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The Other Victims of William Bonin

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Barbara Biehn spent years crafting the miniature Christmas village that dominates her living room. It is a scene of tiny skaters and hand-painted houses--an idyll of calm and neighborly good cheer.

It is everything that her wrecked life is not.

In Biehn’s world, it is unsafe to venture outside after the sun goes down. It is hard to make friends, easy to hide away. And serial killers are real.

One of them, William G. Bonin, robbed her of a 16-year-old son, setting off more than a decade of heartaches not likely to end Friday, when Bonin is scheduled to be executed. After the 1980 murder of her son, Steven Wood, Biehn watched a second son slide into deep despair, then into drug abuse and mental problems. Finally, 29-year-old Carl Wood killed himself with a shotgun in 1989--on Bonin’s 42nd birthday.

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Overcome with horrible memories, Biehn and her husband fled their Bellflower home for rural Arizona four years ago. She lives a hermit’s life now, passing her days working on crafts projects under the gaze of a giant photograph of Steven.

“I live in a different world now,” said Biehn, 57. “My Steven’s gone. My Carl’s gone. There’s just too much to remember.”

She is not alone. The sheer scale of Bonin’s crimes--he was convicted of the murders of 14 young men in 1979 and 1980 in Los Angeles and Orange counties--represents a monumental toll when measured by the dozens of parents, siblings and friends whose loved ones fell prey to the so-called “Freeway Killer.”

But the loss is more completely gauged by the many ways the tragedy spun off troubles over the years. One mother fell into a decade-long battle with alcohol. The mother of another victim succumbed to cancer that relatives say was hastened by the emotional strain; her deathbed regret was not surviving to see Bonin executed. A teen-aged boy who survived being raped by Bonin the day before starting high school lost interest in books and dropped out, and still has trouble spelling some basic words.

Other families have coped in silence, forbidding any mention of the murders that were splashed all over the news. Some parents threw themselves into political action, founding or joining groups that sought harsher treatment of criminals. Biehn started Voting Initiative Concerning Tougher Imprisonment of Molesters and Sex Offenders, or VICTIMS, and spent the first two years on a successful push to end an outpatient program for convicted sex offenders.

But such efforts soon became “too overwhelming,” said Sandra Miller, whose 15-year-old son, Russell Duane Rugh, was slain in 1980.

When Miller sought relief in the bottle, it brought only new sorrows.

“I had the perfect happy family,” said Miller, now 49 and living in Riverside with her husband. “After this, it was like the whole world fell apart.”

She traces her hard drinking to the day two Orange County sheriff’s detectives strode to the door of her Garden Grove home to tell her that they had found her son, who had been missing two days. Rusty, as he was known by his family, was dead. His body had been dumped off Ortega Highway alongside that of another boy. Miller, who said she drank rarely, recalled grabbing a beer to stop her shaking.

“That was my first thing with alcohol,” she said.

Miller said she found most of her close family members reluctant to discuss the death of her son, who had been strangled. She went to Bonin’s trial day after day by herself and on the way home found sympathetic ears at a local bar. “I would get drunk and all I’d talk about was Rusty. It was the only time I dared to. I had so much pain.”

Miller said she arose each morning to the sight of Rusty’s empty bedroom. The family had bought a new house a month before his murder; he never slept in the bedroom he chose for his own.

Miller’s once-slender figure gave way in the face of a compulsion to eat--a way to fill the emptiness. Drinking was another. She says she became skilled at hiding vodka bottles around the house and overdosed more than once on prescription pills. Her other two children once took a picture of her when she was passed out, planting a bottle in her limp hand to make the point.

Miller’s children also paid a price. Her son, Steven, then 11, became obsessed by the case, logging the names of freeway slaying victims in a spiral notebook and vowing to catch the killer. Rusty’s name is entered in careful child’s printing as No. 32.

Miller said her children later successfully survived their own struggles with substance abuse.

“I understand their problems because I had the problems. And Bonin created most of our problems,” said Miller, who has been sober for a year. “He created a real havoc in our world.”

