Ridgway went from having sex with prostitutes 'to just plain killing 'em'

Gary L. Ridgway was good at one thing, he would tell investigators, "and that's killing prostitutes." It was an obsession he came to regard as his "career."

And like many serial killers, he took pride in the details. He chose his victims carefully, spending hours before and after work "patrolling" Pacific Highway South and other stretches known for prostitution. He'd pull his truck into a convenience store, sometimes popping the hood to throw off suspicion, and then watch "the traffic," waiting for young women and girls who looked easy to kill and wouldn't be missed.

He preferred to strangle them. Guns and knives "would have been messy." Choking was "more personal and more rewarding," he would later say.

Then, meticulously, he hid their bodies and any evidence that might link him to the crime. If they scratched him, he clipped their fingernails. If tire tracks were found at the scene, he bought new tires. In one case when he was scratched, he poured battery acid on his arms to cover the wounds.

He moved some bodies to Oregon to throw investigators off.

"For a man who barely graduated high school," prosecutors said in documents released yesterday, "Ridgway had what appeared to be an innate understanding of forensic evidence."

But if there was a key to success for the confessed Green River killer, it was keeping quiet. So quiet that no one who knew him — friends, spouses, girlfriends, co-workers — glimpsed a hint of the killer who lurked behind the nerdy glasses and mousy smile.

"Well, I was in a way a little bit proud of not being caught," he would later tell detectives. "Like removing the clothes. Not leaving anything ... any fingerprints ... using gloves"

And finally, "Not bragging about it."

Investigators may never know how many women Ridgway killed. The Auburn man, 54, pleaded guilty yesterday to killing 48 women between 1982 and 1998 as part of a deal to spare his life. But he has told detectives that number was only a portion of the total of women he murdered in a spree that may have begun in the 1970s and continued until shortly before his arrest in November 2001.

During five months of interviews after his arrest, Ridgway told investigators he never gave a thought to how victims felt. If there was something missing in him that was present in other people, he said, it was "caring."

All the while he worked as a painter at a truck plant in Kent and then Renton, a job he held more than 30 years. Nobody had a clue. Not when he drove to work with a corpse in his truck bed. Not when he left jewelry of his victims in the women's bathroom at Kenworth Truck, secretly delighting when he saw female co-workers wearing the jewelry.

"My favorite thing was maybe if someone's walking around with a piece of that jewelry that they found in the bathroom," he told investigators.

Prosecutors said he didn't fit the profile of other serial killers. He wasn't a loner. He controlled his anger. He was either married or had a steady girlfriend most of his life.

A 133-page "summary of evidence" filed by prosecutors yesterday begins to fill in the holes of a very complicated case, that of the nation's most prolific confessed serial killer.

The report, based on months of interviews between Ridgway and prosecutors, detectives and psychologists, tells the tale of a man who went from a childhood fascination with death to an insatiable desire to kill.

His story changed often, and information came in pieces, prosecutors wrote. He could remember the places he hid his victims but not their faces. He acknowledged being a pathological liar.

In the end, prosecutors concluded that Ridgway was not mentally ill. He said he was never sexually or physically abused as a child and never contemplated suicide.

When a psychologist asked him in 2001 if he was mentally ill, Ridgway said he used to have a problem with "killing women."

Asked why he thought that was an illness, he said: "I don't know if it was an illness, or just, uh, I just wanted to kill."

Any other evidence of mental illness, he was asked?

"No, I don't think so," he said.

Born in Utah on Feb. 18, 1949, Ridgway moved to King County with his family when he was 11. His parents' home was a short distance from Pacific Highway South, where years later he would find most of his victims.

He told investigators he wet his bed until he was 13 or so. He was a "slow learner" and a poor reader. He was held back two grades before graduating from Tyee High School in what is now SeaTac in 1969.

He also dabbled in arson, paid a girl to let him fondle her genitals and once suffocated a cat. When he was about 15, he walked up to a first-grade boy near some bushes on a street corner and stabbed him in the side with a knife.

Ridgway said he simply "wanted to see how to stab somebody."

Contacted by prosecutors 40 years later, the victim recalled the incident clearly. He said Ridgway came up to him and said, "You know, there's uh, there's people around here that, that liked to kill little boys like you," and stabbed him in the liver. The victim, who now lives in California, said he ran away, bleeding profusely, and spent several weeks in the hospital. His assailant was never found.

"Had you been fantasizing about stabbing people before that happened?" a psychologist asked Ridgway.

"No," he said. "Other than maybe stab my mom, stab my mom."

Ridgway told doctors he was sexually attracted to his mother. His feelings for her fluctuated between "lust and humiliation," prosecutors wrote. His attraction to his mother was accompanied by murderous thoughts about her.

"I thought about stabbing her in the chest or in the heart," he would say.

He had "vivid memories" of his mother washing him after he would wet his bed.

