Washington’s new corrections chief says Gary Ridgway, the Green River killer, was moved to a Colorado prison because he was deemed a security threat to staff at Walla Walla, remarks that contradict an explanation from the state.

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OLYMPIA — The head of Washington’s Department of Corrections said Friday Green River serial killer Gary Ridgway was moved from a Washington state prison to federal prison in Colorado because he had been deemed a security threat who might harm the staff in Walla Walla.

In his isolated arrangement, based on his profile, Ridgway, 66, had ample opportunity to study the cell, staff and prison routines and look for weaknesses, Secretary Dan Pacholke told members of the state Senate Law and Justice Committee.

Pacholke’s remarks contradict comments made in an interview two months ago by then-Department of Corrections (DOC) Secretary Bernie Warner, who described Ridgway as “not necessarily a threat to others.”

In an interview Friday afternoon, however, Pacholke said his and Warner’s explanations were not incompatible, given that they both dealt with security concerns.

In describing the dangers surrounding Ridgway, Pacholke cited the convict’s ability to elude law enforcement for decades. And there has been at least one known threat against Ridgway’s life, he added.

The latest explanation for Ridgway’s transfer in May to a prison in Florence, Colo., adds another layer of intrigue. After families of victims and some elected officials protested the move, Ridgway was returned in October to the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla.

“We really referred him (to the Colorado prison) as a matter of increasing the security around Gary Ridgway and … mitigating the possibility that he would escape and potentially harm our staff,” Pacholke said during the hearing.

Since his 2003 conviction, Ridgway lived in virtual isolation at the Walla Walla prison, serving life without parole. He pleaded guilty to killing 49 women over 20 years, but he says the actual number of victims is closer to 70.

DOC records indicate that he was a model inmate, cooperating with staff and abiding by prison rules. The documents also show that in recent years Ridgway has complained of unspecified mental problems and has been on medication.

According to DOC documents and the Bureau of Prisons inmate manual for the Florence facility, Ridgway was to be placed in the Colorado prison’s general population, where he could presumably mix with other inmates and have access to work and other privileges.

The move’s intent was to allow him an opportunity to live in a prison’s general population, according to documents previously obtained by The Seattle Times through a public-records request.

Pacholke said Friday afternoon that while other reasons may have been listed in documents, the security concerns he and Warner voiced drove the transfer decision.

“Maybe through public disclosure, people have pieced together some bits of information that people perceive as inconsistent,” he said.

Additionally, Warner said previously Ridgway’s transfer was a matter of economics, because of the cost of keeping him in such a high-security environment.

“Gary Ridgway presents an ongoing risk in our system. (Ridgway) requires a lot of custody resources,” Warner, who stepped down in October for work at a private-corrections company, told The Seattle Times earlier this year. “He’s not necessarily a threat to others, but he could be targeted.”

U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert, who also spoke at Friday’s committee session, said he remained unmoved by the DOC’s explanations.

“The Department of Corrections … is not being honest with the people of the state Washington,” Reichert, the former King County sheriff who spent years investigating the killings as a sheriff’s detective, said after the committee session.

“That was bullshit, what you just heard,” he said.

DOC officials had said Ridgway would enjoy no additional freedoms in the Colorado prison. When he arrived there, Ridgway was placed in a high-security facility for intake and assessment.

The transfer sparked an uproar, with Washington law-enforcement officials expressing worry that keeping him so far away would hinder investigators working on open homicide cases, according to the DOC.

Mary Marrero, the sister of Ridgway’s 49th victim, Rebecca “Becky” Marrero, said in September that she was disgusted with the transfer and the prospect of Ridgway having more opportunity for social contact.