11/07/2003

Sheriff: Detectives Gave Ridgway One More Thrill

By GENE JOHNSON, The Associated Press

SEATTLE (AP) -- In the fall of 1985, a young detective spent days scouring Seward Park, a hilly, forested nub of land that juts into Lake Washington, searching for clues to a killing.

This summer, the detective -- now Sheriff Dave Reichert -- returned there with Gary Ridgway, a man he had been chasing for two decades. The details of the landscape came rushing back, and as Reichert watched, Ridgway walked, stopping precisely where 16-year-old Mary West's remains had been found 18 years earlier.

"It sent chills up my spine," Reichert said Thursday, a day after Ridgway pleaded guilty to killing 48 women. The deal spares Ridgway from execution for those deaths; he will be sentenced to life in prison without parole. "It was thrilling because we knew we had him. But it was a surreal, eerie feeling."

And Ridgway's reaction helped the sheriff realize something else: The detectives who tried so long to catch him were now giving the Green River Killer one more thrill.

"He enjoyed it," Reichert said. "That was hard for us. What he liked to do was go back to the site. And we were the ones taking him back. We provided him with the opportunity to relive that sense of pride and joy all over again.

"Sometimes, you have to be the best friend in the world to a person you absolutely hate and despise."

Ridgway's pleas gave him more convictions than any serial killer in U.S. history. His murderous binge targeting runaways and prostitutes terrorized Seattle from 1982 until 1984, when the killing apparently stopped, but Ridgway also admitted killing as recently as 1990 and 1998.

His specialty was strangling, and he took pride in it, the 54-year-old truck painter from suburban Auburn wrote in his confession, which was read in court by a prosecutor. He would pick up the women and bring them back to his house, into the back of his pickup or into the woods or tall grass. He would choke them -- often while having sex -- and dump their bodies in clusters around the region.

He would then drive by the dump sites, thinking happily about what he had done, and sometimes returned to have sex with the corpses.

He wrote that he killed because he hated prostitutes and didn't want to pay them, and because "they were in the wrong place at the wrong time."

A former Sunday school teacher, Reichert was 31 years old and had less than two years of experience with the King County Sheriff's Major Crimes Unit when he became the first detective on the case in July 1982. He had responded when a slaughterhouse worker found the naked body of Debra Lynn Bonner -- the third victim Ridgway confessed to -- swaying in the Green River near Kent.

Reichert pursued the case as the body count rose, always believing the killer would be caught, he said.

It was tough at times: Politicians questioned whether the investigation was worth so much time and money. One suspect threatened Reichert's family, and police tailed his children on their way to school for safety.

When he became sheriff in 1998, he kept a detective on the case, even though there had been no breaks for years.

It was that detective, Tom Jensen, who gave Reichert the news in mid-2001 that their waiting was over: Advances in DNA technology had allowed scientists to link Ridgway, a longtime suspect who had been seen with several victims before they disappeared, to semen found on three of the bodies.

Ridgway was arrested Nov. 30, 2001. Microscopic spray paint particles from his job would later link him to three more killings, and facing such proof, he signed a plea agreement in June.

Over the next five months, he led detectives to 51 sites where he claimed to have dumped bodies. Some of the sites were where remains had already been found, as in the case of West. But he also led detectives to four sets of previously undiscovered remains -- and apparently took pleasure in knowing that investigators could not solve the vast majority of the crimes without his help.

Reichert watched on video for the first two months as detectives interrogated Ridgway almost daily about his crimes, and he would suggest alternative lines of questioning. Ridgway's mood changed little during those sessions, Reichert said, though sometimes something as simple as giving him the meal he wanted made him more cooperative.

In August, it was Reichert's turn. As he sat across from the killer and looked him in the eyes, the sheriff could not deny the weight of a moment two decades in the making.

Ridgway felt it too.

"There was a look in his eye, a satisfaction on his face that even though he's been caught, he had fooled me," Reichert said. "He had fooled the detectives."

Ultimately, Reichert said, he tried to think about the victims. It was more important to try to get information out of Ridgway than to focus on his own emotions.

In describing those emotions, Reichert recalled a conversation he had by phone recently with a relative of one of the victims. The relative, used to being calmed by the sheriff, noticed the tension crackling in his voice. "She said, 'Detective, it sounds to me like you're a victim, too."'

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