Mystery lingers despite Ridgway's guilty pleas

With the ink barely dry on the 48 guilty pleas by Green River killer Gary L. Ridgway, lingering questions already are piling up at the offices of King County Sheriff Dave Reichert and Prosecutor Norm Maleng.

But one of the key questions may never be answered: How many people did Ridgway really kill?

"The reality is we're never going to know," said John Urquhart, the sheriff's spokesman.

"It's safe to say that every time there's a buzz in the public about Ridgway, we get calls from all over the U.S. and Canada about unsolved murders. Obviously, he's not good for all of them."

Court documents, prosecutors and Reichert himself freely agree Ridgway killed more women, maybe a dozen or so, than the 48 he admitted to Wednesday before a packed courtroom in Seattle.

The problem is proving it.

"He admitted more crimes than he was charged with," said Deputy Prosecutor Jeff Baird, the lead Green River trial prosecutor. "But we did not take his word alone."

Maleng, Reichert and the Green River Task Force gathered yesterday to publicly thank each other for closing the Green River serial-killer case after 21 years of mystery.

Ridgway pleaded guilty to 48 counts of aggravated murder and will be sentenced in about six months to life without parole or release.

Of the 48 murders, 42 were on the original list of 49 suspected Green River victims. He admitted to six that had not been on the list.

Key questions remaining include why Ridgway killed and how he got away with it.

As to why, Reichert said the best answer is in what Ridgway himself told police during five months of interviews: that he simply took personal pleasure in killing and defiling vulnerable women.

As to how, "the answer lies in the victims Mr. Ridgway chose," Baird said. "He chose women and children who lived in the shadows of our society."

But the question of how many is frustratingly impossible to answer.

After the many interviews, Ridgway eventually admitted to killing more than 60 women in King County, court documents say. But the number is vague because Ridgway was vague.

Though Ridgway didn't plead guilty to killing three women on the original list — Keli McGinness, Kase Lee and Patricia Osborn — he told detectives he is sure he killed them, according to court filings.

But the remains of the women have not been found to corroborate his insistence.

The task force, based on Ridgway's recollections of his crimes, searched 51 separate areas in King County over the summer, detectives said yesterday. Many of those locations were known crime scenes, where they needed Ridgway to point out specifics as proof he was not lying.

Many others, though, were places where no remains had ever been found. Those searches revealed four victims that Ridgway admitted killing. Three were from the original Green River list. One set of remains has yet to be identified, though Ridgway is now convicted of killing that woman, whoever she was. Police know she wasn't Lee, McGinness or Osborn.

Court papers say Ridgway claimed "numerous" other murders, though the documents don't say how many because Ridgway himself was unsure. He provided general descriptions, or showed detectives the general areas where he thought he left someone's body.

But investigators never found any other remains or corroborating evidence.

In other instances, the court documents say, Ridgway said he thought he remembered killing people before his first confirmed slaying, of Wendy Coffield in 1982.

He described "two or three" instances before Coffield's murder when he "thought" he killed women and left them in open places. But when he didn't see news of a body being found, he assumed the women weren't really dead.

He also said he thought he might have killed a prostitute in the 1970s in Maple Valley, but he couldn't recall any details.

"He adamantly insisted that he could not remember his first kill," the prosecutors wrote. "Even after rigorous investigation and a review of potentially relevant cases, Ridgway's first homicide remains unknown."

A Seattle Times analysis last year of unsolved slayings, looking for women who weren't on the Green River list but somewhat matched the profiles, concluded that there were 29 such cases in King County.

Four turned out to be Ridgway victims: Linda Rule, who died in 1982; Patricia Barczak, who died in 1986; Roberta Hays, who died in 1987; and Marta Reeves, who died in 1990.

At least one of the 29 was later attributed to someone else: A Florida man has been charged in the death of Mia Zapata, a Seattle punk-rock singer, who was killed on Capitol Hill in July 1993.

What about other counties or states? It's too early to say.

Snohomish County authorities say they're looking at 20 unsolved cases for slivers of evidence pointing to Ridgway. In Pierce County, Prosecutor Jerry Horne said there are about 10 unsolved slayings worth looking at.

Lewis County Prosecutor Jeremy Randolph said he has always thought two Tacoma women found dead near Centralia and Toledo in 1984 and 1985 could be tied to the Green River killings. Now that Ridgway has admitted he didn't stop killing in the 80s, Randolph is looking at a 1991 case of a woman found dead off Interstate 5 near Chehalis.

But no one yet has any real evidence tying their slayings to Ridgway. And Maleng this week said he finds it unlikely they ever will.

Some speculation has long centered on a series of unsolved prostitute slayings in San Diego, where Ridgway was known to visit. But the task force here has no evidence tying Ridgway to those crimes, Urquhart said.

So for now, history has to rely on the conclusions authorities have already made.

"I always go with what's in writing, and the prosecution wrote 'over 60 women,' " Urquhart said. "Every unsolved homicide case is open. We'll investigate and charge those responsible whether it's Ridgway or not."

Meanwhile, Anne Harper, King County's public defender, said she expects the defense team will return to the county approximately $2.3 million of the $4.1 million budgeted for Ridgway's defense.

"The defense attorneys exercised commendable restraint," Harper said.

Ian Ith: 206-464-2109 or Staff reporter Michael Ko contributed to this story.