Angelo Buono Jr., one of the "Hillside Stranglers" who terrorized Los Angeles by torturing and killing nine women in the late 1970s, carefully arranging their bodies in roadside patches of weeds to taunt police, died Saturday alone in the prison cell where he was serving a life sentence.
Officials at Calipatria State Prison near Palm Springs believe that the 67-year-old Buono died of natural causes. He had suffered from heart problems in the past and there were no signs of trauma on his body, said Bob Martinez of the state Department of Corrections.
For more than two years, Buono and his cousin Kenneth Bianchi roamed the streets of northeast Los Angeles and Glendale, sometimes flashing fake badges to lure their victims.
They were all killed in Buono's Glendale automobile upholstery shop.
It started with a part-time waitress and prostitute, found Oct. 18, 1977 lying face-down in bushes beside busy Forest Lawn Drive near Barham Boulevard.
By the time one of the most highly publicized killing sprees in Los Angeles history ended, the victims ranged in age from 12 to 28--women and girls representing a cross-section of the city. The dead included two schoolgirls, a college student, an aspiring actress and a dancer.
The case spawned a 162-member law enforcement task force, which chased countless tips and bits of information that seemed to lead nowhere.
Each new death brought bigger headlines in Southern California and across the country as then-Police Chief Daryl F. Gates held weekly press conferences.
"It was a horrible, horrible time, a time of great fear for the people of the city, especially for women," Gates recalled Saturday.
The number of victims, the way they were tortured and the way Buono and his accomplice prominently displayed the bodies in popular areas frustrated investigators and horrified the public.
"When the crimes were going on and on and were unsolved, there was a real feeling of terror--nude, strangled women showing up dead on various hillsides," said California Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald M. George, who as a Los Angeles Superior Court judge presided over the two-year trial that ended in late 1983.
Like the Charles Manson murders a decade earlier and the Night Stalker killings in the next decade, the specter of the Hillside Stranglers put people on a fear-filled edge.
The killers had handcuffed their victims. They injected them with caustic fluids. A plastic bag with a stove's gas pipe inserted into it was put over one woman's head. All had been sexually assaulted.
"Young women were absolutely terrified to go out after dark," said Robert Philibosian, who at the time was a top prosecutor in the state attorney general's office, which had assumed control of the case.
The case was ultimately cracked when Bianchi implicated Buono. Bianchi had been arrested in Washington state in connection with a rape and strangulation case there.
He eventually pleaded guilty to five of the murders in California and is serving a life term as part of his plea bargain for testifying against Buono.
Buono was convicted of killing Judith Lynn Miller, Elissa Kastin, Jane Evelyn King, Dolores Cepeda, Sonja Johnson, Kristina Weckler, Lauren Rae Wagner, Kimberly Diane Martin and Cindy Lee Hudspeth.
When told of Buono's death, Philibosian responded: "Oh, good! ... God works in mysterious ways. The death penalty has finally been administered by a higher power than the County of Los Angeles."
The case spawned a TV movie, a book and several documentaries, in part because of its bizarre aspects and the clever killer behind them.
Buono would clean up the bodies before posing them at prominent sites, includes the hills near the Los Angeles Police Academy.
One victim was carefully laid out on a hillside near downtown Los Angeles, her legs forming a "V" that framed City Hall and Parker Center, the LAPD's headquarters.
Gerald Chaleff, who defended Buono, said people often ask how he could have taken on such a client.
"Everybody is entitled to a defense, even those charged with the most heinous of crimes," said Chaleff, who is now a senior advisor to City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo.
The trial included testimony from 392 witnesses and 1,807 exhibits. Its transcript ran almost 56,000 pages and charted new legal territory.
At the time, it was the longest-running trial in the nation's history.
In a surprising twist, then-Dist. Atty. John K. Van de Kamp, along with defense attorneys, asked Judge George to dismiss all of the murder charges against Buono.
Van de Kamp believed he had a better chance to keep Buono off the streets by convicting him of sex charges, given the highly circumstantial evidence before him.
In what George said has been among the most difficult and controversial decisions of his career, he refused that request.
"I concluded I was not supposed to be a rubber stamp for the prosecution," George said Saturday.
"I had an obligation to determine what was in the best interest of justice."
George believed there was a "web of circumstantial evidence that was quite strong," and that the murder charges deserved to be presented to a jury.
He then took the case away from the district attorney and turned it over to the office of then-Atty. Gen. George Deukmejian, whose prosecutors ultimately persuaded a jury to convict Buono of nine out of 10 counts in 1983.
Judge George believes that one lasting legal legacy of the case "is that it reaffirmed my faith in the jury system."
Jurors spared Buono from the gas chamber and sentenced him to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Chaleff, who said he consulted with rabbis and priests before the penalty phase, called the jury's decision "what we had strived for."
Chaleff has not had contact with Buono since then.
Jurors did not tell George why they rejected the death penalty.
At sentencing, George said to Bianchi and Buono that he wished he could send them both to the gas chamber instead of prison for the rest of their lives.
"I believe the two of you are incapable of feeling any remorse," he said.
Times staff writers Jean Merl and Patt Morrison contributed to this report.