Nearly 20 years ago, King County deputies arrested Gary Ridgway, the man who would go on to receive 49 life sentences after confessing to killing dozens of women and girls in the Puget Sound area.
Since then, many of the lawyers who prosecuted and defended the Green River Killer have passed away. Ridgway, 72, has spent the last 20 years of his life behind bars. New victims have been identified, bringing some measure of relief to their families.
But few have changed as much as Judith Mawson, the woman wed to Ridgway for 14 years – a time in which he led a double life, playing the role of the hardworking, stable husband while continuing his killing streak.
A lifetime of challenges and trauma have not managed to hold Mawson, 76, down. She found community through church, where she allowed herself to move on from Ridgway. She finds purpose and joy through gardening and her chihuahua, Precious Princess. Mawson even has a loving boyfriend.
“I am comfortable with my life now,” Mawson said in a recent interview.
“I … get a little bit nervous sometimes when I hear things on the television (about Ridgway), and I don’t really want to hear them again,” she continued. “But I deal with it. I tell myself: ‘Judith, go forward. Go do something positive, and enjoy life while you can.’ ”
Mawson’s life – before, during and after Ridgway – is the focus of “She Married the Green River Serial Killer – The story of an Unsuspecting Housewife,” a book by Ravensdale author Pennie Wood. It was first published in 2007 and re-released in March this year.
Wood spent six months reconnecting with Mawson to learn how she healed and learned to trust again for the second edition. The two both spoke with the Enumclaw Courier-Herald about that journey.
“I try to be positive, and I want to go forward, not backwards,” Mawson said. “Telling my story has really helped me with healing and releasing the poison from what was held within for years. (And) Pennie has been wonderful. She’s basically been by my side all these years.”
“Things that just blew my mind”
“She Married the Green River Killer” begins with Mawson’s surprising life story before Ridgway.
“I was shocked, and then further shocked every time I met her,” Wood said. “(Her story) just grew exponentially. She would start talking, and it would trigger some memories, and she would tell me some things that just blew my mind.”
Judith Mawson was born two months early in August 1944 at a Chehalis hospital, after her pregnant mother slipped and fell over a rock and triggered an early labor. But Mawson thrived and grew.
An accident while playing with her stepfather left Mawson with debilitating seizures. Behavioral and neurological problems plagued her teenage years and ultimately led to a nearly year-long stay at Western State Hospital. Then, Mawson’s first marriage fell apart when she became unable to keep her children safe at her Seattle home with an incompatible husband.
It was from that crucible of the first half of her life that in 1985, Mawson – 40 years old and single – met Gary Ridgway. Gentlemanly, calm and masculine, Ridgway immediately caught her attraction as the two danced at the now long-closed White Shutters Tavern on Highway 99.
Only two days later, unbeknownst to Mawson, Ridgway was being interviewed by Green River Killer Task Force detectives about his connections to sex workers on Highway 99.
After his 1988 marriage to Mawson, Ridgway’s rate of killing appears to have slowed significantly. The couple’s happy and busy years may have had a stabilizing effect on Ridgway’s urge to kill.
“Gary told me that. Judith told me that,” Wood said. “But he did do some killings. He couldn’t completely cut it off. He told me he was addicted, like a man gets addicted to beer.”
Wood’s involvement in Mawson’s life was “serendipity,” Wood said. She was already friends with Jim and Linda Bailey, the best friends of Mawson and Gary when the two were married.
The Baileys knew that Wood could analyze handwriting, so in 2002, they asked her to analyze Gary’s hand-written letters and see if she could help prove his innocence. They also asked her to meet Mawson, who Wood befriended quickly.
The Baileys, like Mawson, believed Ridgway to be innocent at the time. He’d already been arrested twice in connection with the investigation and released, and it seemed like the deputies had once again picked up the wrong guy.
