James Michael Munro had planned to die on Wednesday of this week, June 17, his 37th birthday. He just couldn’t get Gov. Pete Wilson’s cooperation.
Munro has been in prison 18 years for his accomplice role in one of the murders by William G. Bonin, dubbed by police as the Freeway Killer. Bonin, a Downey truck driver, confessed to the rape-murders of 21 male youths in Orange and Los Angeles counties during a shocking two-year killing spree. He was executed at San Quentin two years ago.
Munro has taken the rather dramatic, naive and unorthodox step of formally asking that he too be executed. “I came into this world on June 17, I might as well leave it that date,” Munro had told me.
Munro first made this request of Gov. George Deukmejian in 1989, also with a June 17 execution date. The governor’s office then replied by letter that what Munro sought wasn’t legally possible. Governor Wilson, Munro said, did not bother to respond to this second request.
Of course, what Munro really wants is his freedom. Execute me, parole me or give me a new trial. Because Munro, like a lot of people with time on their hands in prison, is now convinced the system did him in.
But he did himself in.
Munro is serving 15 years to life, following his second-degree murder plea, at Mule Creek State Prison in Ione, just south of Sacramento. I interviewed him through a series of collect telephone calls he made.
“Hooking up with Bonin was a huge mistake,” he said.
There’s an understatement for you. But then, Munro was typical of the kinds of young men who hung around with the 33-year-old truck driver. Skinny, disheveled, homeless, Munro was a troubled teenager kicked out of his family home in Michigan. He was living on the streets of Hollywood and looking for any break he could find. Then on May 28, 1980, along came Bonin, trolling in a blue Chevette. He offered Munro a place to stay and a job.
“He seemed like a good guy, really normal,” Munro said. He’d soon discover Bonin’s much darker side.
Bonin took him to his home in Downey, where he lived with his mother and two younger brothers. He helped Munro get on at the company where he worked. They even went roller-skating together. But the night of June 1, Bonin abruptly announced he wanted the two of them to pick up a hitchhiker, have sex with him and then kill him.
“I thought it was just bull,” Munro said. But June 2, after a full day at work, the two of them were in Bonin’s van--his infamous death on wheels, where many of his victims died--and picked up an unfortunate 18-year-old hitchhiker named Steven Wells.
At this point there are conflicting versions. Bonin later told police Munro was a willing participant in the Wells murder. Munro denies it. But even the admission he does make is damning to his hopes for freedom.
Munro said he watched TV in another room while Bonin tied up and sexually assaulted the youth in his own mother’s bedroom. Bonin called him in, he said:
“At that point I knew it was real. Bonin went to get a glass of water and I told him, ‘No, don’t do this.’ But Bonin said, ‘It’s too late. There is nothing that you or I can do to stop it.’ ” That part may have been true. Bonin was likely so deep into his sadistic pleasure he couldn’t have stopped himself.
So while Munro watched, Bonin strangled the frightened youth with a T-shirt. The two of them later carried Wells’ body in a cardboard box to Bonin’s van, then dumped it behind a service station in Huntington Beach.
In one of the cruelest ironies of the whole sordid Bonin episode, it turns out the police had been watching the Bonin house that night. A few hours earlier--a few hours too late for young Wells--the police got a lead that Bonin might be the Freeway Killer that dozens of Southland police agencies had been after.
The next day, Munro stole Bonin’s car and headed back to his native Michigan. “I was scared I’d be next,” Munro says now. Bonin was arrested a week later, Munro was tracked down a month after that.
If Munro’s role was as limited as he says, why did he not go to the police? “I ask myself that every single day,” Munro said. “I could have been a hero instead of rotting in prison for 18 years.”
Despite staunch denials from prosecutors and Munro’s former attorneys, he insists he was coerced into pleading guilty to second-degree murder in exchange for his testimony against Bonin. “I was just a stupid kid. If I’d known that 15 years to life meant I was never going to get out of prison, I would never have pleaded guilty,” Munro said.
During his 18 years, primarily at Soledad and Mule Creek, Munro has been before the parole board five times. And each time, as you might expect, Steven Wells’ parents have been there to protest his release.
Munro has a response to that, the kind of contradictory thinking you find among prison inmates.
“I feel for the Wellses, I really do,” he said. “I wish I could tell them face to face how sorry I am for what happened to their son. That’s why I want to be executed, to show them I’m willing to give up my life to make all this easier on them.”
But then again, Munro is unhappy with the Wellses for making it more difficult for him to be released. They’ve become a thorn he can’t pluck. His last parole hearing was in 1996. His next is scheduled for the year 2000.
But Munro doesn’t figure to be around that long. He’s going to renew his request to Gov. Wilson to allow him to die. He’s unaware the government doesn’t negotiate such deals with prisoners.
“I would rather die than to serve more time for a crime I didn’t commit,” Munro said.
That is the battle cry you hear most in penitentiaries. You rarely find anyone who admits he did the crime he’s serving time for. Even when he’s pleaded guilty to it.
Munro is one of the more pathetic examples. On the streets, a high school dropout, he was the perfect partner for what Bonin had in mind. A stupid kid who happened to be standing on a Hollywood street corner at the wrong time.
But none of those mitigating circumstances give any comfort to the parents of Steven Wells. They will be back in the year 2000, to remind another parole board how Munro had at the very least stood by and did nothing while the Freeway Killer made their son his latest victim.