It Took Way Too Long to Find the Green River Killer

Jill met Gary one night in late 1980 at a country-western dance hall near Seattle’s airport. She was 18; he was 29. At least that’s what he told her. She didn’t feel a creepy vibe or anything, and the two saw each other here and there for several weeks. They danced, he bought her drinks, but he never tried to sneak a feel or a kiss.

Jill McCabe / Gary Ridgway / Green River Killer / Green River Killer.
Source: Getty Images

One night, Gary gave Jill a ride home in his old pickup truck, and although her two roommates were usually home in the evenings, on this night her apartment was empty.

The Night Jill Took Gary Home

Gary told her about his ex-wife and his son – and about their bitter custody battle. He told her about his steady job and his role as a dad. Jill felt sorry for the “skinny, bucktoothed” divorcee. They talked, made out, and one thing led to another.

A portrait of Jill McCabe.
Jill McCabe. Source: Pinterest

When her roommates came home, he was visibly freaked out and didn’t understand why she would be living with people. He left shortly thereafter. The next weekend, Gary called her to ask her out dancing. Dating a man in the middle of a divorce and with a young son was something she decided she didn’t want.

The Green River Killer Himself

Jill told Gary that she had a sore throat and rejected his offer. It happens all the time: guy asks out girl, guy and girl dance, guy and girl go home and spend the night together, girl regrets it, guy moves on. But Gary was no ordinary guy. You see, Gary was the man who became known as the Green River Killer.

A sketch illustration of the Green River Killer driving his car at night.
Source: Natalie Matthews Ramo

And luckily for Jill, she never became one of his 49 (known) victims. After that night in her apartment, and after she met her husband, she still ran into Gary. But every time she saw him, he would quickly pull out in his truck, probably because she was always with her new man.

A Familiar Face

It wasn’t until two decades later, in 2001, that Jill heard about the newly caught “Green River Killer.” The news reports said he worked in a paint shop and that his name was Gary. Immediately, Jill thought of the man she once knew, who walked uninvited into her bedroom and was startled when her roommates showed up.

An image of Gary in the courtroom.
Photo by Josh Trujillo/Pool/Getty Images

The photo of the killer in the news even looked familiar to her, but he was older and heavier, and his hair seemed a bit darker, too. She told herself it was a coincidence. How could it be the same man?

Why Not Her?

Another two decades passed, and Jill came to the realization that she had slept with one of America’s most notorious serial killers. The shame and guilt poured in. She had to tell someone, so she told her husband. At first, she was worried about his reaction, but all he did was kiss her head and tell her, “Thank goodness you weren’t a victim, too.”

A picture of Jill during a reading in a library.
Source: Facebook

The most unsettling part of Jill’s story is that she could very well have been one of his victims. It begs the question: why was she spared? There are 49 recorded deaths, but who’s to say there weren’t more? The man was clearly open-minded when it came to choosing his prey.

Who Was the Green River Killer?

Gary Ridgway, from Seattle, claimed to have murdered as many as 80 women, although he pleaded guilty to 49. Gary became known as the Green River Killer. He was America’s deadliest convicted serial killer in 2003 when he pleaded guilty to all those murders.

A victim's sister speaks in court.
Photo by Josh Trujillo/Pool/Getty Images

Over two decades – the 1980s and ‘90s – he methodically raped and strangled women, most of them prostitutes or runaways. Why did they call him the Green River Killer? Before his identity was known, the press gave him the nickname after his first five victims were found in the Green River in South King County.

He Tried to Confuse Authorities

Gary killed most of his victims in his home, his truck, or in a secluded area. He would then dump the bodies in wooded areas around the Green River and other “dump sites.” Apparently, he chose to dump the bodies in varied locations in order to confuse authorities.

A dated portrait of Gary at home.
Source: Pinterest

Investigators believe that, during his decades-long murder spree, Gary – the mild-mannered man Jill had known – never spoke to any of his victims or kept trophies of the crimes (like many other serial killers tend to do).

Truck Painter by Day…

Gary was a killer by night, but by day he was a truck painter at the Kenworth Truck plant in Renton. He was also married three times. He was born in 1949 in Salt Lake City, Utah, the middle child of three brothers. At 11, his family moved to Washington.

