Detective saved handcuffs of late friend for Ridgway

Green River: Fellow task force member had died of leukemia at 40

December 15, 2003 

The handcuffs were a badge of pride for the cop who carried them, like a ballplayer's old glove. Once shiny, they had worn to a dull gray over decades of use.

Randy Mullinax inherited them from Paul Smith, a veteran King County detective who died of leukemia in 1985. Since then, the cuffs had pinched the wrists of hundreds of suspects.

But on Nov. 30, 2001, Mullinax reached into his back pocket and pulled them out for the last time, keeping a promise to Smith's widow as he slapped them on a man whose murderous binge had baffled investigators for nearly two decades: Gary Ridgway, the Green River Killer.

A small piece of spit

Mullinax, 52, is a bullish man with thick hands, a trim goatee and thin, dark gray hair. For eight years in the 1970s, he operated a backhoe for a local water district. Unsatisfied with the work, he pursued a two-year degree in criminal justice at Highline Community College and wound up in a rural precinct of the sheriff's office. Smith showed him the ropes.

They were assigned in January 1984 to the Green River Task Force. Over the previous year and a half, the bodies of 14 women, mostly prostitutes and runaways, had been found, and many more were missing and feared dead.

Smith died in April 1985 at age 40 after a failed bone marrow transplant. Mullinax plugged away on the case for two more years. It was not until one of the most emotional days in American history - Sept. 11, 2001 - that he learned a little bit of spit held the key to the Green River mystery.

Gary Ridgway had been a suspect as early as 1984, when the boyfriend of victim Marie Malvar saw her getting into his pickup. But back then Ridgway remained just beyond detectives' reach.

By 1987, the detectives were desperate. They searched his home and had him bite on a piece of gauze to secure a saliva sample, but found nothing to link him to the case. At least not yet.

Mullinax drove to work on Sept. 11, 2001, and listened to the radio as the south tower of the World Trade Center collapsed. Three years earlier he had swapped homicide investigations for the more regular hours of police intelligence. He no longer made arrests but kept the handcuffs in his glove compartment, just in case.

He also served on the Joint Terrorism Task Force, so he headed to its headquarters in downtown Seattle and began answering phone calls about potential terrorists. One tip came from someone who recalled seeing plane manuals in a seedy motel on Pacific Highway South.

At the motel, Mullinax questioned two Chinese men about the plane manuals and determined they were legitimate. Later that afternoon, his cell phone rang. It was Sheriff Dave Reichert, who rarely called his cell.

"I don't want to say much right now," Mullinax recalls Reichert telling him. "But I have news on Green River."

Mullinax felt his stomach knot. "I bet I know who it is," he said.

His hunch was right. Advances in DNA technology had allowed detectives to link Ridgway's 14-year-old saliva sample to semen found on three early victims.

Reichert said he was reconvening the Green River Task Force and wanted to know if Mullinax would take part.

Mullinax returned to Terrorism Task Force headquarters and answered phones. But he could think of nothing but Green River.

Top-secret work

The first Green River meeting was days later at the home of Fae Brooks, a detective on the original task force in the '80s.

Though Ridgway had been identified as the culprit, the detectives couldn't arrest him yet. They had to review thousands of pages of documents, and they had to make sure prosecutors were ready to file charges when they did arrest him. In Washington state, charges must be filed within 72 hours of an arrest.

That meant their work had to be secret, lest Ridgway be tipped off. Media leaks plagued the investigation in the '80s. When Reichert showed up at Ridgway's house in 1987, a newspaper reporter beat him to the door.

The sheriff provided cover for the task force by calling it an "evidence review team." The team took over secure offices in the Regional Justice Center in Kent.

The detectives were given assignments. Mullinax got Ridgway.

Ridgway, then 52, proved easy to find. He still lived in the area, and he had held the same job painting trucks for three decades.

Mullinax and his colleagues trained a video camera on Ridgway's house under video surveillance and tailed him occasionally.

As detectives worked their way through the files, they planned the arrest for mid-December.

Ridgway still active

Late at task force headquarters on Nov. 27, someone asked whether Ridgway's parents were still alive. Mullinax typed "Ridgway" into his computer and conducted a search as other detectives watched over his shoulders.

The computer spat back an entry under "Ridgway, Gary," an arrest for soliciting a prostitute.

The detectives knew Ridgway had been arrested in a prostitution sting in 1981, but it seemed strange such an old arrest was still in the system. They looked more closely - and gasped.

The arrest was less than two weeks old. Ridgway was still picking up prostitutes - had even been busted for it! - and the task force had no idea.

Though they initially believed the Green River Killer's binge lasted from mid-1982 to spring 1984, they now knew more lives might be at stake. They put Ridgway under 24-hour surveillance and moved up the arrest date to Nov. 30, a Friday. The plan was to take him as he left work at Kenworth Truck Co. in Renton, while other detectives simultaneously began searching homes he had lived in and vehicles he had used.

Two detectives, Jon Mattsen and Sue Peters, wanted to interview Ridgway at work before his arrest - if he wasn't in custody, he wouldn't invoke his right to remain silent, and that might be their only chance to talk to him.

Ridgway agreed to meet with them, and they told him they were reviewing the May 1983 murder of Carol Christensen. Semen found in Christensen's body provided the strongest DNA link.

The meeting lasted close to two hours. Ridgway said he remembered Christensen as a bartender, but denied having sex with her.

At 3 p.m., the day shift at Kenworth ended. Mullinax waited in a sport utility vehicle in the parking lot with Detectives Jim Doyon and Mike Brown.

They saw Ridgway heading for his pickup. Mullinax and Doyon approached him, and Mullinax told him he was under arrest. He took a lunchbox from Ridgway and ordered him into the SUV.

"We didn't want to cuff him then or even pat him down," Mullinax said. "We wanted try to keep him as comfortable and at ease as we could in hoping he would speak to us."

Mullinax, Doyon and Brown brought Ridgway to an interview room at the Justice Center, and Doyon read him his rights. They tried to question him, but he requested a lawyer, ending the session before it started. He spoke privately with two public defenders for about an hour.

When the meeting was over, the detectives had Ridgway change into a jail uniform. They brought him into the Justice Center basement, where the SUV was parked in a concealed garage. As they prepared to drive to the King County Jail, Mullinax reached into his back pocket and felt for Smith's handcuffs.

He thought of Paul Smith as he said, "It's time to put the cuffs on, Gary." Mullinax cinched the cuffs and asked if they were comfortable. Ridgway said they were and got in the car.

The hunt for the Green River Killer was over, though the labor of linking him to dozens of murders was just starting. Eventually, on June 13, 2003, Ridgway agreed to cooperate with investigators in a deal to avoid the death penalty.

On Nov. 5, Ridgway pleaded guilty 48 times. He is to be sentenced to life in prison without parole Dec. 18.

Closing the circle

Paul Smith's widow, now Cheryl Payseno, watched the news of Ridgway's arrest and was overcome. She remembered that shortly after Paul's death, Mullinax had come to her house, asking for his handcuffs.

"I thought it was kind of a strange request, but he said, 'The guys on the task force decided that when we arrest the Green River Killer, we want to use Paul's handcuffs,'" she says. "Sixteen years went by, and when I saw it on the news I just had this strange feeling and wondered if they remembered."

She sent Mullinax a letter.

"Dear Randy, you will remember me as Cherie Smith, Paul Smith's wife. ... Were you able to use Paul's handcuffs?"

The detective read it and smiled. A few weeks later, he brought the handcuffs to a party at her home and presented them to Payseno and her daughter, Jennifer, a Tacoma police officer.

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