Crime

Green River killer moved to Colorado prison to end isolation

Gary Ridgway sits in the courtroom at the Kent Regional Justice Center in 2011. Ridgway is being transfered to a federal prison in Colorado.
Gary Ridgway sits in the courtroom at the Kent Regional Justice Center in 2011. Ridgway is being transfered to a federal prison in Colorado. Staff file, 2011

Gary Ridgway, the notorious Green River killer who confessed to murdering 49 women, will have more freedom and social contacts at a federal prison in Colorado where he has been sent by Washington’s Department of Corrections officials.

Since his conviction in 2004, Ridgway, now 66, had lived in virtual isolation at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla, serving life without parole after confessing to a string of sex slayings that spanned nearly 20 years. Dozens of young women, mostly street prostitutes, were murdered and dumped by Ridgway in South King County, many along the banks of the river that lent the killer its name.

After his arrest in 2001 based on DNA evidence, Ridgway agreed to an unprecedented plea bargain with the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, in which he agreed to detail his crimes in exchange for no death penalty.

Prosecutors were eventually able to charge him with 48 murders between 1982 and 1998.

He pleaded guilty in 2011 to a 49th murder. By Ridgway’s own count, the number of victims is closer to 70.

The intent of the move to a maximum-security federal penitentiary in Florence, Colo., was to provide Ridgway with an opportunity to live in a prison’s general population.

In Washington, Ridgway’s notoriety would be a virtual death sentence in general population. Prison documents on his transfer, obtained through a public-records request, indicate he was easily recognizable and a target of other inmates.

In Colorado, where Ridgway is less well known, he was to be placed in the general population, where presumably he could mingle with other inmates and have access to a job and other privileges, according to state Department of Corrections documents and the Bureau of Prisons inmate manual for the Florence facility.

The move was conducted in May, at a cost of nearly $20,000 for a private plane to fly Ridgway and another, unidentified inmate to the Florence high-security facility, the documents show.

However, Ridgway will not be housed in the so-called “supermax” prison on the same campus, called ADMAX, where the country’s most dangerous prisoners are kept in solitary confinement. Residents there include would-be millennium bomber Ahmed Ressam and Unabomber Ted Kaczynski.

State prison officials had wanted Ridgway placed in ADMAX, but the federal Bureau of Prisons determined he could be safely placed at the high-security facility next door.

Washington prison records show Ridgway was a model inmate while housed in the Intensive Management Unit at Walla Walla. He cooperated with his captors and never broke prison rules, according to the documents obtained by The Times.

However, documents tracking his imprisonment indicate that in recent years Ridgway has complained of unspecified mental problems and has been on medication.

The Department of Corrections declined to discuss the transfer or the reasons behind it.

Ridgway’s transfer came as a surprise to law enforcement, and it generated a terse email to DOC director Bernie Warner from Deputy King County Prosecutor Mark Larson, chief of the office’s criminal division when Ridgway was prosecuted.

“Bernie, the news of Ridgway’s transfer was just that to all the Green River Task Force members — something they read on the news,” Larson wrote.

“I can appreciate that this is a sensitive matter, but I think some consideration might have been paid to the people that have either lost a loved one to [Green River] or have devoted much of their professional lives to holding him accountable.

“I thought I should share with you the deep frustration that many in King County felt with the way the DOC handled this one,” he wrote.

Warner responded by saying he had told Larson’s boss, King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg, beforehand, according to an email string contained in the documents.

Satterberg said DOC had told him that security surrounding the move was tight and had asked him not to share the information.

Satterberg was ambivalent about where Ridgway serves his time or the fact that he may enjoy privileges in Colorado that he did not have in Washington.

“I don’t really care where he spends the rest of his life,” said Satterberg, who said Warner had told him that Ridgway required significant supervision at Walla Walla because of his notoriety.

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