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Thursday, December 18, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Ridgway sentenced to life in prison

Seattle Times staff reporter

In a Seattle courtroom crowded with hundreds of people, a judge asked for 48 seconds of silence, one for each of Gary Ridgway's victims, then sentenced the Green River killer to life in prison and a fine of $480,000 - $10,000 for each girl and young woman he killed in a two-decade murder spree.

King County Superior Court Judge Richard Jones listened to four-hours of testimony from family members of Ridgway's victims before handing down the sentence.

In tones of sadness, anger, and sometimes forgiveness, families told of girls and young women, sometimes troubled, whose lives were ended cruelly before they had a chance to live.

"He's destroyed my life, he's destroyed my daughter's life," said Carol Estes, mother of 17-year-old Debra Estes, who was among Ridgway's earliest victims in 1982. "He's going to go to hell and that's where he belongs, and that's all I have to say."

"I was only five when my mother died and my dad told me I would never see her again," said Sarah King, daughter of Carol Christensen, whose body was found in 1983 in Maple Valley. "The one thing I want you to know is that there was a daughter at home, I was that daughter at home, waiting for my mommy to come home.

"I'm glad you didn't get (the death penalty)," King added, as tears streamed down her cheeks, "because death is too good for you. You'll die someday, and you'll go to that place, and you'll get what you deserve."

Some family members wished upon Ridgway a torturous death at the hands of his fellow inmates in prison.

More than two dozen families attended Ridgway's sentencing hearing and about 20 families spoke, each allowed 10 minutes.

The prosecutors also received 19 letters, which they forwarded to the judge. The judge said he had received many more directly.

The testimony was capped by a short statement from Ridgway himself.

"I'm sorry for killing all those young ladies," said Ridgway, 54, said in his first public statement since pleading to the murders last month. "I'm sorry for the scare I put into the community."

Sniffeling and wiping away tears, the former truck painter said he has tried to remember as "much as I could to help detectives find and recover the ladies."

Of the victims they couldn't find, he said: "May they rest in peace. They deserve a better place than where I gave them... These ladies, they had their whole life ahead of them. I'm sorry for causing so much pain too so many families."

Prosecutors agreed not to seek the death penalty against Ridgway in exchange for his guilty pleas and cooperation in finding the bodies of his victims.

Before passing sentence, Jones ordered Ridgway to turn around and scan the crowded courtroom.

"Mr. Ridgway, those are the families and friends of the people you killed," the judge said. "If you have a drop of emotion, you will be haunted by them for the balance of your life."

Many of Ridgway's victims were prostitutes, drug users and runaways, women he felt were easy targets and would not be missed.

But these were also women who had "unexplored dreams, hopes, aspirations and families that loved them deeply," said Jones.

In a plea to their families, Jones asked them not to harbor thoughts of revenge. Instead, he asked them to turn their thoughts to other people on the fringe who can still be helped.

"In this community there are hundreds of women who don't have families who love them," he said. "Find them, help them... In this way you can give (the victim's) life true meaning and dignity."

With today's sentencing, the history of the most notorious serial-murder case in Washington will mostly be left to epilogue.

The true-crime books will be written and television documentaries filmed. Ridgway will be driven to a prison. And most of the detectives of the Green River Task Force will pack their files into boxes, turn out the lights and lock the doors of the South Seattle office where Ridgway lived for months as he revealed his life as a serial killer.

Ridgway was arrested on Nov. 30, 2001, after DNA evidence linked him to some of the victims. In June of this year, prosecutors and Ridgway entered and agreement that spared him the death penalty in exchange for his guilty pleas and for help solving additional cases.

Over the next several months, Ridgway led investigators to the remains of four victims whose bodies had not been found and claimed over 60 murders in King County.

Ridgway told investigators that he killed mostly 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. He called the young women "garbage."

Anger seethed from some family members today over Ridgway's characterization of his victims.

"I'll see you in hell," said one mother. "You can rot in hell," said another family member.

Vicky Ware, whose 22-year-old sister Kelly Ware disappeared July 19, 1983, wished upon Ridgway "a long, suffering cruel death, hopefully terminal cancer."

Virginia Graham, sister of Debra Estes, said her sister, "was not the trash you said she was."

