King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng said "a new face of justice" prompted him to forego a death penalty charge against Gary Ridgway, the Green River Killer.
Ridgway's attorneys first approached the prosecutor in April, Maleng said, and offered Ridgway's cooperation in resolving more than 40 unsolved slayings linked to the Green River case.
Maleng, who had previously stated he would not bargain with the death penalty in the Ridgway case, said he spent three weeks considering the defense 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 will not undermine other death penalty cases.
Ridgway is continuing to cooperate with investigators and assist them in searching for additional victims. Under the terms of the agreement, he could face additional counts of murder if additional victims emerge in King County. He would not face the death penalty in those cases - unless investigators learn of additional murders which Ridgway deliberately did not disclose.
The agreement does not apply to killings Ridgway may have committed in other jurisdictions, if they are discovered.
Following Ridgway's guilty plea, King County Sheriff Dave Reichert paused several times to contain his emotions during a brief statement.
Reichert, who was a young sheriff's deputy when the Green River case began in 1982, discovered some of the first corpses left in the river waters 21 years ago.
"There is no joy or celebration on this day," he said. "Rather, it is our duty to pay tribute to those stolen lives whom some believed to be unworthy of our care and protection."
In his statement, Reichert read the names of Ridgway's victims, occasionally pausing to collect himself and prevent his voice from breaking.
"Today, another chapter in the Green River story is closed," he said. "But for the families of these young women, the book will never be finished. So we must never forget."
Families of the Green River killer's victims said they found little comfort in hearing Gary Ridgway plead guilty to killing 48 women. Many family members fought back tears. Others said it was too much to bear to think that Ridway's face was the last face their loved ones saw. "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.
York helped raise Hinds from the time she was a toddler. Family and friends remember her as watchful of younger children in the neighborhood.
Ridgway killed Hinds in August1982 and dumped her body in the Green River.
York and family friend Deniece Griffin gasped in court when they heard how Ridgway killed his victims in his house, vehicle or the woods and then dumped their bodies. But Griffin didn't want Ridway to get the death penalty. "I'm not God," she said.
Patricia Barczak, mother of 19-year-old Patricia Michelle Barczak, brushed away tears as she held up a picture of daughter as she left the courtroom. Her daughter was frozen in time in the picture - smiling and wearing a red high-school graduation gown.
"That was the happiest year of her life," Barczak said. "She loved holidays. She loved her family.
Ridgway killed Barczak in October 1986. She was last seen walking along Pacific Highway South near the airport. As for Ridgway's fate, Barczak's mother said: "Let God take care of him."
Other victims' relatives were angry.
"I'm mad. That didn't help me at all," said Joan Mackie of Lakewood, mother of Cindy Ann Smith. "To me, (Ridgway) is like a little punk to do all those things to those women. There will be no closure." Mackie last saw her daughter March 21, 1984, when she was on her way to see her brother.