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San Quentin's Killer Bridge Parties : Kraft, Bonin and 2 Other Serial Murderers Play a Mean Game of Cards

October 16, 1990|JOHN NEEDHAM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Randy Steven Kraft, the "score-card killer" who was convicted in Santa Ana last year of murdering 16 men, had someone waiting for him when he reached Death Row at San Quentin State Prison.

The acolyte was William Bonin, a fellow serial killer who anticipated Kraft's arrival last fall "like the student awaiting his master," according to one inmate.

Yet these days, when Kraft and Bonin gather with two other convicted serial killers for their daily bridge games on Death Row, Kraft and Bonin are on different sides. San Francisco writer Mark MacNamara reports that although they both killed young men, Kraft and Bonin "loathe each other and won't play together."

Bonin, known as the Freeway Killer, also hates to play with Doug Clark, the so-called Sunset Strip Killer, so Clark usually winds up as Kraft's partner, while Bonin doubles up with Lawrence (Pliers) Bittaker, MacNamara reports.

Writing in the November issue of Vanity Fair magazine, MacNamara describes the personality clashes and bizarre interplay as the four murderers sit around a metal table playing one of the more civilized card games.

Orange County prosecutors accused Kraft of killing 45 young men in Southern California, Oregon and Michigan. He was finally tried on charges of murdering 16--nearly all of them either from or killed in Orange County. Based on a handwritten, coded "death list" found in his car, the prosecutors said his victims could number more than 65, which would make him the nation's worst serial killer.

Kraft, 45, worked as a computer engineer and graduated from Claremont Men's College. Prosecutors considered him one of the more intelligent killers they had come across. His killing spree lasted at least 11 years. He murdered one man in 1972 but wasn't arrested until 1983, when California Highway Patrol officers stopped him for driving erratically on Interstate 5 at Mission Viejo and found a dead Marine on the front seat of his car.

Kraft was known as an avid bridge player, and in fact his attorneys contended that he couldn't have committed two of the murders he was charged with because he was playing the card game in Huntington Beach at the time. But prosecutors showed the bridge game ended in plenty of time for him to have killed the two. And several jurors said it only proved that Kraft was in Orange County the night the two men were killed.

MacNamara says inmate Kraft prides himself on being "the most accomplished player" in the prison bridge quartet.

Clark and Bittaker play a less disciplined game. Bittaker watches the other players carefully, sometimes loses patience with his partner, Bonin, and has been known to sabotage a hand to show who's in control.

"Bonin is the least skilled player," the article says. "Conversation at the table is usually sparse. Kraft, especially, keeps to his cards and resents distractions. He plays by the book and never tries to stretch his bid. He likes a peaceful, controlled game."

Bonin is "the only one of the four who does not have an unusually high IQ," says MacNamara. As a result, Bonin is "often the butt of Clark's jokes and he is treated disdainfully by Kraft and Bittaker."

MacNamara, who has been visiting Clark at San Quentin for the past two years, says the four men play bridge from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. daily on Yard 4, one of six yards for Death Row inmates on East Block at the prison.

The yard has free weights at one end, a basketball hoop at the other and a square stainless steel table with metal seats attached in between. The bridge players use the table, while other inmates sit on the cement ground to play pinochle, dominoes and Scrabble. The prison bans numbered playing cards, so the bridge cards are homemade. Betting is not permitted but goes on anyway, MacNamara writes.

MacNamara says the bridge players didn't know each other before they reached prison. All their known victims were white or Latino and under 30. They were convicted of murdering 49 people among them, but adding in uncharged victims and unverified claims boosts the total to nearly 100.

Bonin, 43, killed 14 young men and boys between August, 1979, and June, 1980. He dumped their bodies around Los Angeles and became known as the Freeway Killer.

Bittaker, 50, committed five murders in 1979, raping some of his victims and torturing all of them while he tape-recorded the mayhem. Police who heard the tapes shuddered at the recollection years later.

Clark, once known as the Sunset Strip Killer, was convicted of murdering six prostitutes and runaways during the summer of 1980. MacNamara raises questions about Clark's conviction and writes that of the bridge quartet, Clark is "the only one who has made a serious and sustained effort to get a new trial."

Kraft pleaded not guilty but never testified at his trial. Bittaker, who used pliers to torture some of his victims, signed his autograph for a prison inmate, "Pliers Bittaker." Bonin confessed to 21 murders in a losing attempt to avoid the death penalty but now sometimes proclaims his innocence.

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