The Sheriff and the Serial Killer

Good cop, creepy cop: Dave Reichert's interrogation of Green River Killer Gary Leon Ridgway.

Editor’s Introduction

A look at the Green River murders case is always a peek into hell. For two decades, a monster stalked the Seattle area unchecked. He brutally murdered women. He had sex with them before—and after—they died. Their bodies were scattered to rot in the rivers, woods, and vacant lots of suburban and exurban King County. The list of victims and the catalog of crimes, which include kidnapping, theft, and rape, is incomplete, authorities say. Green River was the nation’s largest and longest unsolved modern serial killing spree. But it ended in 2001 when an Auburn truck painter, Gary Leon Ridgway, was caught. He confessed to 48 of the killings, though he claimed in court that the number was nearer 60. The police suspect the real toll was even higher. “I killed so many women I have a hard time keeping them straight,” he said.

The prosecutors made a deal with the devil: Tell us everything and avoid the death penalty. The confessed killer now sits in a cell in the state penitentiary in Walla Walla, where he’ll spend the rest of his life. According to the King County Journal, he reads the Bible and watches a black-and-white TV, a luxury he was allowed to purchase for good behavior.

But the men and women who interrogated Ridgway aren’t so sure he behaved well when it mattered. For six months, they secretly interrogated Ridgway, who had promised full cooperation. He continuously lied and deceived. In trying to get the truth, the cops bullied him and cajoled him and tried religion, verbal abuse, and psychological games. They got a lot, but they didn’t get it all.

A new book offers a look inside the process of trying to break down Gary Ridgway. Published this month, Serial Killer: Issues Explored Through the Green River Murders by Tomas Guillen (Prentice Hall, $25) offers a critical analysis of the investigation and questions whether the information gathered during his interrogations was worth the deal prosecutors made. Guillen is well positioned to undertake such a project. A former investigative reporter for The Seattle Times who covered the Green River case while it was unsolved, he is also co-author (with fellow former Timesman Carlton Smith) of The Search for the Green River Killer, a major book on the case first published in 1991. Guillen is now an associate professor of communications and journalism at Seattle University.

While his book explores many aspects of the case—from the initial (and botched) investigation to the impact of media coverage—at its center is the author’s analysis of videotapes and transcripts of the Ridgway interviews. The tapes offer a sometimes strange and sickening picture of both the criminal’s mind and the minds of those who tried to crack him open. Guillen analyzes some of the dubious tactics used by interrogators, including those of then–King County Sheriff Dave Reichert, who had devoted years to investigating the murders. Guillen’s chapter on the Reichert/Ridgway tapes is excerpted on the next page, with additional video clips of relevant passages available below. The image of Reichert cracking sex jokes with Ridgway about the victims is disconcerting, to say the least, especially given that the religious Republican sheriff later rode the killer’s conviction to a seat in Congress.

On the other hand, just how does one get the devil to cooperate? In an era when the methods of interrogation and the use of torture are hotly debated, Guillen’s book and the Ridgway tapes raise questions that take us deeper into the Green River terror and go way beyond it.

—Knute Berger

The Interrogation Room

Like yesterday, we had pretty interesting talk about some . . . pretty interesting subjects, don’t you think? Yeah, like two guys just sittin’ in a bar.

—David G. Reichert, King County Sheriff

Reichert (left) and Ridgway face to face on video: talking about hell, sex, and secrets.

Video by King County Sheriff’s Office

Extra Info

Watch the Video

These video clips are part of the public record obtained from the King County Sheriff’s Office by Seattle University associate professor Tomas Guillen, author of Serial Killers: Issues Explored Through the Green River Murders. These are a small sampling of hours of interrogation of Gary Leon Ridgway by then-Sheriff Dave Reichert.

EDITOR’S WARNING: The first video clip is suitable for all viewers, but clips 2 through 6 contain descriptions of sexual and/or perverse acts and ideas that are potentially offensive. Clips 2 through 6 should be viewed only by adults.

