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Friday, December 19, 2003 - Page updated at 09:35 A.M.

'Emissary of death' sentenced to life

By Ian Ith
Seattle Times staff reporter

"I don't want to give it the energy it would take to hate this man," said LuAnna Yellow Robe, left, comforting her sister Rona Walsh. They are sisters of victim Patricia Yellow Robe, who was killed by Ridgway in 1998 at age 38.
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In the end, what may be remembered most about yesterday's sentencing of the Green River killer won't be the tearful, awkward apology that Gary Leon Ridgway offered before he was handed 48 consecutive life terms.

What will likely stand out is how few people believed any of it.

Though his defense attorneys insisted he was sincere, it was clear that the vast majority of more than 48 families who crowded the Seattle courtroom didn't buy it. Nor did King County Sheriff Dave Reichert, who had investigated the Green River case for 20 years.

And perhaps most important, neither did the judge.

Instead, King County Superior Court Judge Richard A. Jones blasted Ridgway as an "emissary of death" and forced the 54-year-old Auburn truck painter to turn and get a good look at the survivors of his victims before he signed the paperwork that finally brings the Green River serial-killer saga to all but an end.

"The remarkable thing about you, sir, is your Teflon-coated emotions and absolute lack of compassion for the women you murdered," Jones said. "The women you killed were not throwaways, or pieces of candy in a dish, put upon this earth to satisfy your murderous desires."

Gary Ridgway briefly breaks down as he listens to the father of one of his victims during his sentencing yesterday. Robert Rule, whose daughter Linda Jane Rule was 16 when she disappeared, spoke of forgiveness, saying, "Mr. Ridgway, there are people here who hate you, but I'm not one of them."
Jones' words capped four hours of tense and emotional testimony as one after another, the relatives of about two dozen of Ridgway's victims stood and told him of the toll his two-decade murder spree took on them and the rest of the community.

Ridgway pleaded guilty last month to 48 counts of aggravated murder after prosecutors agreed to stop seeking the death penalty in exchange for his cooperation in closing unsolved slayings.

A life sentence was the only sentence the judge could give. Jones tacked on a $480,000 fine — $10,000 for each victim — and ordered Ridgway to never contact any of the victims' families. And he warned Ridgway that he cannot profit from telling his story.

Ridgway is expected to be transferred to prison within the next few days.

During the hearing, many of the relatives wiped away tears and shared better times and childhood memories, hoping Ridgway would see the humanity in the people he strangled as one of the most prolific serial killers of modern times.

Joan Mackie, mother of Green River victim Cindy Smith, gets a hug from King County Sheriff Dave Reichert at Gary Ridgway's sentencing yesterday. Smith was 17 when she disappeared in 1984.
Many shouted in anger, and fury often radiated in the room. Some criticized the police for not solving the case sooner, or the prosecutors for bargaining away the death penalty, or the media for sensationalizing the case and hounding family members for years.

"He destroyed my life; he destroyed my daughter's life," said Carol Estes, mother of 15-year-old Debra Estes, whom Ridgway strangled in 1982. "He's going to hell, and that's where he belongs, and that's all I have to say."

As each one stood at a lectern, the serial killer turned in his seat to look at them through his glasses. But he rarely showed emotion as they spoke.

Still, several survivors said they forgave him, if only to help themselves cope with their losses. One of them was Robert Rule, father of Linda Rule, who was 16 when Ridgway killed her.

Robert Rule, with a snow-white beard and flowing white hair, spoke of forgiveness and told how his annual job as the Everett Mall Santa Claus helps him get by. Ridgway burst into tears, then quickly wiped them away.

"Mr. Ridgway, there are people here who hate you, but I'm not one of them," Rule said.

Ridgway's apology echoed flatly through the courtroom as he stood facing the judge, his back to the crowd. He sniffled away tears, yet as he read his written statement haltingly, it was clear that his limited language skills would preclude any real poignancy:

"I'm sorry for killing all those young ladys (sic). ... I'm sorry for the scare I put in the community. ...

