From the start, serial killer Gary Ridgway decided prostitutes would make the best victims. "I knew they would not be reported missing right away," Ridgway, 54, would later confess. "I could kill as many of them as I wanted without getting caught." His preferred modus operandi? Strangulation. "Choking is what I did," he said, "and I was pretty good at it."

Ridgway was also remarkably good at hiding his tracks. From 1982 until his arrest in 2001, he dumped bodies, planted bogus clues and repeatedly relocated his victims' remains so effectively that the team of detectives in King County, Wash., charged with bringing him to justice, became known to critics as "the Task Farce." But the deadly chase finally came to an end on Nov. 5 when Ridgway, a soft-spoken truck painter from Auburn, Wash., pleaded guilty to murdering 48 women, surpassing John Wayne Gacy as the most prolific convicted serial killer in U.S. history. As Ridgway sat stony-faced in a Seattle courtroom crowded with relatives of his victims, a prosecutor read from his unrepentant confession: "I killed so many women, I have a hard time keeping them straight."

Also seated in the courtroom were 12 task force members who, after sifting through leads pointing to more than 12,000 suspects, finally bagged their man with the sort of evidence used to wrap up a CSI case in less than an hour: a saliva swab taken from Ridgway back in 1987, before the development of scientific techniques that have made DNA matching a common forensic tool. "Originally I was managing this case on 3-by-5 note cards. We didn't have computers," says King County sheriff Dave Reichert, 53, who began working on the case not long after the first of Ridgway's victims, Wendy Coffield, 16, was pulled dead from the Green River outside Kent, Wash., in 1982. As Reichert left the courtroom after Ridgway's confession, he choked back tears. "You're so focused on the investigation," he says. "Then, when the whole thing is laid bare, you realize the enormity of it."

Ridgway, who married three times and has a grown son, first came under scrutiny as early as 1983, when rumors first began to spread of a serial killer stalking women along gritty strips near the Sea-Tac Airport. After a witness reported seeing one of the victims in a truck belonging to Ridgway, detectives interviewed him. Ridgway admitted to hiring prostitutes but nothing more. In 1984 he voluntarily took a polygraph test—and passed. "He had a compartmentalized life," says detective Randy Mullinax, a task force member. "He had his work, he had his family, he had his killing."

But as the toll of missing and strangled women mounted, detectives continued to harbor suspicions about Ridgway, who lived near the site of the murders and drove a truck similar to those many of the victims were last seen in. Armed with a search warrant, they seized carpet fibers, ropes and plastic tarps from his home and cars in 1987. But none of the samples could be matched with evidence found on the victims. "The killer was out there killing, and we were collecting bodies," says Reichert. At times it seemed the murderer was trying to taunt investigators: Bodies were found in macabre poses, including one with two fish and a wine bottle on top of it.

In 1992, with the trail growing cold, the task force was cut to a single detective, Tom Jensen. By then DNA analysis was becoming more common, but Jensen, now 55, worried about spoiling fragile evidence by submitting it to further tests. "We were waiting for the right technology to come along," he says. Finally, in 2001, he sent the samples to the state lab—and got a match. Semen found on several of the victims corresponded with saliva taken from Ridgway more than a decade before.

Certain Ridgway could be linked to more murders, Reichert beefed up the task force and put his suspect under sporadic surveillance. Two months later, soon after police caught Ridgway soliciting a prostitute (actually an undercover cop), he was arrested for murder. In June of this year, facing seven murder charges, Ridgway agreed to plead guilty to 48 killings and to direct investigators to the remains of victims (four of whom have yet to be identified). In exchange, prosecutors agreed not to seek the death penalty—a tactic Reichert supports as a means of bringing justice to the widest range of victims. "We knew we had to bring answers to all these families," he says.

Four detectives then spent hundreds of hours questioning Ridgway, honoring requests for salmon and specific reading materials, among them books on serial killers, in exchange for details about the murders. The killer confessed that he had scattered toys in his truck to gain his victims' confidence and had dumped the bodies in "clusters," sometimes returning for postmortem sex. As for the women he had killed, he referred to them at one point as "garbage." Due to be formally sentenced to life by May, Ridgway continues to help investigators recover bodies. And while his penalty strikes many as woefully lenient, given the scope and brutality of the killing spree, it has at least brought succor to Marilyn Molina, the sister of Marie Malvar, who disappeared at 18 in 1983. "I know where she's at now." says Molina. 37. "I am at peace."

JILL SMOLOWE
Alexis Chiu in Seattle

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  • Alexis Chiu.