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Arrest in Green River Murders

Seattle: DNA from a 14-year-old sample ties truck painter to three of 49 serial killings.

December 01, 2001|LYNN MARSHALL and JULIE CART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SEATTLE — A swab of saliva recently tested after 14 years in storage gave police their first big break in one of the nation's worst unsolved serial murder cases, as they arrested a truck painter Friday in four of the killings.

Gary Ridgway, 52, was arrested in connection with four of the notorious Green River murders, a string of 49 killings of young women in the Pacific Northwest in the early 1980s. DNA analysis tied Ridgway to three of the slayings and police said other evidence, which they did not specify, linked him to the fourth.

Officials said they do not now have forensic evidence connecting him to the other corpses. But they firmly believe all 49 cases are linked. And they made plain their jubilation at having a suspect behind bars for at least some of the murders after two decades of dogged pursuit.

"Boy, have we made one giant step forward," King County Sheriff Dave Reichart said Friday.

Ridgway had been a suspect in the Green River case as early as 1984. Detectives scrutinized his background, interviewed him and even obtained a saliva sample for DNA tests. But they were not confident enough in the capability of DNA technology to try to match Ridgway's sample with semen and other suspect DNA collected from the victims.

They worried that the tests would eat up the DNA collected from the victims without yielding positive results. So they held on to the sample until they thought the technology was good enough.

They made that call about a year ago. The state lab began processing the sample and the first results came back two months ago. On Friday, they picked up Ridgway in Renton, a suburb of Seattle.

"I am not calling this guy the Green River Killer," Reichart said at a packed news conference Friday evening. "We do not know if he is responsible for the deaths of any other women. We are still examining that."

The sheriff emphasized, however, that all the Green River murders are linked by several factors, including where the victims were abducted and then dumped, the time frame for the murders, the victims' lifestyles and in some cases the cause of death. "What I am saying is that the list [attributed to a single serial murderer] is still accurate, that the cases on the list are still considered to be linked," Reichart said.

"This is one of the most exciting days of my career," Reichart added.

He said he expects charges to be filed next week.

Ridgway, who has spelled his name Ridgeway on occasion, has been employed as a painter at the same Seattle-area trucking company for 30 years. He has been arrested twice before, once in May 1982 on a charge of soliciting prostitution and again just two weeks ago on a charge of loitering for the purpose of soliciting prostitution.

He was arrested in the Green River murders after his shift ended at 3 p.m.

Ridgway's DNA was linked to the killings of Opal Mills, Marcia Chapman and Cynthia Hinds, whose bodies were found in the Green River on Aug. 15, 1982. Police have also linked him to the slaying of Carol Christensen, whose body was found in the woods in nearby Maple Valley on May 8, 1983.

Mills, Chapman and Hinds were among the earliest victims found in the Green River case. The body count continued to mount through early 1984, as more corpses were discovered along the river, which runs from the Cascade Mountains, and in trash-strewn wooded areas between Seattle and Portland, Ore.

Many of the victims--women aged 15 to 25--were prostitutes or runaways. A few were never identified.

With some, the cause of death was clear: The first victim to be discovered, for instance, had been strangled with her pants. Other corpses had been abandoned so long that the bodies were reduced to skeletal remains. Two were pregnant. Others were mothers.

Most of the young women were picked up on the street and dumped in isolated areas. Most of the corpses discarded in the river were weighted with stones. Those in the woods were often found in clusters, several bodies in close proximity. Though police have never given details, they indicated some of the corpses had a "signature," an unusual marker that indicated a common killer.

Convinced they had one of the worst mass murderers in U.S. history on their hands, local law enforcement joined with the Federal Bureau of Investigation on a Green River Task Force that scoured the country for clues.

Detectives combed the woods on hands and knees, consulted botanists, biologists, archeologists and psychics. They picked apart bird nests to look for hairs. They checked out taxicab licenses and data on military personnel stationed in the area. They talked to Ted Bundy, who had confessed to killing 31 women, for insight into serial murderers.

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