The Washington Department of Corrections did an about face last week on where to hold the infamous Green River killer. Agency leaders agreed — after talking to Gov. Jay Inslee — to bring Gary Ridgway, our state’s most notorious serial killer, back from a federal prison in Colorado.
Bringing Ridgway back to Washington makes sense, although security reasons that led to relocating him did too. The prisoner was flown out of state in May in a move that caught survivors of Ridgway’s crime victims, Green River crime investigators and Gov. Inslee by surprise.
Inslee talked to state Corrections Secretary Bernie Warner last week and after learning the circumstances said he favored bringing the killer back where investigators could more easily question him, if needed.
“The governor asked for options and did ask a lot of questions about the issue,” Inslee spokesman David Postman said. “The governor decided that in this case at this time it would be the right thing to do. That is what we’re doing.”
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In a plea agreement that spared Ridgway from the death penalty in 2001, he pleaded guilty to 49 murders and provided details of other crimes. He said there were as many as 70 victims of a terrifying spree that left a trail of bodies — many of them runaway girls or alleged prostitutes — in the Green River area during 1982-1998.
Warner told us last week that there were indications other prisoners might try to kill Ridgway when he was housed alone in a cell at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla. This posed risks for staff who let Ridgway out of his cell in shackles for up to two hours a day.
“It’s no secret that many in the prison … would want to attack him if they had access to him. We’ve even had reports of people wanting to get into the intensive management (solitary) unit in order to attack him,” Warner explained. “That does provide a security risk for our institution, so we decided to transfer him out of state” where fewer people would know about him.
Inslee’s office heard concerns from law enforcement and that relatives of a slain woman were upset.
Warner described Ridgway’s initial transfer as a common, though not routine, practice. Washington currently houses 67 offenders from other states that have accepted 54 from here.
In May, DOC hired a private plane to send Ridgway and another offender to a federal maximum-security prison in Florence, Colorado. DOC had hoped he could be placed in the ADX or “supermax” facility where the World Trade Center bombing’s mastermind and one of the Okahoma City bombers are held.
DOC’s moves were done quietly. A Seattle Times news report brought the transfer to light.
It’s not yet clear how much it will cost to bring back Ridgway, how soon he’ll arrive or where he’ll be housed.
Making details public about Ridgway’s incarceration could make it harder to keep him safe, which Warner says his agency has a constitutional duty to do. But the DOC should loop in more parties in its communications about such high profile offenders.
Prosecutors, the governor and criminal investigators shouldn’t be kept in the dark.
“Given the extraordinary circumstances of the case, Secretary Warner will notify victims’ families and consult with law enforcement before making any future changes in Ridgway’s incarceration,” DOC said in a news release.
In other words, lesson learned.