Gary leads investigators to one of his crime scenes in a woody area.
Photo by King County Prosecutor’s Office/Getty Images

Neighbors of the Ridgeways noticed how the parents were unusually strict; they could be heard screaming at and beating up the boys. However, Gary denied any child abuse in later interviews. Although he wasn’t very book smart, fellow classmates said Gary was well-liked.

There Are Always Signs

But every serial killer shows signs at a young age, and Gary was no exception. As a teenager, he committed arson, tortured animals, and went so far as to stab a young boy because he wanted to “know what it felt like to kill somebody.”

A portrait of Gary during high school.
Source: Tumblr

In 1969, Gary enlisted in the Navy, and while stationed in the Philippines, he would hire sex workers. He married a year later, but the relationship lasted only a year. He married again in 1973 and had a son, but his second marriage ended in 1980.

July 1982: Victim #1

His second wife requested a restraining order against him around the time he met Jill, and it looks like what he told her was (somewhat) true. After leaving the Navy, Gary became a painter at Kenworth Trucks.

A portrait of Wendy Coffield.
Source: Pinterest

For the next 30 years, he kept a perfect attendance. In 1982, Gary committed his first murder. On July 15, the body of his first victim was found by children. They spotted the strangled body of 16-year-old Wendy Coffield floating in Seattle’s Green River.

August 1982: Victims #2, 3, and 4

Over the next few weeks, four more bodies were discovered in or along the Green River. All of them were women – all of them strangled. On August 15, three more bodies were found. Marcia Chapman, 31, was found in the shallow waters next to the naked body of 17-year-old Cynthia Hinds.

Marcia Chapman / Cynthia Hinds / Opal Mills.
Source: Pinterest

Not far away, in the undergrowth, lay the body of Opal Mills, 16, with her blue pants knotted around her neck. It was obvious: the police had a serial killer on their hands. The next day, a task force was established.

As the Search Continues, the Body Count Rises

The Green River Task Force investigated the killings, and as they began, the body count started to rise even more. More and more women were being found along the river and in the area surrounding the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

A photo of Gary and the investigators in a woody crime scene.
Photo by King County Prosecutor’s Office/Getty Images

For the next two years, the unidentified “Green River Killer” sexually assaulted and murdered over 40 other women. “Every time you found a body, it was like being hit on the head with a baseball bat,” David Reichert, one of the detectives, told Time magazine.

April 1983: Gary Gets Questioned

In the spring of 1983, Marie Malvar, an 18-year-old prostitute, was last seen by her boyfriend climbing into a ratty, old pickup truck with a dark-haired man in his 30s or 40s. Four days later, Marie was found dead, and the police questioned Gary at his home. He denied knowing her at the time.

A dated picture of Gary at home with his wife.
Source: Pinterest

In 2003, Gary recalled that day when the cops paid him a home visit. He confessed to having stood against a fence during their conversation to cover up the scratches Marie had left on his arm while she tried to escape from him.

Right Under Their Noses

Gary also said that he burned the scratches afterward with battery acid to disguise them. The next time they came to see him, the evidence was long gone. And the cops did eventually visit him again, later that same year.

Gary Ridgway reads a statement in court.
Photo by Elaine Thompson/Pool/Getty Images

Come November, the cops once again spoke with Gary about the murders. Both times, the seemingly ordinary married man denied any knowledge of the dead women. The police lacked evidence to connect him to the crimes. Their hands were tied. And Gary, the killer, was right under their noses.

May 1984: Gary Passes the Lie Detector

Since Gary was a person of interest but not yet an official suspect, the police had to find more evidence against him. Due to his known association with prostitutes in the Seattle area, Gary actually contacted the police with the intention to “help” them in their investigation.

Gary Ridgway sits in the backseat of the investigator's car.
Photo by King County Prosecutor’s Office/Getty Images

He took a polygraph test, in which he was asked if he killed any of the women found. He denied it all and passed the test. It just goes to show how flawed those silly lie detector tests can really be.

1986: Ted Bundy Offers His Assistance

Ted Bundy, a man who needs no introduction, happened to be of some help in identifying the Green River Killer. Detectives on the case had only a few reliable leads, and they were desperate for any information.

A photo of Ted Bundy in the police station.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

Bundy, who was behind bars at this point, read about the ongoing case in the press. Perhaps out of boredom, curiosity, or plain ego, he wrote to Detective Reichert to offer his assistance in the case. Keppel recalled the moment he received the shocking request from a detective of the Seattle Police Department.