"... I know how horrible my acts were. I have tried for a long time to get these things out of my mind. I have tried for a long time to keep from killing any more ladys."

Afterward, though, relatives were nearly united in their disappointment in Ridgway's words.

"I tried to believe it, but I couldn't," said Garrett Mills, whose sister, Opal, was 16 in August 1982 when Ridgway killed her and put her body on the bank of the Green River. "He sounded like a robot to me."

Gary Ridgway faced his victims' families yesterday in court. Behind him is his lead attorney, Anthony Savage.
Tim Meehan, whose 18-year-old sister, Mary, was eight months pregnant when Ridgway killed her in September 1982, said nothing Ridgway could have said would make him forgive.

"When he cried ... I don't believe it was remorse. I think he was flashing back to his own childhood and realizing there will be no more Christmases for him."

Daryl Imburgia, 21, whose mother Delise Plager, 22, was killed when he was only 2, said he went to court hoping to forgive Ridgway.

"But I couldn't bring myself to say it to him. If he were to show some kind of remorse, it would help. Now, I have to go home, feeling like he doesn't care."

Sheriff Reichert, who was lead detective on the Green River case from its beginning, said he met with Ridgway privately this week, and the killer also expressed remorse to him.

"I don't believe him," Reichert said. "This is all about Ridgway for him. He enjoys the attention."

Only Rule disagreed: "I truthfully think that he was sorry that he had caused so much hurt. And I feel sorry for the other family members that can't forgive."

None of Ridgway's family attended the hearing, though his attorneys said they watched on television.

One of the lawyers, Michele Shaw, read a statement from the family that offered condolences to the victims and a promise that if any of his family had ever seen anything unusual they would have turned him in to police long ago.

"Be assured that we were shocked to hear that Gary could do the things he has admitted to doing," the Ridgway family said.

Before the court hearing, Shaw said later, she put her hand on Ridgway's knee and told him, "Your family loves you and wants you to know that. Your son has forgiven you."

Shaw said Ridgway cried.

After the hearing, Ridgway's attorneys said his remorse was genuine, and that his statement was written entirely in his own words.

"The problem people have is they judge Gary Ridgway by the standards by which normal people judge each other," said Anthony Savage, Ridgway's lead attorney. "You can't judge his remorse by ordinary standards. He's not a normal person."

Another Ridgway attorney, Mark Prothero, said that for Ridgway to offer any tears at all is a long way from the Ridgway of the early 1980s, who was probably incapable of even that much emotion.

"It's my armchair theory that he did begin to develop emotion and caring and love, and some of that was manifested today," Prothero said.

"He realizes (his victims) were all young girls, human beings. He feels horrible about what he did back when he was a monster. He's not that monster anymore."

But Ridgway's attorneys also agreed that Ridgway never could stop killing. And he has told them that he would have kept on killing if he hadn't been arrested, they said.

One lasting legacy of the Ridgway case may be its effect on future death-penalty cases.

King County Prosecuting Attorney Norm Maleng has said his deal with Ridgway should be considered an isolated case.

But Ridgway's attorneys yesterday said they hoped it would help end executions in Washington.

Last month, attorneys for Charles Champion, accused of killing a Des Moines policeman in 2001, filed arguments in King County that it would be unfair for Champion to face the death penalty when Ridgway was spared.

Despite the ongoing debates and lingering questions, most of the families who spoke in court said they at least felt somewhat better for having the chance to speak to the killer.

Especially at peace were those who made a point of telling Ridgway that now that he has been stopped, he will no longer haunt their lives.

Mertie Winston, whose daughter Tracy disappeared in September 1983, said she has forced herself to let go of her anger.

"I'm just going to go on with my life," she said. "Now this is over, I'm going to start remembering profusely the happy times we had with Tracy. She deserves that."

Seattle Times staff reporters Michael Ko, Ray Rivera and Christine Clarridge contributed to this report. Ian Ith: 206-464-2109 or


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