How Detectives Cuffed The Green River Killer, At Last
Randy Mullinax inherited them from Paul Smith, a veteran King County detective who died of leukemia in 1985. Since then, the cuffs had pinched the wrists of robbers, killers _ hundreds of suspects.
But on Nov. 30, 2001, Mullinax reached into his back pocket and pulled them out for the last time, keeping an old promise to Smith's widow as he slapped them on a man whose murderous binge had baffled investigators for nearly two decades: Gary Ridgway, the Green River Killer.
Mullinax, 52, is a bullish man with thick hands, a trim goatee and thin, dark gray hair. For eight years in the 1970s, he operated a backhoe for a local water district. Unsatisfied with the work, he pursued a two-year degree in criminal justice at Highline Community College south of Seattle and wound up in a rural precinct of the sheriff's office. Smith showed him the ropes.
Together, they were assigned in January 1984 to the Green River Task Force. Over the previous year and a half, the bodies of 14 women, mostly prostitutes and runaways, had been found near Seattle, and many more were missing and feared dead.
Smith died in April 1985 at age 40, following a failed bone-marrow transplant. Mullinax plugged away on the case for another two years. It was not until one of the most emotional days in the nation's history _ Sept. 11, 2001 _ that he learned a little bit of spit held the key to the Green River mystery.
Gary Ridgway had been a suspect as early as 1984, when the boyfriend of victim Marie Malvar saw her getting into his pickup. But back then Ridgway remained just beyond detectives' reach.
He denied knowing Malvar and even passed a polygraph, as sociopaths sometimes can. Though he had been seen with a few women who later turned up dead, investigators had no physical evidence against him.
Ridgway was careful. If his victims scratched him, he would cut their fingernails to keep detectives from finding traces of his skin. If he left tire tracks at a dump site, he would buy new tires or switch vehicles.
By 1987, the detectives were desperate. They searched his home and had him bite on a piece of gauze to secure a saliva sample, but found nothing that would link him to the case. At least not yet.
Mullinax drove to work on Sept. 11, 2001, and listened on the radio as the south tower of the World Trade Center collapsed. Three years earlier he had swapped homicide investigations for the more regular hours of police intelligence. He spent his days analyzing phone, vehicle and home records of suspected drug-dealers. He no longer made arrests, but he kept the handcuffs in his glove compartment, just in case.
He also served on the Joint Terrorism Task Force, so on Sept. 11 he headed to its headquarters in downtown Seattle and began answering phone calls about potential terrorists. One tip came from someone who recalled seeing plane manuals in a seedy motel on Pacific Highway South.
As Mullinax drove down the highway to investigate, his thoughts turned from terrorism to the scores of women who had disappeared from that stretch of road in the 1980s. Many of the victims were last seen at motels like this one, he thought, and investigators still didn't know who killed them.
At the motel, Mullinax questioned two Chinese men about the plane manuals and quickly determined they were legitimate. Later that afternoon, his cell phone rang. It was Sheriff Dave Reichert _ who rarely called his cell.
"I don't want to say much right now," Mullinax recalls Reichert telling him. "But I have news on Green River."
Mullinax felt his stomach knot. "I bet I know who it is," he replied.
His hunch was right. Advances in DNA technology had finally allowed detectives to link Ridgway's 14-year-old saliva sample to semen found on three of the earliest victims.
They talked for about two minutes. Reichert said he was reconvening the Green River Task Force and wanted to know if Mullinax would take part.
Mullinax returned to Terrorism Task Force headquarters and once again began answering the phones. But he could think of nothing but Green River.
The first Green River meeting was days later at the home of Fae Brooks, a detective on the original task force in the '80s. The sheriff and a handful of investigators attended; the mood was solemn anticipation.
"It was word we had wanted to hear for so long," Mullinax says. "But it took us back to some really tough, painful years in the '80s."
Though Ridgway had been identified as the culprit, the detectives couldn't arrest him yet. They had to review thousands of pages of documents, and they had to make sure prosecutors were ready to file charges when they did arrest him; in Washington state, charges must be filed within 72 hours of an arrest.
That meant their work had to be kept secret, lest Ridgway be tipped off. Leaks to the media had plagued the investigation in the '80s. When Reichert showed up at Ridgway's house in 1987, a newspaper reporter beat him to the door.
The sheriff provided cover for the task force by calling it an "evidence review team." Team members took over another unit's secure offices in the Regional Justice Center in the south Seattle suburb of Kent.
The detectives were given assignments. Mullinax got Ridgway.
Ridgway, 52 at the time, proved easy to find. He still lived in the area, and he had held the same job painting trucks for three decades.
Mullinax borrowed a beat-up work truck from his wife, the co-owner of a construction company, to avoid alerting Ridgway or anyone else that they were snooping in the area.
