It takes nine pounds of pressure to separate a man from his genitalia. I learned that once in a self-defense class.
“Then why aren’t they nicer to us?” someone in the class called out.
We all laughed, including me, even though I didn’t think it was funny. The class was taught by a Vancouver, Wash., police officer and offered to Court-Appointed Special Advocates, volunteers who represent abused and neglected children in Child Protective Services.
Gary Ridgway never worried about being separated from his genitalia. He admitted to having sex with and then killing at least 49 girls and women. He didn’t even need a gun. Most of his victims were teenagers, several were in their 20’s and a few in their 30’s. Most of them were white. Three of them were Jane Does; their remains revealed only their race and approximate age (two white, one black.)
It took a couple of decades for authorities to figure out that Ridgway was the Green River killer, even though they crossed paths with him several times. After he was caught, he still found a way to call the shots. He didn’t want the death penalty so he offered to exchange information about his victims and his methods of operating – provided he would receive a life sentence.
He spent 10 years and five months in solitary confinement at Washington State Penitentiary. This past May he was quietly moved via a $20,000 private plane ride to a federal prison in Florence, Colo., where he now lives among the general population and has access to more privileges.
His transfer only recently became public. As Ridgway’s luck would have it, the news about his move came at the same time that major media and Republican and Democratic political leaders alike have been calling attention to the cruel and inhumane treatment of inmates in solitary confinement. It wouldn’t be surprising if that helped reduce criticism about the secrecy of his move. His victims’ families and the detectives who worked his case weren’t even told.
Ridgway, who worked for more than 30 years as a painter for Kenworth Motor Truck Co., is now 66 years old. He looks harmless. In the general population he can place commissary orders and have visitors.
“Hey, Gary, how’s it going?” they could say to him. “They treating you all right in here?”
His son Matthew can take his collect calls and set up e-mail communications.
Nobody is going to ask 16-year-old Wendy Coffield how she’s doing. She was Ridgway’s first acknowledged victim. She left her foster home on July 8, 1982 and was never seen again. Two boys bicycling along the Peck Bridge in King County, Washington found her floating naked except for shoes and socks. Her jeans, underpants and shirt were wound around her neck, used as a ligature to strangle her.
Nor will anyone ask 16-year-old Kimi-Kai Pitsor how she’s doing. She disappeared in April 1983, and her skull was found eight months later. Two years later, the rest of her turned up along with the remains of two other young women at one of Ridgway’s dumpsites. Nobody knows who they are. One was a black woman between 20 and 25; the other was a Caucasian between 14 and 17.
Kimi-Kai Pitsor’s boyfriend had last seen her getting into a man’s truck, and in 1987 when detectives began focusing on Ridgway, they showed the boyfriend a photo montage. He identified Ridgway’s picture but said he was not “1,000 percent” sure.
In 2003, when Ridgway was finally in custody, detectives showed him a picture of Kimi-Kai Pitsor and told her where she was found. He recalled that she agreed to a “date” at his house in south Seattle if he would take her back downtown. In his words:
“There’s no way I’m going to waste my time having sex with her, pay her $40, or $30 or $60 or whatever. And then drive her all the way back into Seattle. That’s something I wouldn’t do. I would get her there and kill her. I’m not going to waste my money driving all the way back.”
The “Prosecutor’s Summary of the Evidence in State of Washington vs. Gary Leon Ridgway” runs 133 pages and offers details in how he killed 48 victims. In 2011, the remains of a 49th victim was found and was added to the official tally. Ridgway admits he cannot remember how many girls and women he killed, perhaps up to 70.
How does one man murder so many over two decades and get away with it? The secret to his success can be summed up in three words found in recent news stories about his prison transfer: “Dozens of young women, mostly street prostitutes, were murdered and dumped by Ridgway in South King County, many along the banks of the river that lent the killer its name.”
“Mostly street prostitutes.”
Had they been drug dealers who had run-ins with the cops or been sent to prison, they could have engendered sympathetic support from the President of the United States, who would have dismissed their crimes as non-violent. But many of Ridgway’s victims were drug buyers. As the prosecutor’s summary points out, the crack epidemic benefited Ridgway.
