“I always wondered what it’d be like to kill someone.” This is what 16-year-old Gary Ridgway reportedly said when walking away from his first victim, a 6-year-old who he’d stabbed in the woods.
But Ridgway had only hit his target’s liver. The kindergartener survived his encounter with Ridgway, who would go on to become one of America’s most prolific serial killers.
The Green River Killer, named for where the bodies of his first five victims were found in Washington state, strangled mostly sex workers along highways. After his arrest, he told police he was doing them a favor, saying, “You guys can’t control them, but I can.” He also admitted to targeting sex workers because he thought he could get away with it. “They wouldn’t be missed,” he said in a recorded confession.
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Ridgway originally admitted to murdering 49 people; 41 of those murders occurred over two years. (While he was convicted of just 49 killings, in prison, Ridgway later claimed a minimum of 71 murders throughout his lifetime, saying he lost track after a while. Some investigators think his body count could be as many as 90.) Though Ridgway was a long-time suspect in the Green River murders, he was not arrested for his crimes until 2001, when DNA evidence linked him to some of his early victims.
In the 1980s, Ridgway was arrested multiple times for solicitation. Because he hired sex workers so often, it is unknown how many of his potential murder victims might have survived and never went to the police. But there is evidence that some women he wanted to kill did survive. Here are some of the most terrifying close calls with this devastating killer.
Gary Ridgway’s Mother, Mary Rita Ridgway
Ridgway told a psychologist that he stabbed the kindergartener in part to see how stabbing worked as he fantasized about stabbing his mother, Mary Rita Ridgway.
“I thought about stabbing her in the chest or in the heart maybe,” he said. “Maybe uh…cut her face and chest.”
Mary allegedly physically abused her husband, once smashing a plate over his head, according to her former daughter-in-law Marcia Winslow. And Ridgway prosecutor Patty Eakes believed Mary sexually abused Gary, her middle son.
Ridgway told Eakes that his mother scrubbed his genitals after he wet the bed, which he did up to his early teens. Ridgway also admitted that he was sexually attracted to his mother and that his fantasies of killing her stemmed from his shame over it.
Ridgway’s Second Wife, Marcia Winslow and Son, Matthew Ridgway
Ridgway’s courtship with his second wife, Marcia Winslow, began with the killer pulling her car over as if he was a police officer. Winslow, who was married to Ridgway from 1973 to 1981, said in court documents that Ridgway liked bondage, having sex outside (sometimes near the Green River) and sneaking up on her in the woods to frighten her. One night after a party, she said, Ridgway choked her from behind in their driveway.
After their separation, Ridgway threatened to shoot Winslow’s boyfriend. He later confessed to thinking about killing her because he didn’t want to be a twice-divorced “loser.” Ridgway also said he thought about killing their son, Matthew, who he appeared to have a great relationship with, taking him to soccer games and out for donuts throughout the boy’s childhood. Unbeknownst to Matthew, he was sometimes waiting in his father’s truck during murders and subsequent acts of necrophilia.
The Dance Hall Date: Jill McCabe Johnson
Jill McCabe Johnson was just 18 when she met a man who she believes was Ridgway at a country-western dance hall in Seattle in 1980 or ’81. One night, the “nice enough” guy she knew only as Gary gave her a ride home, she wrote in a 2021 article in Slate.
Inside, she showed him where the bathroom was, but he followed her into her bedroom. “I felt no sense of danger when he came into my bedroom after me. If anything, I remember I was embarrassed at the mess,” she wrote.
The pair talked about intimate things like his troubled marriage and then had sex. “He didn’t seem to finish during the sex, though he said he did. He was soon ready to go again, but when we heard my roommates come through the front door, he jumped at the sound.” Gary asked, “Who’s that?” and left shortly thereafter. Johnson soon started seeing another man and Gary never asked her out again…though she did see him in the parking lot of her apartment building a handful of times.
In 2001, when Ridgway was arrested, Johnson realized that the Green River Killer may have been the man she’d taken home years ago, given his appearance and many details revealed by the media. She wrote to Ridgway to confirm her suspicion but had not heard back as of the article’s publication date.
The Runner: Rebecca Garde
On a rainy night in November 1982, Rebecca Garde, a 20-year-old Seattleite, decided to hitchhike home after finishing a shift as a telemarketer. She was picked up by Ridgway, who offered her $20 in exchange for a sex act. After looking at his work ID, she agreed, and they drove to a trailer park where Ridgway suggested they go into the nearby woods.
There, he attacked her; he tried to cover her nose and mouth and then choked her.
Garde fought hard, pushing Ridgway into a tree. “No, this is not my time. I want to grow up. I want to get married. I want to have babies,” she said of her thoughts that night in a 2010 interview with CNN. “I was like, ‘This guy is not going to kill me.'” After pushing Ridgway away, Garde ran to a nearby trailer, pounded on the door and was let inside.
Garde didn’t go to the police right away because she worried that she’d get in trouble for her past sex work and drug use and that the police wouldn’t believe her account. She came forward in 1984.
“I had finally got the courage to talk to the police—so one day, out of the blue, I gave them a call,” she told A&E in the series Invisible Monsters. And because she had seen his work ID, she knew the name of the trucking company where Ridgway worked.
She then identified Ridgway in a photo lineup, later telling A&E that she vividly remembered his face, especially his eyes.
The killer admitted to knowing Garde, saying that he hired her for sex and that he strangled her only after she bit him. Garde dropped the charges, but after her report, Ridgway was on the police’s radar as potentially more than a “John.”
After Ridgway tried to solicit an undercover police officer in 1984, he became a suspect in the Green River killings. He passed a polygraph then, and again in 1986, but remained a person of interest.
When DNA evidence linked him to some of his early victims in 2001, Ridgway was finally arrested, and confessed to other killings.
Ridgway is currently incarcerated at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla, Washington, where he is serving life in prison without the possibility of parole.
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The Childhood of the Green River Killer, Gary Ridgway