SEATTLE — For most of his adult life, Gary Leon Ridgway walked a tightrope.
He did all the normal things: held a steady job, got married and had a son. But for almost two decades, police viewed Gary Ridgway as a top suspect in the Green River serial killings.
And he knew it.
He was arrested in a 1982 prostitution sting. A year later, he was seen driving off with Marie Malvar, whose remains still have not been found.
By 1987, 42 women were reported dead or missing, and investigators had questioned Ridgway at least six times. But Ridgway had passed a polygraph test, and even after tailing him and searching his home and his trucks, investigators could find no physical evidence linking him to the crimes.
And so, at least nominally, Ridgway remained a free man.
That changed last Friday. New DNA technology succeeded where old DNA tests failed, and authorities arrested the Auburn man, now 52, as he left his job at Kenworth Truck Co. in Renton.
He was charged with aggravated murder Wednesday in the deaths of Marcia Chapman, Cynthia Hinds, Opal Mills and Carol Christensen — bodies No. 3, 4, 5 and 7 on a tentative list of 49 Green River victims found in western Washington and Oregon from 1982 to 1984.
And suddenly, the mostly dormant investigation into nation’s worst unsolved serial killings case has new life. Detectives from San Diego, where Ridgway was stationed briefly while in the Navy, to British Columbia are taking another look as scores of unsolved killings of prostitutes, runaways and drug-addicts.
“I’m hoping we can get to the point where he might be forced to ... sit down and have a heart-to-heart talk with us,” said King County Sheriff Dave Reichert. “That’s our next prayer.”
Authorities believe there may be a lot to tell, but they say they won’t let him plead guilty in return for assurances his life will be spared. That could reduce the likelihood he would confess to other killings.
But King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng stands by that decision. Plea-bargaining with the death penalty, he says, might lead to a greater injustice: People convicted of one murder might be put to death simply because they have nothing else to confess to.
Besides the four women he is charged with killing, Ridgway was seen with other victims shortly before they disappeared. Some prostitutes identified him as a suspect.
At least two women, a prostitute and an ex-wife, reported he choked them. Some of the Green River victims were strangled; in as many as 35 cases, the cause of death could not be determined because the bodies were decomposed.
Ridgway voluntarily spoke with investigators. He told them he had an addiction to prostitutes, and said he had relations with or recognized photos of many Green River victims. But that’s as far as he went.
And so, nothing happened. Police tailed him for a few weeks in October 1986, but saw him do nothing more incriminating than cruise the seedy stretches of Pacific Highway South and Rainier Avenue South, from where many victims vanished.
They searched his house in 1987, but found no conclusive evidence. Ridgway had replaced the carpets a few months before.
It was then that authorities made Ridgway chew on a piece of gauze, providing saliva that later linked his DNA to three victims.
And, as time wore on, money ran out, eventually leaving just one investigator on the case.
Some criminologists say it’s highly unlikely that, if Ridgway is the Green River Killer, he simply stopped killing.
“These people could change locations or, if they’re sophisticated enough, even change their M.O. to a point that further homicides might not be connected, but they’re not going to just stop,” said former FBI criminologist Robert K. Ressler.
That has investigators wondering about dozens of other unsolved murders in western Washington and 48 women who have disappeared since 1983 from Vancouver, a 140-mile drive from Seattle.
Meanwhile, investigators are looking closer at Ridgway’s habits over the years — beyond the superficial picture of a husband, homeowner and conscientious employee.
Prostitutes, girlfriends and an ex-wife told detectives he liked to have sex outdoors, sometimes along the banks of the Green River or in other areas where bodies were later found.
One girlfriend said that on Christmas Eve 1981, a distraught Ridgway told her he had almost killed a woman; their conversation was interrupted, and he never mentioned it again.
“In many ways the work of this case, which began over 19 years ago, has only just begun,” Maleng said.