Gary Leon Ridgway is an American serial killer known as the Green River Killer, and he was initially convicted of 48 separate murders and later confessed to nearly twice that number. As part of his plea bargain, an additional conviction was added, bringing the total number of convictions to 49.
He murdered numerous women and girls in Washington State during the 1980s and 1990s. Most of his victims were alleged to be prostitutes. The press gave him his nickname after the first five victims were found in the Green River and his identity was not known. He strangled the women, usually with his arm but sometimes using ligatures. After strangling them, he would dump their bodies throughout forested and overgrown areas in King County, often returning to the dead bodies to have sexual intercourse with them.
On November 30, 2001, as he was leaving the Renton, Washington, Kenworth truck factory where he worked, he was arrested for the murders of four women whose cases were linked to him through DNA evidence. As part of a plea bargain wherein he agreed to disclose the whereabouts of still-missing women, he was spared the death penalty and received a sentence of life imprisonment without parole.
Ridgway was born in Salt Lake City, Utah, to Mary Rita Steinman and Thomas Newton Ridgway. He has two brothers, Gregory Leon and Thomas Edward.
Ridgway’s homelife was somewhat troubled, relatives have described his mother as domineering and have said that young Ridgway witnessed more than one violent argument between his parents. As a boy, Ridgway had a habit of wetting the bed. His mother would often be the one to discover the accidents and would bathe him immediately. She would also belittle and embarrass him in front of his family. From a young age, Ridgway had conflicting feelings of sexual attraction and anger toward her.
As a young child, Ridgway was tested with an IQ of 82, signifying low intelligence, and his academic performance in school was so poor that at one point in high school he had to repeat a year twice in order to pass. His classmates described him as congenial but largely forgettable. His teenage years, however, were troubled; when he was 16, he stabbed a six-year-old boy, who survived the attack. He had led the boy into the woods and then stabbed him through the ribs into his liver. According to the victim and Ridgway himself, Ridgway walked away laughing and saying, “I always wondered what it would be like to kill someone.”
At age 21, after graduating from high school, Ridgway married his high school girlfriend Claudia Barrows. He joined the Navy and was sent to Vietnam, where he served on board a supply ship and saw combat. During his time in the military, Ridgway began spending a lot of time with prostitutes and contracted gonorrhea. This angered him, but he continued to have unprotected sex with prostitutes. Meanwhile, his wife Claudia, alone and 19 years old, had an extramarital affair, and the marriage quickly ended within a year.
When questioned about Ridgway after his arrest, friends and family described him as friendly but strange. His first two marriages resulted in divorce because of infidelities by both partners. His second wife, Marcia Winslow, claimed that he had placed her in a chokehold. Ridgway had become religious during his second marriage, proselytizing door-to-door, reading the Bible aloud at work and at home, and insisting that Marcia follow the strict teachings of their church pastor. Ridgway would also frequently cry after sermons or reading the Bible. Ridgway continued to solicit the services of prostitutes during this marriage, he also wanted Marcia to participate in sex in public and inappropriate places, sometimes even in areas where his victims’ bodies were later discovered.
According to women in his life, Ridgway had an insatiable sexual appetite. His three ex-wives and several old girlfriends reported that Ridgway demanded sex from them several times a day. Often, he would want to have sex in a public area or in the woods. Ridgway himself admitted to having a fixation with prostitutes, with whom he had a love–hate relationship. He frequently complained about their presence in his neighborhood, but he also took advantage of their services regularly. It has been speculated that Ridgway was torn between his uncontrollable lusts and his staunch religious beliefs.
In 1975, his second wife gave birth to Ridgway’s son, Matthew.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Ridgway is believed to have murdered at least 71 women (according to Ridgway, in an interview with Sheriff Reichert 2001) near Seattle and Tacoma, Washington. His court statements later reported that he had killed so many, he lost count. A majority of the murders occurred between 1982 and 1984. The victims were believed to be either prostitutes or runaways picked up along Pacific Highway South (International Blvd. 99), whom he strangled. Most of their bodies were dumped in wooded areas around the Green River, except for two confirmed and another two suspected victims found in the Portland, Oregon area. The bodies were often left in clusters, sometimes posed, usually nude. He would sometimes return to the victims’ bodies and have intercourse with them. Because most of the bodies were not discovered until only the skeletons remained, three victims are still unidentified. Ridgway occasionally contaminated the dump sites with gum, cigarettes, and written materials belonging to others, and he even transported a few victims’ remains across state lines into Oregon to confuse the police.
Ridgway began each murder by picking up a woman, usually a prostitute. He sometimes showed the woman a picture of his son, to help her trust him. After having sex with her, Ridgway strangled her from behind. He initially strangled them manually. However, many victims inflicted wounds and bruises on his arm while trying to defend themselves. Concerned these wounds and bruises would draw attention, Ridgway began using ligatures to strangle his victims. He killed most victims in his home, his truck, or a secluded area.
