The Most Bizarre Things About The Green River Killer

The following article includes mentions of murder and sexual assault.

Green River Killer Gary Ridgway was the ultimate chameleon. Maybe that's true for many serial murderers, but none have lived non-descript working-class lives as long as the man who haunted the Pacific Northwest for nearly 20 years. He got away with more slayings, for a longer period of time than any other American serial killer, according to The Washington Post.

To his acquaintances and family, he was reserved, even-tempered, ordinary. He was a "model neighbor" and even "overly friendly," observed one slightly annoyed neighbor. "When I was out in the yard, I couldn't get anything done because he wanted to talk all the time," Seattleite Paul Winkle told The News Tribune. But conversations with Gary were never about anything. It was all idle chit-chat. Ridgway was a monster wearing the mask of a dull suburban family man.

It was this "banality" of evil, as writes The Washington Post, that kept Ridgway free and on the hunt for so long. But to the women he attacked, he was anything but banal. Rebecca Guay was 19 in 1982. She got into Ridgway's truck like so many others but became one of the few to escape this maniac's clutches. She told investigators (via Seattle PI), "I felt like I was his little revenge toy or something, you know. He was taking all his anger out on me." It would take nearly two decades before authorities would discover how correct she was and for a semblance of Ridgway's twisted motives to be revealed.

The Green River Killer may have murdered 100 women

In all, The Green River Killer, not identified as mild-mannered Gary Leon Ridgway until 2001, owed his bloody longevity to his cautious sense of self-perseverance — a rare trait among compulsive killers. Ridgway saved his own skin for the final time when he struck a plea deal in 2003. He would show investigators where he'd left the bodies in exchange for avoiding the penalty he'd seen fit to deliver to so many innocent women.

There was only one problem: Ridgway killed so many sex workers during his 1980s heyday, he couldn't remember them all. Initially, he was convicted of 48 murders, but in 2010 the remains of another woman were found, Rebecca Marrero. Ridgway had admitted to killing her but couldn't recall where she was buried, so prosecutors deferred until 2011 when the Green River Killer's official tally was upped to 49 convictions.

That's likely far short of the real tally. "He told me he probably killed over 100," says author Pennie Wood (via the Kent Reporter), who spoke to Ridgway in prison for her book on this monster's unwitting and traumatized third wife, Judith Mawson — more on that below. Wood surmises Ridgway refused to admit to killings outside of a single county in Washington state to avoid the prospect of multiple death penalty charges. However, Ridgway told KOMO News himself in 2013 he estimates the true number is closer to 80 women (via ABC News).

A Seattle-area journalist hooked up with The Green River Killer

Around 1981 18-year-old Jill McCabe Johnson went out with a Seattle-area divorcee named "Gary" who said he "worked in a paint shop." Gary took her out dancing and "seemed nice," she wrote years later for Slate. "His hands didn't stray during slow dances, and he never tried to sneak a kiss."

Innocent as it began they ended up at her place and had sex. But when things got physical, Gary got odd and, "repeatedly started and stopped in a strange way. I really didn't know what to make of it ... He didn't seem to finish during the sex, though he said he did. He was soon ready to go again, but when we heard my roommates come through the front door, he jumped at the sound. 'Who's that?'"

Her roommates had interrupted and perhaps saved her life. Gary asked her out again, but she declined. A few times after that she thought she saw the man's truck loitering outside her apartment. Then, in 2001 when Gary Ridgway was arrested she connected the dots. Green River Gary also worked in a paint shop — and was recently divorced back in 1981! "Finally, I forced myself to consider it for real: Maybe it really was Gary Ridgway I took home one night 40 years ago," she wrote in 2021. "It is not a normal thing to do — to acknowledge to yourself that you may have slept with a serial killer."

Green River Killer victims are still being identified

With so many corpses of sex workers strewn about the densely wooded trails and streams of King County in Washington state, maybe it's not a surprise police could not identify all the women Gary Ridgway confessed to strangling. But authorities also haven't given up on finding a resting place for these poor souls lost now so many decades ago.

Detectives spent a lot of 1984 collecting bodies. On one such call, the manager of a local little league field alerted police his dog had come home with a human bone in his mouth. Two bodies were found. One was 18-year-old Cheryl Wims. For years the remains of the other victim, a child or young teen, were known to investigators only as "Bones 10". "How does somebody not miss someone that young?" wondered retired Green River detective Tom Jensen, per Q13 Fox. "Somebody had to be there for her, nobody else was."