There’s a Letter for You, Sir, From Death Row

“It was a letter from a ‘wanna-be’ consultant and the most unlikely person I ever expected to be of assistance in the Green River murders,” Keppel stated. The letter, he described, came from a cell on death row in Florida.

Detective Robert Keppel in an interview at the time.
Source: YouTube

“The sender was Theodore Robert Bundy. I was stunned.” Reichert and Detective Robert Keppel flew to Florida, where Bundy was sitting on death row. At the time, the psychopath who was committed of rape, burglary, and necrophilia was awaiting his execution, which came in 1989.

It Takes One to Know One

During their discussions, Bundy suggested that the killer might be revisiting his victim’s corpses to perform sexual acts on them. It turned out to be a theory that Gary himself later confirmed. Bundy was an absolutely deplorable human being, yet he was valuable.

A still of Ted Bundy during an interview.
Source: YouTube

He had first-hand experience with the same style of murders that Gary had been committing. Bundy proved to be an asset to the case and became a regular interviewee. Every time Keppel and Reichert questioned him, Bundy offered an unfiltered perspective on the psychology of the Green River Killer, who was still out there.

Birds of a Feather…

Bundy and Gary had quite a few things in common, actually. According to Reichert, their mindsets were strikingly similar. “First off, there’s no remorse. He doesn’t have any feelings toward anybody, his family included. And that’s what I saw in Bundy and what I saw in Ridgway,” the detective noted.

A picture of Gary during the trial.
Source: YouTube

Reichert explained to The New York Times that, like Bundy, Gary “craved attention and control and was prideful when discussing his killings.” When detectives presented Gary with an unsolved murder case – to see if he would confess to it – he told them, “Why, if it isn’t mine? Because I have pride in what I do. I don’t wanna take it from anybody else.”

Bundy’s Theories Led to an Arrest

During one interview session with the detectives, when Bundy suggested that the killer was probably revisiting the corpses to perform sexual acts on them, he gave the investigators a word of advice. He advised them that if they find another fresh grave, they should stake it out and wait for the man to show up.

A mugshot of Gary Ridgway.
Source: Pinterest

Bundy’s theory turned out to be on point. The police used his ideas to collect samples and provide evidence – enough to finally grant them an arrest warrant. This was in the mid-‘80s. Why, then, did it take until 2001 to finally arrest Gary Ridgway?

Gary Was Living the Domestic Life

What was Gary doing all those years up until his arrest? Well, he was living a domestic life. By 1987, he was married for a third (and last) time. After discovering the awful truth about her husband, his third wife, Judith Mawson, was in pure denial for a while. “He was always happy; he had a smile that would never change.”

A picture of Judith and Gary at home.
Source: Facebook

She told ABC News, “He made me feel like a newlywed every day.” While she was busy feeling like a newlywed, Gary was fantasizing about much more sinister things.

As Early as the ‘70s

He later admitted to prosecutors that he would fantasize about killing his mother, his wives, and even his own son. He never killed those closest to him, though. Why? Because he knew he would easily have been caught.

A dated photo of police officers searching a forest for evidence.
Source: YouTube

His past girlfriends told Seattle Weekly that he was obsessed with sex. That fact, along with the knowledge that he had a bad childhood and went through a fanatical religious period made them think he had motives to hurt women. Prosecutors suggested that Gary was killing sex workers as early as the 1970s.

Methodical and Calculated

His spree continued until at least 1998. He somehow managed to avoid capture for decades. But how? A lot of it has to do with how methodical and calculated he was. He kept no incriminating trophies; he always wore gloves, and he even clipped the victim’s nails.

Police search the woods for evidence to incriminate Gary.
Source: Pinterest

He would leave misleading clues and burn his own body if he was scratched. But his spree would eventually come to an end, of course, and what brought him down was something he himself provided to the police.

1987: Gary Provides a DNA Sample

Since Gary was said to be the last person seen with two of the victims, police obtained a warrant to search his home and vehicles. At the same time, Gary provided police with a saliva sample that he likely didn’t realize would later tie him to the crimes.

Gary arrives at the police station following his arrest.
Source: YouTube

But this was 1987, and DNA testing was insufficient. So, Gary remained a free man for the next decade-plus to come. Only in 2001 did that sample prove useful. By then, a new DNA testing method enabled detectives to make the necessary link.

