William George Bonin (January 8, 1947 – February 23, 1996) was an American serial killer and a twice-paroled sex offender, also known as "the Freeway Killer", a nickname he shares with two other serial killers. Between 1979 and 1980, Bonin tortured, raped and killed a minimum of 21 boys and young men, and is suspected of committing a further fifteen murders. Bonin was convicted and eventually executed in 1996 for 14 of these murders.
Bonin was born in Connecticut in January, 1947, the second of three brothers. His father was a compulsive gambler and alcoholic, who beat his wife and sons. Bonin's mother, Alice, was also an alcoholic, who frequently left Bonin and his brothers in the care of their grandfather, a convicted child molester. Bonin and his brothers were neglected as children, and were often fed by neighbors.
In 1953, aged 6, Bonin was placed in an orphanage, where he remained until the age of 9.
At the age of 10, Bonin was arrested for stealing license plates and ended up in a juvenile detention center for other minor crimes where he was sexually abused by older boys. By his teens, back home with his mother, Bonin began molesting younger children.
After graduating from high school in 1965, Bonin became engaged to marry, and joined the U.S. Air Force. He served in the Vietnam War as an aerial gunner, logging over 700 hours of active duty and earning a Good Conduct Medal. While serving in Vietnam, Bonin risked his own life under fire to save the life of a fellow soldier, but also later admitted to sexually assaulting two fellow soldiers at gunpoint. Bonin was honorably discharged from the U.S. Air Force in October, 1968 and returned to Connecticut to live with his mother before moving to California.
On November 17, 1968, at age 21, Bonin committed a sexual assault on a youth. In late 1968 and early 1969, he kidnapped and assaulted four youths between the ages of 12 and 18. In 1969, he was indicted on five counts of kidnapping and four counts of sexual assault on five youths. He pled guilty to molestation and forced oral copulation and was sentenced to the Atascadero State Hospital as a mentally disordered sexual offender amenable to treatment. In 1971, he was sent to prison, declared unamenable for further treatment.
Bonin was released in May 1974 after doctors concluded he was "no longer a danger to others," but was back behind bars just 16 months later for raping a 14-year-old hitch-hiker named David McVicker at gunpoint and attempting to abduct another teenager, for which he was sentenced to between one and 15 years in prison at Orange County Jail.
In October 1978, Bonin was once again released, with 18 months probation. He took a job as a truck driver, rented an apartment in Downey and found a girlfriend. In 1979, he was again arrested for molesting a teenage boy. This parole violation meant that he should have been sent back to prison, but due to an administrative error he was released. A close friend who collected him from the Orange County police station later recalled that as he was driving Bonin home, Bonin told him: "No one's going to testify again. This is never going to happen to me again."
Bonin usually selected young male hitchhikers, schoolboys or, occasionally, male prostitutes as his victims. The victims, aged 12 to 19, were either enticed or forced into his Chevy van, overpowered, had their hands tied behind their back, were sexually assaulted, tortured and then usually killed by strangulation with their own T-shirts, although some were stabbed or battered to death. One victim, Darin Kendrick, was forced to drink hydrochloric acid, two victims had ice-picks driven into their ears and another victim, Mark Shelton, died of shock. The victims were usually killed inside Bonin's van and most were discarded alongside various freeways in southern California. In at least 13 of the murders Bonin was assisted by one of his four known accomplices.
The first murder for which Bonin was charged was that of a 13-year-old hitchhiker named Thomas Lundgren. The youth was kidnapped, assaulted and killed on the morning of May 28, 1979. Lundgren's body was found near a freeway in Agoura. An autopsy showed that Lundgren had been emasculated, bludgeoned, stabbed and strangled to death. Bonin carried out the crime with his primary accomplice, Vernon Butts, who is suspected of accompanying Bonin on at least nine of the murders.
Three months later, on August 4, 1979, Bonin and Butts abducted and killed a 17-year-old Westminster youth named Mark Shelton and the following day, again accompanied by Vernon Butts, a West German exchange student named Markus Grabs, who was stabbed more than 70 times and discarded alongside a Malibu freeway. On August 27, Bonin and Butts abducted and killed a 15-year-old Hollywood youth named Donald Hyden and discarded his body in a dumpster near the Ventura Freeway. Between September and December 1979, Bonin killed five more teenage boys, either operating alone or with the assistance of Butts or another accomplice, 19-year-old James Munro, who assisted Bonin in the November 30 murder of 17-year-old Frank Dennis Fox.
