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Bonin Has Outlived Some of the Key Players From His Investigation, Trial

Update: Famed detective, O.C. judge have both died. Others have retired, but some remain active in the justice system.

February 18, 1996|KEN ELLINGWOOD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Serial killer William G. Bonin, condemned more than 12 years ago to die, has managed to outlast some of the key players in the case that sent him to death row.

"Jigsaw John" St. John, the storied Los Angeles detective who chased down Bonin in 1980, died last year. Kenneth E. Lae, the Orange County judge who imposed one of two death sentences, died in 1987. Bonin, convicted of killing 14 people in 1979 and 1980, is scheduled to be executed just after midnight Friday morning.

While the two prosecutors involved still are trying cases, nearly everyone else with roles in the high-profile "Freeway Killer" case--from judges to defense lawyers to cops--has retired or moved on to other careers.

One jurist went on to star in TV's "Divorce Court." Bonin's flashy defense lawyer gave up the law and dropped out of view; even former partners have no idea where he is now. As others tried to forget the string of murders, the Orange County prosecutor took on perhaps an even more gruesome task: trying another serial killer who claimed even more victims than Bonin.

Here are the stories of key actors in the Bonin case, one forever etched in memories of Southern Californians.

The Cops

"Jigsaw John" St. John, so nicknamed after cracking a dismemberment killing and other puzzling murders, led the six investigators who spent a frantic year on the freeway case. Tips and the hard work of the other officers helped land Bonin, but St. John is credited with obtaining key incriminating statements from Bonin's accomplices.

St. John also tricked Bonin into confessing. Bonin decided to tell his story to police--with the agreement it would not be used against him in court--after receiving a "tear-jerker" letter from a woman begging to know what happened to her son, said Los Angeles Deputy Dist. Atty. Sterling E. Norris. Bonin, moved by the letter, led police to the body of 14-year-old Sean King, and detailed 20 other killings.

Later, Norris recalled, St. John confided to the prosecutor: "I've got to tell you something," the detective said. "It wasn't Mrs. King who wrote the letter. It was me."

St. John, who spent most of his 51-year career investigating murders, was the model for a short-lived television show called "Jigsaw John," starring Jack Warden. St. John died in 1985.

Of the other members of the Freeway Killer task force, only Los Angeles sheriff's investigator David Kushner is still on the job.

Former Orange County sheriff's investigator Jim Sidebotham, who still recalls even the tiniest details of the 16-year-old case, retired in 1994. Sidebotham, 60, now spends time traveling with his wife, Carole, a former criminalist at the county's crime lab.

Bernie Esposito, 56, Sidebotham's gregarious partner, is semi-retired after founding a private investigation firm in 1982.

The Prosecutors

A case as complex and horrific as the Freeway Killer's happens once in a prosecutor's career.

Not so for veteran Orange County Deputy Dist. Atty. Bryan Brown.

Soon after he won a death sentence against Bonin in 1983, Brown was assigned to the case of Randy Kraft, charged with killing 16 young men--and suspected of dozens of other slayings--in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Brown, who joined the district attorney's office in 1968, was named to prosecute Kraft because of the similarity in the serial-killer cases--and the assumption Kraft would seek to blame some of his killings on Bonin. Kraft was convicted and sentenced to death in 1989, one of five killers Brown sent to death row.

Whose crimes were worse?

"That's hard to answer," says Brown, now 54. "Kraft was convicted of more, but Bonin's were younger. . . . It's hard to draw a distinction between the worst two in the world."

Brown left the district attorney's office for two years to work as a private lawyer, but returned. He heads a multi-agency law enforcement effort targeting gangs.

Norris, Brown's counterpart in Los Angeles, is a 29-year veteran making his second run for the post of district attorney in a six-way race.

Norris, a blunt-spoken activist in the movement for victims' rights, was an author of Proposition 115, the voter-approved initiative that handed broad new powers to prosecutors.

Norris, 56, now tries cases out of the district attorney's Pasadena office. He recalls the Bonin case as "one of the most heinous crimes I've ever prosecuted."

The Defense

William Charvet had been a defense lawyer for just six years when he jumped into the spotlight of the freeway killer trial.

Charvet showed up for trial in a stretch limousine, and set up shop during Bonin's second trial in a motor home parked outside the Santa Ana courthouse.

"He was a real flashy character," says former law partner Tracy L. Stewart.

But Charvet's handling of the case is now at the heart of efforts by Bonin's current attorneys to block the execution. Lawyers allege Charvet made key blunders and had a habit of snoozing in court as a result of pain medication he took for a back ailment.

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