The Green River Killer: Gary Ridgway

Gary Ridgway’s mugshot in 1992 (left) and 2001 (right) | Courtesy of CBS News

The women in King County, Washington, lived in fear of the Green River Killer from 1982, when the first victim’s body was found face down in the Green River, to 2001 when he was finally caught. Nobody would have guessed that the person responsible for over seventy murders was their town’s local trunk painter, Gary Ridgway. From 1982 to 2001, the number of dead runaways and prostitutes piled up around the Seattle area. It took police two decades to finally put this man behind bars and it was all thanks to a new style of DNA testing.

Detectives discovering a body in King County, where the Green River Killer was known to dump his bodies| Courtesy of A&E

All of Ridgway’s victims had a similar profile: they were all either prostitutes or runaways. Ridgway later stated that “[he] picked prostitutes as [his] victims because [he] hated them and did not want to pay them for sex.” His main method of killing was strangling the victims in either his home or his truck. He would then throw the bodies in grass areas or into the Green River. He would often return to the dumpsite to have sexual intercourse with the corpses. Little did Ridgway know, his necrophilia was what would get him caught.1

A key victim in this case was Marie Malvar, a seventeen-year-old who had begun selling herself to men, likely because her boyfriend was a pimp. While she and her boyfriend were out one night, she left and got in a pickup truck. Her boyfriend began to follow it to make sure she was okay; unfortunately for Malvar and her boyfriend, the driver got away because of a stoplight. Little did her boyfriend know that that was the last time he would see Malvar. He and her family began intensively searching for her. Fortunately enough, her boyfriend got a good look at the truck, and he recognized it when they were out searching for Malvar and anything that could bring her back home safe. The truck he recognized was parked outside of the house that belonged to Ridgway. When police were informed about him, they questioned Ridgway, but they could not legally arrest him because they found no further evidence with which to charge him. Malvar later became known as the first victim linked to Ridgway. It took decades to discover Malvar’s body in 2003.2

Police sketch of Ridgway | Courtesy of True Crime Magazine

Another key victim in this murder investigation was a woman named Kim Nelson, a twenty-three-year-old who disappeared while in Seattle in 1983. While Nelson was out at night, a woman spotted her getting into a man’s truck. She was lucky enough to get a look at the man who was driving the car. With this information, the witness went to the police and began describing the man to a sketch artist. Soon after this, the police realized that the sketch looked a lot like Ridgway, who was still at the top of the list of suspects because of Malvar. They then showed the witness photos of men that fit the profile she described, and she pointed to Ridgway immediately.3

This created probable cause and allowed police to bring in Ridgeway and take bodily fluid samples from him as DNA evidence. It also gave police a warrant to search his truck and house, none of which had any type of evidence to connect him to any of the victims. This ultimately led to a killer being let back on the streets of King County.3

Piles of bodies began to be found all over the Seattle area, not just in the Green River, but also scattered around the woods. As the investigation went on, the police became aware that the Green River Killer tended to have sex with his victims postmortem. Because of this, the police were able to collect semen samples from multiple victims.5

Unfortunately, the forensic technology they had at that time was not advanced enough to connect the collected evidence to a person. This eventually led to Dave Reichert bringing in Beverly Himick, a DNA analyst, to work on the case. By the time Himick was on the case in 2001, there were very little semen samples left because of all the failed attempts to match the DNA with the killer. The only thing she had to work with were cotton swabs with very little DNA on them; little did they know, the cotton swabs would be the key to breaking the case. Himick used a new technique called Short Tandem Repeat (STR), which allowed her to create a genetic profile of the Green River Killer. This connected him to four victims. After this, Himick put the information into the national DNA database, which then led them straight to Ridgway.6