On January 1, 1980, Bonin brutalized and killed a 16-year-old named Michael McDonald; his body was found in San Bernardino County two days later. A month later, on February 3 in Hollywood, Bonin, assisted by a young man named Gregory Miley, abducted a 15-year-old hitchhiker named Charles Miranda. The victim was forced to hand his wallet to Bonin before he was overpowered, raped, assaulted with other objects then garroted. Miranda's nude corpse was dumped in an alleyway. Bonin then suggested to Miley: "I'm horny, let's go and do another one." A few hours later, in Huntington Beach, Bonin and Miley abducted, raped and killed James McCabe who, at age 12, was Bonin's youngest victim. They picked up McCabe while he was hitchhiking to Disneyland. According to Miley, the boy entered the rear of the van voluntarily as he drove, then he heard McCabe crying as Bonin beat and raped him. Bonin then strangled McCabe with a tire iron as Miley repeatedly jumped on his chest. His naked, beaten body was found three days later alongside a dumpster in the city of Walnut.
Bonin did not strike again until March 14, when he abducted and killed an 18-year-old Van Nuys youth named Ronald Gatlin, but by the end of the month he had killed a further three times. On April 10, Bonin killed twice on the same day: abducting a 16-year-old Bellflower youth named Steven Wood and discarding his nude body beside the Pacific Coast Highway, then, hours later, abducting and killing an 18-year-old acquaintance of his named Lawrence Sharp. Sharp was beaten, strangled and discarded behind a Westminster gas station. Three weeks later, on April 29 in Stanton, Bonin and Butts lured a 19-year-old supermarket employee named Darin Kendrick into Bonin's van while parked in the parking lot of the store where Kendrick worked. Kendrick was forced to drink hydrochloric acid by Bonin before Butts drove an ice pick into his ear. His body was discarded near the Artesia Freeway.
On May 19, Bonin again asked Butts to accompany him on a killing; however, Butts reportedly refused to accompany him. Operating alone, Bonin abducted a 14-year-old South Gate youth named Sean King from a bus stop in Downey and discarded his body in Yucaipa. Bonin then visited Butts' residence and bragged of the killing to his accomplice.
By early 1980, the murders committed by the Freeway Killer, as he was known in the press, were receiving considerable media attention. On May 29, one of Bonin's acquaintances, a teenager named Billy Pugh, serving a prison sentence for auto theft, heard the details of the murders on a local radio broadcast and suspected Bonin may be behind the killings. Pugh reported his suspicions to the police and, upon investigating Bonin's background and discovering he had a string of convictions for sexually assaulting teenage boys, the police decided to place him under surveillance starting June 2, 1980.
On June 2, the same day as police surveillance of Bonin began, Bonin killed his final victim, an 18-year-old print shop worker named Steven Wells, whom Bonin abducted from a bus stop on El Segundo Boulevard. Wells was killed in Bonin's own apartment, where he was raped, beaten then strangled with his own t-shirt. Bonin was assisted in this final murder by his lodger, James Munro, and in the disposal of the body by both Munro and Vernon Butts.
On June 11, after nine days of surveillance, police observed Bonin attempting to pick up five separate teenage boys, then succeed in luring a youth into his van. The police followed him until his van parked in a desolate parking lot, where they arrested him in the act of assaulting a 15-year-old identified as Harold T.
Bonin and his four known accomplices in murder were convicted of 14 murders committed between August 5, 1979, and June 2, 1980, although Bonin was also charged with two additional murders for which he was acquitted at his first trial in Los Angeles County. Of these murders for which Bonin was convicted, 10 were committed in the Los Angeles County and four in nearby Orange County, however, the "Freeway Killer" was suspected of committing at least 21 murders.
In nine murders; those of Lundgren, Shelton, Grabs, Hyden, Murillo, Wirostek, Kendrick, Wells and a John Doe found in Kern County in November 1979, Bonin was assisted by his primary accomplice, Vernon Butts, a 22-year-old factory worker who, according to Bonin, was an extremely active accomplice. Butts, who had met Bonin at a party in 1978, was a part-time magician who hired out his talents to private parties. Butts also boasted of being a wizard and slept in a coffin.
