SEATTLE - Nearly a decade ago, Gary Ridgway was unmasked as the Green River Killer, the most prolific serial killer in U.S. history. Despite a multi-year criminal case that drew international attention and years of near isolation in the Washington State Penitentiary, Ridgway has steadfastly refused to speak to the media about his crimes.
In a series of interviews with KOMO's Charlie Harger conducted over the past five months, Ridgway, who pleaded guilty to killing 49 women over a span of two decades, now claims the number of women he killed is closer to 80.
Ridgway says he's speaking out to help bring closure to the families of his unidentified victims. But, what are his real motivations for breaking his silence? And, what can be learned from the voice of evil?
The Green River Killer
The Green River Killer terrorized south King County as the bodies of young women, many of them prostitutes, runaways or drug addicts, began turning up near the Green River in the early 1980s.
After years of disappearances, bodies and leads that didn't pan out, Auburn resident Gary Ridgway, a semi-truck painter and long-time suspect in the Green River killings, was arrested in 2001 thanks to advances in DNA testing.
Neighbors, who described Ridgway and his wife as kind and helpful neighbors, were shocked.
"I can't believe it," neighbor Clement Greurek said at the time. "Maybe the biggest mass murderer in the history of the country right here in my backyard."
Ridgway avoided the death penalty by pleading guilty to killing 48 prostitutes and runaways in King County and was sentenced to 48 consecutive life terms. A 49th victim was identified and 49th life sentence was added in 2011.
Speaking to the Voice of Evil
Charlie Harger's year-long journey to becoming the first journalist to speak with the Green River Killer began with a chance meeting with a former Air Force criminal investigator named Rob Fitzgerald.
Equipped with more than $100,000 worth of search gear, Fitzgerald and a team of volunteers, plus one cadaver-sniffing bloodhound named Wendy, spend their weekends hunting for the remains of Gary Ridgway's missing or unidentified victims.
Despite the grueling work of chopping through bushes and combing through dirt in search of tiny bone fragments, Fitzgerald, who started his hunt five years ago, said he is compelled to search for the missing victims.
"They deserve this," Fitzgerald said. "People need to know there's at least some hope their daughters will be found."
Fitzgerald's passion for finding remains left behind by the Green River Killer was interesting enough, but what hooked Harger was when Fitzgerald said he regularly speaks with Ridgway. Harger said he couldn't believe it; no one speaks with Ridgway, who is being held in a maximum-security unit at the prison in Walla Walla.
Fitzgerald said he started writing letters to Ridgway asking for help with where to look for the remains of victims. Now, Ridgway calls him three or four times a week. Fitzgerald gives Ridgway photos of possible "dump sites," and Ridgway circles areas where Fitzgerald's team should look.
It took months for Harger to convince Fitzgerald he was doing the story for the right reason: finding victims' remains. It took even longer to convince Ridgway to talk.
But, on April 3 after nearly nine hours of waiting, Ridgway called.
"The strange thing about Gary Ridgway is if you didn't know the depravity, if you didn't know the evil that this man committed, you would have no clue when you talked on the phone with him," Harger said. "This man sounds like he would be a perfect neighbor."
Harger and Ridgway's initial 10-minute conversation, the first of several over the coming weeks, started with exchanged pleasantries and thoughts on the weather. As Harger would later recall, it took a moment to realize he was speaking to the voice of evil.
He said Ridgway has the ability to describe a victim's head falling off her decomposing body like he's describing taking his dog for a walk.
"He has no emotion about it," Harger said. "For him, it's like talking about what he had for dinner last night. There is no connection there."
It was Harger's first taste of Ridgway's ability to switch from the mundane to the revolting without changing his voice. During their subsequent conversations, Harger said Ridgway would talk about murders as if he was reading the phone book.
Harger said he was able to get Ridgway to agree to the interviews by using a soft approach, accepting at face value Ridgway's assertion that he now wants to help the families of missing victims by helping find their remains. Or, at least pretending to; Harger said it's clear Ridgway continues to be deceptive.
"Gary Ridgway is absolutely playing me; he's playing everybody when he talks," Harger said. "I don't think Gary Ridgway can even comprehend the truth."
Harger said he thinks Ridgway's true motivation for finally speaking out is an attempt to "up his count" -- to make it look like he killed as many people as possible -- a number he now puts as high as 85.
"I think he wants to show the world that, 'Here I am, Gary Ridgway, the truck painter from Kenworth, the guy who everybody thought was slow since elementary school, somebody who couldn't hold a candle to Ted Bundy. But, here I am, and I'm the best at something.'"
Despite Ridgway's questionable motives, Harger said there is still value in what he has to say. All it takes is one piece of new, true information to get closure for a victim's family.
"There's so many people out there who have never been found, so many women dead in the cold," Harger said.
"Maybe if we listen to the clues and cut through his lies, we will find a nugget of truth, the clue investigators have waited for," he said. "It's a chance we have to take."