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Sunday, December 2, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Ridgway: Nice, but a bit odd

Seattle Times staff reporters

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THE SUSPECT: Gary Ridgway first came to the attention of police in 1983 because his pickup resembled one connected with one of the disappearances. In 1984, he took and passed a polygraph test. In 1987, police searched his home but had insufficient evidence to hold him. Now, the King County sheriff says DNA testing has linked him to some of the deaths.

Gary Leon Ridgway bicycled, camped and picked blackberries with his then-wife in isolated areas where bodies were later found.

He scrounged for garage-sale goods in illegal dump sites where bodies were later dumped.

He was caught by police parked with a prostitute on a dead-end road not more than 100 feet from where two women's bodies were later found.

Today's other main stories

:: THE CASE: Ridgway awaits charges; detectives scour homes
:: THE INVESTIGATION: Officers recall frustrations of the hunt
:: THE VICTIMS: Victims' families feel some comfort in arrest
For nearly 20 years, there were signs that he might be responsible for the Green River killings. But detectives, despite searching his home and vehicles and hooking him up to a lie detector, were unable to make a case against him until last week.

Born in Utah and raised near SeaTac, Ridgway is a Tyee High School graduate who served a short stint in the U.S. Navy and then went to work painting trucks. He was set in his ways, holding garage sales as his parents had, taking rolls of $20 bills to pick up prostitutes, and keeping the same job for the past 32 years.

Friends knew him as a friendly, if overbearing, meticulous man who liked to read the Bible at work. He did not smoke but occasionally drank Bud Lite beer in cans. He liked collecting garage-sale junk.

At 24, he married a Seattle woman who bore him a son, then moved out for unspecified reasons just before the boy turned 5. By age 33, Ridgway was divorced, paying $275 a month in child support, seeing his son every other weekend — and picking up prostitutes.

In May 1982, he was arrested in a prostitution sting. Two months later, the Green River killings began. At least 49 women disappeared over the next 19 months.

On Friday, King County deputies arrested Ridgway, now 52, in connection with four of those killings.

Ridgway's activities drew police suspicion in 1984, after he contacted Green River task-force members to tell them about a prostitute he knew. Police later figured he was trying to find out what they knew about him. Detectives found he had contact with at least three of the victims. Ridgway had even been accused of choking one who got away.

Yet police didn't find a trace of physical evidence — not a hair, not a fiber — to tie him to any crime when they searched his house and numerous vehicles in 1987.

About the same time, Ridgway got a new girlfriend, Judith Lynch, whom he eventually married. Both friends and police say that made a big difference in his life.

"They adored each other," a neighbor said. "They did absolutely everything together. They walked the dog together. They gardened together. When you're around people who really care deeply about each other and are always considerate of each other, you can tell."

During this period, the Green River killings appeared to have stopped — and police said they believed the killer might be dead or in jail.

Gary Ridgway was the middle child of three sons born to Tom and Mary Ridgway. Tom Ridgway worked as a bus driver while the boys grew up in the house in the 4400 block of South 175th Street, east of the airport. His route included the Sea-Tac strip. Friends say he used to complain about the prostitutes on the strip. Tom and Mary Ridgway died in recent years.

A high-school friend and classmate of Gary Ridgway's in the mid-1960s said she felt "absolute shock" when she heard he had been arrested.

"As soon as they announced the name, I started getting the annuals out, and that's what made it real," Terry Rochelle said.

Rochelle recalled going to school dances with a group of friends that included Ridgway and his older brother, Greg. She said Greg was active in school, running for class office, but Gary "was the one that was always just the opposite ... he wasn't someone that would really stand out."

As a student, Ridgway seemed to have a mischievous streak, Rochelle said: "The guy in class that's going to always be in trouble, that'd be Gary. Not a bad guy, just always in trouble. All he had to do was open his mouth and he'd be in trouble."

As a young adult, Ridgway was set in his ways, living in the same area of the same county and holding the same type of garage sales his parents had held. He was repeatedly involved with prostitutes. After a failed attempt to join a local police department, Ridgway started working as a truck painter on the night shift at Kenworth Truck in Renton, a job he still holds.

He'd arrive at work with lunch in hand, usually dressed neatly in jeans and a plaid or cowboy shirt. He'd drink tea and, more often than not, leaf through a Trade N Save or a Nickels Worth. Before hitting the floor, he'd head to the bathroom to spritz his hair in an outdated '50s style that made co-workers snicker. Throughout the day he'd comb his mustache.

"He was so particular about his appearance he reminded me of a rooster in a chicken yard," said Martha Parkhill, who worked with him for a decade. "He held his head high and almost strutted."

