‘Freeway Killer’ Bonin Nears Date With Execution
The killer’s taped voice speaks horrors that sicken even many years later. His tone is as casual as a call home.
“I tied him up with nylon--this electrician type of wire. I pulled a knife on him and he got scared . . . I stabbed him in the left arm. It surprised me that I did it.
“I stabbed him again and then again, and again and again until he was helpless.”
The voice belongs to William G. Bonin, a Downey truck driver who seared his way into Southern California’s consciousness 16 years ago with a terrifying string of hitchhiker murders that led him to be dubbed the “Freeway Killer.”
Bonin, believed responsible for the sex killings of at least 21 young men and boys during a yearlong spree across several counties, sits on death row at San Quentin Prison awaiting an expected Feb. 23 execution. If he is put to death, Bonin, now 49, would be the first California inmate to die by lethal injection and only the third state prisoner executed since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976.
But Bonin’s spot in history is already secure.
One of the most prolific mass killers in American history, Bonin helped define an extraordinarily frightening period during the late 1970s when the nude bodies of dozens of young men were turning up behind gas stations or in the weeds along Southern California’s roads. Bonin’s deadly exploits also fed a fast-rising national frenzy over serial killers--a term that came to include such murderers as Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy and David Berkowitz.
In the freeway case, investigators worked around the clock, crisscrossing the region in search of the monster responsible for such cruelty. In fact, there were two monsters out there. Only after Bonin was convicted of killing 14 people in Los Angeles and Orange counties did police snare a second, unrelated predator, a computer engineer from Long Beach named Randy Kraft. To detectives, the methods were maddeningly similar: Both men picked up young male hitchhikers and then raped and killed them by strangulation or stabbing.
With news of each fresh killing, the region shivered with fear. Residents put up rewards. Politicians talked of setting up a special task force. Gay enclaves such as Belmont Shore in Long Beach were especially edgy. Police and schools issued stern warnings to young people on the dangers of hitchhiking; even beach bums gave up the long-held practice.
“There was total paranoia in the community, particularly there near the end,” recalled Earle Robitaille, then the police chief in Huntington Beach, where a devil-may-care youth set created a favorite hunting ground for Bonin.
Few people recall that jittery era better than retired Orange County sheriff investigators Bernie Esposito and Jim Sidebotham.
“You went home at the end of the day and held your breath that the damned phone didn’t ring with another one,” said Esposito.
Bonin would kill his first victim in 1979--a year after his release from prison.
A Vietnam War veteran whose childhood was marred by neglect and sexual abuse, Bonin had spent much of the decade behind bars as a result of his sex attacks on youngsters. He spent five years in a state mental hospital and prison after a 1969 conviction for assaults on five boys in the South Bay area. In 1975, 16 months after his release, Bonin was arrested again after raping a Huntington Beach boy who was hitchhiking through Westminster.
“I used to hitchhike everywhere I went. That was how everyone I knew traveled,” said the rape victim, David McVicker, who is now 35 and a disc jockey at a Santa Ana nightclub.
McVicker, who has spoken publicly about his ordeal over the years, said he hopped in the car, greeted by a cheery Bonin. But Bonin abruptly pulled a gun and began hunting for a secluded parking lot, his eyes showing “nothing but pure hate,” McVicker recalled. Bonin let McVicker go after the attack, and was later snared by police when he tried to pick up another teenage boy.
Next time, Bonin promised a police officer after his arrest, he would leave no witnesses.
Paroled from prison in October, 1978, Bonin moved back to Downey and got a job driving trucks for a Montebello company. His knowledge of the area’s roads soon fit a more deadly purpose, prosecutors said, as he spent nights prowling the streets in his olive-green van.
Bonin lorded over a motley band of hangers-on that included an illiterate teen with an IQ of 56 and an aspiring magician who decorated his living room with a coffin and greeted visitors dressed as Darth Vader. Bonin sometimes took one friend or another on his forays. His killings involved four different accomplices.
“He has this leadership ability to get them to follow,” said Orange County Deputy District Atty. Bryan Brown, who won Bonin’s conviction in 1983 for four killings there. “And they do what he wants them to do.”
The victims, ranging from 12 to 19, turned up as far away as San Bernardino and Kern counties. Some were stabbed. One was fed chlorohydrate acid and found with an ice pick shoved through his right ear. Another body was covered with welts.
But, most often, Bonin strangled. He used a tire iron to twist the victim’s T shirt, tourniquet-style, around the neck, leaving a fist-sized bruise that became a Bonin trademark, said Los Angeles County Deputy Dist. Atty. Sterling E. Norris, who successfully prosecuted Bonin in 1982 for 10 murders in the Los Angeles area.
Bonin’s appetite for young men overpowered even his need to sleep.
After one all-night outing during which he and an accomplice strangled a 14-year-old Bell Gardens boy and dumped the body near downtown Los Angeles, Bonin was weary but unsated. He turned to his helper, Gregory M. Miley, and said, “I want another one,” according to Miley’s testimony later. The men spent hours hunting before they found James M. Macabe, a 12-year-old Garden Grove boy waiting to catch a bus to Disneyland. Bonin raped him, then forced him to nap in his arms, Norris said. James’ body was found three days later in Walnut.
News accounts of the “Freeway Killer” multiplied with each grisly find--and schools joined parents in warning children to avoid strangers.
