With no small measure of pride, Gary Leon Ridgway says strangling young women was his "career."
"Choking is what I did," he boasted to investigators, "and I was pretty good at it."
For a serial killer in the United States, his career statistics are without peer. As the admitted Green River Killer, he has claimed responsibility for 48 documented corpses, with an estimated 12 more moldering in the woods. He killed for 20 years without getting caught -- a North American record for murderous longevity.
Ridgway's confession -- which he punctuated Nov. 5 by pleading guilty to murder 48 times -- took him five months to disgorge. The prosecution's 133-page narrative account of that confession offers a chillingly detailed and surprisingly literary look into his homicidal methods. As one reads it, expectations mount that detectives, prosecutors, state psychologists and Ridgway himself will unveil the nature of an evil that becomes more unimaginable -- and more nauseating -- as the body count clicks ever higher. Like the murders, the confession raises the inescapable question: Why?
As the narrative unfolds, what first becomes clear is that Ridgway took a more disciplined, careerist approach to serial murder than any other American ever has. He sweated every detail of finding, killing and disposing of human beings. Though his IQ tested in the low eighties and he barely made it through high school, he could recall each detail with a level of precision that staggered investigators.
Before his confessing began, Ridgway, now 54, had been remarkable for his ability to keep his mouth shut. Investigators say that from the time he started strangling prostitutes in 1982 until he cut the deal this year that spared him the death penalty, he never told anyone about his killings. After his arrest, his flabbergasted third wife, who'd been with him for 17 years, told one of his lawyers: "He treated me like a newlywed."
He kept no incriminating trophies of his kills. Police never found any evidence in his modest suburban house, although he said he strangled dozens of women there. He stripped jewelry from the bodies, sometimes leaving it in the women's restroom at the Kenworth Motor Truck plant in Renton, Wash., where he painted trucks for more than 30 years and won awards for perfect attendance. "My favorite thing was maybe if someone's walking around with a piece of that jewelry that they found in the bathroom," he told investigators.
He always wore gloves with his "dates." He would not pick up prostitutes unless they were alone. He bought new tires for his truck when he felt he'd driven too close to the site of a dumped body. He didn't smoke or chew gum, yet he left cigarette butts and gum wrappers near his victims' bodies as confusing clues. When one victim badly scratched his arm, he disguised the wound by basting it with battery acid. If a prostitute scratched or ripped his clothes, he would clip her fingernails before disposing of the body.
He was nothing if not pragmatic. He liked killing prostitutes, he said, because they were easy to pick up, they were slow to be reported missing, and, if they had any money on them, they ended up paying him for their own murder. Occasionally he would have sex with decaying corpses, not because he found dead women more exciting than live ones, he said, but because necrophilia was less risky than killing another woman. If he pulled a muscle while dragging a body out into the woods, he said, he would claim a work-related injury and collect worker's compensation.
Ridgway admitted, too, that he was sorely tempted to kill his mother, his second wife and his third wife (who began divorce proceedings after her husband's confession). His first wife cheated on him while he was away in the Navy and demanded a divorce when he got back in 1971; it is unclear why he never expressed an interest in killing her. His second wife, the mother of his son, reported that their marriage deteriorated in part because he liked to sneak up behind her in the woods and scare her; he choked her at least once before they were divorced. One reason he wanted to kill his second wife, Ridgway said, was to avoid being labeled as a "loser" with two failed marriages. Ridgway even thought about killing his son, Matt, who is now 28, married and living near San Diego.
In the end, though, Ridgway always passed on killing his kin -- because if someone close to him turned up dead, he might get caught.
It was after his second divorce in 1981, when he had custody of his son on alternate weekends, that Ridgway got very busy. He lost a lot of sleep between 1982 and '84, he said, killing at least 42 women. Then in 1985, Ridgway met his third wife at a gathering of Parents Without Partners.
By then, he was well acquainted with detectives from the Green River Task Force. He'd first been questioned in 1983, when someone told police they saw a young woman, on the night she disappeared, get into a truck similar to Ridgway's. He denied picking her up and police moved on. His name surfaced several more times, but Ridgway passed a polygraph test in which he denied killing any women. In 1987 he finally gave police something useful -- a saliva sample. Ridgway was caught in 2001, thanks to a DNA match using that saliva.
