SEATTLE – With an eloquence honed by years of grief, relatives of the Green River Killer's victims finally spoke Thursday to the man who snuffed out the lives of their sisters, daughters and wives, then watched as a judge sentenced him to 48 consecutive life terms.
Gary Ridgway (search), who once bragged to police about his skill at strangulation, wrinkled his brow as he heard their horror, nodded occasionally, then tearfully apologized for killing "all those young ladies."
Nonetheless, King County Superior Court Judge Richard Jones blistered Ridgway for his "Teflon-coated emotions and complete absence of compassion," and ordered a 48-second moment of silence for the victims before passing sentence.
"The time has come for the final chapter of your reign of terror in our community," Jones told the 54-year-old truck painter from suburban Auburn. "It is now time for our community to have peace from the Green River (search) murders."
Prosecutors agreed to spare Ridgway the death penalty in exchange for his confession and helping investigators, who during the summer found four additional sets of remains. He pleaded guilty Nov. 5 to 48 counts of aggravated first-degree murder.
"I have tried to remember as much as I could to help the detectives find and recover the ladies," Ridgway said, bowing his head and sniffling as he read a statement before the judge. "I'm sorry for the scare I put into the community."
The case takes it name from the Green River in south King County where the first bodies were found in 1982. By the end of 1984, the death toll had risen to 42, with more bodies yet to be found -- the most recent in 1998.
In his confession, Ridgway said he killed because he hated prostitutes and didn't want to pay them for sex, and that he killed so many women he had a hard time keeping them straight.
Given their chance to confront Ridgway, relatives of the victims poured forth decades of pain, anger and loss.
"Jesus knows you have broken my heart," a sobbing Joan Mackie, mother of victim Cindy Smith, told Ridgway as he listened silently.
Most wept, some shook as they tried to put into words their grief of having a mother, daughter or sister disappear.
"It was not your right to decide who lived and who died," said Tim Meehan, the brother of Mary Meehan, whose body was found in 1983. "Mary was no less a human being than your mother or your son, or as trash as you have classified all the victims.
"I can only hope that someday, someone gets the opportunity to choke you unconscious 48 times, so you can live through the horror that you put our mothers and our daughters through. ... To me you are already dead."
Ridgway, who was also fined $480,000, maintained a blank stare as each family member spoke. He sometimes nodded at their comments and several times dabbed away tears that slipped from beneath his dark-rimmed glasses.
He broke down only once: when Robert Rule, a large man with a white beard who acts as a shopping mall Santa, forgave him for killing his 16-year-old daughter, Linda, in September 1982.
"There are people here that hate you. I'm not one of them," Rule said. "I pity you, sir. You won't have a Christmas. You won't have the love around you that everyone needs at Christmas time."
Kathy Mills, the mother of victim Opal Mills, 16, whose body was found in 1982, also offered Ridgway forgiveness.
"We wanted to see you die, but it's all going to be over now," she said. "Gary Leon Ridgway, I forgive you. I forgive you. You can't hold me anymore. I'm through with you. I have a peace that is beyond human understanding."
Some victims' relatives lashed out at prosecutors, investigators and the media.
"I believe we've been sold by the prosecutor for not giving us the justice that we could expect," said Helen Dexter, whose daughter, Constance Naon, was killed in 1983.
"I believe we still are victimized by some very politically ambitious careers," she said. "The self-proclaimed heroes have put the victims and their families on a shelf."
J. Norman, the mother of Shawnda Summers, whose body was found in 1983, said prosecutors should not have bargained away the death penalty to get Ridgway's guilty plea.
"The politicians, if they cared about this heinous crime, it would have been solved 20 years ago," Norman said. "There shouldn't have been a plea bargain. ... Shame on Seattle."
Ridgway was arrested in November 2001 after detectives linked his DNA to sperm found in three of the earliest victims. By the next spring, prosecutors had charged him with seven murders, but they had all but given up hope of linking him to the dozens of other women, most of whom disappeared during a terrifying stretch from 1982-84.
Last spring, defense attorneys offered King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng (search) a deal: If Maleng would not seek the death penalty, Ridgway would help solve the other cases. Though Maleng had previously said he would not forgo the death penalty, he changed his mind, saying that a fundamental principle of justice is to know the truth.