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Wednesday, November 5, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Ridgway pleads guilty to 48 Green River murders

Seattle Times staff reporters

Gary Leon Ridgway, who today pleaded guilty to the murders of 48 women, said he killed prostitutes because he hated them, didn't want to pay them for sex, and because he knew he could kill as many as he wanted without getting caught.

Methodically, he placed their strangled bodies in what he called "clusters," often near landmarks, to help him keep track of the women.

But after so many, not even Ridgway, the confessed Green River Killer, could remember who was who.

"I killed so many women, I have a hard time keeping them straight," Ridgway wrote in a 16-page statement read by King County prosecutors yesterday as part of an historic plea deal sparing Ridgway's life.

He killed most of them in his home off Military Road in the Auburn area, some in his truck, and took most of their jewelry and clothes to make it hard for anyone to identify them, his statement said. He said he would sometimes drive his truck past the dump sites to remind himself of the murders.

In the end, Ridgway pleaded guilty to 42 of the 49 killings investigators had originally attributed to the Green River Killer, and six additional murders that had not previously been attributed to him.

The confession made him America's most prolific convicted serial killer. Ted Bundy was convicted of only three murders in Florida in the 1970s, but later admitted to as many as 36. John Wayne Gacy was convicted of killing 33 boys in Chicago in the 1980s.

One by one, lead prosecutor Jeff Baird read names, dates and locations. To each name, Ridgway laconically acknowledged the murder with a simple "Yes."

"In most cases, when I murdered these women, I did not know their names," Baird read from Ridgway's statement. "Most of the time I killed them the first time I met them, and I do not remember their faces."

He faces life in prison without the possibility or parole or release. A sentencing date is pending.

Ridgway stood impassive, reading along on his own copy of the statement, as Baird read off a roll call of the dead:

Wendy Coffield, July 1982, her body dumped in the Green River.

Debra Bonner, July 1982, her body dumped in the Green River.

Marcia Chapman, August 1982, her body dumped in the Green River.

The list went on.

Bodies were left near the southern boundary of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, off Star Lake Road in Federal Way, in a wooded area in Maple Valley, off Highway 410 in Enumclaw. So many bodies, so many clusters, so many families left without a loved one.

Ridgway, the 54-year-old truck painter from Auburn who lived most of his life a relative nobody, stood with his head down. His almost-congenial expression never changed. Not when the first name was read, not when the 15th name was read, not when the 48th name was read.

Twenty years of murders, beginning in 1982 with Coffield and ending in 1998 with the strangulation of Patricia Yellow Robe.

King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng said he spent three weeks considering the plea deal before agreeing to spare Ridgway's life. But in the end, he decided that trying Ridgway for a few murders would leave too many questions unresolved, and too many families wondering about the fate of their loved ones.

"Gary Ridgway does not deserve mercy, and Gary Ridgway does not deserve to live," Maleng said at an emotional news conference following the hearing.

These were "young women who had troubles to be sure, that's part of the human condition, but who also had hopes, aspirations and dreams...

"Their families deserved to know the truth... That is why we entered into this agreement."

King County Sheriff Dave Reichert, who was one of the first detectives to be summoned to a Green River crime scene more than 20 years ago, said Maleng made a "bold decision." Then, with tears in his eyes, Reichert read off each of the victims' names.

"There is no joy or celebration on this day," he said. "Rather, it is a day to pay tribute to those stolen lives... and offer thoughts and prayers to their families."

The plea agreement, read aloud in King County's largest courtroom, brought at least partial closure to a mystery that had baffled investigators for more than two decades.

But for a region that has waited so long to see an end to this saga of abduction and death, experts and the investigators themselves have two simple words: Keep waiting.

"It will solve the mystery of who the Green River Killer is," said Robert Keppel, a former King County Sheriff's detective, now a college professor and expert on serial killers.

"Obviously that's a high point. But it ain't over. I don't think the book is going to close at all. The process won't end until the detectives quit."

And the detectives of the Green River Task Force say that just isn't going to happen.

"There's still more to investigate," said John Urquhart, Sheriff Dave Reichert's spokesman. "We're not going to fold our tents any time soon."