That changed in 2021 when DNA finally identified 14-year old Wendy Stephens. "Ridgway's murderous spree left a trail of profound grief for so many families of murdered and missing women," King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg said in a statement (via Westside Seattle). "His crimes left an impact on our community that continues today." As of this writing, the remains of yet another girl in her late teens, known only as "Bones 17," are still unidentified. Police have released this composite sketch and are actively seeking leads.

The Green River Killer's wife had no idea her husband was a killer

Gary Ridgway was married three times. Perhaps it's no surprise his first two marriages didn't last long — the second ended just as his savage killing spree was beginning. Besides that distraction to marital bliss, Ridgway admitted he was also "sorely tempted" to kill both his second and third wife, recounts The Washington Post. His cautious nature, however, made him think better of it.

Ridgway's first wife had an affair while he was in the Navy — Gary actually saw action in the Vietnam war. His second marriage gave him a son, Matthew, but collapsed partially because "he liked to sneak up behind her in the woods and scare her; he choked her at least once before they were divorced."

Ridgway met this third wife at a group called "Parents Without Partners." He and Judith Mawson wed in 1988 as the pace of his monstrous nighttime activities slowed. The couple was compatible, financially secure, and mostly happy. But Ridgway's arrest in 2001 and ultimate confession sent Judith spiraling into a depression she soothed with wine and pills, according to a book about the relationship (via the Kent Reporter). Judith divorced Ridgway in 2002. Today she is still trying to move on. "I get a little bit nervous sometimes when I hear things on the television ... But I deal with it. I tell myself: 'Judith, go forward. Go do something positive, and enjoy life while you can.'"

Ted Bundy helped catch the Green River killer

Ted Bundy and The Green River Killer were peers of sorts as serial killers preying on young women in the Pacific Northwest. Bundy's bloodlust of course undid him much quicker than his more cautious near-contemporary. And when bodies began piling up again around Seattle in 1982, Bundy offered the FBI a profile of this new killer that turned out to be more accurate than authorities could have imagined.

In 1986, Bundy penned a letter to Green River investigator Dave Reichart from death row in Florida, according to The New York Times. Coy regarding his own culpability as ever, Bundy's offer was this: "Don't ask me why I believe I'm an expert in this area, just accept that I am and we'll start from there."

Reichart flew to meet Bundy. The investigator theorized Bundy was jealous of a new killer getting so much buzz and surmised many of his insights were merely veiled confessions. But Bundy nailed many details too. He said the "Riverman," as he called him, according to Biography, would be prideful in his crimes. Gary Ridgway would later confirm as much. Bundy also said this new killer would visit the bodies of his victims to relive the thrill. This also turned out to be true. The odd collaboration between the FBI and the captive serial killer later inspired "Silence of the Lambs." Author Thomas Harris even allegedly sent Bundy a copy of "Lambs" prequel "Red Dragon," according to Express.

The Green River Killer didn't wait long for his COVID-19 vaccine

Prisons were a real breeding ground for COVID-19 during the pandemic of 2020-21. As a result, prisoners had a death rate three times the general population, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association. In order to address this, statistic lawmakers gave some truly heinous criminals vaccination priority over law-abiding citizens.

Inmates in Washington state, where Gary Ridgway is serving a life sentence, were "being selected based solely on their age eligibility, not the severity of their crimes," according to My Northwest. An editorial by Jason Rantz from February of 2021, when vaccines were still hard to come by, notes, "a prisoner who committed murder or rape is treated the same as a lower-level offender. But they are, however, having an easier time getting a vaccine than a grandmother in Sultan or a great-grandfather in Tacoma. That's equity in Washington."

According to a Department of Corrections memo from February 2, 2021, prisons were vaccinating all inmates over 65. Green River Killer Gary Ridgway was 72 at the time and eligible under the plan. Washington Governor Jay Inslee defended the policy noting guards can spread the virus beyond prison walls. Shockingly, however, Ridgway was also nearly released during COVID via a lawsuit that sought to unleash two-thirds of all prisoners in the state, Ridgway included, according to KIRO Radio. The state supreme court narrowly shot down the proposal 5-4 (via Fox News).

