An examination of not only the notorious murders committed by William Bonin, but the role the media played in the case. Written by J.J. Maloney who, as a reporter for the Orange County Register, first coined the term "Freeway Killer".
by J.J. Maloney
He didn't have a name so we called him the Freeway Killer.
He was a murky presence, cruising up and down the freeways of Orange County and neighboring counties, stalking the dimmed tinsel byways of Hollywood, picking up those sad youngsters who came there in search of a dream and found a nightmare instead.
The police would later find the nude bodies sprawled behind filling stations, or in dumpsters -- cast off the way a child discards a doll that has served its purpose.
In January, 1980, I had never heard of The Orange County Register. I had heard of smaller papers and larger papers, but The Register remained anonymous beyond the boundaries of Orange County.
A lot of people still prefer to call it The Santa Ana Register, because that identifies it with something tangible. For some reason a county is less tangible than a city, harder to visualize.
Anyway, The Register was still a libertarian newspaper when I was hired, and proud of it. Jim Dean was editor, Pat Riley was managing editor and Marv Olsen was metro editor. I worked directly for Marv Olsen.
The Freeway Killer was my first major assignment. The Register had been following the activities of the killer, but was handling it as a routine police story. In December 1979, Tim Alger, a young police reporter wrote a piece pointing out that bodies were showing up, always strangled. The police didn't give him much to go on. Some said maybe the killings were connected, others said maybe not. The question went unanswered. The story ran and died before the ink had dried. Alger was on the right track, but the other media did not join in, so the story died.
One day I came across an envelope of clippings labeled "Dead Gay Boys." These were the boys being strangled. The sparse articles made me wonder where the label came from. A youth, found dead and strangled, with no name, no history, no clues to the crime -- how do you write him off as a "Dead Gay Boy"?
And why did no one seem to care? No outcry. No task force to catch the killer. At the paper, no one was assigned full time to pursue the story. There was speculation that the body count was now up to 13. That story ran deep inside the paper.
I talked to Olsen, and he agreed that it could be an injustice to the victims to even unintentionally imply they were homosexuals, since that might tend to trivialize the crimes - a lot of people would turn up their noses and say "so what?"
One of the victims was a 12-year old boy who'd disappeared on his way to Disneyland. A little boy who'd wanted to see Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse, and instead ended up in an envelope labeled "dead gay boys."
That little boy, James McCabe, was found murdered at a construction site in Walnut on February 6, 1980. His body was tossed into a Dempsey dumpster. He was strangled. His skull was fractured. His penis was bruised.
Marv Olsen is a father. He sat in the coffee shop of The Register, his craggy face lost in thought. I told him monsters might be the norm in Southern California, but in other cities a newspaper would assign half the staff to root out the truth. It would be relentless. Other newspapers would not allow the police to double talk. It appeared certain that a psychopathic killer was on the loose, and that kind of killer, once he starts, repeats and repeats and repeats.
One killer, one spree. If the police wouldn't say it publicly, someone had to.
Marv agreed, and I was assigned full time to the story. Alger would cover developments at the police departments and help develop features. It wasn’t half the staff, but it would turn out to be enough.
It quickly developed that there were many more murders than the newspaper suspected, and that the police were trying to keep a lid on the case to avoid another public fiasco such as had been experienced with the Hillside Strangler case, which had mortified the Los Angeles Police Department (also involved in this case).
Once the existence of a serial killer becomes known, the public expects the police to do something about the killer. The Yorkshire Ripper in England had ended one chief constable's career. The Chicago Police Department had bungled the John Wayne Gacy case, and suffered public embarrassment. The Los Angeles Police Department had pitifully bungled the Hillside Strangler case, after spending millions in a fruitless effort to catch the killer, who was finally caught by the tiny police force in Bellingham, Washington.
The police naturally do not want the massive public pressure a serial killer brings to bear on them. And there are differences of opinion among policemen on the wisdom of giving out information to the public. At the Register we felt the public had a right to know -- that, more importantly, hitchhikers had a right to know that the next time they stuck their thumb out they might end up stangled and abused.
