King County sheriff's detectives may be close to cracking the nation's worst unsolved serial killings case with Friday's arrest of a Federal Way area man in four Green River slayings.
Sheriff Dave Reichert did not say Gary Leon Ridgway, 52, was the Green River Killer, believed to have murdered 49 women between 1982 and 1984. However, he said Ridgway is a key suspect in the slayings.
Ridgway has been among the top five suspects almost from the beginning, said Reichert, who wore a triumphant smile during much of a quickly called news briefing. Police interviewed Ridgway twice before, in 1984 and 1987, but detectives didn't yet have enough evidence - or the forensic technology - to link him to the killings.
The break investigators needed came about two months ago when forensic scientists linked Ridgway's DNA, obtained in 1987, to three victims, the sheriff said.
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"Our samples, as years go by, begin to deteriorate and become very, very sensitive," Reichert said. "So we felt we pretty much had one shot at this, to wait for the science to be developed to the point where we could positively identify a suspect in this case, get a full DNA profile, and then proceed forward."
The sheriff's department served four search warrants Friday, on Ridgway's Federal Way area house and other places, sheriff's spokesman John Urquhart said. He wouldn't identify the other sites but said deputies will search all three homes Ridgway has lived in since the 1980s.
Investigators also continue to explore the possibility that copycats might be responsible for some of the slayings attributed to the Green River Killer.
The serial killer's first victims were found in and along the Green River. Many of the victims were young prostitutes taken from the South Seattle area.
No one knew why the killings stopped. For years, law enforcement officials speculated that the killer was in prison for another crime or had died.
Detectives arrested Ridgway about 3 p.m. Friday on suspicion of killing Opal Mills, Marcia Chapman and Cynthia Hinds, whose bodies were found in the South King County river on Aug. 15, 1982, and Carol Christiansen, found May 8, 1983, in woods in nearby Maple Valley. All four killings had been attributed to the Green River Killer.
Ridgway is expected to have his first court appearance today. King County prosecutors expect to file charges early next week. A prosecutors spokesman declined to say what charges Ridgway might face.
"This has got to be one of the most exciting days in my entire career," said Reichert, one of the original detectives on the task force that investigated the serial killer.
A key suspect
Reichert declined to give any personal details about Ridgway, except to say he is married and works at Kenworth Truck Co. in Renton, where he does detail work on trucks.
Detectives looked at him closely between 1984 and 1987 but never arrested him. In 1987, detectives obtained a warrant to search his home - then in SeaTac - and to get a saliva sample as DNA evidence.
"We have watched him off and on," Reichert said.
Ridgway's criminal record consists of two convictions involving prostitution, sheriff's officials say. In May 1982, police arrested him in King County on suspicion of soliciting a prostitute after he approached a sheriff's decoy during a sting operation. The second arrest was Nov. 16 of this year in SeaTac, when police picked him up on suspicion of loitering for the purposes of soliciting a prostitute.
He was found guilty in both cases.
When detectives arrested Ridgway on Friday, he said nothing and went with detectives peacefully, the sheriff said.
Urquhart said deputies probably would be searching the Ridgway's Federal Way area house and yard for at least two days.
"We are interested in every square inch of this property, and every square inch of every place he's lived," he said.
In the Woodmont neighborhood of Des Moines, police sealed off a home where Ridgway lived before moving to Federal Way.
A view from neighbors
Neighbors described Ridgway and his wife, Judith, as a quiet, friendly couple who gardened almost every day.
Ridgway helped neighbors with yardwork, and he and his wife gave away strawberry plants. In the summer, they traveled in their motor home.
Several neighbors, though, said the couple angered them when they cut down numerous old trees on their property and sold them as logs.
Brenda Bergstrom, a friend of the couple who sells an arthritis product with Judith Ridgway, said Gary Ridgway was a quiet, mannered man whom she always hugged.
Urquhart said Ridgway has a grown son; Bergstrom said she thought Ridgway had two sons.
Bergstrom added Ridgway often bought antiques and collectibles through antique dealers and Goodwill Industries and would sell them at a few yard sales each year.
"They were always on the go with that," she said. "It was his hobby."
She said the couple had married less than 10 years ago, after meeting at a singles party.
During Friday's announcement, Reichert gave few details about the evidence against Ridgway.
In three of the slayings, detectives have linked Ridgway through DNA evidence. The sheriff said "certain factors" lead detectives to believe he killed the fourth woman, found in the same location as two other victims.
But they also have some circumstantial evidence, Reichert said.
Detectives knew the killer might drive a pickup truck. Witnesses saw Ridgway in a truck with a prostitute that matched the description of the killer's truck, Reichert said.
He also "was connected" to one of the victims at one of the sites where a body was found, Reichert said, without elaborating.
"There were a number of circumstantial things that occurred back in 1984 through 1987 that drew us to him," Reichert said.
That evidence allowed them to get the saliva sample on a piece of gauze. But the science they needed to crack the case hadn't yet been developed. When detectives took the saliva, the most they could hope for was information about the killer's blood type, Reichert said.
Science, especially DNA science, has advanced dramatically since then. But investigators were cautious.
Six months ago, the case took on new life when sheriff's detectives met in the Maple Valley sheriff's precinct for a brainstorming session to identify evidence with DNA potential.
Detectives have begun to submit DNA evidence in other unsolved slayings in the region but have not received results back, Reichert said.
At the peak of the investigation, the sheriff's office created a task force with dozens of detectives who followed thousands of leads and interviewed victims' friends, witnesses and possible suspects.
But in the end, virtually all the task force could say about the killer was that he might be driving a primer-spotted pickup truck with a canopy, and he might look like one of several composite drawings.
Over time, with budget pressures and little success, the task force dwindled to a single investigator, sheriff's detective Tom Jensen, who works at the Regional Justice Center in Kent.
Reichert said Ridgway's arrest was especially satisfying after the department endured years of criticism for not making an arrest.
"To me, this really vindicates our efforts during that period of time," Reichert said. "We identified this suspect as one of the top five suspects that we had out of 40,000 tips. This man was identified in 1984 and was worked heavily for four years. ... We did our job in 1984."
Staff writers Karen Hucks, Eijiro Kawada and Sean Robinson contributed to this report.