The Twisted Life That Led Bonin to Death Row

TIMES STAFF WRITER

All of William Bonin--the serial killer and the man--lives on in his old neighborhood.

Neighbors remember the screams from his house and when he tried to coax their children indoors. Old-timers recall Bonin's offerings of X-rated movies and free beer to the boys on Angell Street.

And a few people who live in this graying grid of 1950s tract homes even caught a glimpse of Bonin as something other than a hollow-eyed killer.

Dolly Sanders, who tends bar at the Ric Rac, a neighborhood pub, recalls the time in 1979 when Bonin sat with her at the hospital the night she thought her son was going to die.

"He didn't want to leave me alone," she said.

She also remembers the night when Bonin strolled in with a young boy in tow. She was at Bonin's house, playing cards with his mother.

"I just got this funny feeling," Sanders said. "Something wasn't right. He was too young."

Not long after, in June 1980, Bonin was charged with murdering and raping 16 boys and young men in Orange and Los Angeles counties. He confessed to 21, was convicted of 14 and twice was sentenced to die.

Friday morning just after midnight, Bonin, the notorious Freeway Killer, is set to walk the 13 steps from his holding cell at San Quentin State Prison to California's execution chamber, where he will receive an injection of sodium Pentothal, pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride. A physician in attendance will declare Bonin dead.

In Sacramento and San Francisco, lawyers are working furiously to keep Bonin alive. Anti-death-penalty groups are planning last-minute protests. The writers working on Bonin books are squeezing in their last interviews.

*

When Bonin finally dies, however, it will probably be with no supporters present. The bulk of the viewing seats just outside the chamber are reserved for journalists, government officials and families of his victims. Most of Bonin's friends are dead or in prison.

Back in the old neighborhood, there's a feeling that the 49-year-old Bonin is finally getting what he deserves.

"They ought to shoot him," said Ed Rice, who lives one street over from the Bonin house.

*

Bonin almost never killed alone. When he cruised the streets of Southern California in 1979 and 1980 hunting for young men, he usually brought someone with him. The extras helped Bonin subdue his victims and dispose of their bodies.

Bonin liked to show off when he raped and murdered his victims. Deputy Dist. Atty. Sterling E. Norris, who convicted Bonin of 10 murders, said Bonin often dared his helpers to join his frenzy.

"Can you do it?" Bonin asked a cohort as he choked 15-year-old Charles Miranda. "Let me show you how to do this."

Bonin strangled Miranda with the boy's own T-shirt, using a jack handle to twist the shirt like a tourniquet around his neck.

"Bonin loved the killing," said Norris, who plans to attend the execution. "He delighted in talking about it."

James Munro, who is serving 15 years to life for helping commit one murder, recalls Bonin in a near hysterical state as he assaulted 18-year-old Steven Wells.

"Shut up!" Munro recalls Bonin screaming as he strangled and raped the bound young man. "You're going to die."

"It was like he was a monster."

After his arrest Bonin told a reporter: "I'd still be killing. I couldn't stop killing. It got easier each time."

*

The roots of Bonin's murderous ways are not well understood, and will be debated by psychiatrists and criminologists for years to come.

Many factors obscure Bonin's criminal origins, including an itinerant childhood, an often-absent father and the passage of many decades. What's more, Bonin apparently retains little memory of important moments in his childhood.

What little evidence exists suggests that the warping of Bonin's mind began very early.

Bonin was born Jan. 8, 1947, to a household run by a violent, alcoholic father who gambled so much that he once lost the family home, according to a psychiatrist's report submitted for his appeal. Bonin's parents often left him and his two brothers alone for long periods, and their father beat his mother often, according to defense affidavits and doctors' reports. When Bonin was still young, his mother kicked him out of the house.

Court records show that Bonin was sexually assaulted when he was 8, while living in a Connecticut detention center. The reasons for his going there are not clear, but he was apparently sent from an orphanage where his parents had placed him.

According to state medical records:

"An older boy approached Bonin for homosexual contact, and Bonin was frightened, but Bonin agreed to it if the older boy would tie his hands behind his back--allowing Mr. Bonin to feel more secure and less frightened."

To Dr. Jonathan H. Pincus, a Georgetown University Hospital neurologist who examined Bonin, the incident suggests much about the killer's earlier years. The fact that Bonin, at age 8, was sexually aware and asked for restraints led Pincus to believe he had been a prior victim of sexual assault.

"It is inconceivable that he was not sexually abused and forceably restrained by adult abusers before [the incident]," Pincus wrote in a report to Bonin's lawyers.

Years later, Bonin would tie up most victims before killing them.

Soon after he left the detention home, Bonin told doctors, he began fondling his brother and other boys in his neighborhood.

Bonin's mother, Alice Benton, told a psychiatrist that she suspected her father had begun to sexually assault young William. She had reason to know: She said her father had sexually abused her repeatedly as a child, and even tried to abuse her after she married, according to a court declaration by Dr. Dorothy Lewis, a New York University psychiatrist who interviewed her.

*

Benton, who still lives in Downey, declined to be interviewed for this story.

Bonin says he has no memory of being physically abused. Pincus and other doctors suspect he repressed it.