But some youths made fatal mistakes. Glen Barker, a 13-year-old Huntington Beach boy, was one of them. After seeing the news stories, the boy’s mother gave her son bus money for the ride home from school and told him to avoid strangers. But, his grandfather said, the youngster spent the money and tried to thumb a ride home.
Glen’s nude body was found the next day on Ortega Highway in southern Orange County. His neck bore cigarette burns.
“He was not supposed to get in the van with anyone,” said his grandfather, Elza Rodgers. “But you know how these boys are.”
The body of a second boy, Russell Duane Rugh, a 15-year-old from Garden Grove, lay next to Glen’s.
Sidebotham and Esposito teamed with investigators from the Los Angeles Police and Sheriff departments, including “Jigsaw John” St. John, a legendary Los Angeles homicide detective who died last year.
It was clear not all the victims were killed the same way and authorities took pains to note it was unlikely all were slain by one person. But how to tell them apart?
The first breakthrough was carpet fibers.
With few clues but the unclothed bodies themselves, Orange County criminalists searched victims using “tape lifts,” a technique using adhesive strips to remove hair or other evidence too small to see. The lifts on several Orange County victims yielded microscopic twists of avocado-green carpeting. Subsequent tests on some Los Angeles victims found the same fibers.
Sidebotham said the presence of fibers led detectives to suspect that a customized van was being used. It was the first common link among victims later traced to Bonin.
Meanwhile, tips from callers poured in by the hundreds. Judges, even defense lawyers, shared the names of former defendants who seemed to fit the killer’s profile. Investigators waded through stacks of state vehicle records in search of vans fitting a description offered by one witness. Police set up stakeouts, but nothing panned out.
Detectives got lists of every sex offender in the area who had assaulted boys and favored bondage--about 100 people. One name failed to attract any special attention: William G. Bonin.
But McVicker, the 1975 rape victim, was following the newspaper accounts with a sickly feeling. “This all sounds too familiar,” he recalled thinking. True, the recent attacks differed markedly from his own; the newest victims were dead. And wasn’t Bonin far away in prison? McVicker decided to call police anyway.
Meanwhile, a teen-aged car theft suspect was telling his juvenile hall counselor that he knew who the “Freeway Killer” might be. The youth, William Ray Pugh, had been in Bonin’s van and seen newspaper clippings about the crime, Sidebotham said. The youth did not mention he had accompanied Bonin on one of the deadly rides. But his tip, combined with McVicker’s call and Bonin’s listing as a sex offender, provided the break.
Police quickly set up a stakeout at Bonin’s house on June 2, 1980. It turned out to be just a few hours too late. As investigators were taking up their positions, Bonin and an accomplice named James Michael Munro were on the road again. With them was the body of Steven Wells, whom they had killed at the house and carried out in a cardboard box before police arrived. The pair dumped Wells’ body behind a gas station in Huntington Beach.
But Bonin’s luck ran out eight days later. Trailing police watched him pick up a teen-age boy in Hollywood. When police approached, Bonin already was on top of the youth, who turned out to be a 17-year-old runaway from Orange County. Inside the van were some of Bonin’s tools--rope, wire and the tire iron.
Bonin’s arrest set off a tug of war between Los Angeles county prosecutors and their counterparts in Orange County to see who would put Bonin on trial. At one point, Orange County Deputy Dist. Atty. David O. Carter, who is now a Superior Court judge, directed deputies to snatch Bonin from jail in Los Angeles for arraignment. Enraged prosecutors in Los Angeles hurriedly got a court order to return the suspect.
Bonin faced separate trials, first in Los Angeles and later in Orange County.
His undoing came largely at the hands of former confederates who, in return for reduced sentences, provided damning accounts of his role masterminding the killings.
One accomplice, aspiring magician Vernon R. Butts, hanged himself before trial using a knotted towel in a jail cell.
Bonin inadvertently handed prosecutors plenty more ammunition when he confessed to 21 killings in off-the-record talks with TV reporter David Lopez. Marking one of the trial’s strangest turns, Lopez won a court ruling that shielded him from having to testify for the prosecution, then decided to take the stand because he felt “miserable.”
In hopes of getting favorable treatment, Bonin also spilled his story to police with the agreement that the talks would not be used to convict him. Bonin huddled with detectives and with a tape recorder running, he coolly recounted the murderous campaign.
“There was not a policeman in that room who did not want to kill Bonin--to hear him talk about those kids,” Sidebotham recalled. “You’re in there trying to hold in your puke and to do your job.”
In 1982, Bonin was convicted in Los Angeles of 10 killings. A year later, Bonin was found guilty of four Orange County murders and again sentenced to die.
His mother, Alice Benton, testified Bonin was a kind and helpful man who had always steered clear of drink and foul language.
“If he had a bag of candy, he gave it away,” she testified.
A lawyer who defended Bonin contends that Bonin has been failed by a legal system that released to the streets someone who needed to stay behind the walls of a prison or hospital. Attorney Tracy Stewart said Bonin’s violent side may have erupted as a result of the trauma of serving as a helicopter gunner in Vietnam.
For Esposito, the Bonin execution will close a chapter that, even for a veteran murder detective, stands out as one of unusual gruesomeness. He plans to attend the execution.
“I’m not a sadistic person,” Esposito said. “But I’m looking forward to this.”