Victim families vilify, forgive Ridgway

Serial killer's sentencing a torrent of emotions

December 19, 2003 

After listening for more than two hours as his victims' loved ones told him how he'd devastated their lives, Green River Killer Gary Leon Ridgway apologized Thursday.

"I'm sorry for killing all those young ladies," said the 54-year-old truck painter, who pleaded guilty to 48 murders from 1982 to 1998. "I have tried to remember as much as I could to help the detectives find and recover the ladies. I'm sorry for the scare I put in the community."

On the day he was sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison, the man who hunted and strangled South Sound women for almost 20 years cried in court for the first time since his arrest Nov. 30, 2001.

He wiped his eyes and nose as King County prosecutors read the sentence he faced for killing each woman - life in prison with no possibility of release.

And tears rolled down his cheeks when some family members said they'd found room in their hearts, with God's help, to forgive him.

"Gary Leon Ridgway, I forgive you," Kathy Mills, Opal Mills' mother, said as Ridgway met her gaze. "I forgive you. You can't hold me anymore. I am through with you."

Far from everyone forgave Ridgway.

Jose Malvar Jr., whose sister Marie was last seen April, 30, 1983, told Ridgway that if it weren't for officers in the courtroom, he would kill him right then.

"Somebody's going to slip, and someone is going to have that glory in prison to take you out," Malvar said. "You don't deserve to live."

The day was of historical significance as the prolific serial killer came to justice and legal experts debated how his sentence might affect the future of the death penalty in Washington.

It also was a day of great emotion as families who'd waited, wondered and worried for so long got their chance to talk.

"The one thing I want you, Gary Ridgway, to know, is I was that daughter at home, waiting for my mom to come home," said Sarah King, who was 5 when Ridgway killed her mother, Carol Christensen. "This has been my life. I did not have a life before this.

"I've had to defend my mother. She wasn't a prostitute. She was a mother. She was a wife. She was a sister. And we miss her."

Members of 20 families spoke to Ridgway, the judge and the public. Others wrote letters to the judge. Some were out of state, or couldn't bear to be in the courtroom.

Those who did speak showed a range of emotions and hopes, some praying that God will have mercy on Ridgway, and others imploring God not to show mercy.

They called Ridgway "monster," "coward," "animal," "parasite," "garbage."

Most thanked investigators for not giving up, but one woman said detectives had failed families by not putting enough effort into finding the killer.

One woman said prosecutors had failed her by letting Ridgway plead guilty last month and avoid the death penalty. A couple blasted the media or "blood writers" for invading their privacy and profiting from their pain.

Throughout the hearing, mothers and fathers, daughters and brothers, aunts and grandmothers tried to make the women they loved real for the man who'd stolen them away.

They remembered beloved girls who'd struggled over weight, rode bikes and played tag, loved dancing, took care of animals and hopped around the house with olives on their fingertips.

"She gave me my first haircut, patches and all," Sharse Summers-Woods said of her sister, Shawnda Summers. "She traded me my Betty Boop T-shirt for Ex-Lax. She told me it was Hershey."

Men and women talked of families wrecked - of grandmothers who died in sorrow, of a sister who committed suicide.

The man who caused their pain faced them and then acknowledged his role.

"I have tried a long time to get these things out of my mind," Ridgway said, slowly. "I tried for a long time to keep from killing any more ladies."

"I'm sorry that I've put my wife, my son, my brothers and my family through this hell," he said, pausing, near tears. "I'm sorry I caused so much pain to so many families."

In a letter, Ridgway's family apologized for the other families' pain, but said they still loved the Gary they knew - a hardworking, devoted, compassionate husband, father and brother.

"We saw a reliable, dependable, conscientious guy," defense attorney Michele Shaw read from the letter.

Ridgway, who grew up in Salt Lake City and SeaTac, told investigators this summer that in the early 1980s he set out to kill as many prostitutes as he could.

Beginning July 15, 1982, when 16-year-old Wendy Coffield's body was found in the Green River, the mysterious rampage plagued the Northwest, as victims turned up on the river bank, in ravines and in the woods.

Ridgway, a former Navy seaman, said he started killing prostitutes because he hated them and didn't want to pay for sex. He strangled women in his house - from behind, he said, so he wouldn't have to look at them while they died.

Sometimes, he had sex with their corpses.

All the while, he lived a seemingly normal life. He married three times, and had girlfriends in between. He fathered a son in 1975. He went to church, to yard sales, and to swap meets.

Defense attorneys said it was Ridgway's marriage in 1988 to his third wife, Judith, that allowed him to start to develop emotions, empathy and love.

During his years with her, his killing slowed and he felt guilt, attorney Mark Prothero said.

Ridgway became a suspect early, but over the years he explained away encounters with women working as prostitutes, and even passed a polygraph in 1984.

He wasn't arrested until 2001, when DNA advancements let investigators link him to three murders. By 2003 King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng said he had seven strong cases that would convince jurors that Ridgway should die.

That's when the killer agreed to help investigators solve dozens more cases in exchange for his life.

At the end of the hearing, Superior Court Judge Richard Jones exercised his only option - he sentenced the son of a bus driver and a J.C. Penney saleswoman to spend the rest of his life in prison. He also said Ridgway will have to pay $480,000 in fines.

But before turning to Ridgway, Jones encouraged the women's families, rather than wasting time on thoughts of revenge, to honor their lost loved ones by spending time with disenfranchised girls in the community.

"I ask you to remember those 48 young women as people who had unexplored dreams, hopes, aspirations and families that loved them deeply," the judge said.

Jones told the serial killer, with his remarkable "Teflon-coated emotions," to turn and scan the faces in the courtroom.

"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 thought you have of the free world are the faces of the people in this courtroom."

Karen Hucks: 253-597-8660

SIDEBAR: Letter from Gary Leon Ridgway's family

The Ridgway family would like to express its deepest, heartfelt sympathies to all of the families and friends who have lost loved ones.

We grieve the losses and are profoundly sorry that so many have suffered for so many years. We have prayed that truth and justice would prevail in this case.

Be assured that we were shocked to hear that Gary could do the things he has admitted to doing. However, we loved Gary, and we believe that the Gary Ridgway America now knows is different from the person known by our family. Clearly, there were two Gary Ridgways.

We have always viewed Gary as a kind and compassionate person who was there when the family needed him. He was a responsible, hard-working husband to his wife and was devoted to his parents until their deaths. He displayed loyalty while in the Navy and while working at his job. He never showed any tendencies to anger and never harbored ill will toward anyone. We saw a reliable, dependable, conscientious guy who negotiated calmly during difficult times, always putting the troubles of others before his own.

We had not seen anything that could be considered strange or abnormal. Had Gary shown anything that we thought was improper we would have brought that to the attention of the authorities.

We would like to thank the law enforcement officials, lawyers, investigators and everyone who has labored for so many years. We thank them for never giving up on this case, and for their commitment to justice. We were extremely grateful when Gary agreed to cooperate and accept responsibility for his actions.

We pray that these proceedings will help everyone to heal who has been so profoundly affected by this tragedy.

The News Tribune is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service