News

One year after arrest, Ridgway awaits trial

By ERICA JAHN

Staff writer

Gary Leon Ridgway, the 53-year-old former truck painter from Auburn accused of being the Green River Killer, has woken up every morning for the past year in the quiet, concrete solitude of a King County Jail cell.

While he awaits his trial, scheduled to begin in March 2004, the King County prosecutor’s office is preparing a case to convict him of strangling four prostitutes — and possibly 49 — and dumping their bodies near the Green River.

In turn, his defense team is putting together its arguments, tapping into other murders that might match the Green River Killer’s modus operandi and hoping to remind a jury that a DNA match might mean their client spent some time with a prostitute, but doesn’t prove he killed her.

While Ridgway is the suspected Green River Killer, detectives will pursue any leads that might indicate someone else was involved.

“We have to keep an open mind,” Green River Task Force spokeswoman Kathleen Larson said. “There might be another.”

That the strangled body of Linetra Thornton, a Pacific Highway prostitute, was found behind a QFC in Federal Way in February, after Ridgway’s incarceration, causes some to question if she wasn’t the work of the Green River Killer.

Federal Way Police spokesman Kurt Schwan confirmed Thornton’s case has gone cold and detectives haven’t arrested anyone in connection with her death.

Larson said Thornton doesn’t match the modus operandi of the Green River Killer, the most obvious of which was leaving his victims in wooded areas near the Green River.

But the female skull and vertebrae found in Mill Creek in January less than a mile upstream from a pair of severed legs is raising questions, too. The remains have not been identified.

Task Force investigators are hurrying to get through thousands of pieces of evidence collected in the 1980s, sending it to the Washington State Patrol crime labs in Tacoma and Seattle as well as to labs outside the state, re-interviewing witnesses and trying to establish a connection between the dead prostitutes and Ridgway.

ing on evidence that might be most beneficial to their investigation, Larson said, but evidence analysis takes time, and investigators only have until March 2003 to find clinching new evidence and file additional charges against Ridgway.

Larson said 32 of the 49 cases have been assigned, and authorities expect to begin looking at the remaining 14 for evidentiary purposes next week.

Meanwhile, Ridgway’s days and nights are circumscribed by state law, from the time jail staff wake him up at 6 a.m. until they shut down the lights at 10 p.m.

He sleeps on a thick mattress on a concrete bunk with gray wool blankets and eats institutional breakfasts, lunches and dinners alone.

His cell measures about 7 feet by 10 feet and has an 18-inch square table that folds down from the wall, a single-unit, stainless-steel toilet and sink with a built-in drinking fountain, an intercom and a light.

The cell also has a horizontal window that measures about 5 inches by 2 feet, “so he can look outside,” said Bob Deneui, administrator of inmate programs and services at the King County Jail.

The white coveralls he wears every day are stamped with the words “Ultra Security,” and he gets a clean pair each week.

He stays in his cell during the day until he’s called out for court appearances, medical checkups or his allowed time in the day room, the exercise yard or visitation, Deneui said.

Because of his security status, Ridgway interacts with no one but jail staff, his attorneys and those who come in during his visitation hours. He doesn’t eat lunch with other inmates and he’s never in the yard or the day room with other inmates.

“Physically, he can’t touch anybody because he’s out by himself,” Deneui said.

In the day room, there’s one phone on which he can make collect calls to family and friends and another phone on which he can make free calls to his attorneys. There’s a chin-up bar, a table and stools and the shower.

He can walk freely from his cell to the day room because the housing units, formerly called cell blocks, in which the individual cells and day rooms are located are secured.

But he walks in chains to the yard, By ERICA JAHNDetectives are focuswhere he gets one hour five times a week for physical exercise.

Inmates get three hours a week of visitation time with friends and family. Attorneys are allowed to visit any time.

He can read books from the library or write letters if he wants to, and he can request crossword puzzles or playing cards from the commissary. There’s no television and no Internet service. There’s no radio, but some inmates sing in their cells.

Ridgway was arrested last Nov. 30 after a crime lab linked his DNA to that found on the bodies of Carol Ann Christensen, 21, Marcia Chapman, 31, and Opal Mills, 16.

The body of Cynthia Hinds, 17, found in the Green River the same day in Aug. 1982 as Mills’ and Chapman’s bodies, was connected to Ridgway through circumstantial evidence. Christensen’s body was found in the woods near Maple Valley in May 1983.

Ridgway’s DNA was matched to the victims during a routine review of the 9,000 pieces of evidence collected at Green River murder dump sites, King County Sheriff spokesman Kevin Fagerstrom said.

“We’d been going back over and reviewing evidence and submitting things for various tests and it just happened to work out fortuitously for us,” he said. “It happened to be the time to submit those samples. The lab got the results, contacted us and we started preparing.”

Police met Ridgway on May 4, 1983, after a prostitute named Marie Malvar disappeared from Pacific Highway South.

Her pimp, Robert Woods, said he saw her get into a dark pick-up truck near a 7-11 on the highway. Woods told police he lost sight of the truck at an intersection, but tracked it down a few days later at an address later learned to be Ridgway’s residence.

Officers interviewed Ridgway, who told them he wasn’t involved in Malvar’s disappearance but admitted he had been arrested within the past year for picking up prostitutes.

Malvar’s remains have not been found.

King County police interviewed Ridgway again in February 1984, when a prostitute named Dawn White contacted the Green River Task Force to report him as a suspect, and again in April 1984.

They gave him a polygraph examination on May 7, 1984. He passed and they took him off the person-of-interest list.

Six months later, a prostitute named Rebecca Garde Guay called the task force to report that two years earlier, Ridgway had violently assaulted her.

She said that during the “date,” he accused her of biting him, put her in a choke-hold and then strangled her. She said she managed to break free and escape.

Ridgway admitted choking the woman, but said he did it because she bit him.

Task force and FBI investigators kept revisiting Ridgway for followup interviews and by March 20, 1986, Ridgway hired attorney David Middaugh, who told him not to take a second polygraph test and told detectives he didn’t want his client interviewed without his approval.

FBI agents quit their case, but, by Aug. 19, 1986, as a result of a number of unanswered questions, task force detectives put Ridgway back on the list.

Fifteen years later, the detectives got the evidence they needed to arrest Ridgway when crime lab analysis matched his DNA to DNA recovered from the murder victims.

Fagerstrom remembers it was raining the day the sheriff’s office and several other agencies arrived at Ridgway’s work to arrest him. They served four search warrants that day.

“He’d been on our list. We’d interviewed him as perhaps a person of interest. We had him in our information files as someone we’d interviewed,” Fagerstrom said. “It didn’t come as a huge surprise.”

Staff writer Erica Jahn can be reached at 925-5565 and ejahn@fedwaymirror.com

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