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Sadistic "Freeway Killer" Left Trail of Over 22 Boy's Bodies: The Story of William Bonin

Kym L. Pasqualini is the founder and former CEO of Nation's Missing Children Organization and National Center for Missing Adults.

Victims of serial killer William Bonin, known as the Freeway Killer in southern California during the late 70s and early 80s.

Victims of serial killer William Bonin, known as the Freeway Killer in southern California during the late 70s and early 80s.

William Bonin was a twice-paroled sex offender, truck driver, and American serial killer who abducted, sexually assaulted, and murdered at least 22 young boys and men in a series of murders between 1979 and 1980. Bonin is suspected of at least 15 additional murders that were never charged.

Bonin’s name became scorched into the nation’s minds decades ago, not only for his gruesome crimes but because he didn’t act alone. At least four men between the ages of 17 and 21 helped him commit these heinous crimes.

Bonin was dubbed by media as the “Freeway Killer” because his victims were found discarded alongside freeways and roads in southern California.

Growing Up

William Bonin was born on January 8, 1947, in Willimantic, Connecticut. He was the second of three brothers born to Robert and Alice Bonin. Both parents were alcoholics, and his father was an abusive and compulsive gambler. It was normal for the couple to often abandon their three children for extended periods of time.

Severely neglected, the three brothers often stayed with Alice’s father, who was a convicted child molester and known to have molested his own daughter.

In 1953, Alice placed her sons in an orphanage to try to protect them from their abusive father. Their safety was short-lived. The orphanage was known to brutally discipline the children in their care, including beatings, using submission positions, and partial drowning—among other unimaginable punishments.

Bonin would later freely talk to others about his childhood but he always refused to talk about his memories of the orphanage where he stayed until the age of nine. However, Bonin would later reveal that he did consent to sex with older males while in the facility, but “only” if the abuser would tie Bonin’s hands behind his back. He explained having his hands bound would make him feel less afraid.

William Bonin’s parents, Alice and Robert, moved to the city of Downey, California in 1961.

William Bonin’s parents, Alice and Robert, moved to the city of Downey, California in 1961.

In 1961, due to Robert's gambling, Robert and Alice were facing foreclosure of their home in Connecticut and decided to relocate to California. They moved into a modest neighborhood on Angell Street in the city of Downey. Then, it was a small town best known for the oldest drive-up McDonalds in the country. Shortly after moving, Robert passed away from cirrhosis of the liver.

While living in Downey, it is reported that Bonin molested his brother and several children from the neighborhood, luring them with the promise of alcohol. Mostly disregarded by his mother, Bonin’s repulsive behavior began at an early age.

Vietnam Veteran

Soon after his high school graduation in 1965, Bonin became engaged. His mother had pushed the engagement thinking it might stop Bonin’s homosexuality. In short order, the couple married and divorced, never curtailing Bonin’s appetite for young boys.

Bonin joined the Air Force and served five months in Vietnam as an aerial gunner, with over 700 hours of patrol and combat logged. Bonin received a medal for his heroism for risking his life for another airman while overseas.

In 1968, Bonin received an honorable discharge and returned home to Downey to live with his mother.

First Offense

On November 17, 1968, Bonin, 21, committed his first known sexual assault on a young boy. Soon after, he went on to sexually assault three other boys, ages 12-18. In each assault, Bonin forcibly bound his victims and engaged in sodomy and torture. This would become Bonin’s signature.

In early 1969, Bonin was arrested after luring a 16-year-old into his car and restraining him. He was indicted on five counts of kidnapping, one count of oral copulation, four counts of sodomy, and one count of child molestation.

Bonin pleaded guilty to molestation and sentenced to Atascadero State Hospital for the criminally insane. While in the facility, Bonin underwent extensive psychiatric examinations and found to have an exceptionally high IQ of 121. He also suffered from manic depression. In addition, he was found to have substantial damage in the prefrontal cortex of his brain—which reduces the ability to hold back violent impulses.

Physical examinations revealed extensive scarring on his head and buttocks.

Later that year, prison officials declared Bonin unsuitable for treatment due to his forceful sexual activity with male inmates, but somehow on June 11, 1974, Bonin was determined to be “no longer a risk to the health and safety of others” and released from prison.

Second Offense

On September 8, 1974, Bonin picked up David McVicker, 14, who had been hitchhiking. He needed to get to his parent’s home in Huntington Beach. McVicker was taken aback when almost immediately Bonin asked if he was gay. When McVicker asked Bonin to stop the car, Bonin pulled a gun on him and drove him to a deserted area.

