The discovery of remains last week of a woman believed to be a victim of the Green River Killer has reopened the book on the nation's longest killing spree. The problem is whether investigators can conclusively prove that Gary Leon Ridgway murdered a prostitute named Rebecca Marrero and dumped her remains in an Auburn ravine. And if so, will Ridgway face the ultimate punishment--the death penalty--for his crimes?
In exchange for his life, Ridgway plead guilty to killing 48 women. The deal was brokered by Ridgway's attorneys and King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng. Bringing Ridgway to trial, convicting and sentencing him on all counts would have taken years and cost the county millions of dollars. And even with forensic evidence and the notoriety of the crimes involved, there was always the chance that a jury could have acquitted him.
The plea was an attempt to bring closure to all the families of the victims. As part of the deal, Ridgway was supposed to lead investigators to the remains of all the bodies he had dumped. With the discovery of Marrero's remains on Dec. 21, it turns out he may have reneged on the deal.
Congressman Dave Reichert is probably the most visible figure involved with the story of the Green River Killer. He led the Green River Killer Task Force in the 1980s and was serving as King County Sheriff when Ridgway was finally apprehended in 2001.
Reichert says the difficulty, even now, is forensically tying Marrero's murder to Ridgway. It is the same problem that stymied law enforcement for two decades. The women he preyed upon lived in the shadows of society. When one disappeared, it was often months or even years before the victim was reported missing. Bodies which were discovered were often so decomposed that they were only able to be identified using dental records. Four of his victims have yet to be identified.
"It will be pretty tough," Reichert explains, saying the remains, which have been buried for 28 years will be skeletal, which eliminates any hope of recovering DNA from bodily fluids. But if the killer left any clothing, which by now will be badly decomposed, with the victim, physical evidence might come into play. Ridgway worked as a painter at the Kenworth Plant in Renton, and microscopic paint particles found on some of the victims' clothes were tied to paint used at his job.
"It will be a needle in a haystack search effort to find any clothing, which you'll have to screen and hope to find microscopic paint spheres," Reichert says. Of the 48 victims that Ridgway has admitted to killing, investigators were only able to tie seven forensically to the Green River Killer--four from DNA evidence, three from paint.
Investigators at the Marrero crime scene will have to sift through yards of dirt, hoping to find a piece or shred of rotten clothing, which may or may not be there, on the off chance that a few microscopic paint particles can be found attached to it. On the other hand, there is plenty of circumstantial evidence which ties Ridgway to the murder. Marrero's remains were found near those of Marie Malvar, whom Ridgway murdered in 1983.
In his book, Chasing the Devil, Reichert described Ridgway, who has an 82 IQ, as an "idiot savant when it came to murder." Ridgway preyed on prostitutes on the infamous "SeaTac Strip", where he engaged in sex with his victims before strangling them and dumping their remains in vacant lots and woods throughout South King County. With only a few exceptions, he wore condoms when he was having sex with his victims, before and after their deaths, leaving behind no body fluids. It was an almost mechanical process that he was able to repeat over and over again.
Marrero, who worked the strip, was last seen leaving her motel room at S. 168th Street on Pacific Highway South, and her murder fits the MO of the Green River Killer. Ridgway was interrogated for hundreds of hours and there is the possibility that he confessed to the murder. The King County Sheriff's Office confirms that they questioned him about Marrero although, citing policy, refuses to discuss what was or wasn't said "during the investigation of open cases".
Why Ridgway didn't lead detectives to Marrero's remains in the first place is yet another mystery. It's a question only he can answer. Malvar's remains were found on September 23, 2003 a short distance away from Marrero. It wouldn't have taken much effort for Ridgway to point them out. And by this time it would have made little difference to Ridgway if he was convicted of 49 murders instead of 48.
Having killed so many women, Ridgway could have simply forgotten about the body. It's a theme that has been prominent in the recent news coverage. However, there could be a more sinister explanation.
"With so many victims, [Ridgway] gets them mixed up," Reichert says. "But there is a part where he is not telling everything he has done. He lives in a fantasy world. One of the ways these men survive in prison is to fantasize and hold on to their memories."
There are still at least a dozen women who were killed or are missing that are suspected of having ties to the Green River Killer. Ridgway is also a suspect in the murders of several prostitutes in Oregon.
Until last week, it was widely thought that conclusively solving these Oregon murders would provide the best route to seek capital punishment for the Green River Killer. Seattle Weekly asked Reichert whether or not he thought Ridgway should be eligible for the death penalty in Marrero's case. He weighed his private views with that of a law enforcement officer of 32 years.
"Personally, if anyone deserves the death penalty, it's the monster Gary Ridgway," Reichert says. "But you also have to uphold the law."
It takes years and even decades to bring a killer from the courthouse to the execution chamber between trials, sentencing and appeals. Ridgway, now 61, will likely be in his seventies or eighties by the time the process is complete. If prosecutors decide not to seek the death penalty, there isn't any way to punish Ridgway further from a practical standpoint, as it makes little difference if he serves 48 or 49 consecutive life sentences. Either way, he'll be spending the remainder of his days behind bars regardless.