In the 1980s and 1990s, bodies began appearing along the Green River in Washington state. Most of the bodies were found in wooded areas. All of the victims were female, and those that could be identified were prostitutes or runaways. At least 71 murders have been linked to the Green River killer. By the early 1980s, the local sheriff’s department had formed the Green River Task Force to investigate the murders.
In 1983, Gary Ridgway was questioned as a suspect in the murders. He remained a suspect for a number of years, but was not taken into custody. He took a polygraph test in 1984, and was deemed to have passed, although this result has been called into question since the time of the test. In 1987, police collected saliva and hair samples from Ridgway.
The samples taken in 1987 were key to Ridgway’s 2001 arrest. In 1987, the technology to match DNA did not exist. DNA specialists were able to match Ridgway’s DNA to semen found in the bodies of four of the victims. Additional charges were brought for three additional victims, connected by spray paint samples matched to Ridgway’s workplace.
In 2003, Ridgway pled guilty to 48 charges of aggravated first degree murder. The plea bargain contained the names of 41 additional victims. He was sentenced to 48 consecutive life sentences, with no possibility of parole; the plea bargain took the death penalty off the table for Ridgway.
When police swabbed for saliva and took hair samples in 1987, the DNA technology that led to Ridgway’s arrest was still far in the future. Blood type matching was possible, but there was no way to decisively identify an individual by DNA. Their foresight led to his eventual conviction.