“The more I learned about Gary Ridgway, the more the coincidences stacked up,” writes Jill McCabe Johnson in an essay on Slate

By Kyler Alvord
June 16, 2021 02:30 PM
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Gary Ridgway
Credit: Josh Trujillo-Pool/Getty Images

In a new essay published on Slate, a woman recounts a one-night stand she had as an 18-year-old with a peculiar older man - one she now believes to be Gary Leon Ridgway, the infamous Green River Killer.

In the essay, Jill McCabe Johnson wrote that she met a slender, blue-eyed man at White Shutters, a one-time country-western dance hall near the Seattle-Tacoma Airport in Washington state. The man introduced himself as Gary, who claimed to be 29 but appeared a few wrinkles older.

"I had no reason to suspect anything odd about Gary back then. I ran into him a few times over several weeks, and he seemed nice enough," writes McCabe Johnson. "His hands didn't stray during slow dances, and he never tried to sneak a kiss."

After one of McCabe Johnson's nights out in late 1980 or early 1981, she recalls hitching a ride home from Gary in his beat-up pickup truck. The two went up to her apartment, where Gary showed her his business card and a photo of his young son, and shared details of his job as a painter and his pending divorce.

Soon after, they had sex, and when her roommates came home, he seemed startled and left.

McCabe Johnson turned down Gary's request for a follow-up date, and aside from spotting him parked outside her apartment a few times in subsequent months, he faded to memory.

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Twenty years after McCabe Johnson's encounter with the strange but seemingly well-meaning man from the bar, news broke that the notorious Green River Killer had been arrested in Renton, Wash. His name was Gary Ridgway, a father of one who finalized a divorce in 1981 and had worked in a paint shop.

"The Gary in the news looked kind of familiar, but squintier and heavier than the man I remembered, and his hair seemed a little darker, too," McCabe Johnson writes. "It was a coincidence, I told myself. Surely it could not have been the same man."

She tabled the idea that she may have a personal attachment to the Green River Killer, beyond mere proximity.

Recently, McCabe Johnson - now the editor-in-chief of a small literary press - decided to write about growing up in the Pacific Northwest when prominent serial killers like Ted Bundy and Gary Ridgway roamed her local streets targeting young women.

While researching Ridgway in depth, she realized that the Gary she once brought home matched Ridgway's description to a T: He drove a mangy pickup truck, he enjoyed dancing and country-western music, he would park outside of his ex-wife's apartment every night following their separation, and he attended meetings at White Shutters.

"In his confessions, Ridgway detailed how he showed women his business card and even a photo of his son to put them at ease," she writes. "Ridgway's attorney Mark Prothero said Ridgway could hide his deficits so well that 'none of his victims ever realized that the mousy little man with the snapshot of his child in his wallet was actually the deadliest sexual predator in the nation.'"

"Finally, I forced myself to consider it for real: Maybe it really was Gary Ridgway I took home one night 40 years ago," she writes.

Gary Ridgway confessed to killing at least 71 teen girls and women in Washington and Oregon during the '80s and '90s. He was known to strangle his victims during intercourse. 

"The worst discovery I made was learning about Marcia Faye Chapman, who lived in the Puerta Villa apartments, the same complex where I'd lived," McCabe Johnson writes of her research into the Green River Killer. "Her remains showed up along the Green River, like several of Ridgway's early victims. I couldn't bear to think of her death, or the idea I might have drawn a killer into her orbit."

Ridgway is imprisoned in the maximum-security wing of the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla, Wash. At the suggestion of her husband, McCabe Johnson mailed a letter to Ridgway in an attempt to get some closure. She has not yet heard back.

"Maybe someday I'll turn the key and find an envelope marked with a state penitentiary return address," she writes. "In the meantime, I'll tell you what I told my husband: It seems impossible that it wasn't Gary Ridgway who slept with me that winter night in early 1981. And it seems equally impossible that it was."