Everyone who knew Ridgway well expressed amazement. One brother, who grew up sleeping in the same bedroom and who had gone on family outings with him up until the time of his arrest, told police that Ridgway had never behaved abnormally. Longtime co-workers and former girlfriends echoed this assessment.
"He was not a loner," said the King County prosecutor in a summary of the evidence against Ridgway. "He controlled his anger, he had no significant [known] juvenile criminal history. . . . He was either married or had a steady girlfriend all of his adult life."
And yet the prosecution's summary asserts: "Those who thought they knew Ridgway best did not know him at all."
Ridgway's gift was to bury evil so deeply in the trappings of an ordinary life that it did not exist -- except on the nights when he was out polishing his career skills.
A Killer With Self-Control
Research has found that most serial killers were sexually and physically abused as children. In addition, many show symptoms of mental illness and have some form of physical brain dysfunction, such as fetal alcohol syndrome or injury from a fall.
For a long-practicing serial killer, however, these problems cannot be overwhelming.
"It takes somebody who is not seriously damaged to get away with it," said Jonathan Pincus, chief of neurology at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Northwest Washington. He has interviewed nearly 150 serial killers and is the author of "Base Instincts: What Makes Killers Kill." "Serial killers work in a meticulous manner. It is what they do."
The case of the Green River killer, who got away with more documented murders for more years than any American ever has (the world record is held by Pedro Alonzo Lopez, the "Monster of the Andes," who is believed to have murdered more than 300 young girls in Ecuador, Colombia and Peru in the late 1970s), suggests that he was in a class of his own when it came to riding herd on whatever demons motivated him to kill.
"His containment is amazing, especially given his pride in what he did," said Reid Meloy, a forensic psychologist and associate clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California in San Diego. "To have strong feelings of pride in one's career as a serial murderer and then not communicate that to anyone for 21 years is a measure of remarkable discipline."
Meloy, who specializes in the study of sexual and serial murder and is author of "The Psychopathic Mind," said Ridgway seemed to focus obsessively on self-preservation. "His sexualized homicidal aggression is very narrowly channeled and does not carry over into any other antisocial behavior," Meloy said.
Consider how Ridgway's self-control and polished homicidal techniques compare with three of the best-known serial killers of the past half-century.
Ted Bundy, who also killed young women in the Seattle area, as well as in Utah, Colorado and Florida, confessed to more than 20 murders before he was executed in 1989. Bundy, though, was not careful about making sure that his victims were alone when he tried to pick them up. Just a few months after he killed for the first time, police had a solid description of him and his car. He soon became a wandering and increasingly erratic fugitive killer. His career lasted about five years.
John Wayne Gacy, a building contractor who killed 33 young men in suburban Chicago, never figured out what to do with bodies. He buried many of them in the crawl space underneath his house, explaining to family and friends that the persistent stench was caused by "sewer problems." When police dropped by to ask Gacy about a missing boy, they recognized the smell immediately. Gacy's career lasted about six years.
Gerald Stano is Ridgway's closest competitor as a successful serial killer. He admitted killing at least 41 women in the early 1970s, shooting, strangling and stabbing them in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Florida. But one of his intended victims escaped and informed the police. His peripatetic career ended after 11 years.
Ridgway, by contrast, stayed close to home. The women disappeared just a few miles from where he grew up, where he worked and where he owned a house.
And Ridgway was careful about corpses. He made elaborate plans to dispose of bodies -- in the Green River, in ravines and along heavily wooded roads -- in such a way that the pattern did not suggest where he lived.
Ridgway silently rejoiced in his banality. He told investigators that it was the secret of his success.
"I look like an ordinary person," he said. "Here's a guy, he's not really muscle-bound. He's not, ah, look like a fighter. Just an ordinary john and that was their [the prostitutes'] downfall. My appearance was different from what I really was."
At Last, a Change?
At the end of their narrative, the prosecutors ask: Why did Ridgway kill?
It's a question that Ridgway himself was utterly incapable of answering. Queries about the torment he inflicted on his victims or their families seemed to puzzle him. The women he killed meant nothing to him, he said. So meticulous about everything else, he had a devil of a time remembering their faces.
