Reeling In A Monster

For nearly two decades, the keys to the identity of the Green River Killer sat in an evidence locker at the King County Sheriff's Office in Seattle: three tiny swabs of semen, recovered from the decomposing bodies of prostitutes who'd been early victims of the serial killer. But in the '80s, technicians couldn't identify a person using such small DNA samples, so Det. Tom Jensen knew he would have to wait for technology to catch up. That day wouldn't come until 2001, when Jensen decided to send the specimens, along with saliva and blood taken from three possible suspects, to the Washington state crime lab for advanced DNA testing. Stepping into Sheriff Dave Reichert's office, Jensen handed his boss an envelope and declared, "[The killer's] picture's in here." The sheriff, who'd been on the case since the beginning, in 1982, didn't have to be told who it was. Putting the envelope to his head, like Johnny Carson's swami on "The Tonight Show," Reichert said: "It's Gary Ridgway, isn't it?"

It wasn't until last week, in a Seattle courtroom, that Ridgway, a 54-year-old truck painter, finally spelled out the horror story. While the families of victims sobbed, an emotionless Ridgway stood in a red jail suit and blankly repeated the word "guilty," as prosecutors read off descriptions of 48 strangulation murders that stretched until 1998. In a plea-bargain agreement that spares his life, Ridgway admitted that "I killed so many women I have a hard time keeping them straight." Indeed, he now has the awful distinction of being the serial killer convicted of the most murders in U.S. history, ahead of John Wayne Gacy, who killed 33 young men and boys in Chicago in the 1970s.

Cops say Ridgway used a disarming normalcy to lure the young women into his truck. One night, he even took along his 7-year-old son, leaving the boy in the car while he had sex in the woods with Gisele Lovvorn before strangling her. (When his son asked what happened to the lady, Ridgway explained that she'd walked home.) With at least 10 of them, Ridgway had sex with the corpses before disposing of them. He dumped his first victims in the Green River south of Seattle, then later started burying them in what he called "clusters." Ridgway confessed to police earlier this year that he considered each victim "a beautiful person that was my property" and that he would get angry each time cops discovered a body. "It's about control with him," says Jensen.

Ridgway was arrested in 1982 for soliciting an undercover policewoman, and at least one prostitute reported that he'd tried to strangle her. Even Ridgway's second wife told police that he'd once choked her. But none of that was enough to build a case against him. Besides, he seemed more stable than most serial killers: he'd had girlfriends, been married, owned a house and held the same job since 1969. Linda Blaney, who worked with him at the Kenworth truck plant, thought he was "gregarious"--until one day in 2000, when he nearly ran her down with his pickup and laughed maniacally at her panic. "He looked just like Jack Nicholson in 'The Shining'," Blaney told NEWSWEEK. "That's when I knew."

Now that the families of the 48 victims finally know the truth, at least some are furious that Ridgway has been allowed to escape the death penalty. Prosecutors explained that without the plea bargain, dozens of families would never have gotten closure. "Why should these other families have to go through the pain of not knowing?" asks Kathy Mills, whose daughter Opal was killed in 1982. "Now they can have some peace." Yet there may have been even more victims. Ridgway told detectives he'd killed 60 women. King County detectives will still question him about several unsolved cases until he is sentenced next year. After that, cops in other jurisdictions will get their chance to grill Ridgway about unsolved murders in their areas. While the hunt continues, Seattle is slowly learning to look at the Green River as something other than a metaphor for mayhem.