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Clues From a Condemned Man's Past

Profile: A look into the shaping of William Bonin's deeds begins at his old Downey home and leads back to a dark childhood.

February 18, 1996|DEXTER FILKINS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DOWNEY — All of William G. Bonin--the serial killer and the man--lives on in his old neighborhood.

Neighbors remember the screams from his house, and when he tried to coax their children indoors. Old-timers recall Bonin's offerings of X-rated movies and free beer to the boys on Angell Street.

And a few people who live in this graying grid of 1950s tract homes even caught a glimpse of Bonin as something other than a hollow-eyed killer.

Dolly Sanders, who tends bar at the Ric Rac, a neighborhood pub, recalls the time in 1979 when Bonin sat with her at the hospital the night she thought her son was going to die.

"He didn't want to leave me alone," she said.

Sanders also remembers the night when Bonin strolled in with a young boy in tow. She was at Bonin's house, playing cards with his mother.

"I just got this funny feeling," Sanders said. "Something wasn't right. He was too young."

Not long after, in June 1980, Bonin was charged with murdering and raping 16 boys and young men in Orange and Los Angeles Counties. He confessed to 21, was convicted of 14 and twice was sentenced to die.

Friday morning just after midnight, Bonin, the notorious "Freeway Killer," is set to walk the 13 steps from his holding cell at San Quentin State Prison to California's execution chamber, where he will receive an injection of sodium Pentothal, pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride. A physician in attendance will then declare Bonin dead.

In Sacramento and San Francisco, lawyers are working furiously to keep Bonin alive. Anti-death penalty groups are planning last-minute protests. The writers working on Bonin books are squeezing in their last interviews.

When Bonin finally dies, however, he will likely die alone. The bulk of the viewing seats just outside the chamber are reserved for journalists, government officials and families of his victims. Most of Bonin's friends are dead or in prison.

Back in the old neighborhood, there's a feeling that the 49-year-old Bonin is finally getting what he deserves.

"They ought to shoot him," said Ed Rice, who lives one street over from the Bonin house.

*

Bonin almost never killed alone. When he cruised the streets of Southern California in 1979 and 1980 hunting for young men, he usually brought someone with him. The extras helped Bonin subdue his victims and dispose of their bodies.

Bonin liked to show off when he raped and murdered his victims. Los Angeles Deputy Dist. Atty. Sterling E. Norris, who convicted Bonin of 10 murders, said Bonin often dared his helpers to join his frenzy.

"Can you do it?" Bonin asked a cohort as he choked 15-year-old Charles Miranda. "Let me show you how to do this."

Bonin strangled Miranda with the boy's own T-shirt, using a jack handle to twist the shirt like a tourniquet around Miranda's neck. Miranda's nude body was found in a Los Angeles alley. An autopsy showed he had been sexually assaulted with a blunt instrument.

"Bonin loved the killing," said Norris, who plans to attend the execution. "He delighted in talking about it."

James Munro, who is serving 15 years to life for helping commit one murder, recalls Bonin in a near hysterical state as he assaulted 18-year-old Steven Wells.

"Shut up!" Munro recalls Bonin screaming as he strangled and raped the bound young man. "You're going to die."

"It was like he was a monster."

The two men dumped Wells' body behind an old gas station in Huntington Beach.

After his arrest Bonin told a reporter: "I'd still be killing. I couldn't stop killing. It got easier each time."

*

The roots of Bonin's murderous ways are not well understood and will be debated by psychiatrists and criminologists for years to come.

Many factors obscure Bonin's criminal origins, including an itinerant childhood, an often-absent father and the passage of many decades. What's more, Bonin apparently retains little memory of important moments in his childhood.

What little evidence exists, though, suggests that the warping of Bonin's mind began very early.

Bonin was born Jan. 8, 1947, to a household run by a violent, alcoholic father who gambled so much that he once lost the family home, according to a psychiatrist's report submitted for Bonin's appeal. His parents often left Bonin and his two brothers alone for long periods, and their father beat his mother often, according to defense affidavits and doctors' reports. When Bonin was still young, his mother kicked him out of the house.

Court records show that Bonin was sexually assaulted when he was 8, when he was living in a Connecticut detention center in the 1950s. The reasons for his going there are not clear, but apparently he was sent from an orphanage where his parents had placed him.

According to state medical records:

"An older boy approached Bonin for homosexual contact, and Bonin was frightened, but Bonin agreed to it if the older boy would tie his hands behind his back--allowing Mr. Bonin to feel more secure and less frightened."

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