Suspect arrested for 1980s serial murders

KENT, Wash. -- In 1984, the Green River slayings were the focus of a task force made up of dozens of investigators trying to find the person responsible for the deaths of 49 women in the Northwest, the nation's worst unsolved serial killings.

Detectives followed thousands of leads, interviewed victims' friends, witnesses and possible suspects in the killings around Seattle and Portland, Ore.

But virtually all the task force could say publicly was that the killer might be driving a primer-spotted pickup truck with a canopy, and he might look like one of several composite drawings.

And by last summer, King County sheriff's Detective Tom Jensen was the lone investigator left on the case. In an interview then, Jensen had said investigators' best hope might be tissue samples from the five initial bodies.

On Friday, that work paid off, said King County Sheriff Dave Reichert, who worked as a detective on the original task force.

Gary Leon Ridgway, 52, a longtime suspect, was arrested as he left work at a truck company for investigation of homicide in the deaths of four of the women.

Links to four cases

Forensic scientists had linked Ridgway's DNA to three of the killer's victims, and other factors linked him to the fourth case, the sheriff said.

The victims whose deaths were attributed to the Green River killer -- mainly young prostitutes and runaways taken from a red-light district south of the city -- disappeared or were found dead from 1982 through 1984. The killers were named for the river in south King County where the bodies of the first victims were found in 1982.

Ridgway was identified as a suspect as early as 1984. He was questioned after witnesses identified his pickup truck and said he had been seen with two of the victims, according to a 1987 court document.

In 1987, Ridgway complied with a court order to chew on a piece of gauze to collect a saliva sample.

This past March, the department tested the saliva again. The successful results came back two months ago, and detectives put Ridgway under surveillance.

"It's too bad that we didn't have this technology back when it was going on, because the case would have been better handled, probably solved," Jensen, who had worked on the case since 1984, said in an interview in September.

Three of the killings linked to Ridgway -- those of Marcia Fay Chapman, Cynthia Jean Hinds and Opal Mills -- were among the first five victims. The fourth, Carol Ann Christensen, was the seventh victim attributed to the Green River killer.

No decision on charges

A prosecutor's spokesman said no decision on charges would be made until early this week. Lawyer Todd Gruenhagen was appointed as a public defender.

Late Friday, detectives searched Ridgway's home in a middle-class neighborhood about 20 miles south of Seattle, and they went back for another search of a house in Kent where he had lived in the 1980s.

Ridgway's arrest was the first real break in a case as baffling as it has been horrific.

"Green River was so difficult because it had no timely suspect data that the police could go on. They'd find out that some prostitute was identified from the bones, and go back and interview the people who last saw her, six or eight months later," said Bob Keppel, a state investigator on the case and author of "Riverman," a book about the killings.

Both Jensen and Dan Richmond, retired head of detectives for the sheriff's department, believe the Green River killer's true death toll may be somewhere in the mid-50s or higher, not the official 49.

Ridgway has been arrested twice in the past 19 years, Reichert said -- in 1982 for soliciting prostitution and earlier this month, when he was arrested for loitering for the purpose of soliciting prostitution.