Gary Leon Ridgway, an unassuming 54-year-old truck painter who admitted that he was the Green River killer, pleaded guilty Wednesday to 48 murders over a span of two decades in what he said was a crusade to kill as many prostitutes as he could without getting caught.
Ridgway appeared in a courtroom packed with quietly weeping relatives of victims. He confessed to more murders than any serial killer in U.S. history -- and prosecutors hinted that Ridgway's victim list could grow.
Judge Richard Jones read each aggravated first-degree murder charge out loud, naming each victim. Ridgway, standing 10 feet away, methodically answered "guilty" 48 times. There was no variation in his voice. He was emotionless but alert throughout the 90-minute hearing.
"I do not have a good memory of their faces," he said in a statement read by prosecutors. "I killed so many women, I have a hard time keeping them straight.
"I picked prostitutes as my victims because I hate most prostitutes and I did not want to pay them for sex."
Ridgway killed most of his victims in his home or truck, strangling them, stripping them of clothes and jewelry, and then dumping them in clustered areas around King County. He said he drove by the sites often and thought about the bodies.
Ridgway struck a plea agreement that will spare him the death penalty for the murders he has admitted committing. He could face execution if convicted of other killings.
Jones said Ridgway would serve consecutive life sentences without parole for each murder. A sentencing date will be announced next month.
"If it were up to me, I would rather they put him to death today," said a shaken Deborah York, the aunt of one of the first victims. The body of her niece Cynthia Jean Hinds was found in August 1982. "He doesn't deserve to live another day."
King County Sheriff Dave Reichert said after the hearing that Ridgway is a suspect in several unsolved slayings, and is a person of interest in killings in other counties. Ridgway told investigators he recalled killing as many as 54 women in King County. One source close to the investigation said Ridgway's victim list could grow by more than a dozen.
Prosecutors said Ridgway may have started killing as early as the 1970s and continued until at least 1998. One investigator said there was evidence that Ridgway may have continued his rampage until he was arrested two years ago.
Ridgway, long a suspect in the case, was arrested Nov. 30, 2001, as he left his job at Kenworth Truck Co. in Renton, where he has painted trucks since 1971. He was initially charged with four of the Green River murders, based on DNA evidence.
Advances in DNA technology allowed investigators to test a swab of saliva taken from Ridgway in 1984. His DNA matched that of semen found in the bodies of those four victims. Investigators later charged him in three more killings, and were collecting evidence in other slayings when the plea bargain was struck.
Ridgway had been a suspect as early as 1984, when the boyfriend of victim Marie M. Malvar reported that he last saw her getting into a pickup truck identified as Ridgway's.
But Ridgway told police he did not know Malvar. Later that year, Ridgway contacted the King County sheriff's Green River task force -- ostensibly to offer information -- and passed a polygraph test.
After his arrest in 2001, Ridgway's attorneys said he initially denied killing anybody. But when his attorneys detailed the overwhelming evidence against him, Ridgway confessed. Attorney Mark Prothero said Ridgway agreed to plead guilty for a simple reason. "He wanted to live," Prothero said.
The agreement was made June 13. Ridgway has been cooperating with authorities ever since, directing them in more than two dozen searches. The searches yielded four sets of remains of Green River victims.
Ridgway picked up many of his victims along a busy stretch of Highway 99 south of Seattle in what are now the communities of SeaTac and Tukwila. The SeaTac Strip, as it was known, was heavily trafficked by prostitutes. The bodies of the first victims were found in or along the Green River, which runs from the Cascade Mountains through forested areas south of Seattle. Ridgway lived in what is now the city of SeaTac before moving to the nearby suburb of Auburn.
The victims -- prostitutes, runaways and drug addicts -- were all strangled and then dumped in rivers, ravines and wooded areas, often outside small towns such as North Bend, Kent and Snoqualmie.
"I killed most of them in my house near Military Road, and I killed a lot of them in my truck, not far from where I picked them up," Ridgway said in his statement. "I killed some of them outside. I remember leaving each woman's body in the place where she was found."
Ridgway dumped them in clusters of three, four, five and six, "because I wanted to keep track of all the women I killed," he said in his statement. "I liked to drive by the clusters around the county and think about the women I placed there. I usually used a landmark to remember a cluster and the women I placed there."
The murders became notorious through the 1980s, as the number of victims grew. Police were accused of being lax in the initial stages of the investigation. The killings didn't affect most residents of the Puget Sound area because news reports made it clear that the victims were people who lived on the fringe. Apprehension, however, spread among prostitutes and street people.
Ridgway, a slight, bespectacled man with thinning hair, told detectives that he was asked by about 50 prostitutes over the years whether he was the Green River killer, as police and news accounts refer to the murderer. He said he used his small stature to convince them he couldn't be. The killer, he told them, had to be a big, strong man, and they believed him.
Ridgway's guilty pleas place more murders on his record than any other American killer, topping such notorious names as Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy.
Dahmer killed 17 men and boys in the Milwaukee area between 1978 and 1992. Bundy, from Tacoma, Wash., was convicted of three slayings but confessed to more than 30 killings before his execution in 1989. And Gacy, of suburban Chicago, killed 33 people in the 1970s.
King County prosecutor Norm Maleng initially said he would never agree to a plea bargain for Ridgway. But he said he changed his mind after talking with investigators and victims' relatives who wanted the killings resolved. The plea agreement allowed authorities to close many more cases than if prosecutors had pursued a trial.