1. Revelations (2:09): Reichert warns Ridgway that he will burn in hell if he isn’t more forthcoming. (Aug. 18, 2003) 1.9 MB

2. The Dog (1:33): Reichert asks Ridgway about the remains of a dog found with those of a Green River victim. Adult content. (Aug. 18, 2003) 1.4 MB

3. A Penny (1:00): Ridgway describes paying a cousin a penny to see her private parts. Adult content. (Aug. 19, 2003) 780 KB

4. Fruit Salad (1:05): Reichert jokes with Ridgway about his interest in fruits and vegetables as sexual toys. Adult content. (Aug. 18, 2003) 800 KB

5. Oral Sex (1:29): Reichert educates Ridgway on slang. Adult content. (Aug. 19, 2003) 1.1 MB

6. The Freezer (1:23): Under persistent suggestion by Reichert, Ridgway insists he was never one to “cut up” his victims. Adult content. (Aug. 19, 2003) 1 MB

Download QuickTime

On August 18, 2003, King County Sheriff David G. Reichert walked into the interrogation room. It was his turn to try to convince Gary Leon Ridgway to end the game, stop being deceitful. As part of his persuasion strategy, he donned his official green and brown police uniform and combed his hair neatly. His thick hair had been jet black in the summer of 1982 when he responded to the Green River to guide the discovery of the first victim of the Green River Killer. Now his hair was completely gray. Reichert smiled broadly as detectives ushered Ridgway in to see him. To make Ridgway feel at ease, Reichert ordered that the suspect’s handcuffs be removed. Some officers might have been hesitant to be in a room with an uncuffed serial killer. Reichert was not. He was confident in his physical strength; after all he lifted weights all his life to stay fit.

Reichert had put a lot of thought into his approach. His grandfather had been a Lutheran minister, and Reichert was an Elder in his own church. Reichert knew, too, that Ridgway had come to believe in God in recent years and was attending church services regularly. That nexus gave Reichert the opening to appeal to Ridgway to use the Bible as a guide in his confession. Reichert pointed out that he and his uniform represented the government, and the Bible stated that people should give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar. In other words, Ridgway should give to Reichert and King County the bodies of the missing women and the victims’ jewelry. Ridgway agreed with the Bible passage about Caesar, but calmly explained that he had nothing else to give Caesar. In his stuttering-stammering style of talking, Ridgway said he had done his best to lead investigators to body sites, and he had already told everyone what he did with the jewelry.

Several times Reichert emphasized that prison was a dangerous place, and Ridgway needed God to go with him and God would only look after Ridgway in prison if Ridgway repented, confessed his sins, and told the truth. Ridgway claimed he understood that and that he had told the truth to the best of his ability. Reichert countered that Ridgway needed God or someone with power like Reichert to survive prison life. If Ridgway gave up the location of more remains and led detectives to jewelry, Reichert offered to allow Ridgway to contact the sheriff anytime for help. Reichert said, “I know a lot of people. You know we should probably keep in touch after you go off to prison because there could be some things that you need.” Then he added: “There’s nobody else that has the relationship that you and I have. It’s just the two of us.”

During their conversation that first day, Reichert focused on God and creating a bond between the two men to win Ridgway’s trust and confidence. Whenever possible, Reichert used the word “we” and “us.”

Reichert: So three days ago on August 15th, 21 years ago . . . you and I were standing on that river bank.

Ridgway: On a Sunday.

Reichert: They’re always going to tie us together. Our lives are tied together.

Ridgway: Um-hm.

Methodically, Reichert then touched on the commonalities the men shared:

  • Both were dyslexic and had trouble reading.
  • Both received poor grades in school.
  • Both grew up poor and their family shopped at low-budget stores.
  • Both lived and worked in South King County.
  • Both were in their 50s.

To further entice Ridgway to talk, Reichert tried “self-disclosure.” Perhaps if he revealed something personal about himself—life with a domineering mother—Ridgway would reciprocate.