During extensive interviews with detectives, he couldn’t recall specifics about “his” girls and women, just where he dumped their bodies and maybe what the weather was like.
“(T)he women’s faces don’t … don’t mean anything to me … There were … the bodies, if they had a … had a pussy, I would screw and that was it.”
Teenage girls were easier to con than women, he said. He liked “half and half” – oral sex followed by intercourse.
“He wanted them as naked as possible,” detectives said in the prosecutor’s summary.
When Ridgway took victims to his house, he would ask them if they wanted to use the bathroom before sex. From experience he knew that when he strangled them they would likely become incontinent.
“I didn’t want them to shit in the bed,” he told detectives.
He also perfected his strangling technique. He told detectives that if his victims started to fight back, he would tell them that if they stopped struggling, he would let them go. It made them easier to kill.
“I wasn’t gonna let her go,” Ridgway said. “It was just my way of lying to her to keep her from fighting. She stopped fighting and I just kept on chokin’.”
Mary Meehan, 19 and seven months’ pregnant (but not showing enough to hurt business, according to her boyfriend) angered Ridgway because she would only give him oral sex. Ridgway told detectives he was “paying for the vagina.”
Constance Naon, 20, wouldn’t let Ridgway touch her breasts, he said. This made him angry. Immediately after he strangled her, he bit her breast.
Colleen Brockman, was 15 and still had braces on her teeth. Ridgway killed her in the back of his truck. As he strangled her, she begged for her life. He told her, ‘Don’t fight I’m not gonna … I’ll let you go.’ Then he put his foot into her neck and finished killing her.
Marie Malvar, was 18. Her boyfriend last saw her getting into a pickup truck, and five days after she disappeared he recognized the pickup parked at Ridgway’s house. Detectives contacted Ridgway, and he admitted using prostitutes, but he denied picking up Marie. Case closed. Ridgway had 18 more years ahead of him.
Ridgway blamed Patricia Yellowrobe, for her own death when she failed to perform adequately and bring him to climax.
His 49th victim was Becky Marrero, 20, killed in 1982, but her remains weren’t found until December 2010.
This week, Mary Marrero, visited her sister’s gravesite at Riverton Crest Cemetery in Tukwila, and called Ridgway a “heartless psychopath who took pleasure in strangling women.” She wanted to know why he deserved special treatment at a Colorado prison.
Former King County Sheriff’s Detective Dave Reichert who worked on Ridgway’s case, said that “the visions” of seeing Ridgway “playing shuffleboard or poker with his buddies in a (prison) day room are offensive.”
Yes it is, but I found it offensive years ago when Reichert was elected to Congress perhaps on the publicity he received when Ridgway was finally captured. Would it have taken the police that long to find such a prolific killer if his victims had been the daughters of congressmen and bankers and college professors?
In reading the prosecutor’s summary, what stands out is how Ridgway went back again and again to the same stretch of Pacific Highway South, the same string of motels, the same 7-Eleven to pick up prostitutes for “dates.”
Further indication of the lack of priority (and worth) of these lives is that in 1992 the task force assigned to the killings was reduced to one detective — Tom Jensen. In 2001, with new advances in DNA testing, he sent evidence from several victims to the Washington State Patrol Crime Laboratory. The DNA came back linked to a saliva sample police had taken from Ridgway in 1987. (He first came to the attention of police in 1983.)
Were it not for improvements in DNA testing, Ridgway might still be prowling Pacific Highway South.
The prosecutor’s summary concludes with a feeble attempt at reassurance: “This nightmare is over.”
It’s not over, and it will never be over. It would have been more accurate to sign off with: “That nightmare is over, on to the next one.”
Which is why Court-Appointed Special Advocates were provided with that self-defense course I attended (although men also serve as Court-Appointed Special Advocates, the course was designed for women).
To add a different spin on a popular quote by Ta-Nehisi Coates: It is traditional that some men will want to destroy the female body simply because they can – it is their heritage.
It was Gary Ridgway’s heritage. His life matters.
– Pamela Fitzsimmons