“Serial killers” are typically defined as a person who commits murder at least three times in a month. The country’s most notorious serial killers sometimes skirt that line, while others completely surpass it in horrifying numbers. Gary Ridgway, also known as the Green River Killer, belongs to the latter group.
Ridgway, known for his low IQ, ability to evade close encounters with the police, and his targeted murder of young sex workers in the Seattle area, confessed to killing over 71 women in the 1980s and 1990s. 49 of those murders have been confirmed, although estimates show that the actual number could reach 90 or 100. He is known to be one of, if not the single, most prolific serial killer in the United States.
Although Ridgway’s childhood was troubled and he showed early signs of committing heinous crimes, it’s hard to wrap your head around just how someone could commit so many murders in such a short span of time. Go deeper into the life and mind of Gary Ridgway, one of the most unsettling serial killers in history.
Early Years and Relationship With His Mother
Gary Ridgway was born in 1949 and moved to King County, Washington at age 11 The highway near where he lived was known for a high population of sex workers, and highway was also the sight of many murders committed by Ridgway.
Gary Ridgway did not have a happy childhood. Like many serial killers, he was a frequent bed-wetter. This bed-wetting was often the reason for various forms of bizarre punishment from his mother, including freezing cold baths. He was frequently abused and humiliated by his mother, in verbal, physical, and sexual ways. Interviews with Ridgway show that he thought about torturing and killing his mother early in his childhood because his mother was such a “big problem.” His brothers and father also faced abuse from the matriarch of the family.
But rather than murder his mother, he ended up developing a sexual attraction for his mother. He felt that this attraction was uncontrollable. Although this attraction is commonly referred to as the “Oedipal Complex,” the idea of the Oedipal Complex isn’t exactly accepted by all psychologists. Sigmund Freud, who is most known for his writings on the Oedipal Complex, believed that young boys feel sexual attraction for their mothers as they feel anger toward their father. This attraction ends when they learn to develop a respect for their father.
Ridgway’s father was rather timid. He took the abuse from his controlling and violent life. He worked at a mortuary, and many believe that his influence was part of why Ridgway engaged in necrophilia. Certainly, the child’s troubled childhood did not set him up for success.
At school, Ridgway did not excel. He had dyslexia and an IQ in the low 80s. He was even held back, which continued to elevate the tension with his abusive mother. By the time he was a teenager, he started displaying other common behavior among serial killers: hurting animals and setting fires. These two behaviors, along with bed-wetting, are known as the Macdonald triad, or the homicidal triad. Ironically enough, this triad was first proposed when Gary Ridgway was a teenager. He was 14 when John Macdonald introduced this triad in the American Journal of Psychiatry.
These behaviors quickly weren’t enough. Before graduating high school at age 20, Ridgway had stabbed a random boy on the street. Around the same time, he sexually assaulted a girl at school. He was never arrested for these crimes.
Romantic Relationships With Women
After Ridgway graduated high school, he married Claudia Kraig Barrows and joined the Navy. This was his first experience hiring a sex worker, a habit that would later define his infamy as a serial killer. The marriage, as evidenced by the affair with sex workers, did not last long - Ridgway filed for divorce less than two years into the couple’s marriage. But this wasn’t the only woman that Ridgway wed.
His next wife was Marcia Lorene Brown. Together, the couple had a child - Matthew Ridgway. The birth of his son encouraged Ridgway to become a religious fanatic, but the phase didn’t last long. Ridgway and his wife had various sexual quirks and fetishes that reflect the ways that Ridgway committed murders against women. At one point, Ridway even choked Marcia, similar to the way that he strangled multiple sex workers.
The violence reached a point that was too much for Marcia - they got divorced in 1981, eight years after they got married. A year later, he was arrested and charged for the first time for soliticing sex work. (He had been arrested previously for allegedly choking a prostitute, but the charges were dropped.) This year would also be the first year that a victim of Ridgway would be found by police - but it would take a long time before Ridgway was caught as the Green River Killer.
By 1982, Ridgway wanted to murder as many sex workers as he could. He knew that they were vulnerable members of society who were often avoiding the police due to how they made a living. It wasn’t enough for him to have sex with them, even when the sex was out of the ordinary (including bondage and public sex.) During the years of 1982 and 1998, he would kill dozens of times.
Ridgway’s first confirmed victim was 16-year-old Wendy Lee Coffield who was living in foster care and working as a sex worker. (He believes that he took at least three victims before Coffield, going back as early as the 1970s.) Coffield’s body was found in the Green River in 1982 a week after she went missing. She was nude with her clothes found tightly wrapped around her neck. Many of the murders were committed inside Ridgway’s home, but he always dumped the bodies outside in the Green River, near the SeaTac airport, or other outdoor locations.