Reichert: You know, I read once, uh, that you saw your, your mother hit your father over the head, it was in one of these articles I was reading, with a plate or something.

Ridgway: (Unintelligible) plate, that’s what Marcia said, I don’t know what that means. I don’t know remember that.

Reichert: Oh, you don’t? . . . I saw my mom hit my dad over the head with a frying pan.

Ridgway: That’s a coincidence, yeah.

Reichert: (Laughs)

Ridgway: (Unintelligible) wake, wake him up?

Reichert: Uh, woke him up, yeah. Put him right on the floor. We had to call an ambulance to come and get him. . . . We got a lot in common.

Ridgway: Uh-huh. We do.

Reichert: Yeah. Can you just give me the one thing? One thing? Share one thing that you haven’t shared before.

The sheriff seemed to be begging for just one revelation. Commonalities or not, Ridgway said he had revealed all that he knew.

Reichert’s mood suddenly changed to a persistent, authoritative interrogator. The two men’s chairs were almost side-by-side, and as Reichert pushed, he leaned forward, getting into Ridgway’s comfort zone and forcing Ridgway to lean back. In a low voice, Reichert said:

Tell me Gary. Tell me Gary. Don’t say you don’t remember. The next words that come out of your mouth need to be all about what happened on the last one you killed. The last time you killed somebody. Think about it. I know you. I know you’re smart. I know you’re organized. I know you have an opinion and I know that you care somewhere deep down and inside. Tell me about the last person you killed. . . . Do it Gary. Do it. Do it. You can do it. It’s there. You can do it. You’re this close. You can do it. (Pause) Don’t. Don’t. I want to help but you’ve got to be able to trust me. We are in this together. You can call me anytime. You leave here and you go away. You can always call me. If you need something wherever you’re gonna be. You can always call me. I will help you but you need to help me help you. The only way you can do that is to begin to tell your story today. Right now. It’s you and me here in this room. Who was the last person? Tell me about the last person you killed. It’s okay. It’s okay. It’s okay. (Pause) Don’t shake your head. Come on. You can do this. You can do it. Right? Yes. The answer’s yes. All you have to do is (unintelligible). You can do it, right? Gary, you can do this. The answer’s yes. The answer is yes. You want to. I can tell you want to. You want to. The answer is yes. Tell me about the last person you’ve killed. Don’t shake your head. I won’t let you do that.

But Ridgway couldn’t or wouldn’t offer any new information.

At one point, Reichert informed Ridgway that he was not leaving the room until Ridgway was more forthcoming. Reichert sat peering at Ridgway, eyeball-to-eyeball, silent for several minutes. Reichert resembled a stern father trying to stare down a teenage son. Ridgway stared back, silent. Trying to stare down a man who had nothing to lose—Ridgway had already successfully bartered for his life—turned out to be a psychological mistake. It seemed imprudent for Reichert to use such an adolescent approach with a hardened criminal. Ridgway had nothing else to do: He had all day and all night and into the following week and year. In fact, he had the rest of his life. Ridgway just sat there, able to get lost in his thought, like he had done for years with his horrid secrets. Reichert had no option but to blink first and ask more questions.

Reichert: So you got some stuff (jewelry). Easy to tell the truth. You’ve got some stuff, I know you do. Yes, you do. YES, you do.

Ridgway: I don’t . . .

Reichert: GARY, GARY, GARY . . .

Ridgway: I don’t have anything.

Reichert: Yes, you do have. You have something. You do. Stop. Stop.

Ridgway: The only thing I have is memories.

Reichert: No.

Ridgway: Don’t have, no. . . . 

Reichert: No.

Ridgway: . . . no possessions.

Reichert: Yes, you do. You do. You, you can’t, you can’t . . . 

Ridgway: I can’t (cross-talk unintelligible) . . .

Reichert: . . . you can’t convince . . . 

Ridgway: . . . I can’t give it to you because there isn’t any.

Reichert: Yes, there is.

