He may be America’s most prolific serial killer. Yet the name Gary Ridgway—a.k.a. the Green River Killer—is not as well known when compared to the many other murderers who have haunted our nation’s headlines. Convicted of killing 49 women over the course of two decades, Ridgway has confessed to killing almost twice that number, and admitted in later statements that he claimed so many lives he lost count.
A man of contradictions, Ridgway was a door-to-door proselytizer who read the Bible aloud both at work and at home. He was a married man—twice by the early 1980s when his murder spree began. At the same time, Ridgway regularly frequented prostitutes. Many of the killer’s victims were sex workers, whom he targeted because he “hated most of them” and they were “easy to pick up.” He also preyed upon young runaways and other women in vulnerable positions.
Ridgway had sex with many of his victims before he killed them. He also returned to the disposal site to have sex with the bodies. The majority of the murders occurred near Seattle and Tacoma, Washington.
Many of the bodies were then dumped along the banks of the Green River, a 65-mile stretch of water due south of Seattle that earned the killer his nickname.
In order to pick up his victims, Ridgway would make small talk and show them photographs of his son. In truth, according to Ridgway himself, he “just want to, uh, get [the victim] in the vehicle and eventually kill her.” Ridgway’s victims were usually strangled, either by hand or by ligature. In his confessions, Ridgway said that he turned to ligature because he was afraid that the defensive wounds his victims sometimes left on his arms would give him away.
Ridgway intentionally dumped the bodies in out-of-the-way places—once leaving Washington State entirely to dispose of two of the bodies near Portland, Oregon and confuse the police. He also left false clues around the dump sites to throw off suspicion, including gum and cigarettes that had been used by other people. This partially explains why it took authorities until 2001—almost 20 years after his first confirmed murder—to arrest Ridgway, when DNA evidence finally linked him to four of the victims.
That the case remained open for so long was not due to a lack of trying. Authorities launched a massive manhunt for the Green River Killer, including the organization of a special Green River Task Force in the 1980s. As part of this task force, Robert Keppel and Dave Reichert—who would go on to serve as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives—periodically interviewed convicted serial killer Ted Bundy to gain insight into the Green River Killer’s motivations and behavior. Bundy correctly guessed that the Green River Killer was returning to the bodies of his victims to perform acts of necrophilia, and suggested that if the police ever found a fresh grave they should stake it out and wait for the killer to return.
Though he became a suspect in the case early on, Ridgway took and apparently passed a polygraph test in 1984. Later, however, a quality control review determined that he had actually failed the test and that it hadn’t been caught at the time. In 1985, he met Judith Mawson, who would become his third wife in 1988. During that time, his number of murders dropped off substantially. Though she was unaware of Ridgway’s murderous predilections until after his arrest, Mawson would later state that she thought she had saved lives, “by being his wife and making him happy.”
When Ridgway was finally arrested in 2001, it was initially only in connection with four murders. Three more murders were added after forensic scientists connected spray paint traces found on the bodies of victims with a type of paint used at the Kenworth Truck factory where Ridgway worked as a painter.
In order to avoid the death penalty, Ridgway agreed to a plea bargain in which he admitted to a much larger number of murders, helping police find the missing bodies of several of his victims. He initially pleaded guilty to 48 murders, 42 of which were on the list of probable victims of the Green River Killer. An additional murder of an unidentified woman, discovered in 2003, was added to his convictions, giving him the most confirmed kills of any serial killer in American history.
In his statements, Ridgway confessed to claiming still more lives, as many as 71. Chillingly, he referred to killing young women as his “career.”
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