Gary Leon Ridgway hated prostitutes, didn't want to pay for sex and set out to kill as many of the women as he could.
In a King County courtroom filled with his victims' families, investigators and local and national news reporters, the 54-year-old Ridgway admitted Wednesday that he's the man Northwest crime fighters have spent 20 years searching for.
He's the Green River Killer.
"In most cases, when I murdered these women, I did not know their names," Ridgway wrote in a confession to 48 murders. "Most of the time, I killed them the first time I met them and do not have a good memory for their faces.
"I killed so many women I have a hard time keeping them straight."
Ridgway - husband, father, Christian, gardener, truck painter, former Navy seaman, yard sale regular and prostitution addict - said "guilty" 48 times as Superior Court Judge Richard Jones methodically asked for his plea in killings.
In doing so, Ridgway took advantage of a plea deal he signed with King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng in June, and - at least for now - skirted the death penalty. He'll go to prison for life.
It was an emotional and historic event.
The hearing ended an era of mystery, of an unknown man terrorizing young women and frustrating detectives with his elusive mission: strangling women and dumping their bodies in remote areas.
But it opens an era of uncertainty about the death penalty in Washington state.
Some lawyers, including prosecutors, speculate that the state will think twice before seeking to execute anyone who commits one or two crimes. Experts debate whether the state Supreme Court - tasked with comparing death cases for fairness - will allow a death sentence to stand for far less prolific killers.
Defense attorney Tony Savage said he didn't intend to affect the status of the death penalty in the state when he told prosecutors Ridgway would plead guilty to save his life, but if it does so, it's all the better.
"The death penalty is an abomination that has no place in our society," Savage said. "I feel very emotional about (victims' families) and their daughters. (But) the operation of the law is not a matter of emotion."
In 2001, Maleng said he wouldn't bargain the death penalty.
Then, last April, defense attorneys offered Ridgway's cooperation in solving more than 40 slayings. Maleng said he spent three weeks considering their proposal.
"Before, I could only see the face of Gary Ridgway," Maleng said. "But I began to see other faces - the mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, and children of the victims. I saw that the justice we could achieve could bring home the remains of loved ones for proper burial."
Maleng said the bargain with Ridgway won't undermine other death penalty cases, nor does the deal apply to any killing Ridgway might have committed anywhere else.
Officials in Pierce and Lewis counties want to talk to Ridgway about unsolved cases in their areas. And two unsolved homicides in the Portland area have previously been attributed to the Green River Killer.
But if there was any doubt that Ridgway, the son of a bus driver and a J.C. Penney saleswoman, was the Green River Killer, rather than a copycat, it died Wednesday as he stood calmly entering his pleas, one after another.
He pleaded guilty to crimes from 1982 to 1998, squashing authorities' previous belief that the Green River Killer's reign lasted about two years.
In prosecutors' documents, Ridgway called the killing spree his career. He said he was "good in one thing, and that's killing prostitutes."
Victims' loved ones cried quietly and held each other as deputy prosecutor Jeffrey Baird read a description of where and why Ridgway murdered the women, and as Ridgway entered his pleas. One man pointed at Ridgway like he was shooting a gun as the killer pleaded guilty to killing 19-year-old Maureen Feeney.
Outside court, family members expressed differing views on Ridgway's fate.
"I feel he should get the death penalty. He doesn't deserve to live another day. He's taken a lot of innocent lives," said Debra York, the aunt of Cynthia Hinds, 17, who was last seen at a convenience store near SeaTac.
Tim Meehan was grateful to know what happened to his sister, Mary Meehan. Her murder was one of the 41 prosecutors couldn't have proven without Ridgway, who had been charged with seven killings.
"To me, one way or the other, he's going to die in prison," Meehan said. "If you put him to death, you only bring closure to seven families. If you can trade information to bring closure to 41 or 42 (more), that really is a trade well worth it in my opinion."
Baird told the judge that Maleng and Sheriff David Reichert explained to families why they negotiated with Ridgway, and that most supported the decision.
In the plea, Ridgway admitted that he chose prostitutes in part because they were easy to pick up without being noticed and wouldn't be reported missing right away, if ever. He took women's jewelry and clothes to make them harder to identify.
"I picked prostitutes because I thought I could kill as many of them as I wanted without getting caught," he wrote.
Although Ridgway didn't remember specific women he killed, he did remember the places he put the bodies.
Prosecutors didn't read all the new charges against Ridgway, but did read his concise statements - gruesome in their repetition - about each of the 48 women.
Only the women's names, the dates they died and the place he left their bodies differed.
"In King County, Washington, sometime between July 8, 1982, through July 15, 1982, with premeditated intent to cause her death, I strangled Wendy Lee Coffield to death. I picked her up, planning to kill her. After killing her, I placed her body in the Green River."