Ridgway: There isn’t.

Reichert: There is. There is.

Round and round they went like two incorrigible kids in the elementary school playground. Finally, Reichert proclaimed:

And you’re not being honest right now, so you, what you’ve done is you just sentenced yourself to eternal life in hell. Your ass is just gonna burn the rest ‘a your life . . . have you read Revelation? . . . You ought’a read the Book a’ Revelation. Not only will you be on fire, but you’re gonna have sores and stuff happenin’ all over your body . . . and you can never stop it. It’ll never heal. You’ll be in constant pain and torture, That’s what it says. . . . The only way you can stop that is by tellin’ the truth. [QuickTime video, 1.9 MB]

Later, Reichert would say, “You better not offend me. I’m the guy in charge, right? . . . You don’t want to piss me off. How would you like to go with me and visit the families? Maybe I ought to just take you to one of the families. I know one I could take you to and leave you there, and guess what?”

That didn’t scare Ridgway, or he did not show his fear. So, the sheriff decided to try a different tactic, the low road. Reichert’s strategy seemed dubious since he opted for wallowing in the gutter with a killer who was set in his denial. The victims’ families would not have appreciated how the two men laughed over the murder of their daughters and wives:

Reichert: Is that something you ever thought about doing? Being a cop?

Ridgway: I thought about being a doctor and a cop.

Reichert: Yeah. What kind of doctor?

Ridgway: Just a doctor. You know when you’re young you . . . 

Reichert: Not a gynecologist?

Ridgway: No. Not a gynecologist.

Reichert: (Laughing) Just a doctor.

Reichert: Did you ever play doctor when you were a little boy? . . . The neighborhood girls?

Ridgway: A cousin. I gave her a— a penny to see what her, uh, vagina looked like.

Reichert: Big—big spender.

Ridgway: And of course I got caught and got whipped, you know.

Reichert: You should’ve given her a dollar instead of a penny. [QuickTime video, 780 KB]

In trying to find out how a dead dog came to be next to one of the Green River victims at a dump site in an area called Star Lake, Reichert asked: “Was it around the neighbor—, did it happen to kind of wander down and just bark or something when you were trying to get rid of the body? Now that would make sense, see . . . you don’t choke the dog doggie style. . . . Like your favorite style (laughs).” [QuickTime video, 1.4 MB]

Ridgway: Yeah, (unintelligible) doggie style, yeah, doggie.

Reichert: Pretty good for a sheriff, huh (laughs)?

Reichert: Did you ever think about somehow trying to figure out a way to keep it?

Ridgway: Never, uh, never, never thought about cutting them off or anything like that.

Reichert: Maybe keep, you know, in the, in the freezer or something?

Ridgway: I never thought about it. Never thought about that or, or anything that, uh, uh, from a woman’s body, to keep it someplace, it never, uh, thought of cutting anything off like, like a breast or something like that.

Reichert: How come?

Ridgway: I don’t know . . . 

Reichert: Plus, your wife when, uh, open up a freezer and see a boob in there. . . . Wouldn’t be good?

Ridgway: Or a, or a clitoris in there, a couple of them, you know.

Reichert: You’d have a lot of explaining to do?

Ridgway: Uh-huh.

Reichert: (Laughs)

Ridgway: Or girlfriend, uh, come over, hey, I need to get some ice out of the refrigerator.

Reichert: Yeah.

Ridgway: What’s this?

Reichert: (Laughs) Exactly. Well, and then what would you say?

Ridgway: Uh, I don’t know what I would say. Uh, maybe, uh, those are, uh, oysters.

Reichert: Think she’d buy that?

Ridgway: Uh, (unintelligible) she cook it up. [QuickTime video, 1 MB]

In attempting to convince Ridgway the two were simply having “a good ‘old time'” “sittin’ in a bar,” the sheriff desecrated the victims. To the sheriff the end justified the means. In return Reichert obtained nothing new. And he unleashed his displeasure, again: “They’re pissed. They’re tired of your crap. They’re tired of your bullshit. They’re tired of your lies. They’re tired of your attitude now since the plea because you’ve not been cooperative.”

