Gary Ridgway, the man wh0 would later become known under his more infamous moniker “The Green River Killer”, was described by his friends and family as “friendly but strange”. They never could have known that the strange man would go on to become one of the most prolific serial killers in American history.
Ridgway was born in Salt Lake City Utah on February 18, 1949 to an unhappy family that consisted of himself, his brothers Gregory and Thomas, and his parents. His upbringing was tumultuous – it wasn’t uncommon for his parents to argue violently in front of their boys, and as if that wasn’t bad enough his mother would humiliate Gary in front of the family. Part of his shame was the fact that he was a bed wetter (serial killers often show the so-called serial killer triad during childhood – bed wetting well beyond the age when it should have ended, animal torture, and arson).
As if all of that wasn’t enough (and maybe in part because of all of the above), Ridgeway had a low IQ. His score was only 82 (where the average score is 100) and he suffered from poor performance in school.
When Ridgway was 16, he began his violent criminal career when he stabbed a six year old boy. It is said that he walked away laughing, saying “I always wondered what it would be like to kill someone.”
So it was quite obvious early on that Ridgway was a troubled individual, but no one would know just how troubled until the body count was tallied. His murderous career (oh and he regarded killing women as his career…the guy was a complete nut job, as you might guess) spanned from 1972 until 1998. When he was arrested in 2001, evidence existed to convict him of 49 killings. But after his arrest, he confessed to 71 murders that he recalled – he claimed he’d killed so many that he couldn’t remember the exact number of crimes he committed. Some believe the number to be 90 or more.
From any other serial killer this might be taken as boasting, but unlike most others of his kind, Ridgway took great pains to avoid being caught. The evidence for this is clear: while most of his killings took place around the Green River in Washington state, some remains were found around Portland, Oregon. Ridgway later revealed that he moved the remains there to throw the police off his trail. He also would throw trash and various other debris, sometimes scraps of papers with other people’s writing on them, onto the bodies to confuse authorities.
So, it seems very clear that Ridgway was indeed trying to avoid capture. That might lend some credence to his claim that he couldn’t remember how many murders he had committed – after all, his care allowed him to operate for over 26 years. That is a very long span of time, and if he killed on a regular basis it would be relatively easy to forget. It is horrifying to think about, that a human being could be so callous that he forgets one life he took, let alone more than one.
How did Ridgeway manage to kill for so long? The length of his criminal career is as amazing is it is horrible. You’d think in that time he would have slipped up once in all of those years, especially given the fact he was by all accounts not a very bright fellow. Whatever he lacked in the intelligence department, he seemed to make up for with sheer luck. Often times, serial killers meet their downfall when they are picked up on unrelated charges. Ridgway was picked up on unrelated charges (solicitation) in the early 80′s, but his more serious crimes went unnoticed. He even became a suspect in the Green River killings in 1983, but he was never convicted. In 1987, police took hair and saliva samples from him, and it was this DNA record that proved his undoing years later in 2001 when he was finally arrested.
That’s right: the police had him, but they let him go. It could have been incompetence on the part of the police, or it could simply have been that the massive deluge of evidence and suspects at the time overwhelmed the authorities and Ridgway slipped through the cracks. It could also have been that technology at the time wasn’t good enough to catch him – after all, the techniques that allowed for modern DNA sequencing were only in their infancy. Any number of factors could be responsible for Ridgway’s ability to elude the police and kill again. It might have had something to do with his choice of victims, though.
Ridgway preyed on prostitutes and young runaways – all women. He hated women. His mother was a domineering figure who abused and belittled him, and it is thought that his hatred might stem from this treatment in his formative years.
He hated prostitutes in particular, as he believed they spread AIDS. Which makes the fact that he had sex with said prostitutes before killing them rather odd – but then most psychopathic killers are less than rational.
In any case, his usual operation was to lure the prostitute or runaway into his vehicle, have sex with them, and then strangle them. Sometimes he tortured them as well. At first he strangled his victims with his bare hands, but the scratches and bruises they left on his arms made him worried that he’d be discovered, so he took to using a ligature (usually a cord or an article of clothing.) Once the woman was dead he would dump their body in a heavily forested area. Usually he left the corpses nude, oftentimes in clusters, and sometimes he would pose the bodies.
When Ridgway was finally caught, prosecutors used the death sentence as a bargaining chip to uncover the missing victims of his sick “career”. He could live, albeit behind bars, if he told everything he knew. So Ridgway confessed to 71 killings, every one that he could remember. Some have been critical of the decision to take the death sentence off the table but if it had not been done, likely only seven of the murders (the seven Ridgway was linked to by genetic evidence) would have been solved. The death penalty was taken off the table to find justice for the rest of his victims, and to provide some sort of assurance to their families that justice was done.
The Green River Killer will rot behind bars for the rest of his natural life, where he can do no more harm. But no amount of vengeance in the world can erase the scars left both in the region and in the national psyche by Ridgway’s reign of terror.