There, Bonin ordered the teen to undress, then beat and raped him. After Bonin was done, he began to strangle McVicker with his own T-shirt. McVicker began screaming and begging for his life and suddenly, Bonin stopped and apologized. Bonin drove McVicker home and eerily said, “We will meet again,” then dropped the boy off.

McVicker’s mother immediately called the police. Garden Grove Police arrested Bonin and charged him with rape and oral copulation of a minor, along with the attempted abduction of a 15-year-old which had happened two days prior to McVicker’s abduction. During the first incident, the boy told authorities that Bonin had offered him $35 for sex. When the boy refused, Bonin tried to hit him in his car.

In December 1975, Bonin pleaded guilty and was sentenced to serve between 1 and 15 years. Bonin was once again released on October 11, 1978, and moved into an apartment complex about a mile from his mother’s home.

Bonin became acquainted with a neighbor Everett Fraser, 43, and began regularly attending house parties where younger men and boys would frequent. There, he met and became friends with Vernon Butts, 21, and Gregory Miley, 18, a Texas native with an IQ of 56.

Trolling

Bonin was a husky man with dark hair and a mustache. Neighbors say he was a drifter who was rarely employed but always had teens in and out of his house.

According to the New York Times, Bonin also made friends in the homosexual community of West Hollywood. Many of the young men would later describe him as having a hypnotic personality that allowed Bonin to dominate them.

Bonin would frequently troll neighborhoods and highways in his van looking for young hitchhikers and occasionally male prostitutes to take home. His neighbors remember blood-curdling screams coming from the Bonin residence but never called the police.

Bonin would overpower his victims and bound both hands and feet using a combination of wire cords and handcuffs. Commonly, they were beaten extensively around the head, neck, and genitals. Particularly brutal, one victim had his throat slashed, and while Bonin attempted to remove his genitals.

Bonin had an insatiable appetite for death.

One of Bonin's victims was forced to drink chloral hydrate that left him with caustic burns on his mouth, chin, and chest; three victims had ice picks in their ears, and the Kingman Daily Miner reported one victim, Mark Shelton, died of shock when Bonin tried to pound a stick into his rectum.

Accomplices

Bonin almost never killed alone. He usually brought someone along when he cruised the streets hunting for young men. The accomplices would help Bonin subdue his victims and later dispose of their bodies.

In fact, Bonin liked to “show off” when he raped and murdered unsuspecting victims. According to the Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Deputy Attorney Sterling E. Norris, who convicted Bonin of 10 murders, said Bonin often dared his helpers to join in the frenzy.

Gregory Miley was 18 when he met Bonin and accused of murdering James McCabe, 12, from Garden Grove, and Charles Miranda, 14, from Bell Gardens. Both were abducted on the same February day in 1980.

“Can you do it?” Bonin asked Miley as he choked Miranda. “Let me show you how to do this.”

Bonin went on to choke Miranda with his own T-shirt, using a jack to twist the shirt tightly around the little boy’s neck. Miranda was found nude in an alley in Los Angeles.

Bonin loved the killing, Norris told the Los Angeles Times in 1996. "He delighted in talking about it.”

James M. Munro arrives for arraignment in Los Angeles on August 4, 1980, on murder charges in the Freeway Killer case. Photo courtesy of the OC Register.

James M. Munro arrives for arraignment in Los Angeles on August 4, 1980, on murder charges in the Freeway Killer case. Photo courtesy of the OC Register.

James Munro, 19, was another teenager who had been recruited by Bonin to help murder young victims. Bonin also enlisted the help of Butts.

Butts, 22, was a factory worker and an active participant in the murders. A part-time magician who rented out his services at parties, he claimed to be an active occultist and slept in a coffin.

Munro was a homeless teen who was kicked out of his family home in Michigan when he met Bonin. He was living on the streets of Hollywood looking for a break. Bonin showed up on May 28, 1980, trolling the streets in a blue Chevrolet Chevette and began talking to Munro. Bonin offered Munro a place to stay and a job. Munro agreed and they stayed with Bonin’s mother in Downey with his two younger brothers. Munro worked alongside Bonin during the day.

Four days later, Bonin insisted he wanted the two of them to pick up a hitchhiker, sexually assault and kill him.

“I thought it was just bull,” the Los Angeles Times reported Munro as saying.

A van similar to the one Bonin drove to commit dozens of murders in California during the 1970-1980s.

A van similar to the one Bonin drove to commit dozens of murders in California during the 1970-1980s.

On June 2, 1980, the two of them were in Bonin’s Ford Econoline van and picked up an 18-year-old hitchhiker named Steven Wells.

Bonin would later say Munro was a willing participant, but Munro would tell another story.

Munro told authorities that he was watching TV in the living room while Bonin took the teen into his mother’s room. There, he tied Wells up and began sexually assaulting him. Bonin then called Munro into the bedroom.

