Gary Ridgway, a serial killer active in Washington State, earned his name “The Green River Killer” after dumping the bodies of his first five victims into a river of the same name. In the first month and a half of his killing spree, Ridgway murdered ten women and was well on his way to becoming the most prolific serial killer in the history of the United States. As the bodies continued to pile up throughout the 1980s and 90s, totaling a number of at least 49 confirmed victims, this distinction was cemented.
Born: February 18, 1949, Salt Lake City, UT
Whereabouts: Washington State Penitentiary
M.O.: Targeted teenaged, female sex workers and runaways whom he raped and strangled to death; he dumped their bodies into the nearby woods and rivers, most notably the Green River, and often returned to “admire his work”
Motive: Oedipal complex, redirected revenge against abusive mother and a drive to be stronger and more powerful than his father
Victim count: Convicted of killing 49 women; confessed to 71; possibly killed as many as 90
Best known for: Raping his victims and engaging in necrophilia; being the most prolific serial killer in U.S. history
“Here I am, Gary Ridgway... the guy who everybody thought was slow since elementary school, somebody who couldn’t hold a candle to Ted Bundy. But, here I am, and I’m best at something.”
As a child, Ridgway lived close to the Pacific Highway South, a street notorious for prostitution. It in his adult years, this area would become his stalking grounds, so he knew his surroundings very well. It factored into his ability to follow, kill and dispose of his victims without detection. His mother was extremely emotionally, physically and sexually abusive, which wrecked his self-esteem and psychosexual development. His father, a passive man, was too timid to stand up to his wife and protect himself and his children from the abuse, providing Ridgway a poor role model. Ridgway was a chronic bed wetter until the age of 13 and a very slow learner in school; his mother threatened to put him in a state institution for the mentally challenged. Whenever he wet the bed, even as a young teenager, she would forcibly wash him in front of his brothers, focusing on his genitals. Through a Freudian lens, it seems Ridgway was unable to see his father as a formidable rival and his mother as unattainable, so he developed an Oedipal complex. He fantasized about having sex with his mother almost as often as he fantasized about murdering her, and he deeply hated his father’s weakness. In an act of displaced matricide and a need to be more dominate over women than his father, Ridgway redirected his revenge against the young, female sex workers he targeted.
While Ridgway’s father did not encourage or glorify necrophilia, he did introduce his son to the concept when he told him stories about a coworker that engaged in it at the mortuary where he worked. Later, necrophilia became a focus of much of Ridgway’s teenage sexual fantasies. As an adult, he often returned to his victim’s dead bodies to rape and treated them like perverted toys. Unlike many other serial killers, Ridgway was well liked by his peers. However, his lack of academic intelligence was a sore spot for him and he touted his success as a serial killer as proof that he was not slow or incapable. He was really good at getting away with murder and saw his kills as a series of accomplishments. Ridgway began stalking girls as early as elementary school and, as a teen, lit fires, tortured animals and stabbed a six-year-old boy just to see what it would be like.
He developed an addiction to sex during adulthood, often maintaining several girlfriends at once, while also having regular sex with prostitutes. While he despised prostitutes, subconsciously projecting his own insecurities and flaws on to them, Ridgway continued to use them with increasing frequency. He needed to increase the amount and intensity of sex to achieve the same “high,” and progressed from sex to violent sex to murder. This gradual descent is likely why he could not remember when he began killing women. Upon his second marriage, Ridgway turned to religion to try to suppress his violent urges but failed. He practiced sneaking up on his wife in the woods and even nearly strangled her once. A year after their divorce, his first known victim’s body was found. He considered killing his second ex-wife when she demanded he pay child support, but restrained himself because he was certain he would be caught if he did. Ridgway was methodical, he only preyed upon strangers that police would have a hard time tying back to him. Prostitutes fit that bill. He spent hours stalking a single woman and would only get violent if he was positive there was no one around to witness it.
The sheer volume of women he killed within the first month and a half of his debut indicates that murder wasn’t just Ridgway’s drug fix but also his entertainment. He made no effort to restrict himself. Ridgway strangled his victims with his bare hands to feel the moment they died and dumped his first five victims into the Green River but would eventually leave them in various other outdoor places, in order to 1) avoid detection and 2) be able to visit the bodies. To persuade victims that he was not the Green River Killer, Ridgway would use a number of tactics to put them at ease, such as give them a beer, and show them pictures of his son. On a few occasions, he even brought his son along to seek victims. His son would wait in the car while Ridgway led the woman off into the woods. Ridgway said he feel right doing that, so he infrequently used that method.
Ridgway didn’t keep trophies for police to find. Instead, his daily reminders were memories of the crimes he committed within his own home. He had no problem connecting with the women emotionally in his car, sexually in his house, and then physically with murder.
Conscious of forensic evidence and how it works, Ridgway went to great lengths to eliminate it. If a victim scratched him, he would cut her fingernails before dumping her body. He even replaced all his tires when he noticed his truck left tire marks near a dumpsite and planted evidence to throw the police off his trail. Despite the great care he took with altering and eliminating evidence, the Gary Ridgway would eventually be caught, thanks to advances in DNA evidence analysis.