The Green River Killer: Gary Ridgway

The prolific serial killer pleaded guilty to murdering 48 women

Gary Ridgway
Mug Shot

Gary Ridgway, known as the Green River Killer, went on a 20-year killing spree, making him one of the most prolific serial killers in U.S. history. He was finally caught and convicted based largely on DNA evidence.

Childhood Years

Born Feb. 18, 1949, in Salt Lake City, Utah, Ridgway was the middle son of Mary Rita Steinman and Thomas Newton Ridgway. From an early age, Ridgway was sexually attracted to his domineering mother. When he was 11, the family moved from Utah to Washington State.

Ridgway was a poor student, with a below average I.Q. of 82 and dyslexia. Most of his teenage years were unremarkable until age 16 when he led a 6-year-old boy into the woods and stabbed him. The boy survived and said Ridgway walked away laughing.

First Wife

In 1969, when Ridgway was 20 and just out of high school, he joined the Navy rather than be drafted. He married his first steady girlfriend, Claudia Barrows, before going to Vietnam.

Ridgway had an insatiable sex drive and spent a lot of time with prostitutes during his military service. He contracted gonorrhea and, although it angered him, he didn't stop having unprotected sex with prostitutes. Claudia began dating while Ridgway was in Vietnam and in less than a year the marriage ended.

Second Wife

In 1973 Marcia Winslow and Ridgway married and had a son. During the marriage, Ridgway became a religious fanatic, proselytizing door-to-door, reading the Bible aloud at work and home, and insisting that Marcia follow the church pastor's strict preaching. Ridgway also insisted that Marcia have sex outdoors and in inappropriate places and demanded sex several times a day. He continued to hire prostitutes throughout their marriage.

Marcia, who had a serious weight problem most of her life, decided to have gastric bypass surgery in the late 1970s. She quickly lost weight and for the first time in her life, men found her attractive, making Ridgway jealous and insecure. The couple began fighting.

Marcia struggled to accept Ridgway's relationship with his mother, who controlled their spending and made decisions on their purchases, including buying Ridgway's clothing. She also accused Marcia of not properly taking care of their son, which Marcia resented. Since Ridgway wouldn't defend her, Marcia was left on her own to compete with her mother-in-law.

Seven years into the marriage the couple divorced. Later Marcia claimed that Ridgway placed her in a chokehold during one of their fights.

Third Wife

Ridgway met his third wife, Judith Mawson, in 1985 at Parents Without Partners. Judith found Ridgway to be gentle, responsible, and structured. She appreciated that he had worked as a truck painter for 15 years. Before moving in together, Ridgway updated the house.

Unlike Marcia, Judith praised her mother-in-law for helping Ridgway handle challenging tasks for him, such as his checking account and major purchases. Eventually, Judith took over those responsibilities.

The Green River Killer

In July 1982, the first body had been found floating in the Green River in King County, Washington. The victim, Wendy Lee Coffield, was a troubled teen who had experienced few joys in life before she was strangled with her panties and tossed into the river. With sparse evidence, her murder remained unsolved. The assailant was dubbed the Green River Killer.

King County police couldn't know that Coffield would be the beginning of a killing spree lasting for years, the majority of the murders occurring from 1982 through 1984. Most victims were prostitutes or young runaways who worked or hitchhiked along an area of Highway 99 full of topless bars and cheap hotels. For the Green River Killer, it was a great hunting ground. Reports of women and young girls disappearing continued. Discovering skeletal remains in woods along the river and around Sea-Tac Airport was becoming regular. The victims ranged in age from 12 to 31. Most were left nude; some had been sexually abused.

The Green River Task Force was formed to investigate the murders, and the suspect list grew. DNA and sophisticated computer systems weren't around during the early 1980s, so the task force relied on old-fashioned police work to piece together a profile.

Serial Killer Consultant: Ted Bundy

In October 1983 Ted Bundy, who was on death row as a convicted serial killer, offered to help the task force. The lead detectives met with Bundy, who provided insight into a serial killer's mind.

