In a calm voice and with an expressionless gaze, a bespectacled 54-year-old Washington State resident by the name of Gary Ridgway confessed to killing 48 women.
To be accurate, Ridgway raped, choked, killed and discarded 48 women, including many teenagers as young as 15 years of age.
Ridgway was a married man and a father, a white guy from Auburn, Washington who held the same job for 30 years -- and who got away with killing one female after another for over 20 years.
When America's worst captured serial killer finally began cooperating with authorities to reveal the locations of his victims, people in the Pacific Northwest breathed a collective sigh of relief. Finally, the notorious Green River Killer had been caught. And finally, the family members of the deceased could have some peace of mind, knowing that the nightmare, at least in one sense, was over.
Detective work, diligence, and a decision on the part of the King County Prosecutor to spare Ridgway the death sentence in exchange for information are all being hailed as a job well done. Ridgway will never kill again.
But the question remains: Why was he allowed to kill, again and again, when so much evidence had already pointed in his direction two decades ago?
The answer, in great part, lies in Ridgway's own admission of who he preyed upon.
"I picked prostitutes as my victims because I hate most prostitutes and I did not want to pay them for sex," Ridgway said in his confessional statement. "I also picked prostitutes as victims because they were easy to pick up without being noticed. I knew they would not be reported missing right away and might never be reported missing. I picked prostitutes because I thought I could kill as many of them as I wanted without getting caught."
At least one-third of Ridgway's female victims were girls and women of color, and the vast majority were under the age of 22. Ridgway, an extreme incarnation of a brutal misogynist, considered killing female prostitutes a "career." He felt proud of what he did, and thought he was damn good at it.
In Ridgway's mind, he even believed that he was helping the police out, as he admitted in one interview with investigators.
"I thought I was doing you guys a favor, killing prostitutes," he said. "Here you guys can't control them, but I can."
Prostitutes were an infestation, a sickly disease to which Ridgway thought he had the cure. So he "cured" young women of what he saw as their pathetic and undeserving lives. Not everyone he killed was a prostitute, but in his mind, they all deserved what they got.
But like most street prostitutes, these were girls and young women with families. Some had drug and alcohol problems and yet stayed close to their parents, who tried to help them through. Some had boyfriends or even husbands who knew what they did for a living because of the dire economic circumstances of their lives.
Street prostitution is one of the most dangerous ways for a woman to make a living, and it is also the method of making income that is the most judged and moralized against. Nevada's legalized brothels and emerging progressive feminist attitudes toward sex work aside, prostitutes continue to be reviled.
Attitudes toward prostitutes -- their very dehumanization -- underlies the Green River Killer case, and yet prostitutes are the aspect of this story that has been least discussed.
Would Ridgway have been stopped in his tracks 20 or fifteen years ago if his female victims had had different class backgrounds, had not participated in the street economy, been more "innocent" in the eyes of the law?
In April 1983, the boyfriend of 16-year-old Kimi-Kai Pitsor told police that she had gotten into an older green Ford pickup truck, and he described the driver. Ridgway's girlfriend at the time owned an older, light-green Ford. (Four years later, Pitsor's boyfriend picked Ridgway's photo out of a montage.)
Then, in May 1983, Marie Malvar, 18, disappeared after getting in Ridgway's truck. Malvar's boyfriend actually took police to Ridgway's house four days later, and then identified the pickup he saw Malvar get into. When two detectives questioned Ridgway, he actually admitted to picking up prostitutes, but denied any contact with Malvar. Despite the eyewitness identification, the neighborly, upstanding Ridgway was left alone.
Ridgway continued to have many close calls with police, evading and fooling officers and detectives all the while. Would Ridgway have been let go, time after time, had he been anything other than an "ordinary" looking middle-class white man who preyed on the vulnerable, the poor, and the powerless?
In 1984, Rebecca Garde Guay actually came forward to police to say that she had been assaulted two years prior by a man who tried to kill her with a chokehold. Not only did Guay know Ridgway's place of employment (he had shown her an identification card), but she also picked him out of a book of photos. What's worse, Ridgway had the sheer gall to admit having "dated" Guay and even choking her.
But by then, Guay no longer wanted to pursue charges. She became the only known survivor of the Green River Killer. Perhaps she was afraid of being hunted down, or perhaps she just knew that she wouldn't be believed. And in this way, Ridgway was allowed to return to his life, killing many dozens more young women along the way.
Although Ridgway copped to 48 murders, he says it's possible he killed as many as 60 women and girls.
"In most cases when I killed these women I did not know their names," Ridgway stated. "Most of the time I killed them the first time I met them and I do not have a good memory of their faces. I killed so many women I have a hard time keeping them straight."
To Ridgway, they were faceless, nameless females who wouldn't be missed.
And in some ways, he was right. The victimization of prostitutes--a rampant phenomenon across North America--occurs as frequently as it does because so few people do care, and because prostitutes themselves are so afraid to report the abuse.
A 2001 report by the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women found that nearly 90 percent of prostitutes in the U.S. reported being physically abused by pimps and traffickers. And one-half of women in this study described frequent, sometimes daily assaults.
To progressives, prostitutes are alternately viewed as victims in need of rescue and rehabilitation, or else as sex workers who have the right to decide their form of livelihood. The truth, it seems, lies somewhere in the middle--in allowing women to pursue their occupation of choice but recognizing that many prostitutes (especially street workers) have faced terrible abuse as children and teens, and need a hand to help them out of a life they've become trapped in.
The decriminalization of prostitution would go a long way toward giving women more incentive to report suspicious behavior and violence by lessening their fear of arrest or poor treatment by police.
But in this perversely moralistic culture--where skin and sexuality sell product, but skin and sex themselves cannot be for sale--prostitution is still the dark secret in our midst.
And prostitution, in turn, has become a lightning rod for society's collective hatred of women who "abandon" their families and their children; who fall from grace and descend into "degrading" behavior. Women who consciously choose to sell sex -- to get by, to get a fix, to pay rent, to feed a kid, or to even to go to school--are human beings whose existences we'd rather not deal with or see walking down our streets.
As a society, we still see prostitution as an infestation to be kept under control. Words like "eradication" used in tandem with street prostitution are not uncommon in law enforcement lingo, as if the women selling their bodies are no better than vermin.
Ridgway saw these women and wanted them dead.
If we are not willing to consider how and why a man like Ridgway can come to exist and commit his crimes for years on end, we haven't even begun to dig deeply enough into the dark core at the root of this kind of hatred.
Perhaps Nancy Gabbert, the mother of 17-year-old Ridgway victim Sandra, said it best.
"Fifty years ago, Gary Ridgway was a little baby," Gabbert told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer while explaining her opposition to the death penalty for her daughter's killer. "He's not some monster who was dropped down from another planet. He was created right here in our society."
"How did we do this?" she asked.
She deserves a real answer.
Silja J.A. Talvi is a freelance writer based in Seattle. She writes for AlterNet, In These Times, The Nation and other publications. Her work appears in the new anthology, "Prison Nation" (Routledge, 2003).