"This imagery may have contributed to his sexual development: Ridgway fantasized about showering with prostitutes," prosecutors wrote.

After graduating from Tyee, Ridgway worked briefly at the Kenworth plant and then joined the Navy.

He married in 1970, the first of three marriages. While stationed in the Philippines, he told investigators, he first used prostitutes.

While Ridgway was overseas, his wife became involved with another man, prosecutors said. When he returned, they sought a divorce. Ridgway would later claim his wife had become a "whore" while he was overseas.

Ridgway received an honorable discharge from the Navy in 1971 and went back to work at the Kenworth plant.

He married again in 1973. The couple lived in several residences in Renton, Federal Way and West Seattle. In 1975, they had a son.

His wife said he liked having sex outdoors, dabbled in bondage and like to sneak up on her from behind trees. On at least one occasion, he tried to choke her, using a "policelike" hold, she told investigators.

Their marriage began to fall apart, and in May 1981, they divorced.

Later that year, he bought a pale blue, one-story house near Military Road, a few blocks from Pacific Highway South.

He would later tell investigators that he killed dozens of women in the house, usually in the bedroom.

Though he may have murdered women in the 1970s, his compulsion to kill ripened in the early '80s. And like any craftsman, he refined his skills into a methodical technique.

Most of his time was spent finding victims. He spent hours driving through areas known for prostitution: the Tukwila, Kent-Des Moines and Federal Way areas along Pacific Highway South; Rainier Valley; Seattle's Chinatown International District; and North Seattle along Aurora Avenue.

He took steps to make sure they weren't undercover police officers. He often watched them from a distance to see if they were picked up by other "tricks." He sometimes asked them to expose themselves before agreeing to pay, believing undercover officers would refuse.

"Prostitutes were the, the easiest," he said. "I went from uh, havin' sex with 'em to just plain killing 'em."

He didn't care if they were black or white, though he preferred white. And he preferred young women who were relatively innocent and less likely to "con" him.

Killing was always on his mind, he said.

"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," he said.

Ridgway developed a number of ruses to gain the women's trust, prosecutors said. He showed them pictures of his son, offered to become a regular customer, to lend them his truck, to get them jobs, to feed them and to pay them more than they were asking. He didn't have to worry about keeping the promises because, as he told prosecutors, "they were already dead."

As the first bodies of his victims surfaced along the Green River in 1982, prostitutes sometimes asked him if he was the killer as he tried to pick them up.

Ridgway pointed to his slight stature to assure them he couldn't be.

Ridgway told investigators he didn't know who or when he killed first. He preferred to kill in his home, the woods or in the back of his truck.

He said he murdered virtually all his victims with the same method. From behind he would put something around her neck — his arms, a towel, a rope — and choke her.

Asked why he never used other methods, he said: "I didn't because my method's working pretty good. Choking is what I did, and I was pretty good at it."

Occasionally, prosecutors said, he strayed from his methodical routine.

Once, with his son in his truck, he drove back to visit a body of a woman he had killed. While his son slept, Ridgway got out and, just 30 feet away, had intercourse with the dead woman. Ridgway assured detectives that his son was a "hard sleeper," prosecutors wrote.

He placed the bodies in "clusters" near landmarks — large trees, guardrails, hills, large fallen logs — so he could remember where he discarded them.

He sometimes drove by the sites to remind him of his work.

He said he covered many victims with brush, branches of whatever debris was at hand. "She's garbage, so I put, ah, stuff over her that was garbage," he said.

Hiding the bodies was the hardest part, he complained to prosecutors.

"I had to take them all the way out there, waste of my time and gas," he said. It "was a big burden. Took the time away from killing."

But of all his secrets, the locations of the yet-undiscovered bodies were his most precious, he told prosecutors.

The killing slowed after he met his present wife in 1985, he told prosecutors. But he sometimes fell "off the wagon."

The last murder definitively tied to him was that of Patricia Yellow Robe in 1998. The killing was not well-planned, he told psychologists. He was rusty, it was the work of an "amateur."

As the first bodies were found along the Green River in 1982, the King County Sheriff's Office formed the Green River Task Force to find the killer.

He developed schemes to throw task-force members off, placing misleading clues at crime scenes: cigarette butts, chewing gum, motel pamphlets. Once, in 1984, he sent a crudely typed letter to local newspapers titled: "What you need to know about the Green River man." It was filled with false information, and an FBI expert concluded it was not written by the killer.

That same year, with his son in the truck, he drove three victims to down Interstate 5 and dumped them outside Portland. He later told investigators he "wanted to throw them off."

Ridgway 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. At the time, however, they also took a saliva swab.

In 2001, detective Tom Jensen sent the swab to the state crime lab for DNA typing, a technology not available when Ridgway began his spree. The tests returned a match.

Still, even after his arrest, pride. No investigator had caught him, he said. Rather, "what got me caught was technology."

Ray Rivera: 206-464-2926 or rayrivera@seattletimes.com