Another piece of evidence that was used in trial against Ridgway was the paint on three of the victims’ clothes. The paint particles were so small that they could only be seen using a high-powered microscope. This was discovered by a forensic scientist named Skip Palenkik. Although this may not seem like much, the type of paint that was found on the clothes was unique. This type of paint was not sold in stores because it was made specifically for car painting. The paint matched the kind that was used at Ridgway’s job. This made it extremely difficult for the jurors to think that Ridgway was somehow not the Green River Killer.7

The victims Ridgway pleaded guilty to murdering during his trial in 2003 | Courtesy of CBS News

After the Green River case remained open for twenty years, Ridgway was finally arrested at his worksite in November of 2001 for the murder of four women, and he went willingly to the station. At first, he pleaded not guilty; however, with all the evidence that was piled up against him, Ridgway decided to plead guilty to forty-eight murders that he committed in the span of two decades. To avoid the death penalty, Ridgway made a deal with the police, telling them that he would take them to find all of the bodies that he had left over the years.8

Ridgway admitted to dumping the women in threes “because [he] wanted to keep track of them all.” This was ultimately why Ridgway was able to take police to all of the sites and the only reason that he did not face the death penalty while on trial.9  Although Detective Reichert knew that this might anger some of the victims’ families, he stated that “the majority of the families were understanding and in agreement that it was probably the best decision given the circumstances.”10

Ridgway at trial for his 49th victim | Courtesy of CBS News

Finally, in December of 2003, the jury convicted Ridgway on forty-eight consecutive murder charges without the possibility of parole. He was put in the Washington State Penitentiary in 2002. While Ridgway was behind bars, more and more bodies were discovered that were linked to him. In February 2011, another body was discovered that was connected to Ridgway, to which he again pleaded guilty, giving him another life sentence. In 2013, Ridgway claimed to have killed over eighty women, but that has not yet been proven. In 2015, he was transferred to USP Florence, a high-security federal prison in Colorado, which is where he remains to this day.11

Gary Ridgway is the second most prolific serial killer in the United States. There have been multiple movies made about the Green River Killer and numerous books about his unbelievable story. Although it took twenty years, justice was finally served for the eighty plus women who were murdered at the hands of Ridgway. That would not have been possible if it were not for the advances that were made in forensic technology, which is what brought the key factors to the forefront to solve this once cold case. After 2001, when Ridgway was arrested, women were able to walk the streets again without having to fear the infamous Green River Killer.

  1. “In Plea Deal, Green River Killer Admits He Murdered 48 Women,” Los Angeles Times, November 6, 2003. https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2003-nov-06-na-green6-story.html.
  2. Anne Rule, Green River, Running Red The Real Story of the Green River Killer—America’s Deadliest Serial Murderer (New York, NY: Free Press, 2004), 107-109.
  3. “Gary Ridgway: “The Green River Killer” – Serial Killer Documentary,” video file, 5:02, YouTube, posted by Serial Killers Documentary, July 9, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PuokSat3y6o
  4. “Gary Ridgway: “The Green River Killer” – Serial Killer Documentary,” video file, 5:02, YouTube, posted by Serial Killers Documentary, July 9, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PuokSat3y6o
  5. “Gary Ridgway: “The Green River Killer” – Serial Killer Documentary,” video file, 5:02, YouTube, posted by Serial Killers Documentary, July 9, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PuokSat3y6o
  6. “Gary Ridgway: “The Green River Killer” – Serial Killer Documentary,” video file, 5:02, YouTube, posted by Serial Killers Documentary, July 9, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PuokSat3y6o
  7. Brooke Kaelin, “How Forensics Finally Caught Up With The Green River Killer,” Forensic Science Degree (website), November 11, 2015. https://www.forensicsciencedegree.org/how-forensics-finally-caught-up-with-the-green-river-killer/.
  8. Wilmot Matthew, “ Sparing Gary Ridgway: The Demise of the Death Penalty in Washington State 41, no., 2 (2005): 435-456.
  9. “In Plea Deal, Green River Killer Admits He Murdered 48 Women,” Los Angeles Times, November 6, 2003. https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2003-nov-06-na-green6-story.html.
  10. “Green River Killer Avoids Death in Plea Deal,” CNN Cable News Network. Accessed October 30, 2019. http://www.cnn.com/2003/LAW/11/05/green.river.killings/.
  11. Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia, 2018, s.v. “Gary Ridgway,” by Kennedy Adrienne.

