In 1982, the remains of a number of young women started to show up in the area surrounding Seattle. These women were all relatively young and shared a lifestyle, prostitution and street life, that made them easy targets for a killer. Before the slayings officially ended in 1998, a total of 42 women would be thought to be potential victims of the Green River Killer with the potential for many more being added to the list. Some believe that as many as 90 women may have been murdered by Gary Ridgeway. Ridgeway eluded police for almost two decades, even though he was a suspect in several of the disappearances, and was finally caught as a result of DNA evidence garnered from some of his earliest victims. This paper looks at the early life of Gary Ridgeway as it applies to the case, the murders themselves, how forensic evidence helped to solve it, the final capture and Ridgeway's day in court.
Gary Ridgeway was born in 1949 in Salt Lake City, Utah. He was one of three brothers, both of whom still live in the Salt Lake City area, and was the son of a domineering mother. One report says that Ridgeway's mother had such control over him that she remained on his checkbook even after he was married and always had to be consulted when major purchases were made (Lackey, Jones & Johnson, 2005). Ridgeway's mother, according to his first wife, dressed in tight clothes and used great deal of makeup. She apparently dominated the entire family throughout Ridgeway's young life, and was a major factor in the breakup of at least two of his marriages (Lackey, Jones & Johnson, 2005).
Ridgeway committed his first deadly act when he was 16 when he critically stabbed a six-year-old bot. The police did not pursue the complaint. He also, during his adult married life, had sexual needs that seemed to foretell his later obsession. A wife and a girlfriend later admitted that he liked to tie them up and choke them during sexual intercourse (Lackey, Jones & Johnson, 2005). Ridgeway went through three marriages and a number of girlfriends before the first killings began in 1982 when he was 33 years old (Prothero & Smith, 2007, 64).
Ridgeway would later claim that the fact that his mother was domineering and dressed like a prostitute had something to do with why he killed all of those women. He told the court, after he was sentenced, that "I also picked prostitutes as victims because they are easy to pick up without being noticed ... I thought I could kill as many of them as I wanted without being caught" (Young, 2008). It is interesting from a psychological point-of-view why Ridgeway wanted to kill these women in the first place. It is also compelling that he would do so while a massive investigation was happening all around him.
Most serial killers, like Gary Ridgeway, choose their victims based on a profile (Douglas, 2007). It is true that some of the victims did not fit the overall profile of teenage prostitute or runaway (several of the women were in their thirties), but they all lived on the streets and most were engaged in prostitution. Ridgeway supposedly killed 48 women, at least he has admitted to that many, but similar signatures have been found from Vancouver to Portland, and these murders, though many are not solved, are attributed to the Green River Killer (Guillen & Smith, 2003). But, unfortunately, many of the remains are too degraded to be able to yield a positive DNA match.
One of the issues that the police faced when the killings began in 1982 was that forensics were not to the level that the science needed to be in order to conclusively catch the killer. Ridgeway was a suspect beginning in May of 1983 (Lackey, Jones & Johnson, 2005) for the case involving Marie Malvar, but he was released after questioning. The problem that he was not considered a suspect in most of the murders was that no real evidence was found at the scenes much of the time (Guillen & Smith, 2003). The bodies were without clothes or any identification (Washington v. Ridgeway, 2003), and skeletal remains were all that remained when some victims were found.
Court documents from the 2003 case say that "During its investigation, the task force employed the most recent advances in forensic science. In 1988, detectives sent evidence associated with several victims to a private laboratory for DNA typing; however, based on the existing technologies, no DNA profiles could be obtained." The investigative taskforce used every means at its disposal to solve the crimes, including polygraph evidence, but fell short of identifying the culprit. Ridgeway passed a lie detector test, but another suspect, Melvin Foster, did not. "The failure of the polygraph test in the Green River Killer case in 1982 when an innocent taxi driver suspect named Melvin Foster failed the polygraph and continued to be the main suspect of the case" (Lewis & Cuppari, 2009). So, with even the methods considered most reliable providing false information, the investigators were left with little that they could do. The original task force disbanded in 1990, and was not reconstituted until 2001 when the forensic science allowed police a new tool toward the apprehension of the killer.
Capture and Court Proceedings
Many believed that the Green River Killer went on a spree that lasted approximately 26 months in which 46 women were found that met the type of murder ascribed to the Green River Killer (Lackey, Jones & Johnson, 2005). However, Ridgeway would later tell them that he continued to commit murders until at least 1998 (Washington v. Ridgeway, 2003). This is more consistent with the known profile of a serial killer. The individual is compelled, by some largely unknown force, to continue killing until they are caught (Douglas, 2007). Though Ridgeway was not as prolific after March of 1984, he remained active the final known murder in 1998.
The manner of capture is recorded in the annals of forensic science textbooks as one of the greatest validations of science in police investigation since its inception (Plummer, 2011). In 2001, DNA science had reached the stage where former evidence that was obtained from Gary Ridgeway and semen recovered from three of the bodies could be seen to match. The court documents state that
"Detective Tom Jensen submitted biological evidence from several victims to WSPCL for DNA typing. In September of 2001, WSPCL forensic scientist Beverly Himick analyzed the vaginal swabs from victim Marcia Chapman. She discovered that a partial male DNA profile on the swab was consistent with Ridgeway's DNA profile. Himick also analyzed pubic hairs from victim Opal Mills and discovered a male DNA profile that matched Ridgeway's" (Washington v. Ridgeway, 2003).
The DNA profile that the scientists used to compare was from a piece of gauze that a warrant had required Ridgeway to chew on during a search of his property in 1987 (Sable, 2005). This would seem to be a very lucky capture, but even in 1987, when DNA typing was in its infancy, police would collect swabs that were placed in a database which were later used to solve crimes such as the Green River murders.
Ridgeway believed that he would never be caught because he had successfully eluded police for almost two decades (Rule, 2004, 335), but a simple gauze pad eventually caused his downfall. The court case was structured around eight women that DNA typing had conclusively linked to Ridgeway. Due to the number of murders and the severity of the crimes, he face the death penalty which was seldom used in Washington State. The problem was that Gary Ridgeway did not want to…