Some women's deaths had been narrowed down to the day they occurred, while other women's killings spanned weeks, months or years.
Throughout the court hearing, Ridgway - his face a little fuller than it was a year ago - stood straight or sat upright among his team of attorneys. He wore a red jail uniform with a maroon sweatshirt underneath, and had his hair combed neatly.
When he answered questions from the prosecutor and then the judge, his voice was full and clear. He loosely folded his hands in front of him.
He didn't cry, or hang his head or close his eyes.
His attorneys said he was nervous.
Ridgway only faces one possible sentence: life in prison without the possibility of release. He also could face up to $2.5 million in fines for victims' families, although it would be impossible for him to earn that amount of money in prison.
He'll continue to work with investigators until he's sentenced, about six months from now.
The killings began July 15, 1982, when Coffield, 16, was found dead. She grew up in Puyallup but was living in a Tacoma foster home at the time. Ridgway strangled her and left her in the Green River. Two boys cycling across a bridge in Kent saw her body.
In the months and years that followed, women's bodies turned up on the river bank, in ravines, in the woods.
Most of the women disappeared from the SeaTac strip, a portion of road then known for sex trade. Others disappeared from Seattle streets.
Ridgway, who grew up in Salt Lake City and SeaTac, was an early and enduring suspect.
The houses he owned in South King County as an adult were never far from the brushy areas and river banks where women's bodies and remains were found.
Ridgway had many close calls with the law. Victim Marie Malvar's boyfriend saw her getting into his truck in 1983. After dumping one woman's body, Ridgway ran into someone on his way back to his vehicle. In February 1985, a woman accused him of putting her in a police-like chokehold in late 1982.
During interviews with law enforcement in the 1980s, Ridgway denied the killings, even as he admitted an addiction to prostitutes. He even passed a polygraph examination on May 7, 1984.
Ridgway's life before and during the killings divulged few clues to his penchant for violence and hatred of women.
He married three times. In 1975 he fathered a child, Matthew, who lives in California. He had girlfriends in between.
He joined two churches, Baptist and Pentecostal. He cried during church services and watched TV with a Bible on his lap. He frequented garage sales and swap meets.
Neighbors and co-workers thought of him as odd, but not dangerous.
All the while, he killed.
It seemed as though investigators would never solve the crimes.
But DNA technology caught up with the task force's evidence in 2001. Forensic scientists, relying on techniques developed in the past 10 years, used DNA from a 1987 saliva sample to link him to three killings.
Maleng, citing DNA and circumstantial evidence, charged Ridgway in December 2001 with four counts of aggravated first-degree murder. Last March, Maleng added three charges, saying microscopic paint evidence helped tie him to the killings.
Publicly, Ridgway lawyer Tony Savage said Ridgway hadn't killed the women. "Somebody else did," Savage said in April.
But that was about the same time the defense team realized Ridgway should consider pleading guilty.
On April 10, the serial killer tearfully told attorney Michele Shaw that he would cooperate.
Under the plea deal, he could face more murder counts if additional victims emerge in King County. He would not face the death penalty in those cases - unless investigators learn of additional killings that Ridgway deliberately did not disclose, Maleng said.
On Wednesday, Judge Jones made it clear to Ridgway that even if he is charged with more crimes, and faces execution in other jurisdictions, he still can't appeal his plea or sentence for the 48 murders.
Prosecutors' court papers say Ridgway claims he killed more than 60 women, but investigators also believe he's a pathological liar whose admissions frequently seemed motivated by pride in his criminal accomplishments.
"I've been convinced that Gary has done the best he could," said Savage. "I don't think that anyone will ever accurately know a precise number."
Ridgway pleaded guilty because he wants to live, and also because he wants to help the task force clear cases, said defense lawyer Mark Prothero.
Ridgway was driven to kill by a rage even he doesn't understand, his attorneys said in a news conference after the court hearing.
"He was and is a very angry person," Savage said. "He was consumed by rage."
But in private, "in emotional ways, in tears and words," he's voiced his regrets, Prothero said. "He feels terrible remorse."
"He says he's sorry," Tony Savage said. "I believe him. How do you know?"
But prosecutors' documents relate little remorse. Rather, Ridgway speculated that "a popular Seattle true-crime writer" - it wasn't clear if he meant Ann Rule - will write a book about him.
Savage said if that happens, Ridgway wants any profits to go into a fund for his victims' families. By law, he couldn't profit from the killings, his attorneys said.
When a reporter asked if Ridgway felt a sense of pride at his notoriety, attorney Fred Leatherman said Ridgway would rather be a free man.
"I think he wishes he was normal and didn't do these things," Leatherman said.
News Tribune staff writers Sean Robinson, Stacey Mulick and Martha Modeen and photographer Peter Haley contributed to this report.
Karen Hucks: 253-597-8660