Life

The Night Gary Drove Me Home

In the 1980s, I met a man at a dance hall. One night I took him home. Nearly four decades later, I made a chilling discovery.

Night scene of a man and woman walking in the headlights of a truck driven by a man in shadow. Only the woman turns back to look at the truck.
Illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo

I met Gary at the White Shutters, once a country-western dance hall near the Seattle airport. He was slender with light brown hair and blue eyes. He said he was 29, but the drooped corners of his eyes and the slight sagginess beneath his chin made me wonder if he was older.

It was late 1980 or early 1981. I was 18.

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. He always asked me to dance and bought me whatever I happened to be drinking that night, usually tonic water or pineapple juice. Sometimes he sat with my friends and me, but he scooted his chair back and didn’t talk to the others. I couldn’t tell if he just liked dancing or if he was genuinely attracted to me. His hands didn’t stray during slow dances, and he never tried to sneak a kiss.

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One night, he gave me a ride home in his pickup truck that, even in the dark, looked a little worse for wear. Gary pulled into the parking lot of the nearby Puerta Villa apartments where I lived. Did he ask to use the restroom, or did I invite him up? As we approached the front door, I expected to hear the TV and be welcomed by my two roommates, who spent most evenings watching sitcoms. But the apartment was empty.

I showed Gary the bathroom, then went into my bedroom to hang up my coat. I guess because he’d always been reserved, I felt no sense of danger when he came into my bedroom after me. If anything, I remember I was embarrassed at the mess. My bed was unmade, and there were dirty clothes in a heap on the floor.

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Gary had a narrow nose and blue eyes so focused on mine I felt flattered. Maybe he did like me after all. I remember him as taller than I was by a couple of inches. I remember his prominent Adam’s apple as he talked about his job doing industrial painting. He fished out his wallet to show me his business card, along with a picture of his young son. He had recently separated from his wife, and he said the custody battle was bitter.

We talked and made out and let our inhibitions go more than I intended. When we started to have sex, Gary repeatedly started and stopped in a strange way. I really didn’t know what to make of it. Then he said something like “You seem more relaxed now than before.”

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He wanted to know why. He seemed vulnerable with his marriage falling apart. As he tried to impress me, telling me he was a good dad with a steady job, I felt a little sorry for him. I couldn’t say that, though, so I told him, “I don’t know. I just feel comfortable with you, I guess.

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But Gary never quite relaxed. He didn’t seem to finish during the sex, though he said he did. He was soon ready to go again, but when we heard my roommates come through the front door, he jumped at the sound. “Who’s that?”

“Just my roommates.”

“Roommates?”

Gary left a short while later. I regretted letting things progress as far as they had. Rationally, I knew even sad divorcés could be as dangerous as anyone, but no one had courted this skinny, bucktoothed, newly minted adult so attentively before. Even though I saw him as pitiable, I was the one desperate for validation.

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The following weekend, Gary called to ask me out dancing. I had the beginnings of a sore throat and used that as an excuse to beg off. In truth, the idea of dating a man in the middle of a divorce and with a young son held no appeal. Plus, I was pretty sure he’d lied about his age.

I turned down my friend’s invitation to go out that night, too, but she said we’d go early. She said I could drink orange juice and get vitamin C. She promised we’d leave before things got crowded.

At the White Shutters, the orange juice burned my throat, and a low-grade fever added to my general malaise. Heading into the ladies’ room to splash cold water on my face, I spotted Gary sitting with an attractive older woman at a table behind a partition. He might not have seen my friend and me, but I felt I owed him an explanation. I waited until his date went to use the restroom, then approached him and made my apologies. He nodded at my excuses and gave a half-smile. His face was inscrutable.

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A few times after that, I thought I saw Gary’s truck in our apartment parking lot. I had since met the man who would become my first husband. He was with me each time I saw Gary, who pulled out when he saw us. I didn’t say anything for fear of my new beau’s jealousy, and frankly, I didn’t think much of Gary being there. As far as I knew, Gary might have dropped by to visit but changed his mind when he saw me with another man. Or maybe he knew someone else who lived in the apartments. In any case, he never asked me out again.

Two decades later, in 2001, when I heard the newly caught “Green River Killer” worked in a paint shop and that his name was Gary, I thought of the man who years earlier had come to my apartment, walked uninvited into my bedroom, and seemed startled when my roommates came home. 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. His narrow-bridged nose, blue eyes, and the way they drooped at the corners looked right, but I remembered a more prominent Adam’s apple than was visible in the photos on television. It was a coincidence, I told myself. Surely it could not have been the same man.

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Nearly two more decades later, I had made a career of writing, and had turned to something more personal. I came of age in the Pacific Northwest, at the epicenter of a cluster of serial killers, including Ted Bundy, Gary Leon Ridgway, and others, and I wanted to write about living through this period. I researched the murderers who terrorized my childhood and young adult stomping grounds.

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This time, the more I learned about Gary Ridgway, the more the coincidences stacked up.

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He drove a beat-up pickup truck. He loved dancing to country-western music. And following his separation in 1980, he attended Parents Without Partners meetings at the White Shutters, the same club where I’d met my Gary.