The Green River Killer took his son on murders

Sex workers who lined the seedy strip of shanty motels near Seattle's Sea-Tac airport in the 1980s knew a monster was on the loose. The Green River Killer employed a particularly insidious method of assuaging their fears: he would pull out his wallet and show them a picture of his son. In one instance, Ridgway even had sex with a corpse while the boy was asleep nearby in his truck.

Matthew Ridgway knew his father was a suspect as early as elementary school, but his mother instructed him, "if the media came to me that I was to say 'no comment," (via the Seattle PI.) Matthew thought to himself what any son would, "you know, he's my dad; he didn't do it."

Matthew, who became a Marine, says he doesn't remember the murderous ride-alongs. The Gary he remembered was "there for me," he told investigators after his father's arrest in 2001, per The News Tribune. Ridgway was also fond of taking Matthew camping, but investigators would later hone in on those trips. "Ridgway discarded many of his victims' bodies in remote locations that often paralleled the places he'd driven with his son or others," explains the Seattle PI. Despite Gary's elaborate facade, Matthew did feel the disconnect, admitting he "pretty much just wasn't really [as] close to my dad as I wanted to be." Maybe that was because, as Ridgway admitted to investigators, he also considered killing his only son.

Green River killer inspired a copycat who murdered 17 women

From 1989 to 1993, Joel Rifkin strangled and often dismembered sex workers in the New York area. He made efforts to conceal his crimes but was sloppy. In 1993 he stored a body in his mother's garage in the summer heat for three days. He then drove a truck with no rear license plate to dump the decaying corpse. Predictably, he was spotted by police and a high-speed chase ensued. Rifkin panicked and crashed into a utility pole situated, ironically, in front of a courthouse, according to Biography.

Rifkin confessed to 17 killings and when police searched his home they found a book on the then-unidentified Green River Killer, according to an Oxygen documentary, via Meaww. This along with other articles on serial killers he saved are described as "almost how-to guides for him."

Rifkin himself thought he compared favorably to The Green River Killer. "Some of the events were unconsciously copycatting. He [Ridgway] buried one, I buried one. He went from water to land, I went from water to land. He placed one by an airport, I placed one by an airport. He did things in clusters, I did things in clusters." But Rifkin got it all wrong. He saved jewelry, driver's licenses, and other totems from his victims as he "imitated" what he read. Gary Ridgway never hoarded evidence in his home, and he was certainly far too cautious to chauffer around rotting corpses without license plates.

The Green River Killer was a pillar of his community

Gary Ridgway wasn't just a killer. In his hometown, he was churchgoing and friendly. "I look like an ordinary person," he told investigators after his arrest (via The Washington Post.) "Here's a guy, he's not really muscle-bound. He's not, ah, look like a fighter. Just an ordinary john and that was [his victims'] downfall. My appearance was different from what I really was."

"Ridgway was drawn to the sacred, but addicted to the profane ..." writes Tacoma's paper of record, the News Tribune. "He cried at church services and watched television with a Bible in his lap. He sometimes tied up his sex partners, and by his own admission, pursued prostitutes with the ardor of a parched alcoholic."

Ridgway's facade of normalcy was so dull he barely made an impression on anyone. He played football in the ninth grade, but no coach could recall his position. He didn't graduate high school until he was 20 years old, but no surviving teacher could remember why. Ridgway was known to have an IQ in the low 80s but was detailed in his exacting profession of painting trucks and had near-perfect attendance. When he was caught, those who knew him were incredulous. "He never exhibited anything like an oddity that way toward women or anything that I would see that would make me suspect him of having that kind of personality," a neighbor and former classmate recalled.

The Green River killer said murder was his 'career'

Green River Killer Gary Ridgway claimed that strangling young women — his preferred method — was his actual profession. "Choking is what I did," he proudly told investigators (The Washington Post), "and I was pretty good at it."

Ridgway didn't just have an immaculate record at his day job. As The Post writes, "Ridgway took a more disciplined, careerist approach to serial murder than any other American ever has. He sweated every detail of finding, killing, and disposing of human beings."

