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Money may save Ridgway's life

By PAT JENKINS

Editor

Gary Ridgway, who went from being an unknown truck painter from the Federal Way area to intense notoriety as the defendant in Washington’s most famous murder case, may be closing in on an agreement with authorities that could ultimately spare his own life in connection with the Green River killings.

There’s been no official confirmation, but Ridgway’s defense lawyers and representatives of the King County prosecuting attorney are negotiating a possible deal in which the death penalty would be lifted from charges against Ridgway in exchange for his cooperation with the investigation of the serial murders.

The bargaining appears to be motivated at least partly by finances. County officials have been critical of the millions of dollars spent on the case so far and the millions more a long trial and potential appeals could cost.

Ridgway, 54, arrested in November 2001, pleaded innocent to charges of aggravated first-degree murder in the deaths of seven young women whose bodies were found in the south King County area in the early 1980s. Under a new, bargained plea, Ridgway would be sentenced to life in prison with no chance for release, according to sources.

Ridgway reportedly is telling investigators about other women believed to be victims of the Green River killer, so-named because many of the remains were found in or near that river. The information couldn’t be used in the courtroom against Ridgway if authorities instead decide to proceed with his trial, tentatively scheduled to begin next March. But the information could help investigators build a stronger overall case against Ridgway if a plea bargain isn’t reached.

Resolving questions about other potential victims, for the benefit of family members, and saving money on court proceedings are potential tradeoffs for not pursuing a death-penalty trial of Ridgway.

Although Prosecuting Attorney Norm Maleng once vowed there would be no deals to potentially spare Ridgway’s life, other county officials have publicly questioned the expense of the case. About $5 million has been spent and a total of more than $12 million is budgeted by the county. The public money is for costs of prosecution and defense lawyers. Millions also were spent on the 20-year investigation of the Green River murders.

County Councilman Pete von Reichbauer, while “sympathetic” to families seeking justice and answers in the mystery surrounding the deaths of 49 women attributed to the Green River killer, is among officials who are critical of the escalating bill for the case.

He said “the impact of the cost on taxpayers” is doubly severe at a time when the county’s economic difficulties are forcing cuts in services to the public.

“I don’t want to create more victims of the Green River killer” in the form of citizens missing out on services that might otherwise be paid for by money earmarked for the Ridgway case, von Reichbauer said.

“This (case) is unique,” Councilwoman Kathy Lambert said last year when the council grudgingly authorized spending another $1.9 million for Ridgway’s defense. She and other council members said the complexity –– documents from the investigation number in the tens of thousands –– and notoriety of the Green River/Ridgway case makes it more expensive than any other criminal case in the county’s history.

The cost “would bankrupt almost any other county in the state,” von Reichbauer said.

A spokesman for Maleng couldn’t be reached for comment.

Ridgway, who’d spent every day in a county jail cell measuring seven feet by 10 feet since his arrest, was moved in July to an undisclosed location. The new accommodations reportedly are part of the plea-bargaining, allowing him to deal more closely with authorities.

King County Superior Court Richard Jones, who is presiding over the case, approved the move but ruled the reasons for it are a secret.

Some sources say the maneuvering by Ridgway’s lawyers is risky for his defense if the attorneys don’t also get promises that prosecutors in other parts of Washington or other states won’t seek the death penalty if they accuse him of murders in their jurisdictions. For instance, four bodies of suspected Green River killer victims were found in Oregon.

Ridgway drew the attention of King County and FBI investigators in 1986. Fifteen years later, laboratory studies matched his DNA with DNA recovered from women he’s accused of killing.

Editor Pat Jenkins: 925-5565, editor@fedwaymirror.com

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