Defendant pleads guilty to 48 Green River murders

Gary Leon Ridgway, who Wednesday pleaded guilty to the murders of 48 women, said he killed prostitutes because he hated them, didn’t want to pay them for sex, and because he knew he could kill as many as he wanted without getting caught.

Methodically, he placed their strangled bodies in what he called “clusters,” often near landmarks, to help him keep track of the women.

But after so many, not even Ridgway, the confessed Green River Killer, could remember who was who.

“I killed so many women, I have a hard time keeping them straight,” Ridgway wrote in a 16-page statement read by King County prosecutors Wednesday as part of an historic plea deal sparing Ridgway’s life.

He killed most of them in his home off Military Road in the Auburn, Wash. area, some in his truck, and took most of their jewelry and clothes to make it hard for anyone to identify them, his statement said. He said he would sometimes drive his truck past the dump sites to remind himself of the murders.

In the end, Ridgway pleaded guilty to 42 of the 49 killings investigators had originally attributed to the Green River Killer, and six additional murders that had not previously been attributed to him.

The confession made him America’s most prolific convicted serial killer. Ted Bundy was convicted of only three murders in Florida in the 1970s, but later admitted to as many as 36. John Wayne Gacy was convicted of killing 33 boys in Chicago in the 1980s.

One by one, lead prosecutor Jeff Baird read names, dates and locations. To each name, Ridgway laconically acknowledged the murder with a simple “Yes.”

“In most cases, when I murdered these women, I did not know their names,” Baird read from Ridgway’s statement. “Most of the time I killed them the first time I met them, and I do not remember their faces.”

He faces life in prison without the possibility of parole or release. A sentencing date is pending.

Ridgway stood impassive, reading along on his own copy of the statement, as Baird read off a roll call of the dead:

Wendy Coffield, July 1982, her body dumped in the Green River.

Debra Bonner, July 1982, her body dumped in the Green River.

Marcia Chapman, August 1982, her body dumped in the Green River.

The list went on.

Bodies were left near the southern boundary of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, off Star Lake Road in Federal Way, in a wooded area in Maple Valley, off Highway 410 in Enumclaw. So many bodies, so many clusters, so many families left without a loved one.

Ridgway, the 54-year-old truck painter from Auburn who lived most of his life a relative nobody, stood with his head down. His almost-congenial expression never changed. Not when the first name was read, not when the 15th name was read, not when the 48th name was read.

Twenty years of murders, beginning in 1982 with Coffield and ending in 1998 with the strangulation of Patricia Yellow Robe.

King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng said he spent three weeks considering the plea deal before agreeing to spare Ridgway’s life. But in the end, he decided that trying Ridgway for a few murders would leave too many questions unresolved, and too many families wondering about the fate of their loved ones.

“Gary Ridgway does not deserve mercy, and Gary Ridgway does not deserve to live,” Maleng said at an emotional news conference following the hearing.

These were “young women who had troubles to be sure -that’s part of the human condition- but who also had hopes, aspirations and dreams …

“Their families deserved to know the truth … That is why we entered into this agreement.”

King County Sheriff Dave Reichert, who was one of the first detectives to be summoned to a Green River crime scene more than 20 years ago, said Maleng made a “bold decision.” Then, with tears in his eyes, Reichert read off each of the victims’ names.

“There is no joy or celebration on this day,” he said. “Rather, it is a day to pay tribute to those stolen lives … and offer thoughts and prayers to their families.”

The plea agreement brought at least partial closure to a mystery that had baffled investigators for more than two decades.

But for a region that has waited so long to see an end to this saga of abduction and death, experts and the investigators themselves have two simple words: Keep waiting.

“It will solve the mystery of who the Green River Killer is,” said Robert Keppel, a former King County Sheriff’s detective, now a college professor and expert on serial killers.

Ridgway first came to the attention of police in 1983 because his pickup resembled one connected with one of the disappearances. In 1984, he took and passed a polygraph test. In 1987, police searched his home but had insufficient evidence to hold him.

Ridgway bicycled, camped and picked blackberries with his then-wife in isolated areas where bodies were later found.

He scrounged for garage-sale goods in illegal dump sites where bodies were later dumped.

He was caught by police parked with a prostitute on a dead-end road not more than 100 feet from where two women’s bodies were later found.

Born in Utah and raised near SeaTac, Ridgway is a Tyee High School graduate who served a short stint in the U.S. Navy and then went to work painting trucks. He was set in his ways, holding garage sales as his parents had, taking rolls of $20 bills to pick up prostitutes, and keeping the same job for the past 32 years.

Friends knew him as a friendly, if overbearing, meticulous man who liked to read the Bible at work. He did not smoke but occasionally drank Bud Lite beer in cans. He liked collecting garage-sale junk.

At 24, he married a Seattle woman who bore him a son, then moved out for unspecified reasons just before the boy turned 5. By age 33, Ridgway was divorced, paying $275 a month in child support, seeing his son every other weekend – and picking up prostitutes.

Since the Ridgway investigation started springing leaks last spring that Ridgway was cooperating with investigators and perhaps leading them to long-lost victims, attention has steadily escalated to the point that on Wednesday, Ridgway was a lead news item as far away as Europe.

Leading to Wednesday’s hearing, the public and the media had almost taken as fact that Ridgway had owned up to more than 40 slayings between 1982 and 1998 in exchange for being spared the death penalty.

Until Wednesday morning, Ridgway had officially pleaded not guilty to seven of the Green River killings, including the deaths of the only women who were found in and along the Green River itself.

Prosecutors acknowledged that a plea deal had been in the works for months, and that Ridgway had signed an agreement in June of this year.