In the early 1980s, the King County Sheriff’s Office formed the Green River Task Force to investigate the murders. The most notable members of the task force were Robert Keppel and Dave Reichert, who periodically interviewed incarcerated serial killer Ted Bundy from 1984. Bundy offered his opinions on the psychology, motivations, and behavior of the killer, he suggested that the killer was revisiting the dump sites to have sexual relations with his victims, and if police found a fresh grave, they should stake it out and wait for him to come back. Also contributing to the investigation was John E. Douglas, who has since written much on the subject of the Green River Killer.
Ridgway was arrested in 1982 and 2001 on charges related to prostitution. He became a suspect in 1983 in the Green River killings. In 1984, Ridgway took and passed a polygraph test, and on April 7, 1987, police took hair and saliva samples from Ridgway.
Around 1985, Ridgway began dating Judith Mawson, who became his third wife in 1988. Mawson claimed in a 2010 television interview that when she moved into his house while they were dating, there was no carpet. Detectives later told her he had probably wrapped a body in the carpet. In the same interview, she described how he would leave for work early in the morning some days, ostensibly for the overtime pay. Mawson speculated that he must have committed some of the murders while supposedly working these early morning shifts. She claimed that she had not suspected Ridgway’s crimes before she was contacted by authorities in 1987, and in fact had not even heard of the Green River Killer before that time because she didn’t watch the news.
Author Pennie Morehead interviewed Ridgway in prison, and she said while he was in the relationship with Mawson his kill rate went down, and he truly loved her. Mawson told a local television reporter, “I feel I have saved lives … by being his wife and making him happy.”
The samples collected in 1987 were later subjected to a DNA analysis, providing the evidence for his arrest warrant. On November 30, 2001, Ridgway was at the Kenworth Truck factory, where he worked as a spray painter, when police arrived to arrest him. Ridgway was arrested on suspicion of murdering four women nearly 20 years after first being identified as a potential suspect, when DNA evidence conclusively linked semen left in the victims to the saliva swab taken by the police. The four victims named in the original indictment were Marcia Chapman, Opal Mills, Cynthia Hinds, and Carol Ann Christensen. Three more victims, Wendy Coffield, Debra Bonner, and Debra Estes were added to the indictment after a forensic scientist identified microscopic spray paint spheres as a specific brand and composition of paint used at the Kenworth factory during the specific time frame when these victims were killed.
At the time of his December 18, 2003 sentencing, authorities had been able to find at least 48 sets of remains, including victims not originally attributed to the Green River Killer. Ridgway was sentenced for the deaths of each of these 48 victims, with a plea agreement that he would “plead guilty to any and all future cases (in King County) where his confession could be corroborated by reliable evidence.”
Unspecified date: Unnamed boy (unconfirmed; drowned)
- Unspecified date in 1963: Unnamed boy (attempted; was stabbed)
- July 8: Wendy Lee Coffield, 16
- July 17: Gisele Ann Lovvorn, 17 (strangled with a men’s sock)
- July 25: Debra Lynn Bonner, 23
- August 1: Marcia Fay Chapman, 31
- August 11: Cynthia Jean Hinds, 17
- August 12: Opal Charmaine Mills, 16 (strangled with a pair of blue pants)
- August 29: Terry Rene Milligan, 17
- September 15: Mary Bridget Meehan, 18
- September 20: Debra Lorraine Estes, 15
- September 26: Linda Jane Rule, 16
- October 8: Denise Darcel Bush, 23
- October 9: Shawnda Leea Summers, 16
- October 20-22: Shirley Marie Sherrill, 18
- December 3: Rebecca Marrero, 20
- December 24: Colleen Renee Brockman, 15
- March 3: Alma Ann Smith, 18
- March 8-14: Delores LaVerne Williams, 17
- April 10: Gail Lynn Matthews, 23
- April 14: Andrea M. Childers, 19
- April 17: Sandra Kay Gabbert, 17
- April 17: Kimi-Kai Pitsor, 16
- April 30: Marie M. Malvar, 18
- May 3: Carol Ann Christensen, 21 (strangled with a cord)
- May 22: Martina Theresa Authorlee, 18
- May 23: Cheryl Lee Wims, 18
- May 31: Yvonne “Shelly” Antosh, 19
- May 31-June 13: Carrie Ann Rois, 15
- June 8: Constance Elizabeth Naon, 19
- July 18: Kelly Marie Ware, 22
- July 25: Tina Marie Thompson, 21
- August 18: April Dawn Buttram, 16
- September 5: Debbie May Abernathy, 26
- September 12: Tracy Ann Winston, 19
- September 28: Maureen Sue Feeney, 19
- October 11: Mary Sue Bello, 25
- October 26: Pammy Annette Avent, 15
- October 30: Delise Louise Plager, 22
- Late October-early November: “Marisa” (pseudonym; attempted; she escaped)
- November 1: Kimberly L. Nelson, 21
- December 23: Lisa Yates, 19
- February 6: Mary Exzetta West, 16
- March 21: Cindy Anne Smith, 17
- October 17, 1986: Patricia Michelle Barczak, 19
- February 7, 1987: Roberta Joseph Hayes, 21
- March 5, 1990: Marta Reeves, 36
- January 1998: Patricia Yellowrobe, 38
- Four additional unidentified women:
- A white female who died prior to May 1983, aged 12-17
- A black female killed sometime between 1982 and 1984, aged 18-27
- A white female killed sometime between the December of 1980 and the January of 1984, aged 14-18
- A woman killed sometime between 1973 and 1993, aged 13-24
- Notes: Ridgway confessed to a total of 71 murders, although authorities suspect he might be responsible for as many as over 90.