As he drove by Ridgway's home in Auburn, a beige two-story house with an attached garage, another detective pointed a digital video camera out the window, recording images of the property and any vehicles parked there.
Soon, they returned and secreted a video camera about 100 yards away, aiming it at the end of the driveway to monitor Ridgway's comings and goings. They also tailed him occasionally.
As the detectives worked their way through the old files, they planned the arrest for mid-December.
Late at task force headquarters on Nov. 27, someone asked whether Ridgway's parents were still alive. Mullinax typed "Ridgway" into his computer and conducted a search as other detectives watched over his shoulders.
The computer spit back an entry under "Ridgway, Gary," an arrest for soliciting a prostitute.
The detectives knew Ridgway had been arrested in a prostitution sting in 1981, but it seemed strange that such an old arrest was still in the system. They looked more closely _ and gasped.
The arrest was less than two weeks old. Ridgway was still picking up prostitutes _ had even been busted for it! _ and the task force had no idea.
"We just couldn't believe it," Mullinax said. "It was no one's fault. We were doing this thing in secret _ not telling anyone."
Though they initially believed the Green River Killer's binge lasted from mid-1982 to spring 1984, they now knew more lives might be at stake. They put Ridgway under 24-hour surveillance and moved up the arrest date to Nov. 30, a Friday. The plan was to take him as he left work at Kenworth Truck Co. in Renton, while other detectives would simultaneously begin searching homes he had lived in and vehicles he had used.
In anticipation that morning, Mullinax took his handcuffs out of the glove compartment.
Two detectives, Jon Mattsen and Sue Peters, wanted to interview Ridgway at work before his arrest _ if he wasn't in custody, he wouldn't invoke his right to remain silent, and that might be their only chance to talk to him.
Ridgway agreed to meet with them, and they told him they were reviewing the May 1983 murder of Carol Christensen. It was semen found in Christensen's body that provided the strongest DNA link.
The meeting lasted for close to two hours. Ridgway said he remembered Christensen as a local bartender, but denied having sex with her. The detectives thanked him and left.
At 3 p.m., the day shift at Kenworth ended. Mullinax was waiting in a sport-utility vehicle in the parking lot with Detectives Jim Doyon and Mike Brown. They had been there since noon.
In the crowd of workers, they saw Ridgway heading for his pickup. Mullinax and Doyon approached him, and Mullinax told him he was under arrest. He took a small plastic lunchbox from Ridgway's hand and ordered him into the SUV.
"We didn't want to cuff him then or even pat him down," Mullinax said. "We wanted try to keep him as comfortable and at ease as we could in hoping he would speak to us."
The ride to the Justice Center was silent except for one moment. Ridgway asked, "What's going to happen to my truck?"
"We'll take care of it," one detective replied.
Mullinax, Doyon and Brown brought Ridgway to an interview room at the Justice Center, and Doyon read him his rights. They tried to question him, but he requested a lawyer, ending the session before it started. He spoke privately with two public defenders for about an hour.
When the meeting was over, the detectives had Ridgway change into a jail uniform. They brought him into the Justice Center basement, where the SUV was parked in a concealed garage. As they prepared for the half-hour drive to the King County Jail in downtown Seattle, Mullinax reached into his back pocket and felt for Smith's handcuffs.
"I knew I was going to be the person who booked this guy into jail, and I had decided this was the last person they were going to be used on," Mullinax says.
He thought of Paul Smith as he said, "It's time to put the cuffs on, Gary." Mullinax cinched the cuffs and asked if they were comfortable. Ridgway said they were and got in the car.
The hunt for the Green River Killer was over, though the laborious task of linking him to dozens more murders was just getting rolling. Eventually, on June 13, 2003, Ridgway agreed to cooperate with investigators in a deal to avoid the death penalty.
During months of interviews, he told detectives in the most matter-of-fact terms that he killed so many women he had a hard time keeping them straight _ the most recent in 1998, long after the killer was believed to have stopped in 1984.
On Nov. 5, Ridgway pleaded guilty 48 times. He is to be sentenced to life in prison without parole Dec. 18.
Paul Smith's widow, now Cheryl Payseno, watched the news of Ridgway's arrest and was overcome. She remembered that shortly after Paul's death, Mullinax had come to her house, asking for his handcuffs.
"I thought it was kind of a strange request, but he said, 'The guys on the task force decided that when we arrest the Green River Killer, we want to use Paul's handcuffs,"' she says. "Sixteen years went by, and when I saw it on the news I just had this strange feeling and wondered if they remembered."
She sent Mullinax a letter.
"Dear Randy," it read. "You will remember me as Cherie Smith, Paul Smith's wife. ... Were you able to use Paul's handcuffs?"
The detective read it and smiled. A few weeks later, he brought the handcuffs to a holiday party at her home and presented them to Payseno and her daughter, Jennifer, who had grown up to become a Tacoma police officer.
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