Reichert made it a point to be the last King County Police officer to speak with Ridgway on December 16, 2003. On that day he took a moment to call Ridgway a coward for choosing to kill women and choking them from behind. And he emphasized that nobody was going to feel sorry for him.

The plethora of interrogation techniques and persuasive strategies employed by investigators for six months were successful in some ways. The remains of several missing women were found, and society learned the fate of most of the women who disappeared during the long running murder mystery known as the Green River Murders case. In the end, though, King County Police felt cheated. They believed Ridgway failed to divulge many secrets. Ridgway’s efforts to hide specific facts was obvious throughout the confession. Not so obvious was his subtle attempt to reinvent himself amid the acrimony. In his own simple, unsophisticated way, he had an agenda. Ridgway regularly served up vignettes that were intended to humanize him. He told of occasionally buying the “ladies” on the street food, a jacket or a pair of boots.

Ridgway: That’s what everybody calls me is monster.

Det. Jensen: Well . . . I don’t recall having [hearing] anybody around here say that.

Ridgway: Yeah, the news and stuff like that says it.

Jensen: But you don’t wanna be portrayed as a monster do you?

Ridgway: No. I wanted to be portrayed . . . did all the killings . . . but also the one that helped find the bodies.

Ridgway’s efforts to hide specific facts was obvious throughout the confession. Not so obvious was his subtle attempt to reinvent himself amid the acrimony.

As early as the fifth day of the interrogation, Ridgway started spinning details of the murders to fit his personal psychological needs and influence what the world thought of him. His most elaborate concoction involved Carol Christensen, the young mother who took a job along the prostitution strip while separated from her husband. She was the victim found in Maple Valley with a paper bag over her head and fish about her body. Ridgway’s initial story to his attorney and police included a lengthy description of how Ridgway cared for Christensen’s body after he killed her in his house. According to Ridgway, Christensen was special so he kissed her, caressed her hair, cuddled her, spoke kind words to her, and redressed her. Ridgway did redress Christensen, but it was to throw the investigation off. Everything else was a lie.

Ridgway always sought to minimize his sexual behavior. The investigators and the psychologists asked Ridgway if he considered himself a child molester since he once convinced a cousin to show her pubic area. Ridgway characterized the incident as mere child’s play, even though he was much older than the girl. It seemed to interrogators, too, that Ridgway was a rapist. Ridgway protested strongly, arguing that he paid for the women and they should produce. His interrogators pointed out that Ridgway always took his money back after killing them. In fact, they stated, he robbed his victims after the murder. He would rummage through their undergarments and the inside tips of their shoes. He then would use his victims’ money to pay for gas to prey or to convince another victim to hop in his truck. Detective Sue Peters asked, Do you think you’re a rapist?”

Ridgway: No.

Peters: Why?

Ridgway: I’m a . . . I’m a killer. I killed ’em.

Peters: You don’t like that word, do you?

Ridgway: I don’t like that word because I . . . uh, I don’t fit in that category. I’m a killer.

Perhaps Ridgway fought the labels child molester and rapist—and desired to label himself a killer with a heart— because he understood the stigma society and prison places on such criminals. In prison, child molesters and rapists occupy the lowest social status and, often, are the targets of threats, sexual abuse, and death. All in all, Gary Leon Ridgway’s repeated use of euphemisms to characterize himself and his behavior amounted to denial. Even after he had been apprehended and was about to be sent off to prison, he refused to acknowledge his hideous and repulsive deeds.

Excerpted from Serial Killers: Issues Explored Through the Green River Murders by Tomas Guillen. Copyright © 2007, published this month by Prentice Hall. Reprinted with permission. The book is $25 paperback, with a CD including excerpts of videotaped interrogation sessions with Gary Leon Ridgway and documents related to the Green River murders.