In more than a dozen interviews with current and former co-workers — some of whom worked beside him for two decades or more — the same descriptions surfaced again and again:

Hard worker. Smart. Meticulous. Nice. Friendly.

Often too friendly.

"We've all had people who tried too hard to be your friend," said Bob Schweiss, who worked in a neighboring department at Kenworth before being laid off last year. "That was Gary. He was out-of-the way friendly. Creepy-friendly. Just goofy." Ridgway, who'd worked at Kenworth since 1969, was often the first to introduce himself to newcomers and welcome them.

"My first day on the job, Gary walked right up to me and shook my hand and said, 'Rich, how you doing?' even though I'd never seen him before," said Richard Boltz, a union representative who ate lunch with Ridgway every day.

But he was also the first person newcomers heard whispers about.

He was "Wrong Way Gary," or "River-runner Ridgway" or "Green River Gary." Some simply called him G.R., liking the double entendre. Everyone knew he'd once been a suspect in the killings, but since nothing came of it, many dismissed it. But no one brought the subject up with Ridgway.

Douglas Cady, who worked near Ridgway for 24 years, remembers him talking about everything from coffin sizes to swap meets to infighting among his in-laws over the proceeds of his dead mother's estate.

A few months ago, Cady said, Ridgway even volunteered to help him find a prostitute. Cady couldn't tell if Ridgway was joking.

"He wanted me to know that if I was interested in a girl he could help me find one," Cady said. "I took it with a grain of salt. Most of the time, we didn't stick around long enough to find out what he was saying."

Parkhill recalled Ridgway gently grilling her after she married.

"He was very interested in who this person was that I met and did I really love him and did we have a good relationship," Parkhill said. "I felt cornered by him, but he kept trying to keep the conversation going. He was a nice man, but you never felt comfortable around him."

In fact, several women who worked with him say he made them feel uncomfortable.

"He would come up behind you and massage your shoulders and neck and stuff and make weird comments about your appearance," Parkhill said. "If a woman changed anything about her appearance, no matter how little, he'd be the first to notice."

Yet when he came to work one day and said he'd married his current wife, some co-workers were floored. A lot of them knew about his divorce, but few knew he'd been dating again.

Ridgway had been living alone in a small gray rambler on a cul-de-sac near where a lot of Green River victims had disappeared from prostitution hang-outs on Pacific Highway South. While living there, he met Lynch, who became his second wife.

"He had a house and Judith was a girlfriend who suddenly appeared," neighbor Scheline Wright said. "We did a neighborhood wedding."

Neighbors had of course known that Ridgway was a suspect in the Green River murders, but they knew he had not been charged.

"We all sort of rallied around him," Wright said.

But an accusation like that doesn't disappear without leaving marks. Wright remembered a later incident in which Judith Ridgway said she had broken a necklace in a truck and was irritated because police seemed convinced the necklace had belonged to a murder victim.

Ridgway's current wife, ex-wife and son, who is now 26, could not be contacted for this story.

Not long after the wedding, the Ridgways moved away, Wright said. Their house had been shown on television, and curiosity-seekers used to drive along the street.

In their new house in Kent, in the 2100 block of 32nd Place South, neighbors said the Ridgways got along famously.

But according to one neighbor, Gary Ridgway seemed to develop an obsession with a particular problem that was occurring in the neighborhood: prostitutes turning tricks in cars on the dark and quiet streets.

"He'd go door-to-door and tell neighbors, 'Did you know prostitutes are having sex in cars on the street and throwing condoms out the windows?' " said former neighbor Janine Mattoon, who lived next to him. "He made sure we were aware of that, and I always thought, 'Gosh, this guy is kind of fixated on this.' "

Though Ridgway "was basically a nice person," Mattoon said, "he grated on our nerves and just kind of irritated a lot of us." It was little things he did, such as organizing a garage sale if another neighbor was already planning one — even going so far as to advertise his as a "Ten-Family Garage Sale" when he was the only one selling, Mattoon said.

Three years ago, Gary and Judith Ridgway moved to another house, 10 miles south, in the 4600 block of South 348th Street in Auburn. It was a four-bedroom home on a nearly acre-sized lot on a dead-end street.

"I'd go over and have a beer with him, sometimes a half-hour, sometimes an hour," said next-door neighbor Clem Gregurek. "We'd talk about yardwork, gardening."

It was while living there that Gary Ridgway was arrested for only the second time in his life. It was another prostitution sting operation just two weeks ago. He pleaded guilty and was fined $700.

On Friday, he was arrested again for a far more serious crime.

Duff Wilson can be reached at 206-464-2288; Craig Welch can be reached at 206-464-2093. Seattle Times reporters Peyton Whitely, Jake Batsell, Nancy Bartley, Chris Solomon, Miyoko Wolf and Sara Jean Green contributed to this story.

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