Though he was not able to recall all his crimes, the detail he summoned of the 49 killings to which he confessed stunned investigators. His resolve to keep this murder spree concealed was ever more unbelievable. Despite obvious pride in his monstrous labor, he never breathed a word to anyone, not even his third wife, whom he was with for 17 years. She remarked to his attorney, "he treated me like a newlywed." Ridgway kept no trophies, and no evidence was found in his home — even though he admitted to strangling dozens of women there. He made a habit of wearing gloves during his killings and would change his tires periodically to avoid a pattern in his tracks. He'd even toss gum and cigarette butts near victims to throw investigators off his scent. If a victim scratched him, he would cut their fingernails, and shockingly, pour battery acid on his wounds to disguise them as workplace injuries.

The Green River Killer didn't fit the serial killer profile

Violent maniacs like The Night Stalker a.k.a. Richard Ramirez were so compulsive and cruel — their crimes escalating so quickly — they were easier to spot and diagnose with an assortment of personality disorders, and often, addictions. Gary Ridgway had no such obvious issues — at least according to his lawyer.

While some saw Ridgway as just another dead-eyed psychopath, attorney Michele Shaw says she noticed an odd change after this killer of at least 49 revealed his crimes. As summarized by The Washington Post, Ridgway, Shaw says, "frequently breaks down in tears. He worries about whether news of his crimes will ruin his elder brother's marriage. He thanks God that his mother (who died three months before his arrest) is not around to learn the truth. He talks about how any profits from a book or movie about his crimes should go to the families of his victims."

Shaw claims defense psychiatrists who examined Ridgway "found him to be devoid of any significant mental health problem or brain deficit." Whereas killers like Ted Bundy's megalomania were on obvious display for all to see after his capture, and specifically during his trial in which he acted as his own attorney in a grand and ridiculous spectacle, "Gary doesn't fit the profile of anything," she says. However, other experts have concluded, "He's the classic, prolific serial killer," whose indifference to suffering allowed the little-understood drivers of serial killing compulsions to thrive (via The Seattle Times).

The Green River Killer wanted to murder his own mother

Not much is known about the childhood of the Green River Killer, but the few details he revealed to investigators are horrifying.

As a teen of 16, young Gary lured a 6-year-old boy into the woods and stabbed him, just for curiosity's sake. But Ridgway's troubles likely started much earlier, with much more twisted Oedipal roots. In his early teens, Gary was still a bedwetter. His mother would strip the sheets and then hand wash his genitals. Ridgway confessed this detail to a psychologist who believes it speaks to much more abuse. "That is the tip of the iceberg," a neurologist in Washington state told The Washington Post. "Don't believe that is the only thing that happened that was untoward." Experts believe this abuse triggered something dark in Ridgway's already psychopathic mind. "For an adolescent, having your mother wash your genitals would be highly exciting and arousing, but it would also be humiliating," explained a psychologist at UC San Diego.

Ridgway's brutality against sex workers in Seattle is thought to be an extended form of matricide — a long play of vengeance against his own mother. Ridgway admitted to authorities he was missing something quintessentially human, "caring," as he put it. But that's not entirely true. The first woman he hated was his mother. "I thought about stabbing her in the chest or in the heart maybe ... cut her face and chest," he confessed.

Police knew the Green River Killer's name all along

Even though it took authorities nearly 20 years to bring The Green River Killer to justice, Gary Ridgway was on police radar from the start.

Seattle is a major city with a small-town feel. The adjoining Sea-Tac airport strip 14 miles to the south is an even smaller hamlet once lined with seedy motels. The men who frequented Seattle's best-known hub of sex-for-cash in the 1980s were known to working girls and police alike. Ridgway was no different and first questioned in 1983 when a woman named Marie Malvar disappeared after being spotted getting into his truck, recaps The Washington Post (Ridgway led authorities to her body in 2003).

Ridgway denied everything, but his name kept coming up. He passed a polygraph in 1984, explicitly denying killing women — a clue as to why such tests are inadmissible in courts. Police were suspicious enough of though they tailed Ridgway for two weeks in 1986, according to The News Tribune. In 1987, they tossed his home but found nothing. They did, however, collect a saliva sample — not that it did them any good at the time. In 2001, Ridgway made his last pass at a supposed sex worker. He had $30 cash and latex gloves. The woman he flagged down, it turned out, was an undercover cop. He was arrested two weeks later. DNA finally confirmed one of the oldest suspects was the notorious Green River Killer.