“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 you can do to stop it.’”

Right before the teen was murdered, Munro recalls Bonin screaming “Shut up! You’re going to die,” reported Los Angeles Times. Wells pleaded for his life.

Munro says he watched as Bonin strangled Wells with a T-shirt. They carried the teen’s body in a cardboard box to the van and dumped it behind a gas station in Huntington Beach.

Ironically, police had been watching Bonin’s residence that night. Earlier in the evening, but not nearly in time to save Well’s life, police had received a lead that Bonin was the "Freeway Killer" and began surveilling him.

The next day Munro stole Bonin’s vehicle and drove back to Michigan. “I was scared I’d be next,” Munro said.

Bonin was arrested a week later while in the act of assaulting another teen while under surveillance. Munro was arrested later that month.

William Bonin, named the “Freeway Killer” confessed to murdering young men and boys during the 1970-1980s, in California. Photo courtesy of Mike Meadows/Los Angeles Times.

William Bonin, named the “Freeway Killer” confessed to murdering young men and boys during the 1970-1980s, in California. Photo courtesy of Mike Meadows/Los Angeles Times.

When Bonin was arrested they stopped him with a teen hitchhiker in his van and caught him in the act of sexually assaulting the young victim. They found a nylon cord, a tire iron, and three knives in his van.

Both Miley and Munro testified against Bonin during their trials for lighter sentences. Munro was sentenced to 15 years to life and denied parole nine times. The parents of Steven Wells have contested his release at each parole hearing.

Miley received a sentence of 25 years to life and was killed in prison. Vernon Butts, who was accused of assisting Bonin with at least six murders, died in prison and was found with a towel wrapped around his neck. His death ruled a suicide.

Heartbreaking Testimony

Bonin pleaded not guilty to the charges of murder.

During the trial, the prosecutor Norris called Bonin’s van, the “death van,” that he used to troll the streets of Los Angeles and surrounding counties searching for his victims. As soon as a hitchhiker got into the van, the prosecutor said, “he was dead.”

William Bonin during his trial. Photo courtesy of Wally Fong/AP.

William Bonin during his trial. Photo courtesy of Wally Fong/AP.

“We will show that he enjoyed the killings,” said Norris. “Not only did he enjoy it and plan to enjoy it, he had an insatiable appetite, not only for sodomy but for the killings.”

Some of the parents of victims were present in the courtroom, and in some cases asked to identify their son's photographs. They suffered through the color photographs of the victims, including a 13-year-old boy who has been stabbed 70 times.

“This is the type of injury that is inflicted in a frenzy, said homicide detective Davis Kushner. “I can only liken it to a rabid dog that has gone mad and does not know when to stop biting.”

The graphic images and details of the murders were seared into the minds and hearts of the victim's parents.

The Execution

On February 23, 1996, just after midnight, the public and family of the victims organized outside of San Quentin prison.

Families of victims and potential victims gathered outside of San Quentin prison the night of William Bonin’s execution on February 23, 1996.

Families of victims and potential victims gathered outside of San Quentin prison the night of William Bonin’s execution on February 23, 1996.

Some were there supporting the death penalty, others opposing it. There was an ominous feeling in the air. Opponents and supporters engaged in angry demonstrations and became confrontational as the hours passed. People continued streaming into the area and the crowds grew. Some played guitars and sang while others carried candles.

Family members had waited years for this night and gathered for a small news conference. “I can’t wait to see [Bonin] take his last breath, said Sandra Miller, the mother of Russell Rugh, 15, who was last seen waiting for a bus to go to work at a fast-food restaurant. His body was found March 22, 1980, alongside the body of Glen Barker, 14, of Huntington Beach.

Beefing up security at the facility, prison officials locked the prisoners in their cells and canceled recreation. Authorities closed freeway offramps into San Quentin. They were taking no chances this execution would be delayed.

After exhausting all appeals, Bonin was taken from his holding cell shortly after midnight to walk thirteen steps to the California execution chamber. There, he received an injection of sodium Pentothal, pancuronium bromide, and potassium chloride.

Bonin’s last meal was two pepperoni pizzas, three pints of coffee ice cream, and three six-packs of Coca-Cola. He was permitted to watch the TV show Jeopardy.

His last words seem to eerily parallel his own childhood and the uncontrollable evil within, “I feel the death penalty is not an answer to the problems at hand. That I feel it send the wrong message to the youth of the country. Young people act as they see other people acting instead of as people tell them to act. And 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.”

Seventeen years after his arrest, Bonin was declared dead at 12:13 a.m.

© 2020 Kym L Pasqualini

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