March 2001: The DNA Matches

It took 14 years, but better late than never. In 2001, with newly developed techniques in forensic testing, investigators re-examined the evidence. “It was a last-ditch effort,” Beverly Himick, a forensic scientist, told The New York Times.

Investigators search the woods.
Photo by King County Prosecutor’s Office/Getty Images

She explained that they didn’t have a lot to work with, but they worked with what they had. Part of the procedure involved rinsing all the fingernails to look for trace evidence. It’s painstaking work, but it paid off in the end. Eight months later, they announced an arrest the nation had been waiting for.

November 30, 2001: It’s Official

Reichert had the privilege to announce to the world that Gary Ridgway, then 52, was finally in handcuffs. They arrested him in connection with four of his early victims: Marcia Chapman, Opal Mills, Cynthia Hinds and Carol Ann Christensen, whose body was recovered in 1983.

Gary Ridgway’s lawyers speak with the media outside the courtroom.
Photo by Ron Wurzer/Getty Images

On December 5, Gary was charged with four counts of aggravated first-degree murder. But the arrest was just another milestone in this decades-long nightmare. Gary was now captured, but there were 44 more murders that he would confess to in court.

November 5, 2003: Gary Pleads Guilty

Gary appeared in a courtroom filled with his victims’ families. They finally got to hear the killer admit to having committed 48 murders. This was more than any serial killer at the time. The number of deaths was staggering.

An image of Gary in court.
Photo by Elaine Thompson/Pool/Getty Images

“I do not have a good memory of their faces. I killed so many women; I have a hard time keeping them straight,” he said point-blank in a statement. “I picked prostitutes as my victims because I hate most prostitutes, and I did not want to pay them for sex.”

He Didn’t Even Know Their Names

Gary revealed that he killed most of his victims in his home or truck before dumping their bodies. He also admitted that in most cases, he didn’t even know the women’s names. “Most of the time, I killed them the first time I met them.”

A victim’s mother speaks during the trial / Gary listens to testimonies in court.
Photo by Josh Trujillo, Pool, Getty Images / Elaine Thompson, Pool, Getty Images

He explained why he chose women whom he assumed were prostitutes – as not all of them were in reality. Gary said these women were simply “easy to pick up without being noticed.” He said he knew they wouldn’t be reported missing “right away,” if at all.

48 Life Sentences

“I picked prostitutes because I thought I could kill as many of them as I wanted without getting caught,” he stated in court. For his 48 admitted murders, the King County Superior Court Judge sentenced him to 48 life sentences.

An image from all the victims.
Source: YouTube

They were to be served consecutively, with absolutely no possibility of parole. In fact, Gary entered a plea bargain that spared him the death penalty. All he had to provide was information on the murders and locations of the bodies.

Is the Green River Killer Still Alive?

In addition to living the rest of his life in prison, Gary was also fined a sum of $480,000 — $10,000 for each victim. He was placed in solitary confinement in January 2004. Even after he was behind bars, the body count continued to rise. In 2011, he pled guilty to a 49th killing.

A mugshot of Gary Ridgway.
Source: YouTube

Now 72, Gary will be serving his sentence in the Washington State Penitentiary. In 2015, he was transferred to the USP Florence High in Colorado. But in response to a public outcry regarding the transfer, Gary was then transferred back to Washington in order to be “easily accessible” for open murder investigations.

Identifying the Victim Known as “Bones 10”

As recently as January 2021, genetic genealogy identified one of the 49. For decades, the remains of a 14-year-old runaway from Denver was known only as “Bones 10.” Wendy Stephens was the youngest known victim of the Green River serial killer, and it took 37 years to identify her.

A portrait of Wendy Stephens.
Source: Pinterest

Wendy was identified by both the King County Sheriff’s Office and the DNA Doe Project. The project uses genetic genealogy via publicly available DNA databases. As the story goes, Wendy ran away from home at the age of 14.

She Was His Youngest Victim

On March 14, 1984, her remains were found in a wooded area next to a baseball field – what has since become a suburb called SeaTac. Thanks to the groundskeeper’s dog, who came home with a leg bone, Wendy was discovered. Still, it was too late.

