Gary Ridgway

The Green River Killer

Gary Ridgway
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.


Childhood Years

Born on February 18, 1949, in Salt Lake City, Utah, Gary Ridgway was the middle son of Mary Rita Steinman and Thomas Newton Ridgway. From a very early age, Gary Ridgway was sexually attracted to his domineering mother.

When he was 11, the family moved from Utah to Washington State.

High School Years

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

Wife #1 and the Military

In 1969, when Ridgway was 20 and just out of high school, and with no college in his future, he decided to join the Navy rather than get drafted. He also 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 time in the military. He contracted gonorrhea for the second time, and although it angered him, he didn't stop having unprotected sex with prostitutes.

Claudia, alone and 19-years-old, began dating while Ridgway was in Vietnam and in less than a year the marriage ended.

Wife #2 Marcia Winslow

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 at home, and insisting that Marcia followed the strict preachings of the church pastor. Also during that time, Ridgway wanted Marcia to participate in having sex outdoors and in inappropriate places and he insisted on having sex several times a day. He also continued to pay prostitutes for sex throughout their marriage.

Marcia, who suffered from 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. This made Ridgway jealous and insecure and the couple began fighting.

The Mother-in-Law

Marcia struggled with accepting Ridgway's relationship with his mother, who controlled their spending and made the final decisions on their purchases. She went as far as buying Ridgway's clothing. She also accused Marcia of not properly taking care of their son, which Marcia always resented. Knowing Ridgway would never defend her, Marcia was left on her own to try to control her domineering 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.

Wife #3 Judith Mawson

Ridgway began dating several women he met at Parents Without Partners functions and it is where he met his third wife, Judith Mawson, in 1985. Judith found Ridgway to be a gentle, responsible and structured man. She appreciated that he had worked at his job as a truck painter for 15 years. To Judith, Gary Ridgway was the perfect mate. Before moving in together Ridgway went to the trouble to update the house, including replacing the carpet.

Unlike Marcia, Judith praised her mother-in-law for helping Ridgway handle things that were difficult for him, like his checking account and major purchases. Eventually, Judith took over those responsibilities, filling the shoes of Ridgway's aging mother.

The Green River Killer

It was around the middle of July 1982 when the first body was found floating in the Green River in King County, Washington. The victim was 16-year-old Wendy Lee Coffield, a troubled teen who had experienced few joys in life before she was strangled to death with her own panties and tossed like garbage into the shallow edge of the river. Without much evidence to go on, her murder remained unsolved, and the person responsible was dubbed the Green River Killer.

The King County police department had no way of knowing that Coffield represented the beginning of a savage killing spree that would last for years, with the majority of the murders occurring from 1982 through 1984.

Most of the victims were prostitutes or young runaways who worked or hitchhiked along an area of Pac Highway (Highway 99) which had regressed into being a two-lane strip of topless bars and cheap hotels. For the Green River Killer, this area proved to be a great hunting ground.

Reports of women and young girls disappearing continued. Discovering some of their skeletal remains clustered together in wooded areas along the Green River and around Sea-Tac Airport was also becoming far too regular an occurrence.

The victims ranged in ages from 12-15 to 31. Most had been left nude, sometimes with their fingernails clipped. The areas where the bodies were left were sometimes littered with gum or cigarette butts, food and road maps. Some of the dead bodies had been sexually abused.

The Green River Task Force was formed to investigate the murders and the list of possible suspects grew. DNA and sophisticated computer systems were not around during the early 1980s. The task force had to rely on old-fashion police work to piece together clues to profile the killer.

Serial Killer Consultant - Ted Bundy

In October 1983 Ted Bundy, who was sitting on death row, offered to help the task force find their killer. The lead detectives met with Bundy who gave insight into the mind of a serial killer.

Bundy said that the killer likely knew some of his victims. He also said more victims were probably buried in the dumping areas where victims had been found. Bundy also put a lot of significance into the different areas the bodies had been left, suggesting that each cluster or spot was set closer to the killer's home.

Although detectives found the information Bundy supplied as interesting, it did nothing to help find the killer.

The "A" List

In 1987 the leadership of the task force changed hands, as did the direction of how the investigation was conducted. Instead of trying to prove who the serial killer was, the task force took their list of suspects and worked on trying to identify who the killer wasn't. Those who could not be eliminated were moved up to the "A" list.