Bonin was assisted by 19-year-old Gregory Matthews Miley in the February 3 murders of Miranda and McCabe. Miley then returned to his native Houston in March 1980.
James Michael Munro, Bonin's lodger and coworker, accompanied Bonin on two murders: those of Frank Dennis Fox and Steven Wells. The day after Bonin was arrested, Munro fled to his native Michigan.
Following Bonin's arrest, police discovered through Bonin's friends that 18-year-old William "Billy" Pugh, Bonin's acquaintance who had informed them Bonin may be the Freeway Killer, knew Bonin better than he had initially divulged; police later discovered that Pugh had actually accompanied Bonin on one of his killings, that of Harry Turner, a 15-year-old runaway from Lancaster, who was killed on March 20, 1980.
Bonin was not brought to trial for the murders of Mark Shelton, Robert Wirostek, John Kilpatrick, Michael McDonald or a 'John Doe' whose body was found in a Kern County reservoir in November 1979 because police did not find sufficient evidence upon any of the victims' bodies which could conclusively link Bonin alone to the crimes: police did charge Bonin and Butts with the murder of the John Doe, and those of hitchhiker Mark Duane Shelton and grocery clerk Robert Christopher Wirostek (alongside that of Darin Kendrick) in October 1980. Shelton had been linked to the manhunt for the freeway killer upon his body being found in August 1979, as had both the John Doe and Darin Lee Kendrick. Wirostek, who vanished en route to his job on September 17, 1979, was not confirmed as a Freeway Killer victim until his body was found and identified in July 1980.
Three months after all charges had been filed against each defendant, Vernon Butts committed suicide, rendering his recorded testimony in these three cases inadmissible as evidence. Police therefore chose not to charge Bonin with any of these three crimes, although sufficient physical evidence was nonetheless still present in the case of Darin Kendrick — a murder for which Bonin was subsequently convicted.
On August 5, 1980, a body previously identified as a 'John Doe' which had been linked to the Freeway Killer was identified as that of John Frederick Kilpatrick, a 15-year-old Long Beach youth who disappeared December 10, 1979, and was found strangled December 13 in Rialto. Neither Bonin nor any of his accomplices were ever charged with the murder of Kilpatrick, although Bonin never disputed the youth as being a victim of his.
Bonin was charged with, but subsequently cleared of, the murders of Sean King and Thomas Lundgren. However, Bonin did confess to both murders.
In custody, Bonin confessed to abducting, raping, and killing 21 boys and young men, naming Butts as his primary accomplice. Police also suspect Bonin to be responsible for approximately fifteen other murders. Between July 26 and July 29, Bonin was charged with 16 of the murders to which he confessed and upon which the prosecution believed they had sufficient evidence to obtain a conviction. He expressed no remorse and told one reporter who asked Bonin what he would do if he were still at large: "I'd still be killing, I couldn't stop killing. It got easier each time."
Based on Bonin's confession, police arrested Vernon Butts on July 25, and charged him with accompanying Bonin on five of the murders. He was later charged with four other murders committed between August 5, 1979 and April 29, 1980. On July 31, Munro was arrested in Michigan and charged with the murder of Steven Wells and on August 22, Miley was arrested in Texas and charged with the murders of Charles Miranda and James McCabe. Butts, Miley and Munro all agreed to testify against Bonin in exchange for being spared the death penalty.
Bonin was brought to trial in Los Angeles County, charged with the murder of 12 of his victims whose bodies had been found within this constituency, on November 5, 1981. Deputy District Attorney Stirling Norris, who prosecuted Bonin, sought the death penalty for each count of murder for which Bonin was tried, stating in his opening speech to the jury: "We will prove he is the Freeway Killer, as he has bragged to a number of witnesses. We will show you that he enjoyed the killings. Not only did he enjoy it, and plan to enjoy it, he had an insatiable demand, an insatiable appetite - not only for sodomy, but for killing."
Bonin was physically linked to many of the murders by blood and semen stains, hair and carpet fibers. Medical evidence showed that six of the murders for which Bonin was charged were committed by a unique "windlass" strangulation method, which was referred to by Norris as "a signature, a trademark."
