‘Freeway Killer’s’ Final Moments Strangely Calm


The scene was so sterile it was hard to remember a man was meeting his death.

Behind a white curtain in the converted gas chamber, William G. Bonin lay face-up, strapped to a table, his arms implanted with the tubes that would carry the poison to his veins.

The 50 witnesses who took their places around the windowed enclosure did not see Bonin’s final walk. They did not see the expression on his face as he entered, or the prison technicians who struggled several minutes to find a usable vein.

When prison guards pulled open the curtain, Bonin, in fresh denim clothes and gray socks, blinked at the ceiling, his belly rising and falling as the trickle began. His mustachioed face betrayed nothing. If he was making a sound, none escaped the sea-green steel bubble.


After about 50 seconds, Bonin’s chest heaved twice, quick as hiccups, and he puffed hard, exhaling his final breath. A minute later, his skin was blue. Just 10 feet away in the tiny gallery, relatives of some of Bonin’s victims clutched photographs of slain loved ones, sniffled through tears and stared into the silent chamber.

At 12:13 am. Friday, four minutes after the injection began, the execution team slipped a note from behind the chamber: William G. Bonin, the “Freeway Killer” responsible for the slaying of as many as 21 boys and young men, was officially dead. The former Downey truck driver was 49. No one from his family attended.

The news was greeted by a few loud sighs from the gallery, which included victims’ relatives, investigators and prosecutors, along with a Bonin lawyer and a few of the prisoner’s friends. Sandra Miller, the mother of 15-year-old murder victim Russell Duane Rugh, gently pumped her arm in triumph.


Despite a delay of eight minutes past the scheduled 12:01 a.m. start, prison officials judged the execution--the first in California by lethal injection--a success. Bonin died quickly and, it appeared to observers, peacefully. The first of the three chemicals, sodium pentothal, rendered him unconscious. The second dose, pancuronium bromide, paralyzed his muscles. A third, potassium chloride, stopped his heart.

Retired Orange County sheriff’s investigator Bernie Esposito, who watched through a window just a few feet from Bonin’s head, said he knew the killer was dead only when a neck vein stopped pulsing.

“I think it was really a humane execution,” said Esposito, who was part of the “Freeway Killer” task force that caught Bonin in June 1980.


But Miller complained that prison officials had kept too much of the process hidden.

“I feel like, man, they still cheated us. . . . We didn’t get to see him even get strapped down. I didn’t get eye-to-eye contact. I didn’t get to see him walk in,” Miller said.

She was embraced during the execution by David McVicker, a Santa Ana deejay who as a teenager was raped by Bonin four years before the murders began.

Miller, who battled alcoholism that began after her son was slain, said: “We didn’t get anything out of it, other than [Bonin’s] death.”

Other relatives, who had waited more than 12 years since Bonin received a pair of death sentences in the murders of 14 victims in Los Angeles and Orange counties, expressed relief.


“I know he’s not coming back. I feel like bricks have been taken off my shoulder,” said former Bellflower resident Barbara Biehn, mother of 16-year-old victim Steven Wood. “I feel there’s closure. I’m going to put all this behind me.”

During the execution, Biehn held photographs marking the double tragedy the murder brought her family. One picture was of Steven, who dreamed of being a jockey before he ended up in Bonin’s van in April 1980. The second was of her older son, Carl Wood, who never escaped the despair after his brother’s murder and committed suicide in 1989 at age 29.


A week before the execution, Biehn sent the killer a letter asking what happened to her son, and whether Bonin was sorry. “He didn’t leave me an answer,” she said.

Bonin left many unanswered questions and never publicly expressed remorse for the string of sex slayings in which he dumped nude bodies beside roadways across Southern California in 1979 and 1980.

Just half an hour before the execution, according to a statement issued by prison officials, Bonin left a somewhat scattered final thought with Warden Arthur Calderon. “I feel that the death penalty is not an answer to the problems at hand,” Bonin said, adding that it sets a poor example for young people.

Then, in the closest Bonin would come to an apology, he said, “I would suggest that when a person has a thought of doing anything serious against the law, that before they did that they should go to a quiet place and think about it seriously.”


Bonin, who spent his final hours watching the television show “Jeopardy,” eating pizza and ice cream and chatting with a Catholic prison chaplain, was moved from his death-watch cell just before midnight. He did not struggle, walking himself to the table where he would die. Technicians had trouble finding a good vein, and accidentally punctured a usable vein in his left arm and had to start over, said prison spokesman Vernell Crittendon.

Finally, they were able to hook up both arms to the fatal drip. Bonin reclined, relaxed, for minutes past the scheduled 12:01 a.m. execution time.


On the other side of the curtain, the assembled relatives and guest witnesses stood around the steel half globe. Seventeen reporters were ushered in last, each carrying five sheets of paper and two sharpened pencils, prison-issued. Talking was forbidden.

The curtain opened at 12:09.