The mystery of the Green River Killer, responsible for the longest string of serial killings in American history, appeared to be resolved once and for all yesterday when 54-year-old Gary Ridgway pleaded guilty to the murder of 48 young women in and around the Seattle suburbs over the past 20 years.
"I killed so many women I have a hard time keeping them straight," he said in a startlingly graphic statement read in court by the prosecuting lawyer. "My plan was I wanted to kill as many women I thought were prostitutes as I possibly could.
"I picked prostitutes as my victims because I hate most prostitutes and I did not want to pay them for sex. I also picked prostitutes for victims because they were easy to pick up without being noticed."
Ridgway, a painter at a trucking company described by co-workers as quiet but seemingly blameless, made his plea as part of a deal with prosecutors who have promised to spare him the death penalty in exchange for his continuing co-operation. He will almost certainly be sentenced to life imprisonment with no possibility of parole. He stands accused of abducting, mutilating and dumping the bodies of young prostitutes, drug addicts and runaways in and around the Green River, which runs just south of the Seattle-Tacoma airport.
The case baffled detectives for years. They often seemed on the verge of a breakthrough, but never quite managed to assemble sufficient evidence to make an arrest.
Ridgway himself was a suspect as early as 1983, a year after the first half-dozen bodies popped up in the river, but the case against him remained largely circumstantial until the development of DNA testing enabled prosecutors to tie the killings to a sample of saliva he had given them in 1987.
He was arrested two years ago and initially signalled his intent to plead not guilty. With the threat of the death penalty hanging over him, he slowly began to co-operate with his captors and allowed them to increase the number of murders associated with him from the seven for which he was originally arrested to yesterday's tally of 48. Although most of the killings took place in the early 1980s, the most recent case dated back only to 1998.
"Most of the time I killed them the first time that I met them and I do not have a good memory for their faces," he said in his startling statement read out in the King County courthouse in downtown Seattle. Some of the victims' relatives wept quietly as the statement was being read. "I killed most of them in my house hear Military Road and I killed a lot of them in my truck not far from where I picked them up," he added. "I remember leaving each woman's body in the place where she was found."
As many as 30 women remain unaccounted for and there are suspicions that prostitutes who vanished from British Columbia, across the Canadian border, might also have fallen victim to the Green River Killer. Two of the murders Ridgway confessed to took place in Oregon, where the death penalty could still be applied should he ever be extradited. Under his plea deal, he has agreed to continue co-operating with investigators for another six months.
The murders were as sordid as they were gruesome, focused almost entirely on women who frequented the "Strip", a stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway near the airport, which at the time was dotted with by-the-hour fleapit motels.
Many of the women showed signs of sexual assault, committed once they were already dead, according to prosecutors. Some were strangled with their own knotted panties and dumped with stones shoved inside them. One, 22-year-old Carol Christensen, was found with dead trout on her face and chest, a pile of sausages in her hand and an empty bottle of Lambrusco in between her legs.
"I placed most of the bodies in groups which I call clusters," Ridgway said. "I liked to drive by the clusters and think about the women I placed there."
Ridgway entered the investigation after the father and boyfriend of one of the victims, 17-year-old Marie Malvar, tracked down the truck that had picked her upand found it parked in his drive.
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