Both Miley and Munro testified against Bonin at this trial, describing in graphic detail the murders in which they had accompanied Bonin. Munro testified that after the murder of Stephen Wells, he, Bonin and Butts drove to a McDonald's restaurant and purchased burgers with money taken from Wells' wallet. As the trio ate, Bonin laughed and mused: "Thanks, Steve, wherever you are." Miley testified to his participation in the murders of Miranda and McCabe; describing in graphic detail how both youths were beaten and tortured with a crowbar before their murders and how he heard a "bunch of bones cracking" as one of the youths was strangled by Bonin.
The trial lasted until January 5, 1982. After six days of deliberation, the jury convicted Bonin of 10 of the murders, but cleared him of the murders of Thomas Lundgren and Sean King. Bonin was sentenced to death for the 10 murders of which he was convicted.
Bonin was cleared of the murder of Sean King because he had led police to the body of the victim in December, 1980, with the agreement that his leading police to King's body could not be used against him in court. He was cleared of Thomas Lundgren's murder because he chose to deny this particular killing at his trial.
In March, 1983, Bonin was tried in neighboring Orange County, charged with the murder of four further victims who had been found murdered between November 1979 and April 1980. On August 26, 1983, Bonin was convicted on all four counts of murder.
Bonin spent 14 years on California's Death Row, awaiting execution in the gas chamber. He filed numerous appeals against his conviction while incarcerated, all unsuccessful. His final submission to the United States Court of Appeals was submitted in October 1994; this appeal was rejected on June 28, 1995.
In 1992, following the execution of Robert Alton Harris, the State of California opted to use lethal injection as an alternate method of execution to the gas chamber, branding the gas chamber a "cruel and unusual" method of execution.
William Bonin was executed February 23, 1996, 16 years after his arrest, by lethal injection inside the gas chamber at San Quentin State Prison. Bonin was the first person to be executed by lethal injection in the history of California.
In a final interview given to a local radio station less than 24 hours before he was executed, Bonin claimed he had "made peace" with the fact he was about to die. When asked whether there was anything he had to say to the families of his victims, Bonin simply stated: "They feel my death will bring closure, but that's not the case. They're going to find out."
At 6 p.m. on the day he was executed, Bonin was moved from his cell to a death watch cell, where he ordered his last meal: two large pizzas, three pints of ice cream and three six-packs of Coke. In his last statement, given to the warden one hour prior to his scheduled execution at midnight, Bonin again expressed no remorse for his crimes and left a note that stated: 'I feel the death penalty is not an answer to the problems at hand. I feel it sends the wrong message to the people of this country. Young people act as they see other people acting instead of as people tell them to act. I would advise that when a person has a thought of doing anything serious against the law, that before they did, they should go to a quiet place and think about it seriously.' William Bonin was 49 at the time of his execution.
Bonin's main accomplice, Vernon Butts, accused of accompanying Bonin on at least nine of the murders, hanged himself with a towel on January 11, 1981, while awaiting trial. Butts had told police the killing spree had been "a good little nightmare."
Gregory Miley, a 19-year-old casual labourer from Texas, was given a sentence of 25 years to life for the February 1980 murder of 15-year-old Charles Miranda.
James Michael Munro was sentenced to 15 years to life for the murder of Steven Wells. Munro has repeatedly appealed his sentence, claiming that he had been tricked into accepting a plea bargain.
Bonin's fourth accomplice, Billy Pugh, aged 18, who had been present at the murder of 15-year-old Harry Turner in March 1980, was given a six-year sentence for voluntary manslaughter.
In July 1977, three years prior to Bonin's arrest, Patrick Kearney, who also selected young men as victims from the freeways of Southern California, was arrested. He had also discarded many of his victims alongside freeways; many of whom were dismembered and discarded in trash bags.
Following Bonin's arrest, police continued to discover bodies of young men and teenagers along the freeways of Southern California, leading some to theorize that Bonin had other accomplices who were still active. However, these later murders were committed by a Long Beach IT specialist named Randy Steven Kraft, who was arrested in May 1983. Kraft acted separately from Bonin, but did happen to have a similar disposal modus operandi. In addition, many of Kraft's victims were United States Marines who were drugged before they were killed.
Collectively, Bonin, Kraft and Kearney may have claimed up to 130 victims.