That, in large part, is because even as Ridgway pleaded guilty to killing scores of women, the limitations of the deal will leave lingering questions:

Who else did he kill? And if Ridgway didn't kill the others, who did?

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.

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.

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.

The hearing was set in the vast ninth-floor presiding judge Richard Jones' courtroom at the King County courthouse, and even then seating was by reservation only. Security was so tight that people needed police-approved credentials just to get into the hallways outside.

Abiding the judge's instructions, the crowded courtroom remained quiet throughout the proceeding. But the tears began for many of the victims' family members and friends when prosecutor Baird began to read aloud the litany of charges against Ridgway.

Some family members said afterwards it was simply hearing their loved one's name and knowing that this was likely the final time they would hear it spoken in an open courtroom that brought tears. For others, it was the matter-of-fact way the charges were read that underscored the horror and the enormity of Ridgway's crimes.

"It was hearing name after name after name like that that was terrible," said one woman who didn't want to be identified.

"There were so many girls. It just didn't seem real," said Linda Rule of Everett, whose daughter Linda Jane Rule was the 19th woman Ridgway pleaded guilty to killing. "All those girls were nothing to him. They were garbage. But every one of them had people who loved them. They had families."

Since the Ridgway investigation started springing leaks last spring that Ridgway was cooperating with investigators and perhaps leading them to long-lost victims, attention has steadily escalated to the point that yesterday Ridgway was a lead news item as far away as Europe.

Leading to the hearing today, the public and the media had almost taken as fact that Ridgway had owned up to more than 40 slayings between 1982 and 1998 in exchange for being spared the death penalty.

Until this morning, Ridgway had officially pleaded not guilty to seven of the Green River killings, including the deaths of the only women who were found in and along the Green River itself.

Prosecutors acknowledged yesterday that a plea deal had been in the works for months, and that Ridgway had signed an agreement in June of this year.

While some of the families of the victims opposed the agreement, Baird noted that the deal "contains the name of 41 victims who would not be the subject of state v. Ridgway if it were not for the plea agreement."

One of the victims never on the Green River list was Marta Reeves, 36, a married mother of four who was found dead in 1990 after disappearing from a Seattle street.

Yesterday her family sent a statement to the sheriff's office, approving of the plea deal:

"The Family of Marta Reeves wishes to express its gratitude to the Green River Task Force for their efforts finally to bring this tragic episode to a certain conclusion," husband Hal Reeves said.

"While the decisions of the Task Force have been difficult, they have been necessary to allow this closure and certainty which was long awaited and badly needed. Our family will always remember Marta as a kind and loving wife and mother."

When Ridgway was arrested in November 2001, after DNA evidence tied him to some of the killings, Reichert made a point of saying it was too early to call Ridgway the Green River killer.

Yesterday, his office still wouldn't apply the title.

"I don't think we're ever going to call him the Green River killer, as such, because we don't put those labels on things," Urquhart said.

But the public does, Urquhart acknowledged. And he agreed that the public perception of Ridgway is what counts: "He is charged with what we call Green River victims." he allowed.

But before the hearing today, investigative sources said Ridgway would not be admitting to all of the 49 slayings on the Green River list, though he would admit to several that are not on the list.

The plea deal was specifically limited to King County killings, so Ridgway could still be open up to a death-penalty prosecution in another county or state.

Keppel notes that one Green River victim, Colleen Brockman, 15, who disappeared from Seattle in December 1982, was found dead in Pierce County near Sumner, just across the county line, in May 1986.

And the remains of four women Shirley Sherrill, Denise Bush, Tammie Liles, Unidentified remains on the official Green River list were found in Oregon, near the cities of Tualatin and Tigard. And Oregon has a death penalty, too.

Keppel, among others, says a Ridgway plea is almost sure to leave those deaths as mysteries for now.

And in the end, today's hearing likely has not answered some of the biggest questions that have haunted police and the public through four governors and five county sheriffs.

"In terms of answering questions of details of the murders, or motives for the murders - and how he beat us for so long - we're not going to get that," Keppel said.

"And it's hard for me to believe this guy has said all he could say about all of these murders."

Ray Rivera: 206-464-2926 or rayrivera@seattletimes.com; Ian Ith: 206-464-2109 or iith@seattletimes.com Staff reporter Christine Clarridge contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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