure she was not an undercover cop. Then he would drive by, making eye contact and sometimes flashing money. Then he pulled over and waited for her to come to him.

Once a woman got in his truck, he would usually take her to his house or to a wooded area and have sex with her.

As soon as the act was done, he grabbed his victims from behind and strangled them. At first, he usually used his own hands. After he got scratched a few times too many, he started using various ligatures.

He lied to the women, told them if they stopped struggling, he would let them go.

In his confessions, he was emphatic that he never raped or tortured his victims. He only killed them.

“My method’s working pretty good,” he told detectives. “Choking is what I did, and I was pretty good at it.”

He felt that choking was a “more personal and more rewarding” way to kill.

Ridgway had many ways of getting his victims to let their guard down, and some involved his young son, according to court documents.

When he first approached a prostitute, he might show her his ID to reduce her suspicion, and when he pulled out his wallet, she would also see a photo of his son.

Once he did get her to his house, he would show her his son’s bedroom to prove he was not dangerous. Then he took her to his own bedroom, where he killed many of his victims.

Ridgway sometimes took his victims’ money, but he always took their jewelry. He told detectives that he liked to leave the jewelry in the ladies’ restrooms at the truck plant because he got a thrill from thinking that women at work would take it and wear it.

If there were witnesses when he picked up a prostitute or if he chose not to kill one for other reasons, he would still have sex with her and pay her, thinking he could use them as “references” to prove he did not kill prostitutes if he was arrested.

Local prostitutes were understandably leery of strange men in pickup trucks once the bodies started turning up. Many even asked Ridgway point blank if he was the Green River Killer.

He would always deny it, feigning shock that they would think someone as small and weak as him could be the infamous murderer.

“That was their downfall…” he said to detectives. “My appearance was different from what I really was.”

***

“Not trying to go off the subject, but I thought I was doing you guys a favor, killing, killing prostitutes. Here you can’t control them, but I can.”

Ridgway considered disposing of his victims’ bodies to be “a big burden” because it “took the time away from killin’,” according to court documents. He also complained about wasting gas driving to the locations where he hid bodies.

If getting rid of the bodies was easier, he told detectives, he would have been able to kill a lot more women.

As it was, he often got rid of the bodies within a half hour after killing a victim. He left most of them naked, hoping to get rid of physical evidence that may have been on their clothes. He also clipped their fingernails.

He did not usually bury the women, instead just covering them with brush, branches or debris he found nearby.

“She’s garbage,” he told detectives, “so I put, uh, stuff over her that was garbage.”

He sometimes did bury a victim if he wanted to continue using the dump site and he was afraid the smell of decomposition could lead to the discovery of the bodies.

At one point, he thought he may have left tire tracks at one of his crime scenes, so he bought new tires for his truck and threw the old ones in a river.

He sometimes placed misleading evidence near a body to suggest the killer was a traveling salesman.

“For a man who barely graduated from high school,” prosecutors wrote in court documents, “Ridgway had what appeared to be an innate understanding of forensic evidence.”

In 1984, Ridgway wrote a letter to a local newspaper titled “What you need to know about the Green River man.” It contained some accurate details about the killings and some false information to support the idea that the killer was a salesman or trucker.

The letter mentioned clipping the victims’ fingernails, a detail investigators did not even know was true until Ridgway told them in 2003.

An FBI expert determined that the letter was not written by the Green River Killer.

Ridgway was very careful when questioned by detectives in the early years of the investigation. He agreed to talk to them without an attorney and he freely admitted to soliciting prostitutes, giving the impression he had nothing to hide and explaining away some of the evidence they had against him.

Detectives said he was willing to admit everything he thought the task force already knew and just a bit more.

Even after he was caught, Ridgway seemed proud to have outwitted investigators for so long. The way he saw it, new technology had caught him, not detectives.

While he was open about many things, court records state Ridgway was reluctant to admit that he had post-mortem sex with some of his victims’ bodies. Eventually, however, he acknowledged that he sometimes did.

In one instance, he even drove back to one of the bodies with his son sleeping in his truck, and he had intercourse with the body 30 feet away. He assured detectives that the boy was a “heavy sleeper.”

“It was free,” Ridgway explained to detectives about why he engaged in post-mortem sex. “I didn’t have to pay for it. I killed her.”

***

“If I would have killed her, then it’s possible that it might have changed my life. I’d only have one instead of 50-plus.”

Gary Ridgway told detectives his second wife bore some responsibility for his crimes because if he had murdered her, he would not have needed to kill so many other women. He said he considered killing her because divorce was so expensive and he had already been through it once, but he knew he would be an obvious suspect.

They divorced in 1981, not long before the Green River murders began.

Court documents provide troubling details about Ridgway’s childhood. Ridgway told authorities he committed arson, paid another child to let him fondle her genitals and suffocated a cat.

He wet the bed until he was 13. He said he was sexually attracted to his mother and sometimes fantasized about stabbing her, mutilating her and setting their house on fire.

Ridgway also admitted that he stalked classmates in elementary school and followed girls home when he was in junior high school. He claimed that at some point in the late 1960s, he tried to force sex on a young woman.

A forensic psychologist once asked Ridgway if there was anything present in other people that he was lacking.

“Caring,” he responded.

At times in interviews recounted in court documents, Ridgway would express something resembling remorse for the murders, but it usually turned out to be something different entirely. He once started crying about the women he had killed, but, when asked why, he said he was upset that he left so much evidence behind.

Ridgway also told a psychologist about one time that he strangled a teenage girl face-to-face instead of from behind. He said she begged him to stop, looking right at him, but he could not because she would turn him in and he wouldn’t be able to kill anymore.

