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'He seemed like a nice guy'

For nearly two decades, perhaps the most notorious serial murderer in U.S. history has eluded capture.

A few days ago, that may have all changed.

Gary Leon Ridgway, 52, was arrested Friday and is likely to be charged today with the murders of four women believed to be victims of the Green River Killer in the early 1980s.

Ridgway, who lives just outside the city of Federal Way in the 4600 block of South 348th Street, just east of Lake Geneva, has worked as a truck painter at Kenworth Truck Co. for the past three decades. Bodies of more than 20 of the Green River Killer’s suspected 49 victims have been left in secluded areas and in the Green River between Ridgway’s current home and his Renton workplace.

Federal Way also has some grim connections to the serial murders.

Six women’s remains were found along Star Lake Road from 1983 to 1985 and the remains of Debra L. Estes — 15-years-old when she disappeared in 1982 — were found in 1988 near the intersection of South 348th Street and First Avenue Southwest as apartments were being erected in the area. Between 1983 and 1986, the remains of three more suspected victims were found near Mountain View Cemetery, about 20 blocks northeast of Ridgway’s present home.

Federal Way Deputy Police Chief Brian Wilson, a 21-year veteran of south King County policing, said the arrest was of “huge” significance for local law enforcement.

The King County sheriff’s office “got the evidence in 1987, which is just tenacious on the part of those detectives,” Wilson said. If it wasn’t for investigators’ foresight to gather the forensic evidence via a court order, the chance for ever making an arrest might have slipped away entirely, he said.

“So many resources and so much effort has been done on this case for so many years,” Wilson said.

He added that it was the diligent evidence gathering that may eventually lead to airtight prosecutions in the murders. That could even include some of the 45 other unsolved suspected Green River murder cases — even some where victims have not yet been identified or found.

“I’m hopeful,” Wilson said. “I think it’s good to be cautious ... but it’s very encouraging.”

THE INVESTIGATION

On Monday, sheriff’s detectives excavated land in Ridgway’s backyard but appeared to turn up little besides a cat’s skeleton, said Scott Trautmann, of Trautmann Excavating who helped to disturb the damp earth for police. Trautmann had also done some excavation at homes where Ridgway had previously lived but said detectives were being tight-lipped about what, if anything, they had discovered.

In all, about 50 sheriff’s detectives and deputies have been dispatched to Ridgway’s current and former homes, interviewing neighbors and investigating a flurry of tips that have come in since the Friday arrest, said King County Sheriff Dave Reichert. Forensic scientists had linked Ridgway’s DNA to three of the killer’s victims, and other factors linked him to the fourth case, Reichert has said.

The victims whose deaths were attributed to the Green River Killer — mostly young prostitutes and runaways missing from the SeaTac area — disappeared or were first found dead in 1982. Ridgway became a leading suspect in 1984, and was questioned after witnesses identified his pickup truck and said he had been seen with two of the victims, court documents indicate.

In 1987, Ridgway complied with a court order to chew on a piece of gauze to collect a saliva sample, and in March of this year the department re-tested the sample. The positive results came back in September,

and detectives put Ridgway under surveillance, eventually leading to Friday’s arrest.

NEIGHBORS REACT

Neighbor John Thompson was walking his dachshund, Harley, in front of the street leading to Ridgway’s home Monday, just as he often does. Thompson said he was not spooked by the recent turn of events, just mildly annoyed by the increased traffic of onlookers circling his neighborhood for the past few days.

More than anything, Thompson said, Ridgway’s arrest brings a flood of sadness gushing back into the public’s consciousness.

“I feel sorry for the family and the wife,” Thompson said. “There’s some reason he’s the way he is. That’s sad, too. There’s nothing good that comes out of this except (the murders) stop.”

Other younger neighbors were still trying to grasp the enormity of the arrest’s impact.

Kilo Junior High School ninth graders Alex Holman and Solomon Nutter regularly walk by the entrance to Ridgway’s home on the way from their school bus stop. Both said the serial murders and Ridgway had been a topic of much discussion.

“It’s been kind of weird. We walk by there everyday,” said Nutter, who added his family and friends have yet to accept the prospect they could be living down the block from a notorious and feared killer.

“They’re kind of amazed. They’re like, ‘wow.’ ” he said.

Holman, who had met Ridgway on occasion, said he visited the suspect’s home in recent weeks.

“Gary was a nice guy to us, and he gave us a cat,” Holman said. But he later said he understood the severity of accusations leveled against Ridgway.

“I’m glad that they got him. So that’s good,” Holman said.

Neighbor Darren Straus, whose backyard faces Ridgway’s backyard, said the turn of events “has been a little exciting — and creepy.”

He had talked to Ridgway briefly in the community, most recently at a summer garage sale.

“He seemed like a nice guy — nothing out of the ordinary,” Straus said.

WHAT’S TO COME

Deputy Chief Wilson said it was advances in policing technology that made the arrest possible. And while Federal Way police have not investigated a serial murder, they were able to arrest 33-year-old Roy E. Webbe, a convicted sex offender, in connection with the murder of Deborah L. Funk last year.

Funk, 40, a local daycare provider in the Redondo area, was slain in her apartment and police eventually linked Webbe to the crime scene with a fingerprint on a bacon wrapper. He was arrested within 11 days and DNA evidence gathered at the scene also pointed to Webbe.

Last December, King County prosecutors charged Webbe with aggravated first-degree murder. The charge could have carried the death penalty upon conviction, but with Webbe’s history of mental illness they had planned to seek life imprisonment. Webbe was later found mentally incompetent to stand trial and remains at Western State Hospital near Tacoma.

But unlike the Webbe case, most of the Green River Killer’s victims had been missing for months or years. Evidence and possibilities had gone cold, frustrating some of the nation’s top investigative minds working on the Green River Task Force.

“I can’t even fathom the work that goes into the one of these serial killing investigations,” said Commander Andy Hwang, Federal Way police criminal investigations division. “Detectives have a lot of passion in solving this.”

“King County was able to get the crack on this,” Hwang said. “I don’t know how many of these murders can be linked, but I’m glad ... It’s good for law enforcement, it’s good for the victims, and it’s good for the victims’ families.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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