"Debbie turned 15 just days before she disappeared," Graham added. "She loved horses, and like most children she liked to ride her bike and play tag in the woods."

Several family members they said Ridgway would find death at the hands of his fellow inmates in prison.

"If I could do what I want to do right now, you'd be gone right now," said Jose Malvar, Jr., older brother of Marie Malvar, 18, who disappeared in 1983. Her body was found outside a ravine in Auburn this year.

"I'm angry, I will always be angry," her brother said. "I will never have my sister in my life. You broke my family apart. For 20 years, a lot of birthdays and a lot of Christmases were broken apart. I hope you rot in hell, you son of a bitch."

Surrounded by his defense team, Ridgway looked attentively at the faces of his victims' family members as they spoke, nodding in the occasional instances when families offered forgiveness.

"Gary Leon Ridgway, I forgive you, I forgive you," said Kathy Mills, mother of Opal Mills, whose body was found on the banks of the Green River in 1982. "You can't hold me anymore, I'm through with you... If this event today does not break your evil spirit, I don't know what would."

Ridgway wiped tears from his eyes as Robert Rule, father of 1982 victim Linda Rule, forgave him.

"Mr. Ridgway, there are people here who hate you, I'm not one of them," Rule said. "I forgive you for what you've done. You've made it difficult to live up to what I believe, and that is what God says to do, and that is forgive, and he doesn't say to forgive just certain people, he says forgive all. So you are forgiven. My daughter was 16 at time you killed her. My wife and I were separated, and she had to live on the street. She did things I may not have been proud of, but she was still a little girl."

One of Ridgway's attorneys, Michele Shaw, said she will read a letter crafted by Ridgway's family, including his two brothers, his son in San Diego, a niece in California and one of his former wives. They did not attend the sentencing.

"We grieve the losses and our profoundly sorry that so many have suffered for so many years," the letter said. "Be assured that we were shocked that Gary could do the things that he has admitted to doing. Clearly there were two Gary Ridgways... The Gary we saw was a reliable, dependable, conscientious guy... Had we ever seen anything improper, we would have brought it to the attention of law enforcement."

So many reporters and true-crime writers from across the country had asked to attend the hearing that the judge assigned seats by lottery and excluded many reporters.

Like Ridgway's guilty-plea hearing, the sentencing was aired in entirety, and rerun repeatedly, on the King County cable-television channel, CTV. The plea hearing generated the highest viewership the public-access channel has had recently, said Frank Abe, a spokesman.

After sentencing, Ridgway was expected to be taken to the state prison at Shelton, Mason County, where he will be held and evaluated until his long-term cell assignment is arranged.

Savage presumes he will be held in protective custody, at least for the time being.

Department of Corrections officials said Ridgway will likely end up in the Walla Walla or Clallam Bay prison. Both have facilities to hold inmates in "close custody," where they have a few cellmates but are watched carefully, or in "administrative segregation," in which a prisoner is kept from most other inmates altogether.

It's unlikely Ridgway will end up in the general prison population anytime soon. "We try to err on the conservative side rather than the permissive side" when it comes to inmate safety, said Jim Thatcher, the chief of classification for the Corrections Department.

Meantime, back in Seattle, the Green River Task Force should be all but a memory by April, said John Urquhart, the sheriff's spokesman.

Already detectives, including longtime task-force spokeswoman Kathleen Larson, have been reassigned to new duties.

Once all the evidence, reports and equipment are boxed up and stored, the keys to the task-force headquarters on East Marginal Way South in South Seattle will be handed back to county bureaucrats to reassign the space.

In the end, the task force will be right back where it was until 2001, when a DNA sample led the investigation to Ridgway and reignited the case.

Only one or perhaps two detectives will be left to sift through tips and try to tie up loose ends, Urquhart said.

But a few searches for victims' remains likely will be launched in the spring. Detectives plan to keep working to identify the unidentified victims. And soon, police from other counties will be looking to see if Ridgway is tied to other slayings.

"The intense stuff is over, and there's definitely a scaling back," Urquhart said. "But we still have investigating to do. Let's not assume the last chapter has been written, because perhaps it hasn't."

Staff reporter Michael Ko contributed to this report. Ray Rivera: 206-464-2926 or rayrivera@seattletimes.com. Ian Ith: 206-464-2109 or rayrivera@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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