Gary Ridgway had landed on the suspect list because of two encounters he had with police in the early 1980s. In 1980 he was accused of choking a prostitute while having sex with her in his truck near the Sea-Tac Airport, which was an area where some of the victims had been discarded. When questioned, Ridgway admitted to choking her but said it was more in self-defense, because the prostitute bit him while performing oral sex. The matter was then dropped.

In 1982 Ridgway was questioned after he was caught in his truck with a prostitute. It was later discovered that the prostitute was Keli McGinness, one of the serial killer's victims.

The Polygraph Exam

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

In 1984 Ridgway was arrested for trying to solicit an undercover police woman posing as a prostitute. He was brought in for questioning and agreed to take a polygraph test which he passed. This incident and his relationship with Judith Mawson seemed to slow down Ridgway's murderous rage. Although past victims continued to be discovered, fewer reports of missing women were being reported.

Ridgway Makes the "A" List

Unable to eliminate Ridgway as a suspect, he moved up to the "A" list and was placed under police surveillance. The investigators scrutinized his work record and determined that he was never at work on the days that many of the victims had been reported as missing. Also, prostitutes along the strip had given police the description of a man who was seen cruising the area which matched Ridgway. This was also the road that Ridgway used to go to and from work.

On April 8, 1987, the police searched Ridgway's house which was tightly packed with objects he and his fiancé had collected from dumpster diving, attending swap meets and from dump sites where some of the Green River victims had been found. Salvaging other people's throw always was a favorite pastime that Ridgway and Judith Mawson both enjoyed. Sifting through all of it was a major challenge for the detectives.

Ridgway was taken into police custody where he passed a polygraph test and agreed to allow them to take hair samples and a saliva swab before he was released for lack of evidence.

Believing he had once again "fooled" the Green River Taskforce, Ridgway's confidence was riding high and soon he was back on the prowl.

Revitalized Task Force

In 2001 the Green River Task Force was made up of younger detectives, many of whom had been teenagers when the killings first began. This group had computers which helped create profiles based on sporadic evidence. They also had the advantage of DNA research which had advanced considerably over the past 15 years.

The DNA evidence which had been carefully taken and preserved by the past task force from the victims and Ridgway was invaluable in getting the evidence that was finally needed to capture and convict the Green River Killer.

The Green River Killer is Arrested

On November 30, 2001, Gary Ridgway was arrested for the 20-year-old murders of Marcia Chapman, Opal Mills, Cynthia Hinds, and Carol Ann Christensen. The evidence was a positive DNA match from each victim to Gary Ridgway. Later, paint samples matched up to paint spray used where Ridgway worked, and three additional victims were added to the indictment.

Worried that DNA could confuse a jury, the lead detective of the task force wanted more evidence. He interviewed Ridgway's ex-wives and old girlfriends and discovered Ridgeway had taken one girlfriend for picnics and outdoor sex in various areas he had used to cluster the bodies of his victims.

Death Penalty - Plea Bargain - Confessions

Ridgway knew he would be facing execution and he did not want to die. In a plea bargain, he agreed to fully cooperate with the investigation into the remaining Green River murders. For months detectives methodically interviewed Ridgway, getting details of each of the murders he committed. He took them to locations where he had left several of the bodies and disclosed how he killed each one and the evidence he left to throw off police.

Ridgway's preferred method of murder was strangulation. In the beginning, he used a chokehold then later he would use a ruler to twist fabric around the necks of his victims. Sometimes he killed his victims inside his house, other times he would kill them in the woods.

In one revealing confession which showed the deepest of Ridgway's darkest side, he said he would use a picture of his son to help gain the trust of his victims. 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, his answer was yes.

In the released video tapes of Ridgway detailing the murders to investigators, he confessed once to killing 61 women and in another tape, he said it was 71 women. But at the conclusion of the interviews, Ridgway could only recall 48 murders, all of which he said occurred inside King County, Washington.

On November 2, 2003, Ridgway pled guilty to 48 charges of aggravated first-degree murder. He also confessed to moving body parts to Oregon to throw off the investigation and to having sex with six of the bodies after he had killed them.

On December 18, 2003, Ridgway was sentenced to 480 years without the possibility of parole.

He is currently at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla, Washington.

Update: Feb. 8, 2011, 'Green River Killer' Victims Now Number 49.