FOR THE MOMENT, Auburn truck painter and accused serial killer Gary Leon Ridgway is the all-purpose suspect. Neighbors say he was friendly and standoffish. Co-workers think he was quiet and gregarious. Friends pronounce him normal and weird. Before he was even charged, authorities and reporters called him "the" Green River murderer of 49 women.
Ridgway, who law enforcement sources say has admitted nothing since his arrest Nov. 30, also managed to fit the serial-killer profile by not matching up to it—supposedly having abruptly stopped his murderous rage 17 years ago, unlike the typical profile killer. No problem: Officials "just changed the profile," says Ridgway's public defender Mark Prothero, or speculate that he must have taken his killing game on the road—to Vancouver, Portland, or San Diego, where the killer(s) used a different M.O.
Just as conflictingly, the biggest secret in Seattle turns out to have been the worst-kept one: With hindsight's advantage, is there anyone now who didn't think mild-mannered Gary Nobody was secretly up to mayhem the past two decades? Co-workers at the Kenworth truck plant in Renton laughingly reveal they always knew about the accusations against ol' "Green River Gary." King County Sheriff Dave Reichert says Ridgway was always a leading suspect, repeatedly questioned, his home thoroughly searched (and who consented to two lie detector tests—which he passed).
Today, claiming he has circumstantial and DNA evidence linking Ridgway to four slayings in America's largest unsolved murder case, Reichert also says "I believe he's killed more than four— a lot more than four." The onetime leader of the Green River Task Force (which wrongly named at least three suspects in the past) couldn't help adding that the arrest proves his old detractors were mistaken: "We did do a good job; we caught the guy."
All of which leaves Ridgway, 52, under high-security wraps at the King County Jail, facing multiple murder charges and a possible death sentence, and attorney Prothero suddenly feeling "like a deer caught in the headlights. Living here, I followed the [serial murder] case, but just barely," says the public defender from the private, nonprofit Associated Counsel for the Accused. "I've got a lot of background catching up to do."
Prothero is putting together a team of lawyers, in part by sending out queries to local attorneys who might want to join up; their agenda includes questioning the validity and chain of possession of the aged DNA samples. "Obviously this case is out of the ordinary even if it stays with four counts," says Prothero, who is schooling himself on genetic-evidence advances. "There's a tremendous amount of discovery to go through and get organized when there are four dead bodies."
Investigators have theorized for years that there are multiple Green River killers, and they may indeed have arrested one of them. But, even if Ridgway already seems convicted by the police, press, and public, there is still that little formality of a fair trial. "The media has left no neighbor unturned," Prothero says of the heavy pretrial publicity that could warrant a change of venue. "We're still trying to figure out how to get our message out. Schedule a press conference? Do it piecemeal; wait for people to call me, and I tell them one at a time? We don't know yet."
What he does know is "We'll be entering a plea of not guilty at the arraignment—to all counts." Maybe you read it here first.