“We’ve all been deceived”
What about serial killers draws public interest so intensely? Wood suspects it’s a combination of the “little thrill” of learning about something so dangerous, and the desire – particularly for women – to analyze the story and wonder “What would I have done? Would I have found out the truth? Would I have gotten in that car?”
Wood’s takeaway is that “we’ve all been deceived, or betrayed, or suffered some kind of a loss at some level.” It’s just that the deception Judith Mawson suffered would register as a 9 on the Richter scale.
Wood was skeptical at first that Mawson couldn’t have suspected Ridgway at some point. But she says she believes “100 percent” that Mawson really never knew what Ridgway was up to.
Their marriage was by all accounts perfect, Wood writes. The two were compatible physically, intellectually, financially and socially, and shared cute rituals and hobbies. The couple saved money and in 1997 bought their dream house in Auburn.
But in November 2001, Mawson learned along with the rest of the world that Ridgway was the prime suspect in the Green River killings when he was arrested for a third and final time.
That arrest sent Mawson spiraling into her darkest years, facing depression, anxiety and months of homelessness as she tried to sell the couple’s expensive home to make up for the loss of Ridgway’s income. The couple divorced in 2002.
Then, when Ridgway confessed: “That’s when her world completely flipped upside down,” Wood said.
Mawson self-medicated with wine and pills to slog through the days, Wood wrote. She spent most of the 2000s climbing out of her fear of being castigated as the wife of the Green River Killer.
Mawson closed all contact with Ridgway soon after his confession. Though she learned to let go and forgive Ridgway with the help of her Baptist pastor, she is determined to never speak to him, hear his voice, or read his correspondence ever again, Wood said.
She started going out to restaurants again. Cautiously, Mawson went back to church, where she met new friends who weren’t offended by her history. She even made peace with her first husband.
And Mawson began receiving emails and messages from women all around the world who admired her ability to carry on. Others shared stories of abusive fathers or husbands leading double lives just like Ridgway.
It was these “baby steps” and words of encouragement that allowed her to rebuild her life, Wood said.
In 2016, she met her now boyfriend “David,” a pseudonym used in Wood’s book to protect his identity. David was himself a widower, and over time Mawson allowed herself to trust him and build a relationship with him.
“It’s the best,” Mawson said. “We help each other out and comfort each other. We do things together. We work out in the yard together. I go to his house and help him clean up the yard. We go out to dinner. He’s been by himself for about seven years … and I’ve been on my own for 20 years. We built a trust in each other.”
Where the search stands today
Wood interviewed Ridgway for the first edition of her book, but he declined an interview for the 2021 update. A representative at Walla Walla State Penitentiary told Wood that Ridgway “doesn’t really talk anymore.”
In a guilty plea bargain to avoid the death penalty, Ridgway was convicted in 2003 of killing 48 women and girls between 1982 and 1998.
Ridgway admitted to killing far more, but investigators were only able to compile evidence linking him to 48. At the time, deputies also could not verify the remains of four of those 48 victims.
Ridgway’s confessed killings all conveniently took place within King County. That protected him from prosecution – and potentially the death penalty – in other counties, Wood said, whether he was lying or being truthful.
“I think Gary was smart enough to know that,” Wood said. “He told me he probably killed over 100. He really lost track. But he only confessed to the (killings) in King County.”
In 2011, Ridgway was convicted of his 49th count of murder after the remains of Rebecca Marrero were discovered the previous year. Ridgway had already confessed to killing her, but prosecutors didn’t have enough evidence prior to the discovery of her remains.
Two more of the original 48 victims have since been identified: 20-year-old Sandra Denise Major in 2012, and 14-year-old Wendy Stephens in January this year.
Only two of the victims Ridgway has been convicted of killing remain unidentified. The King County Sheriff’s Office in April released a computer-generated photo of one of them based on recent analysis of her DNA.
Those with information that could aid the Green River investigation can call investigators at 206-263-2130 or e-mail Greenrivertips@metrokc.gov.