Plea bargain, confessions, sentencing
Early in August 2003, Seattle television news reported that Ridgway had been moved from a maximum security cell at King County Jail to an undisclosed location. Other news reports stated that his lawyers, led by Anthony Savage, were closing a plea bargain that would spare him the death penalty in return for his confession to a number of the Green River murders.
On November 5, 2003, Ridgway entered a guilty plea to 48 charges of aggravated first degree murder as part of a plea bargain, agreed to in June, that would spare him execution in exchange for his cooperation in locating the remains of his victims and providing other details. In his statement accompanying his guilty plea, Ridgway explained that all of his victims had been killed inside King County, Washington, and that he had transported and dumped the remains of the two women near Portland to confuse the police.
Deputy prosecutor Jeffrey Baird noted in court that the deal contained “the names of 41 victims who would not be the subject of State v. Ridgway if it were not for the plea agreement.” King County Prosecuting Attorney Norm Maleng explained his decision to make the deal:
“ We could have gone forward with seven counts, but that is all we could have ever hoped to solve. At the end of that trial, whatever the outcome, there would have been lingering doubts about the rest of these crimes. This agreement was the avenue to the truth. And in the end, the search for the truth is still why we have a criminal justice system … Gary Ridgway does not deserve our mercy. He does not deserve to live. The mercy provided by today’s resolution is directed not at Ridgway, but toward the families who have suffered so much …”
On December 18, 2003, King County Superior Court Judge Richard Jones sentenced Ridgway to 48 life sentences with no possibility of parole and one life sentence, to be served consecutively. He was also sentenced to an additional 10 years for tampering with evidence for each of the 48 victims, adding 480 years to his 48 life sentences.
Ridgway led prosecutors to three bodies in 2003. On August 16 of that year, the remains of a 16-year-old female found near Enumclaw, Washington, 40 feet from State Route 410, were pronounced as belonging to Pammy Annette Avent, who had been believed to be a victim of the Green River Killer. The remains of Marie Malvar and April Buttram were found in September. On November 23, 2005, The Associated Press reported that a weekend hiker found the skull of one of the 48 women Ridgway admitted murdering in his 2003 plea bargain with King County prosecutors. The skull of Tracy Winston, who was 19 when she disappeared from Northgate Mall on September 12, 1983, was found by a man hiking in a wooded area near Highway 18 near Issaquah, southeast of Seattle.
Ridgway confessed to more confirmed murders than any other American serial killer. Over a period of five months of police and prosecutor interviews, he confessed to 48 murders—42 of which were on the police’s list of probable Green River Killer victims. On February 9, 2004, county prosecutors began to release the videotape records of Ridgway’s confessions. In one taped interview, he told investigators initially that he was responsible for the deaths of 65 women, but in another taped interview with Reichert on December 31, 2003, Ridgway claimed to have murdered 71 victims and confessed to having had sex with them before killing them, a detail which he did not reveal until after his sentencing. In his confession, he acknowledged that he targeted prostitutes because they were “easy to pick up” and that he “hated most of them.” He also confessed that he had sex with his victims’ bodies after he murdered them, but claimed he began burying the later victims so that he could resist the urge to commit necrophilia.
Ridgway talked to and tried to make his victims comfortable before he committed the murders. In his own words, “I would talk to her… and get her mind off of the, sex, anything she was nervous about. And think, you know, she thinks, ‘Oh, this guy cares’… which I didn’t. I just want to, uh, get her in the vehicle and eventually kill her.”
Later in a statement Ridgway said that murdering young women was his “career”.
Ridgway is incarcerated at Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla, Washington.