To an outsider, Gary Ridgway seemed like a regular guy. Married with a son, he had served in the military, attended church and held a steady job. But that image of normalcy quickly crumbled after his unmasking as one of the nation’s most prolific serial killers—and his true nature came to light.
“Gary spent his entire life knowing he was different, but trying to fit in,” Thomas Jensen, the now-retired lead police detective who spent months interrogating him, tells A&E Real Crime. “He did not want to be viewed as a pervert.”
Yet, in fact, Ridgway was obsessed with deviant sex and frequented prostitutes. That uncontrollable impulse, combined with his aggression and violence, were significant driving forces behind his murderous actions, says Mary Ellen O’Toole, a retired FBI senior profiler who also interviewed Ridgway.
Green River Killer Hunted Women for Two Decades
Ridgway’s first confirmed killing occurred in 1982 near Seattle, when he picked up a 16-year-old girl who had been living in a foster home and strangled her to death.
He went on to rape, strangle and kill many more, nabbing his victims from among society’s most overlooked members and discarding their bodies in or around the Green River in Washington state, earning him the notorious moniker “the Green River Killer.”
Cops finally arrested Ridgway for murder in 2001 and Jensen says during hundreds of hours of talking with him, detectives coaxed him into revealing when and where he killed the women and how he disposed of their bodies. His rationale for “why” was more elusive: According to Jensen, the killer possessed an “apparently underdeveloped mind,” and “there were so many (victims), he could not sort them all out.”
Nevertheless, Ridgway was convicted in the deaths of 49 women, most of whom were prostitutes, drug addicts or runaways, though he claims to have killed more. He is currently serving a life sentence in prison.
In this episode of PD Stories, Tom Morris Jr. is joined by retired FBI Profiler Mary Ellen O’Toole who explains what it is like to get inside the mind of a killer.
Sexual Obsession Motivated Ridgway’s Murder Spree
O’Toole says this otherwise unremarkable man with a family and an ordinary job painting trucks was compelled to kill over and over again in part because he saw his victims not as people, but as a means to fulfill his sexually deviant compulsions. “He loved the risk-taking of killing the women and going back to re-assault them,” she says.
Ridgway had a string of girlfriends and wives (he was married three times), patronized prostitutes frequently, enjoyed tying up and strangling women and having sexual encounters outdoors and in cars. He seemed to have an insatiable desire for sex.
Moreover, he was a necrophiliac, having sex with some of the decaying bodies. “The whole act of what he did—that included necrophilia—was arousing to him,” O’Toole says.
His proclivities, combined with a deep-seated personality disorder, made him particularly dangerous.
“It was his choice to become a serial killer,” says O’Toole. “He had a psychopathic nature or personality. These are the people without a conscience.”
Killer Preferred Dead Bodies to Avoid Rejection
O’Toole says Ridgway displayed the classic traits of paraphilia, an intense sexual attraction to atypical objects or situations, informally known as sexual deviance, perversion or just being “kinky.”
It’s termed a disorder when it leads to dangerous or violent actions, as in Ridgway’s case, says Eric Hickey, a criminologist and Walden University senior faculty member who has written a book on sex crimes.
O’Toole says Ridgway felt that rules didn’t apply to him, and that sense of amorality, combined with strong and recurring urges to prey upon, kidnap, strangle and murder, turned him into the violent killer he became.
“These are behaviors that are exciting and sexually arousing to them,” O’Toole says of Ridgway and others of his ilk. “They like to do them. They are entitled to whatever they want, in their mind, so they engage in this behavior.”
Indeed, Ridgway himself spoke of the satisfaction he gained from the killings.
“I wanted to keep track of all the women I killed,” he said during one court hearing. “I liked to drive by the ‘clusters’ around the county and think about the women I placed there.”
The Green River Killer’s disorder facilitated his becoming a serial killer, Hickey says. “He didn’t have to kill people to access the bodies but…his fantasy was being with dead people because they’re not going to reject him. He wasn’t comfortable with real-life intimacy.”
Married Three Times But Still an Enigma
As such, it’s plausible that none of his wives really knew the man they married, says Katherine Ramsland, a forensic psychology and criminal justice professor at DeSales University in Pennsylvania who has written extensively on serial killers and has spoken to one of Ridgway’s wives, Judith.
“Gary treated Judith well,” she says. “She’d had a terrible prior marriage, so she was grateful to have found what seemed like a good man, in comparison.”
Apparently, Ridgway didn’t appear suspicious to those around him.
“Since it doesn’t bother them, they don’t give much away,” Ramsland says. “Successful serial killers with families are able to hide by partitioning their lives and protecting their secrets. As long as they have families that accept their ‘normal’ persona and don’t probe too deeply, they can usually arrange their lives to have the time to kill.”
As to how the wives escaped the same fate as more than four dozen women, Jensen says Ridgway had a very good reason for keeping them alive. “He was smarter than that,” he says. “He would have been suspect number one in the death of an ex-wife.”
Adds O’Toole, “Just because he didn’t murder them doesn’t mean he didn’t think of it,” she says. “On some level, the women in his life were very fortunate.”
Listen to Mary Ellen O’Toole talk about catching killers in Episode 11 of the PD Stories podcast.