His second victim, 17-year old Gisele Ann Lovvorn, disappeared a mere two days after Coffield’s body was discovered. She was discovered in the SeaTac area in September of that year. Debra Lynn Bonner, 22, went missing in late July of 1982 and was also discovered in the Green River. A total of five victims were found in the Green River before police created the nickname of “the Green River killer.”
But these women weren’t just strangled and murdered. Rocks were placed in the victims’ genitals, and Ridgway would come back to various victims and have sex with their dead bodies. These bodies weren’t preserved. Ridgway would have sex with rotting corpses, some containing maggots. Ridgway also allegedly had sex with these victims on the way home from picking up his son from school - Matthew slept in the car as Ridgway committed these acts.
The stories of these gruesome murders, as well as the sheer number of sex workers who became victims of Ridgway, made headlines and scared sex workers throughout the SeaTac area. In one year, 30 victims, mostly teenage sex workers, would go missing at the hands of Ridgway.
Of course, police didn’t know that Ridgway was the Green River killer until much later - even though he was suspected in 1983. Sex workers were even known to ask him if he was the Green River Killer when he hired them.
Evading the Police
Gary Ridgway knew that police were looking for the Green River Killer, and he knew that sex workers would report him if he made them feel suspicious. So Ridgway didn’t kill every sex worker that he hired during that time. He had specific tactics that he used to make the sex workers feel comfortable, including using his son to make the sex workers feel comfortable. This only took place once or twice, and Ridgway admitted later that he didn’t want Matthew to see what he was doing.
The police brought Ridgway in for questioning in 1983 after he failed to kill a hitchhiker that he picked up in his car. Ridgway claimed to have choked the woman after she attacked him, a claim that he made back in 1980 to avoid criminal charges. He was let go, although he would be back in the interrogation room again before he was charged as the Green River Killer. In 1984, he passed a polygraph test and claimed that he was innocent. When he passed, he was let go as a suspect in the killings. A few years later, another man would fail the polygraph test. (It’s also interesting to note that Ted Bundy has passed polygraph tests. They are rarely considered to be a foolproof method for determining who is lying in police interrogations and are inadmissible as evidence in a trial.)
By 1985, Ridgway’s killings slowed significantly - but not completely because he was off the hook. (In 1987, his home was searched by police - but once again, he was not taken into custody or charged with any of the Green River murders. Ridgway kept no “trophies” from his murders, unlike many serial killers.) After killing over 40 women, he seemed to have stopped murdering all together. That year, he met Judith Lorraine Lynch. The couple married three years later. Neighbors during this time said that Ridgway was friendly and an avid gardener.
But Ridgway wasn’t exactly done committing murder against sex workers. Between the years of 1985 and 1998, Ridgway killed at least four women. While he would not admit this at first, he eventually did confess to multiple murders that he committed after meeting his third wife.
It wasn’t until 2001 that Ridgway was caught by police - DNA evidence from earlier questioning and the search of Ridgway’s house matched Ridgway’s DNA to early victims. In November 2001, Ridgway was arrested and charged with the murder of four separate victims who were found in the Green River.
Of course, Ridgway had not just committed four murders, and everyone involved in the court case knew that. His lawyer made a deal with the prosecution. If the prosecution didn’t pursue the death penalty in Ridgway’s sentencing, Ridgway would plead guilty to all charges and tell the truth about all the murders he committed. The prosecution accepted, and he pleaded guilty to murdering 48 women in the Seattle area. When Ridgway was heavily questioned about his crimes in 2003, he was able to tell police where many bodies were located. These answers led police to find and identify more victims.
Where Is Gary Ridgway Now?
Since Gary Ridgway did not receive the death penalty, he is still serving time at the Washington State Penitentiary and will be in prison for the rest of his life. His third wife, Judith, filed for divorce months after he was arrested and named the Green River Killer. She lives a quiet life in Washington state. Ridgway’s son, Matthew Ridgway, has stayed out of the public eye since giving a few interviews about the case between 2001 and 2003. He claimed that he had no idea that his dad was a serial killer, although he did know that he was a suspect in the case. To him, Matthew would tell reporters, Gary Ridgway was just a “regular dad.”
The story of Gary Ridgway brings up a lot of questions about serial killers and the intentions behind their crimes. Despite having problems in school, Ridgway spent years carefully and meticulously covering up his crimes. He evaded police for decades, even as they followed hunches that he was responsible for the murders. All of his murders harkened back to possible revenge or anger toward women (particularly his mother) in his life.
Although psychologists and true crime fans may not have all of the answers regarding Ridgway’s psyche or even the murders themselves, he will continue to be one of the most notorious and prolific serial killers in modern American history.