The police told me that the strangulation of young men was a normal byproduct of the large homosexual community in the Orange County/Los Angeles area. I obtained data on causes of death in California and the nation and determined that the strangulation of males between 12 and 25 is relatively rare; the rate in Southern California between the years 1972 and 1980 was about 15 times the national average. Furthermore, the murder rate among homosexuals was, if anything, lower than the murder rate among heterosexuals.
We finally decided to take all of our information and give it to a forensic psychologist or psychiatrist and get a professional opinion on whether the murders were the work of one man.
Dr. Albert Rosenstein was that forensic psychologist. I explained to Rosenstein that there were differences of opinion as to whether one killer was responsible for all of the killings -- but he insisted that it was one killer. On March 24, 1980, we broke the story that a serial killer was at work in Southern California. We called him the "Freeway Killer."
As late as April 1980, when the strangled bodies of young men were popping up with increasing frequency, Capt. Walt Ownbey of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department said the Freeway Killer was "a total figment in the minds of journalists.
"I believe it was The Orange County Register that started all this," Ownbey added. "This has built up and created a lot of fear about a killer or group of killers, and there is no evidence substantiating any of that."
The Register ground out story after story, day after day. No matter what the police said, the newspaper stuck by its position that a serial killer was preying on young boys in Southern California. The television stations sided with the newspaper, and they began aggressively to cover the story.
Schools began to counsel their students not to hitchhike. A large reward was established for information leading to the capture of the killer. Concerned citizens flooded the newspaper and the local police departments with tips.
It would later be learned that the Freeway Killer drove to Orange County every day to buy The Register. Part of the evidence that would be developed against him came from the fact that he took the story from the March 24, 1980, edition, in which many of the Freeway Killer's victims were identified, and pointed to each of the boys he had killed and admitted to one of his accomplices that he had committed those murders.
Finally, the murders were occurring with such frequency that the police quit denying the existence of the Freeway Killer, and began to coordinate the activities of the various police departments involved.
The break came when a young man in custody for car theft told the police he would give them the Freeway Killer if they would give him a break on the car theft. Although William Bonin had never admitted to this young man that he was the Freeway Killer, the young man said he suspected it because Bonin's glove compartment was stuffed with newspaper articles about the Freeway Killer case.
With the killer's name in hand, police began to follow 33-year-old William Bonin. When they caught him in an act of sodomy in his van, they arrested him and were able to compare fibers from the van with fibers found on the victims. Then Vernon Butts, Bonin's 22-year-old accomplice in six of the murders, confessed. Butts later hanged himself in jail.
Bonin was not a first offender. He had previously served time at Atascadero State Hospital for sex crimes committed against five young boys in 1969. In 1974 he was released on probation, and in 1975 his probation was revoked for kidnapping and raping two teenaged boys. He was released again in 1978. By June 1980, he had raped and murdered 21 teenaged boys and young men.
Then I obtained a top secret police chart listing all of the Freeway Killer victims, along with details of the crimes, a chart I still have.
This top-secret chart, labeled "The Southern California Strangler(s)" revealed that the police had known since early 1978 that a prolific serial killer was at work in Southern California -- and, following the arrest of Bonin, concealed the fact there was a second serial killer still at large. The second killer, Randy S. Kraft, a computer analyst, was arrested in May 1983 (he is now on death row).
William Bonin, was executed by lethal injection at San Quentin Prison on February 23, 1996.
Even dead, Bonin continued to make news. Journalists who’d attended the execution first complained that they hadn’t seen enough, that the prison kept the curtain closed until moments before the injection began.
When the curtain was opened, Bonin was lying on a gurney with his eyes closed. He appeared to be asleep, although the prison denied that he’d received any sedation. Shortly after the injection began, Bonin’s chest rose, then his cheeks began to bulge and his face turned purple (according to one reporter). Then he was pronounced dead and the curtain was pulled shut.
A law suit was filed, arguing that reporters should be allowed to witness the entire death procedure, which would include witnessing the condemned entering the death chamber, being strapped in, watching the injection apparatus being applied -- the whole works.
It was also discovered that Bonin was receiving Social Security benefits while he was on death row. This revelation led to a nationwide effort to get convicts off the Social Security rolls.