"This agreement was the avenue to the truth," Maleng said. "In the end, the search for truth is why we have a criminal justice system."
Many of the estimated 70 relatives held a news conference after the hearing. They praised the prosecutor's office for making the deal.
One of Ridgway's attorneys, Anthony Savage, said his client appeared to be remorseful for his crimes. Savage said, however, that something is "clearly out of whack" in Ridgway's psyche even though he passed all of his evaluations and has never been treated for mental illness.
When asked what drove Ridgway to kill, Savage answered with one word: rage.
Savage said he didn't know where the rage came from.
"The last thing I want to hear is how hard his childhood was," said Gail Manuel, mother of April Dawn Buttram, who disappeared 20 years ago. Buttram's remains were found last month outside the town of Snoqualmie.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Victims of Green River Killer
Gary Leon Ridgway pleaded guilty Wednesday to aggravated first-degree murder in the deaths of these 48 women, listed in order of their disappearances:
1. Wendy Lee Coffield, 16. Found in Green River July 15, 1982.
2. Gisele Ann Lovvorn, 17. Found Sept. 25, 1982, south of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
3. Debra Lynn Bonner, 23. Found Aug. 12, 1982, Green River.
4. Marcia Faye Chapman, 31. Found Aug. 15, 1982, Green River.
5. Cynthia Jean Hinds, 17. Found Aug. 15, 1982, Green River.
6. Opal Charmaine Mills, 16. Found Aug. 15, 1982, Green River.
7. Terry Rene Milligan, 16. Found April 1, 1984, southern King County.
8. Mary Bridget Meehan, 18. Found Nov. 13, 1983, south Seattle suburbs.
9. Debra Lorraine Estes, 15. Found May 30, 1988, Federal Way.
10. Linda Jane Rule, 16. Where, when remains found not immediately available.
11. Denise Darcel Bush, 22. Body appears first to have been left in wooded area south of Seattle. Some skeletal remains found there Feb. 10, 1990. Skull found June 12, 1985, in Tigard, Ore.
12. Shawnda Leea Summers, 17. Found Aug. 11, 1983, north of Sea-Tac Airport.
13. Shirley Marie Sherrill, 18. Remains found June 14, 1985, Tigard, Ore., along with those of Denise Bush.
14. Colleen Renee Brockman, 15. Found May 26, 1984, near Sumner, Pierce County.
15. Alma Ann Smith, 18. Found April 2, 1984, in Star Lake area.
16. Delores LaVerne Williams, 17. Found March 31, 1984, near Star Lake.
17. Gail Lynn Mathews, 24. Found Sept. 18, 1983, near Star Lake.
18. Andrea M. Childers, 19. Found Oct. 11, 1989, south of SeaTac.
19. Sandra Kay Gabbert, 17. Found April 1, 1984, Star Lake area.
20. Kimi-Kai Pitsor, 16. Skull found Dec. 15, 1983, near Auburn cemetery. Other remains found there January 1986.
21. Marie M. Malvar, 18. Found Sept. 29, 2003, near Auburn.
22. Carol Christensen, 21. Found May 8, 1983, Maple Valley.
23. Martina Theresa Authorlee, 18. Found Nov. 14, 1984, near Enumclaw.
24. Cheryl Lee Wims, 18. Found March 22, 1984, north of SeaTac.
25. Yvonne Shelly Antosh, 19. Found Oct. 15, 1983, near Lake Sawyer.
26. Carrie A. Rois, 15. Found March 10, 1985, in Star Lake area.
27. Constance Elizabeth Naon, 21. Found Oct. 27, 1983, south of SeaTac.
28. Kelly Marie Ware, 22. Found Oct. 29, 1983, south Seattle suburbs.
29. Tina Marie Thompson, 22. Found April 20, 1984, near state Highway 18 and Interstate 90.
30. April Dawn Buttram, 17. Found Aug. 30 and Sept. 2, 2003, in forest area east of Seattle.
31. Debbie May Abernathy, 26. Found March 31, 1984, east of Enumclaw.
32. Tracy Ann Winston, 19. Found March 27, 1986, near the Green River.
33. Maureen Sue Feeney, 19. Found May 2, 1986, near North Bend.
34. Mary Sue Bello, 25. Found Oct. 12, 1984, east of Enumclaw.
35. Pammy Avent, 16. Found Aug. 16, 2003, near Enumclaw.
36. Delise Louise Plager, 22. Found Feb. 14, 1984, east of North Bend.
37. Kimberly L. Nelson, 26, Found June 14, 1986, near North Bend.
38. Lisa Yates, 26. Found March 13, 1984, east of North Bend.
39. Mary Exzetta West, 16. Found Sept. 8, 1985, in Seattle's Seward Park.
40. Cindy Anne Smith, 17. Found June 27, 1987, near Green River Community College.
41. Patricia Michelle Barczak, 19. Skull found in 1993 in Auburn.
42. Roberta Joseph Hayes, 21. Found Sept. 12, 1991, east of Enumclaw.
43. Marta Reeves, 37. Remains found September 1990 near Enumclaw.
44. Patricia Yellow Robe, 38. Found Aug. 6, 1998, in vacant lot on Des Moines Way South near Highway 99.
In addition, Ridgway admitting killing four unidentified women.
He did not enter pleas in seven deaths previously attributed to the Green River Killer, though he remains a suspect in those deaths.
Source: Associated Press