He did feel some remorse about a time when he killed one of his victims while his son was nearby in his truck.

“Killing her with Matthew by was not the right thing to do…Because Matthew mighta saw something,” Ridgway said.

Asked whether he would have killed his son to protect his secret if the boy had witnessed the crime, Ridgway hedged.

“No, probably not,” he said. “I don’t know.”

On a scale of 1 to 5, 5 being the most evil, Gary Ridgway estimated he was a 3.

***

“It was, like I said, like I was back starting all over again and I wasn’t a well-greased machine. I was…I was rusty.”

He called it “semi-retirement.”

Initially, Ridgway claimed he committed his last murders in 1985, but when confronted with contradictory evidence he admitted he continued killing after that.

At one of the sites he marked on a map, investigators found the remains of Marta Reeves, who disappeared in 1990. According to court records, Ridgway then acknowledged he “went off the wagon and killed.”

He also admitted to killing a woman in 1998, and he told a psychologist he continued to have the urge to kill but was able to resist for months at a time.

He described the sight of prostitutes as being “like candy in a dish” for him. When he killed in later years, however, he was “rusty,” he said.

The most recent murder Ridgway pleaded guilty to committing was the killing of Patricia Yellowrobe, whose body was found in a gravel parking lot outside a tow yard in August 1998. She had a history of prostitution and alcohol abuse, according to court records.

A medical examiner determined at the time that Yellowrobe’s cause of death was acute opiate and ethanol intoxication and it was probably an accident. Because of the apparent overdose and the fact that it was so much later than the other presumed victims, she was not believed to be a Green River victim until Ridgway confessed in 2003.

Prosecutors said Ridgway did not admit to Yellowrobe’s murder at first, but as interviews progressed he started providing details that only her killer would know. Eventually, he told a psychologist he killed Yellowrobe because he was enraged over her disappointing sexual performance.

Ridgway claimed at one point that his last kill was relatively close to his 2001 arrest but he did not remember anything about it. According to investigators, he expressed confusion about why he was withholding information and suggested the details were locked away in his head where he could not get them.

The last killing Ridgway told police he could recall committing was in 1998.

***

“During the killing spree there were a few women I didn’t for some reason I didn’t kill, but they were few and far between.”

The hardest thing about defending Gary Ridgway, attorney Mark Prothero told HLN, was managing the “sheer volume” of the case—the length of the investigation, the amount of witnesses, everything was just bigger than in a normal case.

Prothero said he was pleased with the deal Ridgway’s defense team was able to make with prosecutors.

“Our goal was to save Ridgway’s life, from a defense attorney’s standpoint,” Prothero said, adding that the guilty plea saved the community the money and resources that would have been expended on a death penalty trial.

According to Prothero, the experience of sitting in on Ridgway’s months of interviews with detectives was “surreal.”

“It’s impossible to describe,” he said. He initially only expected the interview process to take a couple of weeks.

“It was an up and down roller coaster of emotions and stress and everything,” said Prothero, who co-wrote a 600-page book about his work on the case titled Defending Gary: Unraveling the Mind of the Green River Killer.

He remains in contact with Ridgway from time to time, but there have not been any new developments in the investigation since Becky Marrero’s remains were found.

Prothero said he hopes authorities will find more remains and Ridgway will have the opportunity to plead guilty to more murders, but the searches conducted at the sites Ridgway led police to in 2003 were very thorough.

In some of the unsolved cases, Ridgway had only a vague idea of where he disposed of a body. In others, the locations had been paved over since the 1980s.

“The more that they’re able to find, the better for the families,” Prothero said.

Ridgway’s plea deal only applied to crimes committed in King County, but Prothero said he is not concerned that cases will surface in other counties where Ridgway could still be eligible for the death penalty.

He said the surrounding counties scrutinized their unsolved cases very carefully after Ridgway’s arrest. They conducted new DNA testing and reexamined evidence, but Ridgway always denied killing any women outside of King County.

Authorities in Snohomish County offered Ridgway the same deal King County did and they interviewed him about five or six cases that seemed to fit his profile. They concluded he was not connected to those murders, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported.

According to Detective Sergeant Dusty Green of the Lee County Sheriff’s Office, there were three cases in Lee County where investigators have always been curious about a potential Green River Killer connection, but Ridgway declined to talk to their detectives.

King County still has a web page and a tip line devoted to the Green River Killer investigation. Anyone with information related to the remaining unsolved cases and unidentified victims is asked to call detectives at 206-263-2130.

“He would like to see every victim found,” Prothero said of Ridgway, “and I think he still thinks about it and tries to think of things that could be helpful to finding the girls.”

***

“He was in the wrong place at the wrong time and I was at the right place at the right time, I guess what you’d call it.”

Gary Ridgway claimed he was unable to remember his first kill, according to court documents. It could have been Wendy Coffield in 1982, or it could have been another woman months or years earlier.

However, he did clearly remember the boy he stabbed in the mid-1960s.

Ridgway told detectives he saw the boy playing near some bushes and stabbed him in the side just because he wanted to see “how to stab somebody.”

A task force detective tracked down the victim, who told a similar story.

When he was 6, he was playing near a wooded area behind a school close to his home. A teen approached and asked if he wanted to build a fort in the woods.

He went along, even though the teen warned him there were people around who liked to kill little boys. Once they were in the woods, the teen stabbed him through the ribs.

On the ground, bleeding badly, he asked Gary Ridgway why he stabbed him. Ridgway laughed and smiled, and then he wiped the blood off the knife on the boy’s shoulders.

“He says, ‘I always wanted to know what it felt like to kill somebody,’” the victim told a detective.

Ridgway left him there in the woods, the victim said, and he walked away, “laughin’ real loud.”

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