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80 Responses

  1. It is honestly horrifying how one person can do so many cruel and disturbing things to other innocent people. This was my first-time hearing about The Green River Killer and the victims of it and it is quite sad how there was not enough evidence to put him behind the bars after the first suspicions and how he felt as if he was never going to get caught since there was no evidence to present him as the criminal. What is even more sad is how his victim’s souls could not peacefully rest even after death because of his disgusting obsession with postmortem.

  2. I had never heard of this story before which baffles me because it seems like the story is very famous. This was a very interesting article and I find it crazy that he admitted to over 80 murders. 80 lives taken by the hands of one man and I am happy he is behind bars withering away. It is scary just how evil and twisted person can be and the acts that they can commit. It is great that we were able to bring justice to all the individuals whose lives were taken. This is why it is awesome that we are having such advances in technology because we were able to bring a monster like this to justice.

  3. I had heard about the Green River Killer, but I never knew the complete extent of his crimes. I am so thankful for the advancement of forensic science because Ridgway was able to to get away with his crime for 20 years and maybe more if the forensic DNA had not advanced enough to catch him. The article was well-written, but I wish there was a little more information on the trial and process of finding all of the victims.

  4. I had never heard about this but the article was very intriguing and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. I would like to know more about what caused him to this and this might mean researching his past as most serial killers as prolific as him have gone through some sort of mental or physical trauma during puberty. This article also leaves me to wonder how many cases are just waiting for better technology to be solved and for justice to be delivered.

  5. I think I had only heard of the green river killer once. This article really helped me know his story. It is so crazy that he confessed to 80 different murders. It is always tragic to have to read about these murderers who took lives if innocent people. It is so disgusting how this man was able to keep going and no feel any remorse for the lives he took. Regardless of how disgusting this individual was, it is very amazing how well this article was written and helped guide me to know more about these victims stories.

  6. I am glad that they were able to catch this serial killer, even though it took them so long and resulted in more deaths. If DNA technology did not improve, Ridgeway would have probably gotten away with more murders. I wonder why Ridgeway only stuck to prostitutes and runaways. Most serial killers I have read about expand their “profile” once they have killed a large number of people. While he did move more into Seattle, I would not really consider that expanding the profile. Glad that creep is off the streets.

  7. This article was so interesting. I have never heard about the Green River Killer, but personally I am very interested in reading about stories like this one. I think it is insane how this was over two decades and he actually confessed to over 80 murders. I think it is so crazy that someone can get away with murders like the way these murders were executed. This was a well written and really interesting article!

  8. I have never heard of the Green River Killer up until now, and this article was very interesting. Though the time span was two decades, the action of killing 80 women is absolutely absurd. Along with him dumping the bodies, but his necrophilia actions were the most disturbing part. It is very unfortunate that DNA testing was not that advanced as it is now because we could have caught him so much sooner than that. Other than that, this was a very interesting article!

  9. The story was very interesting, I had never heard about the Green River Killer. Reading the story in a way it gave the chills because of the murders he had gotten away with it over the years. It surprises me that he actually confessed to 80 and more of the murders he committed. In a way it goes to show how heartless this individual is, I can’t even begin to imagine the pain all the families went through until they finally got justice. It is amazing that they were able to catch him and bring justice to all the families after all this year.

  10. This story was unbelievable! I had never heard about the Green River Killer before this article but his story was very intriguing. I can’t believe he confessed to over 80 murders and had gotten away with it for many years. That is so scary. I can’t even imagine the pain the families felt waiting so long for justice to be served. I’m so grateful that forensic science has advanced. It was very well written and loved the article.

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