Investigators escort Gary as they arrive at the crime scene.
Source: YouTube

Much too late, actually. Her bones were found a year after she was killed. It’s believed that she was Gary’s first victim. For those 37 long and dreadful years, her family had no idea that “Bones 10” was their dear Wendy.

Back to the Beginning

“Ridgway’s murderous spree left a trail of profound grief for so many families of murdered and missing women,” prosecutor Dan Satterberg stated. “We are thankful that Wendy Stephens’ family will now have answers to their enormous loss suffered nearly 40 years ago.”

A photo of victim’s relatives crying in court.
Photo by Josh Trujillo/Pool/Getty Images

Let’s go back to Jill’s story now. Jill obviously considers herself lucky to not have been one of Gary’s victims. But that doesn’t stop her from feeling shame and guilt. In a blog, she wrote candidly about what happened and how it all panned out.

A Turning Point

Jill wrote that at the time of her one-night-stand – or whatever you wanna call it − with Gary, the country had just “turned hard right into a Reagan presidency.” People were trading in their bell-bottoms and belly tops for slacks and turtlenecks.

A portrait of Jill McCabe.
Source: Pinterest

But Jill, and many others on the West Coast, were behind the times. She said she never sensed anything disturbing about Gary. Over the years, her feelings went from horror for all the victims, to disbelief, to fear about what might have happened that night.

The Two Garys

The Gary she once knew and the Gary she was seeing on the news were slowly becoming the same person. After his separation from his second wife, Marcia Brown, in 1980, he was said to have parked near her apartment for three hours every night for about a month.

The Green River Killer faces families of victims in court.
Photo by Elaine Thompson/Pool/Getty Images

Jill then remembered him outside her own apartment in early 1981. Then there were his taped confessions, where he described how he showed women his business card and a photo of his son to put them at ease.

Calm and Collected, but Not Cool

Gary’s lawyer, Mark Prothero, said Gary hid his “deficits” so well that “none of his victims ever realized that the mousy little man with the snapshot of his child in his wallet was actually the deadliest sexual predator in the nation.”

A picture of Gary in court.
Photo by Elaine Thompson/Pool/Getty Images

When Jill met Gary, nobody was on the police radar. No creep was on the loose targeting women in her neighborhood. Let’s not forget that Jill was only 18 at the time. She wasn’t thinking about serial killers. And Gary was good at playing the calm and collected (but not so cool) guy.

“Kill, Kill, Kill”

Gary told investigators he wanted to convince these women that he was a “normal person.” But he confessed that in his mind he was thinking “kill, kill, kill.” He admitted that his thoughts when meeting a girl were, “I’m going to sweet-talk her so I can kill the b**ch.”

Gary Ridgway is taken away from the courtroom.
Photo by Elaine Thompson/Pool/Getty Images

Was that what he thought when he met Jill? She couldn’t help but wonder. But Gary didn’t start killing until 1982, less than two years after their night together. Still, what if her roommates had never come home that night?

A Little Too Close to Home

Jill wrote that the worst discovery she made was hearing about Marcia Faye Chapman, the woman who lived in the Puerta Villa apartments – the same complex she was living in. In August 1982, Marcia disappeared, leaving her three kids at home.

A portrait of Jill McCabe.
Source: Pinterest

For all they knew, mommy was going to the store. Not long after, her remains showed up by the Green River. Despite all this information, Jill was still in denial. “What will it take for you to believe they’re the same guy?” her husband asked her.

A Life in Isolation

“I don’t know. I don’t want to believe,” she told her husband. Then one day, about a month later, he asked her if she ever considered writing to him. Of course not, she told him. Gary was already in Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla.

A portrait of Gary Ridgway.
Source: YouTube

Most of his days were spent in isolation – 23 hours a day. He was (and probably still is) only allowed visits from his immediate family and his legal team. As for all those obsessed with serial killers, and the Green River Killer, in particular, they write to him.

Dear Gary…

The people that write to him are journalists, true crime writers, religious zealots, do-gooders, and the small percentage of women who get turned on from befriending a killer. Jill is none of those. The idea of writing to him seemed pointless and even scary.

A dated photo of investigators searching the woods.
Source: YouTube

But she had so many questions for him. So, she rented a P.O. box and wrote him a letter. She reminded him of their past meetings while being mindful of her words – so that the letter wouldn’t be confiscated by the prison officials. But Jill never heard back from Gary.