And the prosecutors' answer was a non-answer: "He suffered from no mental illness that would absolve him of responsibility for these crimes. . . . In five months of interviews, he displayed no empathy for his victims and expressed no genuine remorse. He killed because he wanted to. He killed because he could. He killed to satisfy his evil and unfathomable desires."
As for remorse, one of Ridgway's lawyers, Michele Shaw, strongly disagrees with the prosecution.
It was Shaw, after meeting with Ridgway once a week for 17 months, who coaxed him to confess his crimes -- in exchange for life in prison. She broke through to his secrets, she said, on April 9 in the King County jail. She said she did it by telling him that his family would always love him, no matter what he had done.
The confession produced a major change in Ridgway's behavior, Shaw said. She describes his behavior since then: He frequently breaks down in tears. He worries about whether news of his crimes will ruin his elder brother's marriage. He thanks God that his mother (who died three months before his arrest) is not around to learn the truth. He talks about how any profits from a book or movie about his crimes should go to the families of his victims.
In Shaw's view, Ridgway does not fit the usual psychological profile of a serial killer. Defense psychiatrists, she said, found him to be devoid of any significant mental health problem or brain deficit.
"Gary doesn't fit the profile of anything," she said, eagerly showing a photo album of him on camping trips with his extended family. Both of his brothers have successful lives in Seattle, Shaw said; when Ridgway's older brother read the prosecution's summary, he "threw up all night."
In the family pictures, though, the Ridgways looks relaxed and happy. Gary, in particular, looks handsome, fit, normal.
"That is the mystery to all of this," the lawyer said.
There was, however, a problem with Mom.
Family pictures show her to be a shapely, dark-haired and attractive woman. She worked for most of her life as a salesclerk at JC Penney in Seattle. (His father was a bus driver who died in the early '90s.) Ridgway told the prosecution's forensic psychologist that, as a teenager, he was sexually attracted to his mother and that he fantasized about killing her because of what he'd been thinking about her.
When he was 15 or 16, Ridgway stabbed a 6-year-old boy, he said, just to see how stabbing worked. He told the psychologist that he was interested in stabbing because of his feelings about his mother. "I thought about stabbing her in the chest or in the heart maybe uh. . . . um. . . . maybe uh . . . cut her face and chest," he said.
Ridgway told the psychologist about wetting the bed until his early teens, and that he had vivid memories of his mother washing his genitals afterward.
When outside experts on serial murder learn about this, they pounce on its fundamental importance.
His mother's behavior, they agree, helps solve the mystery of Ridgway's motivation. They agree, too, that the washing was almost certainly part of a much greater pattern of inappropriate sexual contact.
"That is the tip of the iceberg," said Pincus, the neurologist in Washington. "Don't believe that that is the only thing that happened that was untoward."
To Meloy, the psychologist at UC San Diego, the implications are obvious.
"For an adolescent, having your mother wash your genitals would be highly exciting and arousing, but it would also be humiliating," he said. "With humiliation would come rage toward the mother. That is very common in serial murderers -- displaced matricide. Unconsciously, he is killing his mother over and over again."
Meloy said that although Ridgway's mother probably helped mold his psychopathic mind, her actions alone were an insufficient explanation for his behavior. Most sexually abused children don't become serial murderers. In all likelihood, Meloy said, something that was already a part of Ridgway's personality was set off by his mother's actions.
A substantial body of research with serial murderers suggests that a central aspect of their personalities is a callous and unemotional disregard for the rights and feelings of other people. It is something they are believed to be born with -- nature, not nurture.
"Science is now supporting what was conjecture 50 years ago, when we would talk about the bad seed," Meloy said.
Ridgway told investigators that there was something fundamental that was missing in him, something other people had.
"Caring," he said.
Still, he didn't believe he was such a bad guy. When a psychologist asked him to rate himself on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the worst kind of evil, Ridgway thought for a moment.
"I'd say a 3."
"Three?" the psychologist asked.
"Uh-huh," Ridgway affirmed. "For one thing is, ah, I killed 'em; I didn't torture 'em. They went fast."