Announcing plans to return the Green River killer from a Colorado prison, Washington’s corrections director cited investigators’ wish to keep him more easily available for questioning in unsolved cases.
The Green River killer is being returned to the Washington State Penitentiary.
The state Department of Corrections (DOC) on Friday told the federal Bureau of Prisons that it will bring Gary L. Ridgway back to the Walla Walla prison, four months after his surprise transfer to a Colorado prison.
The decision was made after Washington law-enforcement officials expressed concern about keeping Ridgway easily accessible if investigators want to interview him about open homicide cases, according to the DOC. Ridgway has pleaded guilty to 49 murders, but has estimated that his victim count is closer to 70.
After consulting with Gov. Jay Inslee, Corrections Secretary Bernie Warner said he informed the Bureau of Prisons that DOC would be flying Ridgway back from the federal penitentiary in Florence, Colo.
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“What we weighed was law enforcement said it would hamper their ability in discovering any additional crimes by Gary Ridgway (if he was out of state),” Warner said in an interview. “We don’t want to be a barrier to that.”
Warner conceded that his decision was also based on the anger voiced Monday by Mary Marrero, whose sister was murdered by Ridgway in December 1982. During an emotional news conference, Marrero assailed the decision to transfer the serial killer as “dumb.”
DOC will not say when Ridgway will return, due to security concerns, Warner added.
Inslee’s office had no comment Friday on the decision.
The about-face comes amid mounting criticism over the transfer of Ridgway from the Washington State Penitentiary to the federal prison in Florence, despite claims by the DOC that he would enjoy no additional freedoms in his new home. Since his arrival in May, he has been in a high-security facility for intake and assessment, according to DOC.
“Ridgway has been in a maximum custody cell by himself since his arrival at the federal prison,” DOC said in a news release earlier this week. “He does not have a job, or access to the general population. There’s no prospect of that happening in the foreseeable future.”
However, Corrections officials conceded any change to Ridgway’s conditions behind bars would be up to the Bureau of Prisons, which oversees the Florence facility.
Todd Chapman, the spokesman for the Federal Prison Complex in Florence, did not return email requests for comment.
According to DOC documents, it cost nearly $20,000 for a private plane to fly Ridgway and another, unidentified inmate to the Florence facility.
Among those criticizing the transfer was U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert, who as a King County sheriff’s detective spent years investigating the Green River killings. Both Reichert and Marrero accused DOC of granting the nation’s most prolific serial killer special privileges.
On Monday, they condemned the transfer during a news conference at the gravesite of Marrero’s sister, Rebecca “Becky” Marrero, one of the 49 women Ridgway was convicted of killing between 1982 and 1998.
Ridgway, then 52, was arrested Nov. 30, 2001, after his DNA linked him to evidence in three cases. He eventually pleaded guilty in 2003 to four dozen murders in a deal that allowed him to avoid the death penalty.
Earlier this week, DOC said Ridgway was transferred for “reasons of security management.” Corrections says it had requested that he be placed in the so-called “supermax” prison, where high-security inmates include would-be millennium bomber Ahmed Ressam and Unabomber Ted Kaczynski.
The facility where Ridgway is currently housed is on the same campus and used by the Bureau of Prisons for intake and assessment, DOC said.
The DOC also said Friday that the transfer was seen as an opportunity to ”get a fresh assessment” from the Bureau of Prisons on the best way to safely house Ridgway for the rest of his life.
In an interview with The Seattle Times on Monday, Warner said Ridgway’s transfer came down to economics.
“Gary Ridgway presents an ongoing risk in our system. (Ridgway) requires a lot of custody resources. He’s not necessarily a threat to others, but he could be targeted,” Warner said.
DOC records show Ridgway, now 66, has been a model inmate. He cooperated with staff and never broke prison rules, according to documents obtained by The Seattle Times through a public-records request.
The same documents indicate that in recent years Ridgway has complained of mental problems and has been on medication. Warner declined to comment on Ridgway’s mental health and said that his medical issues had nothing to do with the transfer.
Ridgway’s transfer came as a surprise to law enforcement and generated a terse email to Warner from Deputy King County Prosecutor Mark Larson, chief of the office’s criminal division when Ridgway was prosecuted.
“I can appreciate that this is a sensitive matter, but I think some consideration might have been paid to the people that have either lost a loved one to (the Green River killer) or have devoted much of their professional lives to holding him accountable,” Larson wrote.
Reichert said DOC should have contacted the King County Sheriff’s Office, victims’ relatives and Inslee to alert them that the transfer was in the works. His office has filed a public-disclosure request with DOC to find out why prison officials believe Ridgway qualified for a transfer.
“There is no sensitivity here,” Reichert said earlier this week. “We’re not going to give up on trying to find the answers. I find this all to be very suspicious and very disheartening.”