When someone in a community is murdered, it shakes that community to its core. The loss of a friend or family member is painful to anyone. When you add the fact that you have no clue why the person was killed or who did it, a dark cloud can start to hang over you. When a second person is killed for seemingly no reason, that cloud gets heavier, and when the third person dies you start to go into a full-on panic. This was the grim reality for a sleepy town in Washington that was terrified for years until police were finally able to make a breakthrough with the help of some new technology.
On July 15th, 1982 a couple of boys were playing by the river when one of the boys spotted something strange in the water. Once they went down to check out what it was, their lives and the lives of everyone in the area would be changed forever. They found the body of Wendy Coffield, a 16-year-old girl who had been strangled to death, under the Meeker Street bridge in Kent, Washington.
Citizens couldn't believe that a girl so young had been killed in such a gruesome manner. Local police focused their efforts on trying to figure out who killed her and why she ended up in the river but had little to no evidence to use. Just when local police though things couldn't get any worse, they did; the body of Debra Bonner, a 23-year-old prostitute, was found in the Green River. The cause of death: strangulation.
Local police were stumped, and the bodies kept piling up. Three days after Debra's body was found, 3 more bodies were found, all in the Green River, all women, all strangled to death. This was no longer simply an unsolved murder in a sleepy town, and the FBI had to get involved. There was a serial killer on the loose. They formed the Green River Task Force, the largest police task force put together since the Ted Bundy Killings in the 70's. But even all that manpower could not stop the crazed killer.
After the task force was formed, they quickly realized they weren't dealing with your average everyday criminal. The task force made little to no progress because the killer left close to no evidence on the bodies and the victims were picked seemingly at random with no thread to tie them together. Investigators were stumped and it was beginning to look like someone that had killed so many people would get away scot-free.
Most sane people would cut their losses and stop committing their crime when they found out a large task force had been formed to stop them. Serial killers, however, are not sane. The Green River killer continued to rack up a body count while investigators were hot on his tail. The first breakthrough for the Green River Task Force came when the boyfriend of one of the victims came forward and said he followed the truck of the man he believed abducted and murdered his girlfriend.
The police followed the lead that the grieving boyfriend gave them and it led them to a man named Gary Ridgeway. It turned out that Ridgeway had in fact been in contact with a bunch of the missing women. However, he said he had a good reason for it. He claimed they were all prostitutes that he purchased services from. He had already had a run-in with the police over choking a prostitute, but claimed that was because she attacked him. Police would bring him in for questioning and even make him take a polygraph, but he passed the polygraph and they had no solid evidence to hold him so he was set free.
One would think that knowing police have you as a prime suspect in murders would deter a killer, but Gary Ridgeway was in too deep. After his initial arrest, more women were killed and the official body count rose to 46. Police felt they knew that he was the killer, but just needed the evidence to prove it. In 1987, they got a warrant to collect both hair and saliva samples from Ridgeway. However, since DNA technology was still in its infancy, investigators weren't able to do anything with it at the time. Investigators had to once again let him walk free and wait for the technological breakthrough that they needed to come.
Time passed and technology was finally able to prove what investigators had always believed. In the 80's, they were not able to match the strands of hair they had collected from Ridgeway to the hair they had found on the victim's bodies. In 2001, technology had progressed far enough to the point where they were able to get a DNA match. Ridgeway would finally be tried for his crimes almost 20 years after they had initially found the first body.
At his trial, the true extent of what Ridgeway had done finally started to come out. He showed little to no remorse and really didn't have an explanation for his actions. The best excuse that he came up with was that he killed the prostitutes that he killed because he "hates prostitutes" and "didn't want to pay them for sex." But that doesn't explain why he killed hitchhikers and underage girls.
While Ridgeway was only convicted of 49 murders, he has confessed to killing at least 71 women and investigators believe he may have killed upward of 90 total women. He himself said he lost count of how many people he killed and the number is frankly astonishing. While the murders did slow down after the FBI brought him in to get DNA samples, they never stopped until he was arrested, so there is no telling how many people he killed.