By Nicole Weisensee Egan
November 14, 2011 12:00 PM

When Judith Mawson first met Gary Ridgway, he seemed like the perfect suitor. He was polite, had a good job and treated her like a lady, even pulling out her chairs and opening car doors for her. So she had no reason to question him when she first visited his home in SeaTac, Wash., and saw a mattress and box springs on the bare floor; he explained that his tenants’ kids had destroyed the carpets and that an ex-girlfriend had taken her bed back. And after they began to live together, she trusted him when he told her he was leaving early for work or was going to be late because of a union meeting. “I couldn’t wait for Gary to come home,” she recalls of the man she adored.

But what she simply couldn’t believe, at least at first, was when police showed up at her door one chilly November day and told her that her husband of 13 years was not at all who she thought he was. He was, they told her, the notorious Green River Killer, suspected of murdering more than 70 women in the Seattle area over a period of 20 years. “I was crying,” she recalls, “saying, ‘No, it can’t be him.'”

It wasn’t until nearly two years later, after Gary confessed to 48 of the murders in exchange for life without parole instead of the death penalty, that she saw the truth that lay beneath his lies. “I found out he’d had the carpets removed because he’d killed women on them and there were bloodstains,” says Judith, now 67. “He got rid of the bed because he’d had sex with some of his victims there, then killed them.” That wasn’t all. Despite what she describes as their “very active” sex life, she discovered that on many of those supposedly work-related late nights and early mornings, he was actually out hunting prostitutes. “I think back, ‘Was my life real with him or did he just use me?'” she says. Judith was so thoroughly deceived that even some of the victims’ families empathize with her. “I felt kind of sorry for her, that she had to go through something like that,” says Kathy Mills, 76, mother of 16-year-old victim Opal Mills.

Now living a quiet life in Graham, Wash., in a mobile home her late parents left her, Judith still has trouble understanding how the man who never showed a hint of violence to her was the most prolific serial killer in U.S. history. “He made me smile every day,” says Judith. “I had the perfect husband. Perfect life. And,” she said, placing her hands over her face, “he was the perfect killer.”

It was 10 years ago on Nov. 30 that police arrested Ridgway, now 62, as he walked out of the truck factory where he worked as a painter, bringing to a close the mystery that had residents in the area of northwest Washington trembling with fear. Though his victims had been primarily prostitutes, families even in the best neighborhoods had been on edge for two decades. “We didn’t let our kids just roam and play like they normally would,” says Kathy Fast, 66, who lived not far from where Ridgway dumped some of his victims’ bodies in Auburn, Wash. “It was always in the back of everybody’s mind that there was a murderer out there.” Ridgway’s arrest was particularly satisfying for then-King County sheriff Dave Reichert, who’d been hunting him down since the first victim was found in 1982. “Finally I knew I didn’t have to wake up, wonder if he had taken another life,” says Reichert, now a U.S. congressman from Washington state. “This guy destroyed many families.”

After the arrest Judith too became a target of the community’s outrage. “People would drive up my private road and pick up my planters and smash them,” she says. “People would come holler and yell things at my house.” A neighbor later refused to give back one of her cats she’d asked him to watch. “The husband said, ‘You’re married to the Green River Killer. You can’t have it back.'” When she visited her husband in jail those first two years, she told him what was happening, and he insisted police had the wrong man. “We were trying to touch each other through the glass,” she says. “I’d cry.”

Judith had been fresh off a 19-year marriage when she met Gary at a singles event at a Seattle country-western bar in February 1985. The two instantly clicked and stayed up all night talking at a friend’s house after they left the bar. “I thought, ‘He’s goodlooking. He’s nice. He likes country music,'” she says. Three years later she married Gary in a small ceremony in a neighbor’s front yard, and the couple built a quiet life together-going camping on the weekends or visiting junk yards to hunt for knickknacks to sell at the garage sales they held at their home. If there was anything amiss, nobody saw it. “They were a very loving and affectionate couple,” says Jim Bailey, Gary’s coworker and best friend. “It was a match made in heaven.”

Though he left for work each day between 3 and 5 a.m., Judith made sure he had a lunch to take with him, freezing the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches he liked so much so they would last until lunch time. Then she would count the hours to his return. “If I was shopping at the mall, I’d look at the clock and say, ‘Oh, Gary’s going to be home,'” she says.

To this day those who knew Gary struggle to reconcile the Gary they knew with Gary the cold-blooded killer. “I’m saying to myself, ‘Why didn’t I see?'” says Bailey, who was so upset he couldn’t even talk about the case for three years after the arrest. After Gary confessed in 2003, Judith stopped visiting him in jail and asked a friend to tell him she was in love with another man-a lie-to get him to stop writing.

She spent most of the next few years in virtual isolation at home, drowning her sorrows in wine and pain pills. “I was scared. In hiding. Ashamed.” She went to therapy but stopped after a few sessions because all she did was cry. And then there were the nightmares. “I dreamed about him all the time,” says Judith. “He kept reaching out to me.” Jim Bailey’s wife, Linda, came to stay with her for weeks on end but finally grew so concerned she suggested Judith write a book. “It may help you heal, and it may help other women,” Linda told her. Judith was interested, so Linda introduced her to her friend Pennie Morehead, a handwriting analyst who knew a few professional writers. “I saw the saddest eyes I’ve ever seen on a human being,” says Morehead. “She hugged me and she cried.” The two women became fast friends and eventually decided to write the book together. “When we first started meeting, she’d try to talk and her throat would spasm,” says Morehead. “She literally could not talk about it.” Morehead would sit quietly with her and hold her hand.

It took two years, but they finished the book, Green River Serial Killer: Biography of an Unsuspecting Wife, which came out in 2007. “If it wasn’t for her, I probably would have become an alcoholic,” says Judith of Morehead. “Telling my story, getting all the poison out of me helped me to heal.”

Sitting in her favorite restaurant near her home in Graham, Wash., she pulls out pictures, cards and letters and pushes them across the table. One shows the couple looking adoringly into each other’s eyes. “That’s the man I knew,” she says. “Does he look like a killer?” She pulls out a card he sent her for Mother’s Day in 2003 (she has two daughters from her first marriage). “Before I met you I had a big empty hole in my heart,” Gary wrote. The words touched her then and now. “I cry every time I read that letter,” she says. “It’s from the man I loved, not the man I didn’t know.”

Years after accepting the truth, Judith still struggles with trying to forgive the man he really was. “How do you forgive someone who is suspected of killing 70 women?” She hasn’t dated since her husband’s arrest, instead choosing to spend her days with friends she met at a local church. Whether she’ll ever allow herself to fall in love again is an open question. “I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to trust another man,” she says. “On the positive side, I’m getting to know myself after all these years.”