Bundy said that the killer likely knew some of his victims and that more victims were probably buried in the areas where victims had been found. Bundy put significance on those areas, suggesting that each was close to the killer's home. Although detectives found Bundy's information interesting, it didn't help find the killer.

The Suspect List

In 1987 the task force leadership changed hands, as did the direction of the investigation. Instead of trying to prove who the serial killer was, the group worked on eliminating suspects, moving those remaining to the "A" list.

Ridgway made the original list because of two encounters he had with police. In 1980 he was accused of choking a prostitute while having sex with her in his truck near Sea-Tac, an area where some victims had been discarded. Ridgway admitted to attempting to choke her but said it was in self-defense because the prostitute bit him while performing oral sex. The matter was dropped.

In 1982 Ridgway was questioned after he was caught in his truck with a prostitute. The prostitute later was identified as Keli McGinness, one of the victims.

Ridgway was questioned in 1983 after the boyfriend of a missing prostitute identified Ridgway's truck as the last truck his girlfriend had gotten into before she vanished.

In 1984 Ridgway was arrested for trying to solicit an undercover policewoman posing as a prostitute. He agreed to take a polygraph test and passed. This and his relationship with Mawson seemed to slow Ridgway's murderous rage. Although past victims continued to be discovered, fewer women were reported missing.

The "A" List

Ridgway moved up to the "A" list and was placed under surveillance. Investigators scrutinized his work record and determined that he wasn't at work on many of the days victims had been reported missing. Also, prostitutes along the strip gave police a description of a man they'd seen cruising the area, which matched Ridgway. This was also the road Ridgway took to and from work.

On April 8, 1987, the police searched Ridgway's house, which was packed with objects he and Mawson had collected dumpster diving, attending swap meets, and searching sites where Green River victims had been found. Salvaging other people's throwaways was their favorite pastime.

Ridgway was taken into custody, and he allowed police to take hair and saliva samples before releasing him for lack of evidence. Believing he had once again "fooled" the task force, Ridgway went back on the prowl.

Green River Killer Is Arrested

By 2001 the task force comprised younger detectives familiar with computers and knowledgeable about DNA research, which had advanced considerably. DNA evidence carefully preserved by the past task force proved invaluable in capturing the Green River Killer.

On Nov. 30, 2001, Ridgway was arrested for the 20-year-old murders of Marcia Chapman, Opal Mills, Cynthia Hinds, and Carol Ann Christensen. The evidence was DNA matches from each victim to Gary Ridgway. Also, paint samples matched with paint used where Ridgway worked. Three additional victims were added to the indictment. The lead detective, interviewing Ridgway's ex-wives and old girlfriends, discovered he had taken one girlfriend for picnics and outdoor sex in areas where he had clustered bodies.

Confession and Plea Bargain

In a plea bargain to avoid execution, Ridgway agreed to cooperate with the investigation into the remaining Green River murders. For months Ridgway disclosed details of each murder he had committed. He took investigators to locations where he had left bodies and disclosed how he killed each one.

Ridgway's preferred method of murder was strangulation. He started with a choke hold and later used a ruler to twist fabric around the victims' necks. Sometimes he killed them inside his house, other times in the woods.

In one confession that revealed Ridgway's darkest side, he said he used a picture of his son to gain his victims' trust. He also admitted to killing one of his victims while his young son waited in the truck. When asked if he would have killed his son had the son realized what he was doing, he said yes.

He confessed once to killing 61 women and another time 71 women. At the conclusion of the interviews, Ridgway could recall only 48 murders, all of which he said occurred in King County.

On Nov. 2, 2003, Ridgway pleaded guilty to 48 charges of aggravated first-degree murder. He also confessed to having sex with six of the bodies after he had killed them and to moving body parts to Oregon to throw off the investigation. On Dec. 18, 2003, Gary Ridgway was sentenced to 480 years without parole. As of July 2018, he was in the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla.