SEATTLE — The Green River killer, Gary Leon Ridgway, wiped tears from his eyes Thursday as he apologized for killing 48 women and causing "so much pain to so many families." But his emotion did not deter the judge from sentencing the former truck painter to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
"I'm sorry for killing all those ladies," said Ridgway, reading a hand-written statement. In his first public comment since his arrest, Ridgway spoke in a halting, nervous voice:
"I have tried hard to remember as much as I could to help the detectives find and recover the ladies.... I know how horrible my acts were. I have tried for a long time to get these things out of my mind," Ridgway said, at one point removing his glasses and dabbing his eyes with a tissue. "I am very sorry for the ladies that were not found. May they rest in peace. They need a better place than what I gave them."
The courtroom, packed with victims' weeping relatives, hushed in rapt attention as King County Superior Judge Richard Jones called Ridgway an "emissary of death" and then asked him to turn around and face the crowded room.
"Mr. Ridgway," Jones said. "Those are the families and friends of the people you killed. As you spend the balance of your life in your cell in prison, much of which will probably be in solitary confinement, I truly hope that the last thoughts you have of the free world are of the faces of the people in this courtroom."
Then, referring to Ridgway's method of strangling his victims from behind, Jones said: "While you could not face them as you took their lives, if you have a drop of emotion anywhere in your existence, you will face those young women in your dreams."
Jones sentenced Ridgway to 48 consecutive life terms and ordered to him to pay $480,000 in fines -- $10,000 for each of the victims.
The sentence was part of a plea bargain negotiated by prosecutors and defense attorneys in June. Ridgway, who pleaded guilty Nov. 5, was spared the death penalty in exchange for cooperating with investigators in locating four previously undiscovered sets of remains and confessing to the 48 murders. He still is a suspect in several other murders.
Friends and family members of more than two dozen victims spoke at the four-hour-long hearing Thursday, many directing their comments at Ridgway. He sat a dozen feet away and listened expressionless, except to occasionally furrow his eyebrows. On a few occasions he nodded, as if in agreement.
"I was only 5 when my mother died," said Sara King, daughter of Carol Christensen, whose body was found in 1983. "The one thing I want you to know is that there was a daughter at home. I was that daughter ... waiting for my mother to come home."
The grieving relatives called Ridgway a variety of names: coward, monster, animal, devil, a vile killer and pedophile. A handful angrily wished that he burn in hell. While some said they forgave Ridgway, more than a few said they hoped he would meet a violent end in prison.
"I can only hope that someday, someone gets the opportunity to choke you unconscious 48 times so you can live through the horror that you put our mothers and daughters through," said Tim Meehan, brother of Mary Meehan, whose body was found in 1983.
"To me you are already dead," Meehan said.
The Ridgway family, including the killer's brothers and son, said in a statement read by one of Ridgway's lawyers: "Be assured that we were shocked to hear that Gary could do the things he has admitted to doing. However, we love Gary, and believe that the Gary Ridgway America now knows is different from the person known by our family. Clearly, there were two Gary Ridgways."
Ridgway, 54, committed the murders over a span of two decades, beginning in the early 1980s. His last known victim was killed in 1998. He picked up many of his victims along a busy stretch of Highway 99 south of Seattle in what now are the communities of SeaTac and Tukwila. The SeaTac Strip, as it was known, was heavily trafficked by prostitutes.
In his confession, Ridgway said he was on a crusade to kill as many prostitutes as he could. He killed most of his victims in his truck or house before dumping them in clusters along the Green River and other wooded areas around King County.
Ridgway, long a suspect in the case, was arrested in November 2001 as he left his job at Kenworth Truck Co. in Renton, Wash. He initially was charged with four of the Green River murders, based on DNA evidence.
Investigators later charged him in three more killings and were collecting evidence in other slayings when the plea bargain was struck.
Ridgway has more murders on his record than any serial killer in U.S. history.