Why a prolific serial killer is no longer identified as an 'offender'

Gary Ridgway -- the most prolific American serial killer who said he has at least 71 victims – is no longer called an inmate or an offender according to Washington State Department of Corrections officials.

The serial killer is called a “student” under new state guidelines. So will all other murders, rapists and convicted felons.

"The term 'offender' does have a negative connotation and significantly impacts a broad group of people and communities," Acting WA DOC Secretary Dick Morgan wrote in an internal department memo, obtained by KIRO-TV.

“Times change, and so does our language.”

Ridgway, who was not identified as the Green River Killer until 2001, started his killing spree at least as early at 1982. He was convicted of 49 murders, but confessed to additional cases and is believed to have killed more than 90.

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In Morgan's memo, he wrote that the term offender "is a label that impacts more than the person to whom it is applied. The label has now been so broadly used that it is not uncommon to see it used to describe others such as 'offender families' and 'offender employers or services.'"

Not everyone is bothered by the term. One former prison inmate, who told KIRO-TV he's been on WA DOC supervision for years, said the terminology wouldn't change anything.

The phase-out of the word “offender” started Nov. 1 and replaced with “individuals,” “student” or “patient,” the WA DOC secretary wrote to his staff.

“It takes time to change habits but I encourage all of you to make an effort,” Morgan wrote in the memo sent Tuesday. “Start by referring to individuals by their names (if you don’t already), practice replacing or removing the word ‘offender’ from your communication and presentation to others.”

That includes the Green River Killer, who is at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla.

Millions of dollars were spent on his apprehension, even though a father of one of Ridgway's victims led police to him in 1983. That tip led police to take a saliva sample from Ridgway years later when he was questioned after patronizing a prostitute. That DNA was what eventually led to Ridgway's arrest.

Ridgway also sent a letter – a road map of his murders – to a Seattle Post-Intelligencer reporter in 1984, two months after the Green River Task Force was launched. An FBI expert didn't think it was legit, but during his a post-arrest interview Ridgway explained to Sheriff Dave Reichert what each comment meant.

When he was sentenced to life in prison in December 2003, family members of his victims – including some Ridgway claimed he didn’t remember killing because he had murdered so many – addressed him in court.

“Gary Ridgway, fortunately for you, political correctness has taken the place of common sense,” said Virginia Graham, whose 15-year-old sister, Debra Estes, was found dead in 1988, more than six years after she was killed.

"The scales of justice are tipped in the favor the criminal," she continued. "I am a patient and hopeful person. You are going to die someday. It is then that I will have closure in my life, not because you are dead, but because the evil you chose to become has left this earth and gone back to hell from where it came.

“That will be a happy day indeed.”