"There is much data to indicate that Bonin was severely and recurrently sexually abused as a child," Lewis wrote.

Doctors found a variety of other physical and psychological anomalies: brain damage in the area that is thought to restrain violent impulses; manic-depressive illness, and several unexplained scars on his head and backside.

Almost no evidence of prior abuse or mental illness was introduced by Bonin's lawyers during his two trials. His new attorneys have accused lead trial attorney William Charvet of incompetence as part of a last-minute appeal seeking a new trial.

Charvet has since given up the law and could not be reached for comment. Tracy L. Stewart, a co-counsel at trial, said in an affidavit that Charvet decided not to call a psychiatrist to testify because he was concerned the doctor might be asked about Charvet's pending book deal on the case.

*

It was in Vietnam that Bonin began to show a predilection for violence and sex. In the 205th Assault Support Helicopter Unit, he logged more than 700 hours manning a machine gun. He won a medal and an honorable discharge, but it wasn't discovered until much later that he had sexually assaulted at gunpoint two soldiers under his command.

Back from Vietnam in 1969, he settled with his mother in Downey. Soon after, Bonin was convicted of sexually assaulting five boys. In each case, his method was the same: cruise for boys, pick them up, handcuff and rape them.

By 1975, Bonin was a rapist and a pedophile, but not yet a killer. David McVicker was one of the last of Bonin's victims to survive.

As McVicker recalls it, he was standing on a Garden Grove corner thumbing for a ride to Huntington Beach. Bonin pulled up and offered McVicker, then 14, a ride.

"He was totally cool--there was nothing in the least bit strange about him," said McVicker, now a Santa Ana nightclub disc jockey.

When Bonin asked McVicker if he was gay, McVicker asked to get out of the car. Bonin pulled a gun. "That's when I knew I was in trouble," McVicker said.

Bonin drove to a deserted field and raped the teenager. Then Bonin began to choke McVicker with his own T-shirt--the same method Bonin would later use to kill several of his victims. McVicker, gagging, thought he was going to die.

When McVicker cried out, Bonin released him and uttered a remarkable thing.

"He apologized for choking me," McVicker said.

By the late 1970s, Bonin's Downey neighbors began to suspect something was terribly wrong. Jim Hunter, who lives on the next street, said his young son came home one day and told him Bonin had invited him inside. The youngster went home instead. "He tried to go for my boy," Hunter recalled.

Marie Dhenin, who lives just behind the Bonin home, remembers a frightful sound coming from the house one night. She wrote it off as kids at play. "It was a blood-curdling scream," she said.

Edward Teet, who was a teenager at the time, lived four houses down from the Bonins. The word around the neighborhood, Teet said, was that Bonin showed X-rated movies and bought beer for underage boys. Two friends told Teet that Bonin had propositioned them.

"He was very friendly with the teenage boys," Teet said.

In the summer of 1979, Bonin worked as a trucker for Dependable Driveaway in Montebello. At night, he cruised the streets for boys, and he soon began his long string of murders.

Bonin's youngest victim was James McCabe, age 12. The oldest victim was 19.

Pincus testified that Bonin probably killed when he was in a manic state, when his sexual and violent compulsions became irresistible. The manic-depressive illness was probably aggravated, the psychiatrist said, by the killer's grisly childhood and the brain damage.

Bonin told the doctor of his urges to kill.

"Bonin had no insight into his reasons for doing this and he was obviously embarrassed by the details and ashamed," Pincus wrote in a report to Bonin's lawyers.

In court, the crucial test for Bonin was whether he was insane--whether he knew that what he was doing was wrong. Bonin, for instance, did several things that suggested he understood the gravity of his crimes: He scattered and concealed his victims' bodies, and washed out his blood-soaked van. "There was no question of his sanity," Norris said.

*

Bonin's many attorneys through the years offer claims of his humanity--his great love for his mother, his generosity to fellow inmates, his paintings and short stories.

They do not speak of remorse. Except for a few isolated references in his psychological records, Bonin has evidently never expressed any shame for what he did, nor has he sought forgiveness.

Lavada Gifford of Long Beach traded letters with Bonin for many months. Bonin confessed to murdering her son, 14-year-old Sean King, although he was never convicted of that crime.

Not once, Gifford said, did Bonin mention the murder. She broke off the correspondence in the late 1980s.

"It was all about him and his favorite TV shows," she said. "He never acknowledged that he did anything wrong."

*

Bonin has been awaiting death for 14 years. As with all death row inmates, his life is governed by routine: From 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., he is free to leave his cell and go into Yard 4 to exercise and chat with other inmates. Yard 4 is reserved for the lowest on death row's pecking order: serial killers and child molesters. They are housed together to protect them from the others.

For years, Bonin has played bridge with three fellow serial killers, Randy Kraft, Doug Clark and Lawrence Bittaker. Together, the bridge group has been convicted of killing 49 people.

Just this month, Lavada Gifford decided to give Bonin one more chance and wrote him a final letter. If there is anything you want to say to me, the letter said, say it now. "I was always hoping he would say he is sorry," she said.

So far, no reply.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
63°