The Green River killer, which is the subject of this week's Martinis & Murder podcast, came onto the police and public’s radar with a bang on August 5, 1982, when three bodies were found in the Green River near Seattle. A few days later, three more bodies were found in the area. They were all young prostitutes working on and around the SeaTac strip, which is near the Seattle-Tacomah International Airport, and they had all been killed the same way.
Over the course of years, dozens more young sex workers would fall prey to the Green River Killer, who eluded police for 20 years. In a case that gripped the country, horrifyingly brutal acts were committed by a serial murderer who seemed like a ghost, as he deftly evaded capture by authorities who were sinking serious resources into the case. But in 2001, new DNA technology allowed old evidence to be thoroughly tested, and connected forensic evidence from crime scenes to a man named Gary Ridgway... Who police had already arrested, but let go due to a lack of evidence. Here are the most terrifying facts from the Green River Killer case.
1. Three men were arrested before police got to Gary Ridgway
The first arrest police made was on August 20, 1982, but while their suspect was in custody, the real Green River Killer abducted 16 year old Terry Milligan, a sex worker from the SeaTac strip. The first suspect was let go, and in September, police picked up their second suspect, Charles Clinton Clark, who had been accused of raping two prostitutes. He confessed to the rapes, but while behind bars, 19-year-old Mary Meehan disappeared from the script, and was proof enough that Clark wasn’t the Green River Killer, even though he was a rapist. Finally in October that same year, a taxi driver named Melvin Wayne, a SeaTac strip regular, was arrested. He failed a polygraph test and yet again, while the police suspect was in custody, three more women were killed – Shawnda Summers, 17, Denise Bush, 23, and Shirley Sherrill, 18 – so police let him go.
2. When the police questioned Ridgway the first time, they believed his story
On Saturday, April 30, 1983, Marie Malvar, 18, also working, was picked up by a dark pickup as her boyfriend and pimp watched from a close distance. As Marie got into the pickup, she appeared to get into a fight with the driver. The pickup sped off, and Marie’s boyfriend/pimp followed in his own car. Unfortunately, he was caught by a stop light and lost the pickup, so he reported the incident to the police. Three days after Marie was kidnapped, a search party including her boyfriend/pimp and family saw the pickup truck again when they were out looking for her. The search party followed the truck to a house and called the police. The police questioned the resident of the house: Gary Ridgway, 34. Ridgway denied knowing Marie, and police believed him.
3. Gary Ridgway had a weird childhood
His father was a bus driver who would tell him about “whores” and tell Gary to stay away from them. Even weirder: Ridgway both hated and was sexually attracted to his own mother. At age 16, he lured a six year old boy into the woods and stabbed him, because he wanted to see what it would be like to kill somebody.
4. On the outside, adult Ridgway seemed normal, but he was leading a double life
Ridgway was briefly in the navy until he married his first wife in 1972. His second marriage lasted from 1973 to 1981.During his second marriage he became a religious convert, and preached to people, going door to door to read out loud from the Bible. But he was also frequenting prostitutes in the Seattle area. In July 1980, Ridgway was arrested for choking a prostitute near the strip, but charges were dropped. He said he choked the woman in self defense after she bit him. In 1982, Ridgway was found guilty of soliciting a prostitute, and on another occasion an undercover police officer posing as a prostitute. Regardless, Ridgway managed to blend into his middle class neighborhood: he had a job, was married and seemed harmless enough.
5. Ridgway had been seen with a missing prostitute
On February 23, 1893, before Marie went missing, police stopped Ridgway in his pickup with prostitute Keli McGinness. Ridgway said they were on a date, and police let them go. Four months later, Kelli disappeared, and her body has never been found. His van also matched the description of the car that picked up both Marie and Kimi.
6. The police had serial killer Ted Bundy consult on the investigation
Police began consulting with serial killer Ted Bundy while he was in a Florida prison. Bundy advised them the new disposal site was probably closer to the killer’s home. So police created a triangle around the area, and found Ridgway’s home was located within this red zone.
7. Ridgway passed a lie detector test
On Monday, May 7, 1984, police subjected Ridgway to a lie detector test. They asked him if he had ever caused the death of a prostitute, and Ridgway said no. Ridgway passed the test. However, many prostitutes interviewed by police recalled seeing Ridgway at the strip frequently. More damning still, Ridgway was absent from work on every day a prostitute went missing. When police interviewed Ridgway’s second wife, she told them something very disturbing: Ridgway liked to have sex where the Green River Killer’s victims bodies were found. On Wednesday April 8, 1987, police seized hundreds of Ridgway’s personal effects from his home, work and van. Police also take a saliva swab from Ridgway for DNA testing. However, DNA testing at the time wasn’t very advanced, and they weren’t able to link the DNA to any of the victims. The trail to Ridgway went cold.
8. Ridgway wasn’t caught until 2001
Nearly 20 years after the first murders, in 2001, the case was reopened. Police had new DNA technology that wasn’t available the first time around. The first thing they did was re-analyse all the available DNA and forensic data, starting with samples from three victims recovered between 1982 and 1983, and Gary Ridgway’s saliva from 1987. On September 10, 2001, the results came back: all three samples from the victims matched Gary Ridgway. On Friday, November 30, 2001, the police arrested Ridgway as he was driving home from work.
9. Ridgway got a plea deal
In June of 2003, Ridgway struck a deal with prosecutors. In return for taking the death penalty off the table, Ridgway agreed to give them complete details about the murders and location of bodies. A King County Sheriff told CNN, "The majority of the families were understanding and in agreement that it was probably the best decision given the circumstances in order that the other 41 families would have the same resolution."
10. Ridgway’s confessions were pure evil
Ridgway told police he thought he was doing them a favor by killing prostitutes, saying “you guys can’t control them, but I can.” He said he targeted prostitutes "because I thought I could kill as many as I wanted without getting caught." Ridgway’s M.O. was to target a prostitute working on the highway, and watch her from a distance, before driving up and trying to pick her up. To give them a sense of security, he’d show his ID, or a picture of his son. He’d then drive somewhere secluded to have sex. Finally, he’d strangle the woman from behind, either in his van or in his house. In his plea bargain papers, he also said, “Choking is what I did and I was pretty good at it." Ridgway admitted placing the bodies in "clusters," usually near a landmark that helped him remember their locations. "I did this because I wanted to keep track of all of the women I killed. I liked to drive by the clusters around the county and think about the women I placed there." In a disgusting, twisted confession, Ridgway also told police sometimes he’d go back to the disposal sites and have sex with the dead victims. He’d then bury the bodies to stop himself from being able to have sex with them again. He confessed to killing between 75-80 women, but police only ever confirmed 49 murders.
[Photos: Getty Images; It Takes A Killer]
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