“Why did you kill me?” the kindergartener asked his assailant.
It was a reasonable question. There hadn’t been any altercation between the boys. They were just two neighborhood children, who had met moments earlier.
The kindergartener had been dressed up as a cowboy, playing with a stick in a wooded area near his home. The teenager asked if he wanted to go build a fort. Moments later the teenager stabbed the victim with a folding knife to the midsection, puncturing his liver. Blood flowed down the victim’s side and into his cowboy boots.
“I always wanted to know what it felt like to kill someone,” the teenager said, and walked away laughing, according to the victim’s later testimony.
The perpetrator was Gary Ridgway. And the stabbing was just a small preview of his life to come.
Throughout out the 1980s and 1990s, he would go on an unprecedented murdering spree, terrorizing sex workers and runaways in the Greater Seattle area. At the time of his sentencing in 2003, Gary Ridgway, also known as “The Green River Killer,” was the most prolific serial killer in American history, with 49 confirmed murders. (Estimates are closer to 80 murders.)
But for attorney Patty Eakes, who prosecuted Ridgway’s case and helped take down his confession, the grievous stabbing was one of the most disturbing elements to his story.
“It was shocking that he was so young,” Eakes tells A&E Real Crime. “It just really stunned us that he had done something like that so early, and—from what he described—more for the experience than anything else… It gave you a glimpse of his pathology.”
A&E Real Crime looks at Gary Ridgway’s early life.
A Forgettable Face in the Crowd
When Ridgway was arrested in 2001 on suspicion of committing four murders, his community was stunned to learn of his secret life. His wife of 14 years, Judith Mawson Ridgway, said that he made her feel like “a newlywed.” Longtime co-workers, ex-girlfriends and family members were likewise stunned by the news. To them, Ridgway wasn’t a troubled loner. He was normal.
The sentiment was echoed by those who knew him when he was younger.
Ridgway was born on February 18, 1949 in Salt Lake City, Utah, the second of three boys. His father, Thomas Newton Ridgway, was a bus driver. His mother, Mary Rita Ridgway, was a sales clerk at J.C. Penney.
The family moved to SeaTac, Washington in 1960, where Ridgway attended Chinook Junior High School and Tyee High School. Although Ridgway struggled academically—he was held back two grades in high school, according to the prosecutor’s report—he was socially well-adapted.
“He never had any trouble getting a girlfriend or getting a date,” community college classmate Allan Sample told the Tacoma News Tribune.
“A somewhat smallish kid,” is how David Alfred, his high school football coach, described him to that paper. “Wispy hair. Nondescript.”
Likewise, Ridgway had no juvenile criminal record. Still, there were signs of the triad of sociopathy: he committed arson, wet the bed until the age of 13 and he tortured animals—notably killing a cat by trapping it in a freezer.
“I think the violence was always there,” says Eakes. “I don’t know that we ever heard the whole story.”
Outshined by a Star Sibling
Ridgway was not the favored child. That honor belonged to Gregory, one year older than him, according to Eakes. Gregory was widely regarded as the most accomplished sibling, having run for student office and later majoring in physics at a reputable college.
Gary, by comparison, had an IQ in the low 80s.
Eakes says for all the horrible things Gary Ridgway did to his victims, the only time she saw him express true anguish was when talking about his own intelligence.
“He was so obviously limited, intellectually,” Eakes says. “The one [time] he genuinely cried was when he talked about how afraid he was of being put on the ‘short bus,'” a vehicle specifically assigned to transporting the mentally and physically disabled students at school.
“I suspect that having a brilliant brother was a big thing that shaped him… Gary’s the troubled one, not the smart one. I suspect that was a big issue for him throughout his life,” says Eakes. “Perhaps being a serial killer was something he could succeed at.”
A Mother He Loved to Hate
But however Ridgway may have felt about his siblings, the focus of his familial angst was clearly his mother, Mary Rita.
Ridgway told prosecutors he was sexually attracted to his mother, and that his arousal also triggered his hate for her. Eakes suspects Ridgway was sexually molested by Mary Rita, noting that Gary admitted to a memory of his mother washing his genitals after one bed-wetting incident in his early teens—a grossly inappropriate intimacy, given his age at the time.
Classmates recalled Ridgway facing corporeal punishment, with a belt or stick, from both parents after minor offenses. Marcia Winslow, who was married to Ridgway from 1973 to 1980, recalled Mary Rita yelling at Gary’s father, Thomas Newton, “continually.”
Although Ridgway admitted that he fantasized about killing his mother, he never thought she sexually molested him, or saw a connection between that fantasy and his later behavior. But Eakes doesn’t think that means much, contending that Ridgway never had much insight on his own behavior.
“There were a lot of things he couldn’t admit, even to himself, about what a monster he really is.”