Havoc also visited Sharon Barker at the worst possible time. Diagnosed with cervical cancer that was in remission after treatment, the Huntington Beach woman was blindsided in March 1980 by the murder of her son, Glen Norman Barker, a 14-year-old Huntington Beach boy. The divorced mother juggled her job at a Kmart to attend Bonin’s trial in Orange County.

“It didn’t help her very much with the cancer,” said her father, Elza Rodgers. “It really was a strain on her.”

Barker died in 1986, three years after Bonin was convicted and sentenced to death in Orange County for killing her son and three other boys.

“She told me she would like to have lived to see Bonin die. It was the only regret she had,” said Rodgers, who lives in Santa Ana. “She really hated him.”

Anna Macabe, 63, now a switchboard operator at a Laughlin, Nev., casino has lost touch with the other parents whose children died at Bonin’s hands. Her 12-year-old son, James, was abducted while taking a bus to Disneyland. Macabe said she recently marked the 16th anniversary of James’ death the way she marks the date every February: by working to keep her mind off the tragedy. She says she didn’t know an execution date had been set.

“You know that country song about ‘No future in the past’?” said Macabe, who moved from Orange County and now lives in Bullhead City, Ariz. “There isn’t.”

David McVicker survived being raped by Bonin in 1975. McVicker was hitchhiking in Garden Grove on the last day of summer vacation when Bonin picked him up and attacked him at gunpoint.

McVicker, 14, was released alive. Feeling dirty and ashamed, he told only his best friend what happened. His mother never wanted to hear the details, McVicker said. School mattered little. He recalled tossing his science book at the teacher not long after school opened.

McVicker quit school that same year and, despite sporadic stints in continuation high schools, never received a diploma.

McVicker, 35, is a disc jockey at a Santa Ana nightclub. He said he has been forced to endure a rash of slurs and graceless jokes from acquaintances relating to the attack. A boss once fired him after reading a magazine article that erroneously suggested McVicker was a Bonin accomplice, not a victim.

“It’s like being raped again,” McVicker said.

He has been haunted by a new demon. In recent weeks, as Bonin’s execution nears, McVicker said nightmares replaying the rape awaken him, sweating and screaming, half dozen times a night. The nightmares have forced his girlfriend to sleep in another room. In the dream, Bonin stabs him.

“Sometimes I wake myself up yelling,” McVicker said. “Imagine going to sleep and getting raped and stabbed 10 to 12 times a night.”

Private torments of a different sort struck Carl Wood after the murder of his brother, Steven, a well-liked boy whose small stature gave him dreams of being a jockey.

Carl was 20 when Steven’s body was found in Long Beach on April 11, 1980. He never recovered from the terrible loss, his mother said. “He just went off the deep end and was hurting for nine years.”

Biehn said Carl, one of three surviving children, spiraled into drug abuse and mental illness that worsened until he was hearing voices. “It was an absolute nightmare at the end,” she said.

The despair reached its depths Jan. 8, 1989. Carl rode his bicycle to a discount store, where he bought a shotgun and ammunition. He shot himself in a friend’s garage. Biehn said it is probably a coincidence that it happened on Bonin’s birthday but she is convinced his troubles stemmed from the slaying.

The double loss left Biehn feeling adrift. She could no longer bear the sight of Steven’s old school, the store where he worked, the childhood friends now with children of their own. She and her husband, Don, who test-drives cars, moved to Arizona. A self-described “paranoid,” she agreed to a visit on condition her city not be named.

Biehn’s life revolves around her neatly appointed home. Carl’s ashes rest in the bedroom, in a brass box bearing his picture. A 2-by-3-foot color photograph of Steven hangs from a wall in a hobby room, where she stays busy crocheting and painting knickknacks.

There is little room for strangers who could become friends.

“They’re happy. They have good things going on,” she said. “And I don’t think we do.”

Adding to the anguish for Biehn and many others has been the long wait to see Bonin’s execution carried out. He received separate death sentences after being convicted in Los Angeles in 1982 and Orange County in 1983. He is set to die by lethal injection at San Quentin Prison at 12:01 a.m. Friday.

“He actually lived longer [in prison] than my son got to live his life,” said Miller. “Is that fair?”

