Warning: The following contains disturbing descriptions of violence, including sexual violence. Reader discretion is advised.
Gary Ridgway took pride in a killing spree that terrorized Washington state during the 1980s and 1990s. But he remained silent, never boasting about the lives he took or the false evidence he left behind, which helped keep authorities off his trail.
Before Ridgway’s identity became known, the press nicknamed him the “Green River Killer” after his first five victims were found in or near the Green River. The body count spiraled from there, with female victims found raped and strangled to death across King County, Washington. Many were believed to be sex workers and runaways, whom he picked up along the highway.
In 2003, Ridgway pleaded guilty to 49 murders, although that number is thought to be much higher with some victims still being identified. As part of a plea bargain, in which Ridgway agreed to disclose the location of more missing women, he received a sentence of life without parole in lieu of the death penalty.
Today, little is publicly known about Ridgway, who is incarcerated at Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla, Washington.
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“I had a tour of the Washington State Penitentiary with the superintendent in March 2019,” John McCoy, a former reporter for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and author of Concrete Mama: Prison Profiles from Walla Walla, tells A&E True Crime. “During the tour, I was told that Ridgway was in poor health and kept in close confinement. My recollection is that he declines media requests.”
Ridgway later confessed to murdering at least 71 teenage girls and women, admitting he had lost count and calling the killing spree his “career.”
“Choking is what I did,” he once bragged to investigators, “and I was pretty good at it.”
Although Ridgway, born in 1949, became one of America’s most prolific serial killers, many close to him had no idea that a monster lingered in their presence.
Ridgway’s Life Before His Arrest
Relatives described Ridgway’s early life as troubled, with his parents often having violent arguments. Like many children living in negative home environments, Ridgway suffered until age 13 from urinary incontinence, once widely considered one of three behaviors (along with fire setting and animal cruelty) that could help profile future serial killers. His mother would lash out when he wet the bed, washing him in what Ridgway later described as in an inappropriate manner. In testimony, Ridgway told psychologists he fantasized about killing her.
Ridgway also struggled with dyslexia and was kept back a year in high school. When he was 16, he lured a young boy into the woods and stabbed him. The boy survived the attack.
After graduating from high school, Ridgway married his girlfriend and entered the U.S. Navy, serving in Vietnam during a period of heavy combat. While overseas, Ridgway frequently engaged with sex workers. He eventually settled in the Seattle area, worked as a truck painter. He divorced and married two more times, with each marriage ending because of his infidelity and obsession with sex workers.
After his first confirmed killing—of 16-year-old Wendy Lee Coffield in 1982—Ridgway committed most of his murders within the next two years. Ridgway became a suspect early on, but authorities didn’t arrest him until November 30, 2001, when a DNA sample from Ridgway matched with semen recovered from four of the victims’ bodies.
He pleaded guilty on November 5, 2003 and, after his conviction, was placed in solitary confinement at Washington State Penitentiary in January 2004.
“In the community, at the time, there was a lot of controversy surrounding Ridgway,” Keith Farrington, a sociologist at Whitman College, tells A&E True Crime. “Part of the controversy was that he was not sentenced to death. But the attorney general who made the decision felt it was more important to put closure on as many cases as possible,” says Farrington, who has studied Washington State Penitentiary and the effects the prison system has had on the greater Walla Walla community.
Where Is Ridgway Today?
It’s uncertain where Ridgway, now in his early 70s, is presently classified at Washington State Penitentiary. Both McCoy and Farrington believe he remains isolated in a single cell in restrictive housing.
“Restrictive housing is the practice of housing incarcerated persons separately from the general prison population, resulting in restrictions on their movement, behavior and privileges,” Jacque Coe, the communications director at Washington State Department of Corrections, tells A&E True Crime.
There are two types of restrictive housing at the Washington State Penitentiary: administrative segregation and maximum (MAX) custody. According to Coe, administrative segregation is used to temporarily remove an individual from the general population when they present a significant risk to the safety of staff or other incarcerated individuals, until a decision can be made about appropriate housing. MAX custody is the highest custody designation within the department and is actually a classification action. Individuals are classified to maximum custody when they are determined to pose a significant risk to the safety and security of department employees, incarcerated individuals or others.
“Ridgway is someone who could be at risk for assault by other prisoners,” says McCoy.
“It’s possible that some of the 49 or so people that he killed have relatives in the penitentiary,” says Farrington.
In both administrative segregation and MAX custody, Coe says regular reviews are scheduled to evaluate an individual’s status and ways to move them into less restrictive housing as safety allows. It’s unlikely this would ever be a possibility for Ridgway.
Ridgway’s Unidentified Victims
Despite the plea bargain terms, and for unknown reasons, Ridgway was transferred in May 2015 to the United States Penitentiary, Florence High, a high-security federal prison near Canon City, Colorado. He was transferred back to Walla Walla five months later, after a public outcry and for him to be “easily accessible for open murder investigations.”
Although Ridgway committed the murders decades ago, victims are still being identified.
In January 2021, through genetic testing, the remains of a teenage girl found in 1984 were identified as 14-year-old Wendy Stephens, a reported runaway and Ridgway’s youngest known victim. Three other victims attributed to Ridgway remain unidentified and he is considered a suspect in at least 12 other unsolved murders.
“I think that it’s good to bring back into the public consciousness what a monster Gary Ridgway was,” retired King County Sheriff John Urquhart told KING-TV in an interview.