If the charges against him are true, Gary Ridgway is an unlikely — and atypical — serial killer.
The Green River slayings claimed the lives of 49 women, including many prostitutes, in Washington state between 1982 and 1984. Many of the victims were found near the Green River just south of Seattle; others were from Washington but were found in Oregon.
The case baffled investigators until new DNA evidence led to Ridgway, an unlikely serial-killer suspect who is neither a loner nor a drifter.
Before his Nov. 30 arrest for four of the slayings, he was a 52-year-old married father who had held a job with a trucking company for 32 years. Neighbors recalled his garage sales and seeing him and his wife gardening and walking their poodle around the neighborhood.
But Ridgway did have a penchant for prostitutes. Over the last 19 years, he had been arrested twice for soliciting prostitution — in 1982 and this past October. In 1980, police say, a prostitute accused him of choking her. Police decided not to bring charges when Ridgway told them he attacked her only after she had bitten him.
Killing Is an Addiction
While police are investigating whether Ridgway has links to scores of other unsolved slayings in San Diego and Vancouver, British Columbia, they are also considering the possibility that he may have stopped killing after 1984. That, experts say, is highly unusual for a serial killer, and one of the reasons why they are so dangerous. Experts say there is really no such thing as a prototypical serial killer; they can be reclusive loners like Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, or charming, unassuming law students like Ted Bundy.
But usually, they keep on killing.
"Typically, serial killers keep on killing until they're caught," said Mike Rustigan, professor of criminology at San Francisco State University. "Serial murder is an addiction to these guys. It starts out as an urge, then it becomes a compulsion, and eventually it becomes an addiction. With Ridgway, he might be an exception. He is married, seemed to be well-integrated into the community. Most [serial killers] are loner types without any connection to the community.
"He's a rather unusual character," Rustigan continued. "He's older than most serial killers. … Maybe he decided to stop and lay low because he had a sense that they [police] were on to him."
But experts point out that an apparent pause in a string of slayings does not necessarily mean a serial killer stopped on his own. A pause could mean that the killer may have either died, been imprisoned for another unrelated crime, or may have moved to other locations. That is why investigators have searched Ridgway's previous residences in Des Moines, Wash., and San Diego, where he was briefly stationed while in the Navy.
Not a Typical Serial Killer Slip-Up
Police had long considered Ridgway a suspect in the Green River slayings, and he knew it. He was questioned in 1984 after witnesses identified his pickup truck and told police they had seen him with two of the victims. Investigators searched Ridgway's house in 1987, and he complied with a court order to submit a saliva sample by chewing on a piece of gauze. Recent DNA tests on that saliva sample, authorities say, link Ridgway to three of the victims. (Circumstantial evidence allegedly ties him to a fourth.)
Unlike most other alleged serial killers, a slip-up by Ridgway was not primarily what led to his arrest. He was not caught during an attempted carjacking like the Night Stalker, Richard Ramirez, who killed at least 16 people in Los Angeles in 1985 or arrested following a traffic stop like Bundy.
"Most profilers say serial killers don't learn from mistakes in their previous killings, but I believe they do," said Tod W. Burke, professor of criminology at Radford University and a former police officer. "They try to improve on their previous effort. You know how the more you do something, the better you get at it? Well, there comes a point where you peak and you can only go down. With serial killers, a greed factor will set in where they'll believe the more they kill and get away with it, the easier it will be. And that's when they get sloppy and get caught."
The Thrill of the Chase
Experts hesitate to generalize the characteristics of serial killers because there are several kinds of them driven by different sets of motives. Some are thrill-seekers, who see their killings and the police pursuit as a game. Experts say they love the attention of the media and the pursuit by police — and the fact that they are able to evade authorities.
"You're likely to see these kind of killers send a message with their killings," said Burke. "They tend to keep a record of their killings. It would not surprise me to see these guys keep [newspaper] clippings of their murders. They enjoy one-upmanship, get joy from foiling the efforts of the police."
Some serial killers are mission-oriented, believing that they are doing society a favor by getting rid of certain people, such as prostitutes, or by making a statement against particular trends, such as the growth of technology. Others are motivated by power and control — Experts say they tend to get more of a thrill out of seeing their victims cower and hearing them scream than from the kill itself.
Still, experts say the motives in serial killers are deeply personal, and they enjoy being elusive and the celebrity they gain. And they tend not to be apologetic.
"With all of them, their motives tend to be total, deep and personal," said Rustigan. "They feel no guilt, no remorse and have an attitude of total disdain towards their victims.… There's a self-importance that runs in all of them."
And that self-importance — or ego — has been some serial killers' downfall. When it appears that a string of multiple slayings may never be solved, experts say serial killers tend to let their egos get in the way, especially if they feel they are not being portrayed correctly in the media or they're feeling upstaged by other events.
"With the Unabomber, for example, he demanded that The Washington Post and The New York Times publish his manifesto," said Rustigan. "You get the feeling that if he had just laid low, he may have remained on the loose to this day. His own brother saw the manifesto in his home and he then contacted authorities. I feel he felt upstaged by the Oklahoma City bombing, which made everything he had done up to that point seem like nothing."
The Danger of Confessions
But that hasn't been the case with Ridgway. He appeared to lay low for years and was only formally arrested after advances in DNA technology gave investigators enough evidence to bring him into custody, and made prosecutors comfortable enough to bring murder charges.
Because of serial killers' egos and fondness of celebrity, experts say they may tend to exaggerate the number of slayings or confess to killings they did not commit. Some may want to grouped with notorious killers such as John Wayne Gacy, Jeffrey Dahmer, and Bundy.
"That's why you need corroborating evidence," said Burke. "You don't take a confession by a serial killer blindly. One of great things about DNA technology is that it has provided that corroborating evidence, its database updated all the time and enabling police to make arrests in serial killings and other unsolved murders."
Ridgway will be arraigned Dec. 18. Prosecutors have not decided whether they will seek the death penalty. Ridgway's attorneys have said he will maintain his innocence.