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Arrest in Green River Murders

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A swab of saliva recently tested after 14 years in storage gave police their first big break in one of the nation’s worst unsolved serial murder cases, as they arrested a truck painter Friday in four of the killings.

Gary Ridgway, 52, was arrested in connection with four of the notorious Green River murders, a string of 49 killings of young women in the Pacific Northwest in the early 1980s. DNA analysis tied Ridgway to three of the slayings and police said other evidence, which they did not specify, linked him to the fourth.

Officials said they do not now have forensic evidence connecting him to the other corpses. But they firmly believe all 49 cases are linked. And they made plain their jubilation at having a suspect behind bars for at least some of the murders after two decades of dogged pursuit.

“Boy, have we made one giant step forward,” King County Sheriff Dave Reichart said Friday.

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Ridgway had been a suspect in the Green River case as early as 1984. Detectives scrutinized his background, interviewed him and even obtained a saliva sample for DNA tests. But they were not confident enough in the capability of DNA technology to try to match Ridgway’s sample with semen and other suspect DNA collected from the victims.

They worried that the tests would eat up the DNA collected from the victims without yielding positive results. So they held on to the sample until they thought the technology was good enough.

They made that call about a year ago. The state lab began processing the sample and the first results came back two months ago. On Friday, they picked up Ridgway in Renton, a suburb of Seattle.

“I am not calling this guy the Green River Killer,” Reichart said at a packed news conference Friday evening. “We do not know if he is responsible for the deaths of any other women. We are still examining that.”

The sheriff emphasized, however, that all the Green River murders are linked by several factors, including where the victims were abducted and then dumped, the time frame for the murders, the victims’ lifestyles and in some cases the cause of death. “What I am saying is that the list [attributed to a single serial murderer] is still accurate, that the cases on the list are still considered to be linked,” Reichart said.

“This is one of the most exciting days of my career,” Reichart added.

He said he expects charges to be filed next week.

Ridgway, who has spelled his name Ridgeway on occasion, has been employed as a painter at the same Seattle-area trucking company for 30 years. He has been arrested twice before, once in May 1982 on a charge of soliciting prostitution and again just two weeks ago on a charge of loitering for the purpose of soliciting prostitution.

He was arrested in the Green River murders after his shift ended at 3 p.m.

Ridgway’s DNA was linked to the killings of Opal Mills, Marcia Chapman and Cynthia Hinds, whose bodies were found in the Green River on Aug. 15, 1982. Police have also linked him to the slaying of Carol Christensen, whose body was found in the woods in nearby Maple Valley on May 8, 1983.

Mills, Chapman and Hinds were among the earliest victims found in the Green River case. The body count continued to mount through early 1984, as more corpses were discovered along the river, which runs from the Cascade Mountains, and in trash-strewn wooded areas between Seattle and Portland, Ore.

Many of the victims--women aged 15 to 25--were prostitutes or runaways. A few were never identified.

With some, the cause of death was clear: The first victim to be discovered, for instance, had been strangled with her pants. Other corpses had been abandoned so long that the bodies were reduced to skeletal remains. Two were pregnant. Others were mothers.

Most of the young women were picked up on the street and dumped in isolated areas. Most of the corpses discarded in the river were weighted with stones. Those in the woods were often found in clusters, several bodies in close proximity. Though police have never given details, they indicated some of the corpses had a “signature,” an unusual marker that indicated a common killer.

Convinced they had one of the worst mass murderers in U.S. history on their hands, local law enforcement joined with the Federal Bureau of Investigation on a Green River Task Force that scoured the country for clues.

Detectives combed the woods on hands and knees, consulted botanists, biologists, archeologists and psychics. They picked apart bird nests to look for hairs. They checked out taxicab licenses and data on military personnel stationed in the area. They talked to Ted Bundy, who had confessed to killing 31 women, for insight into serial murderers.

Journalists covering the case pitched in their theories too. Former Seattle Times reporter Carlton Smith said he and his colleague Tomas Guillen first discovered the killer’s pattern of disposing of bodies. “He would put down a body . . . and then wait to see if anyone discovered it,” Smith said. “When no one found it, he would go back and dump four or five more [in the same location].”

The task force bought a $200,000 computer to process tips.People from all over the country sent in tips--40,000 of them--and even odd bits of what they were convinced was vital evidence.

But in the end, it turned out that the key to at least three of the cases was a bit of saliva on a piece of gauze from 1987.

“The fortunate and wise fact is that during that time [when he was under intense scrutiny] we asked Mr. Ridgway to chew on some gauze. That gauze has been preserved for these 20 years,” Reichart said. “Through great scientific work at the state lab, it was compared with some of the very old samples [of semen] from some of the few intact victims that we were able to recover . . . and those DNA [samples] and Gary Ridgway’s are the same.”

Officials are still hoping to find and test DNA evidence found on or near other corpses to see if it matches Ridgway’s. “We have 10,000 items of evidence,” including clothing, beer cans and cigarette butts as well as material retrieved from the corpses, said Sgt. John Urquhart of the King County Sheriff’s Office. “We believe some of them have DNA evidence on them.”

Added Reichart: “This is going to take a great deal of effort in the coming months, and maybe the next two or three years, to figure out.”

But patience is nothing new to detectives working on the Green River murders. “One of the characteristics of a good investigation is that you can never give up hope,” Reichart said, “because the victims’ families never give up hope.” Indeed, some of the detectives have stayed in touch with the victims’ relatives all these years, exchanging regular calls and letters, keeping the case alive.

The persistence paid off when the first DNA test results came in. Reichart said he was sitting in his office when Tom Jensen, “one of the old-time detectives,” came in and laid down some charts showing the DNA collected from two of the victims. “And then he flipped over a sheet of paper and . . . said, ‘Sheriff, here is the DNA of the Green River Killer.’ ”

Ridgway was put under surveillance immediately.

With a suspect in custody, Reichart took time Friday to savor the moment.

"[There was] a lot of negative press around the efforts of the task force detectives” in the 1980s, he said. “Cartoons that portrayed the task force as a task farce.” But even as critics were lampooning the task force, Reichart said, its members were identifying Ridgway “as one of the top five suspects out of thousands of tips.”

They kept him in their sights--and the victims in their minds--until they could collect enough evidence to arrest him.

“We did our job,” the sheriff said.

*

Marshall reported from Seattle and Cart from Denver. Times staff writer Stephanie Simon contributed to this report.


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