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

It is not a normal thing to do—to acknowledge to yourself that you may have slept with a serial killer. I first felt deeply embarrassed. I had to talk about this with someone, but the obvious candidate was my husband, and I couldn’t imagine how to bring it up. I married him when I was 40 and had a teenage son, so it’s not exactly like he thought I was a virgin, but we had spared each other most details of our past partners. The prospect of a conversation gnawed at me. What could I say? “You know how I’m not always the best judge of character?” I finally told him while we hiked the Mountain Lake trail at Moran State Park. He stopped and kissed my head. “Thank goodness you weren’t a victim, too,” he said.

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Still, the whole situation filled me with a sense of shame that I hadn’t felt in some time. When I slept with Gary, the country had just turned hard right into a Reagan presidency—we traded bell-bottoms and halter tops for trousers and turtlenecks. But I was, like a lot of people on the West Coast then, behind the times. Truth was, before that point, sex was something others stole from me. At 18, sex was now something I took for myself: a statement of agency, a measure of control. Or maybe it was like self-medicating. In an attempt to shake off the shame of past abuse, I’d layered on the shame of promiscuity. I know now this shame is needless, and I thought I had left it behind years ago. Now I felt irrational guilt again about what I’d done, and that I hadn’t detected anything disturbing about Gary—as if I were somehow responsible for his later crimes.

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In the time since, my feelings have toggled: from horror for Ridgway’s victims, to disbelief and fear about what might have happened that night, to an inability to process what I’d learned about the man I met 40 years ago.

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Ridgway was convicted of killing 49 women and girls, though police and prosecutors estimated the number to be higher, and even Ridgway said it was far more. He primarily targeted sex workers, whom he later said he hated especially and believed would not be missed.

As I continued my research, the commonalities between the Garys mounted, each more chilling and disturbing than the next. After Ridgway’s separation from his second wife, Marcia, in 1980, he parked near her apartment three hours a night for about a month. I remembered him outside my own apartment in early 1981.

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In his confessions, Ridgway detailed how he showed women his business card and even a photo of his son to put them at ease. 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.”

When I met Gary, no one was on the alert yet for a man targeting women in my neighborhood. Serial killers were not on my radar. Ridgway later told investigators he wanted to convince women he was a “normal person.” He once said, “In my mind I’m saying, ‘Kill, kill, kill.’ I’m going to sweet-talk her so I can kill the bitch.” Was that what he thought when he showed me his card and son’s picture? Ridgway apparently didn’t begin killing until 1982, but my mind often races: What if my roommates hadn’t come home when they did? What if I hadn’t gotten sick when he asked me out the next weekend? What if I’d been alone when I found him waiting in my parking lot?

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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. In August 1982, she disappeared after telling her three kids she was going to the store. 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.

I shared each detail with my husband as they cropped up, comparing Gary Ridgway with “the Gary I knew.”

“What will it take for you to believe they’re the same guy?” he asked.

“I don’t know. I don’t want to believe.”

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Weeks later, he said, “Have you considered writing to him?”

Writing to him? No. Why would I write to him?

Ridgway is imprisoned at Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla, where on most days he reportedly spends 23 hours in isolation. He is only allowed visits from immediate family and his legal team. There are people obsessed with serial killers, and people obsessed with the Green River Killer in particular. They write to him, as do journalists, true crime writers, evangelicals, do-gooders, and women who get a sexual charge from befriending a killer. I am none of those.

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On websites dedicated to dissecting every detail of the murders, people hoping to crack unsolved cases and who have written to Ridgway sometimes lament the fact that he doesn’t write back. He might not have money in his prison account for paper and stamps. He might prefer to take the rest of his secrets to the grave. He might not even receive the letters, which are carefully scrutinized.

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The whole enterprise of writing Ridgway seemed futile to me and, frankly, a little scary. I thought of how journalist Claudia Rowe had corresponded with serial killer Kendall Francois in her memoir, The Spider and the Fly. Francois was convicted of killing eight women by asphyxiation, similar to Ridgway. Rowe hoped to gain Francois’ trust and draw out a confession. She found herself being drawn in by the killer’s attempts to manipulate her. Instead of acting as a spider weaving her web, she had become the fly in Francois’.

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I feared being duped by Ridgway, but mostly I wanted resolution. Some of my questions would never get past the guards, and he would probably never answer anyway: Was I the first person you showed your business card and son’s photo to? Did my response make you think it would put other women at ease? Or were you already luring and killing victims? Did you intend to lure and kill me? But if I wrote him and he did write back, if he said he remembered me, it would confirm what I believe but can’t say with 100 percent certainty is true—what kept haunting me. The thought both frightened and somehow moved me to act.

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I rented a P.O. box. I wrote a letter that mentioned meeting a man and dancing at the White Shutters. I recalled a visit to my apartment without saying anything that even hinted at sex, violence, or other prohibited topics that would give prison officials reason to destroy my letter. I posted the letter in the last week of January this year.

As of this week, my mailbox remains empty. Maybe someday I’ll turn the key and find an envelope marked with a state penitentiary return address. 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.

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