William G. Bonin, the notorious “Freeway Killer” who seared his way into the nation’s consciousness with a string of sadistic murders 16 years ago, awaited execution late Thursday as his lawyers fought to save his life.
Barring an eleventh-hour reprieve, Bonin, a former Downey truck driver who confessed to raping, torturing and killing 21 boys and young men, was scheduled to be put to death at 12:01 a.m. Friday in the converted gas chamber at San Quentin Prison.
A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Thursday refused to block the execution, rejecting the latest in a flurry of attempts by Bonin’s lawyers to keep their client alive.
Bonin, 49, was scheduled to become the first California prisoner to die by lethal injection, and only the third in California to be executed by any method since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.
One of the most prolific killers in U.S. history, Bonin spent his final hours peacefully, prison officials said, reading his mail and chatting with relatives, friends and attorneys on a windy, spectacularly beautiful day in the Bay Area.
He also found time to speak to a San Francisco radio station. In an interview with KQED-FM, Bonin said he had “made peace with it” and has even managed to joke with the prison warden about his impending death.
But the multiple murderer had chilling words for the family members of his victims, some of whom planned to attend his execution in an effort to find a measure of peace themselves.
“They feel that my death will bring closure,” Bonin said. “But that’s not the case. They’re going to find out.”
Several of Bonin’s victims and relatives of several others gathered near the prison Thursday for an unusual press conference in the hours before his scheduled death.
“I just can’t wait to see [Bonin] take his last breath,” said Sandra Miller, the mother of Russell Duane Rugh, 15, of Garden Grove, who was last seen near his home waiting for a bus to take to work at a fast-food restaurant. His body was found March 22, 1980, beside a highway next to the body of 14-year-old Glen Barker of Huntington Beach, another of Bonin’s victims.
Miller said she regrets Bonin’s death will be relatively painless. As she spoke, Miller hugged David McVicker, a Santa Ana deejay whom Bonin raped at gunpoint in 1975. McVicker was 14.
“I think they ought to give him over to the [victims’] parents and David,” Miller said. “We’d fix him.”
Bonin’s lawyers sought to block the execution by arguing that their client did not receive a fair trial and was denied a choice of the method of his execution.
Gov. Pete Wilson this week denied a separate plea that sought clemency on grounds Bonin received inadequate legal representation during a pair of trials in Los Angeles and Orange counties. Wilson, who could have reduced the sentence to life in prison without possibility of parole, said Bonin’s guilt was “beyond dispute.”
On Thursday, the governor said there was no reason to halt the execution, and described the Freeway Killer as a “poster child for capital punishment.”
Bonin was convicted of raping and killing 14 boys and young men, some of them hitchhikers, during a yearlong rampage that spread fear across Southern California.
Bonin’s rampage coincided with a similar series of murders later linked to serial killer Randy Kraft. Kraft was convicted in 1989 of 16 murders and awaits execution.
Bonin was arrested in Hollywood on June 11, 1980, while sodomizing a 17-year-old runaway from Orange County. In Bonin’s van, police found gear that Bonin had used to rape and strangle his young victims: wire, rope and a jack iron with which he twisted victims’ T-shirts around their necks.
Friends who helped Bonin carry out some of the murders implicated him as the mastermind and, in court testimony, portrayed a killer with an insatiable lust for young men.
In separate trials, Bonin was found guilty in 1982 of 10 murders in Los Angeles County and four more in Orange County in 1983.
The performance of Bonin’s lead trial attorney, William Charvet, became a focus of Bonin’s appeals. His legal team in the state public defender’s office sought a new trial, contending Charvet made an inappropriate book deal with Bonin and failed to raise Bonin’s abuse-ridden childhood during the trials.
Born Jan. 8, 1947, Bonin grew up in a home run by a violent father who drank and gambled to excess, once losing the family home, according to a psychiatrist report submitted for Bonin’s appeal. His parents often left Bonin and his two brothers alone, according to defense statements and doctors’ reports. His parents later sent him to an orphanage.
At age 8, Bonin was sexually assaulted while living in a Connecticut detention center, and he later fondled his brother and neighborhood boys, Bonin told doctors. His mother told a psychiatrist she suspected her father molested William as he had abused her, according to a court declaration by a New York psychiatrist who interviewed Benton.
Bonin served as a helicopter gunner in Vietnam, where, it was learned later, he assaulted two soldiers under his command. Later, Bonin was convicted in 1969 of sexually assaulting five boys in Los Angeles County.
In 1975, he was convicted of raping McVicker, whom he picked up hitchhiking in Garden Grove. Bonin told a police officer that he would not leave a living witness next time.
The murders began in 1979--a year after Bonin’s release from state prison--when the bodies of victims began turning up next to roadways and behind buildings across several counties. Most of the young victims, ages 12 to 19, were dumped nude, some bearing cigarette burns or welts and showing evidence of sexual assault.
Bonin has been on California’s death row for nearly 13 years.
The last California inmate put to death was David Edwin Mason, a convicted killer of five who was executed in 1993. Robert Alton Harris, executed in 1992 for killing two people, was the only other California prisoner put to death since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty. Both died in the gas chamber.
Ellingwood reported from San Quentin and Trounson from Costa Mesa. Times staff writers Dexter Filkins and J.R. Moehringer also contributed to this story from San Quentin.