Bonin’s impending execution has forced Miller to contemplate the feelings of a death-penalty foe dear to her: her slain son, Rusty.

Among the stack of material she received from Rusty’s school after the slaying was a handwritten autobiography assigned in class. He was vehemently opposed to capital punishment.

“He believed that anybody who killed anybody ought to be helped,” Miller said. She said she hoped her son could forgive her for wishing Bonin dead.

“I think his feelings would be different if he’d known he was going to die like that.”

Miller is preparing for the trip to San Quentin, where she plans to watch as Bonin is given the deadly injection. Biehn is going too. McVicker and a group of friends have rented a motor home for the drive to the Bay Area. While McVicker is inside the prison for the execution, his friends plan to station the vehicle outside the gates, plastered with placards.

Miller and Biehn also are crafting letters for Bonin before he is put to death. They have questions still, questions that will be forever unanswerable once he is dead.

Miller concedes the answer may be grisly, but said she must know what happened to Rusty in the eight hours he was with Bonin alive. “What did he do during that period of time, that’s what I want to know.”

Biehn had her own queries.

“I’d ask him, why? And I’d ask him if Steven called for me, because I think he did,” she said. “And is he sorry?”

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Chronology of Murders

William G. Bonin, cruising in his olive-green van, chose young male victims who made the fatal mistake of accepting a ride from a stranger. Bonin, an ex-convict from Downey, was tried separately in Los Angeles and Orange counties and convicted of killing 14 people during 1979 and 1980:

* Marcus Grabs, 17, a student from Germany. Last seen hitchhiking on Pacific Coast Highway in Newport Beach on Aug. 5, 1979. His body, stabbed 70 times, was discovered the next day in Malibu Canyon.

* Donald Hyden, 15, of Hollywood. Last seen Aug. 27, 1979, in Hollywood. His strangled body was found the same day in trash bin near the Ventura Freeway in Agoura.

* David Murillo, 17, of La Mirada. Disappeared Sept. 9, 1979, riding a bicycle near his home. Body found next to the Ventura Freeway three days later.

* Frank Dennis Fox, 17, of Bellflower. His nude body was found Dec. 2, 1979, on Ortega Highway about five miles east of Interstate I-5.

* Charles Miranda, 15, of Bell Gardens. Vanished in Hollywood and was found beaten and strangled in a Los Angeles alley Feb. 3, 1980.

* James Michael Macabe, 12, of Garden Grove. Vanished in Huntington Beach while waiting for a bus to Disneyland on Feb. 3, 1980. His body was found three days later in Walnut.

* Ronald Gatlin, 18, of Van Nuys. Disappeared from North Hollywood March 14, 1980. His strangled body was discovered the next day in Duarte.

* Harry Todd Turner, 14, described as a Los Angeles runaway. Disappeared from Hollywood on March 20, 1980. Body found five days later near the Santa Monica Freeway.

* Glen Norman Barker, 14, of Huntington Beach. Reported seen hitchhiking after he told mother he was staying with a friend. Nude body found March 22, 1980, beside Ortega Highway.

* Russell Duane Rugh, 15, of Garden Grove. Last seen near home waiting for bus to job at fast-food restaurant. Body found March 22, 1980, beside Ortega Highway, alongside body of Glen Barker.

* Steven Wood, 16, of Bellflower. Last seen April 10, 1980, on his way to school. Found beaten and strangled the next day in an industrial area of Long Beach.

* Lawrence Eugene Sharp, 18, of Long Beach. Last seen April 10, 1980, in Long Beach. Body found May 18, 1980, in a trash bin behind a Westminster service station.

* Darin Lee Kendrick, 19, a grocery clerk and college student from Cypress. Last seen April 29, 1980, at Stanton store where he worked. Body found April 30, 1980, at Carson construction site with an ice pick in ear.

* Stephen Jay Wells, 18, of Downey. A truck driver last seen June 2, 1980, at a bus stop in Los Angeles. His nude body was found early the next day behind a Huntington Beach gas station.

Sources: Times reports, police records and family members.

Compiled by KEN ELLINGWOOD / Los Angeles Times


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