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behind the news | Essay / ROBERT A. JONES

Mopping Up Evil : We are talking about the era of Big Evil in Southern California, a period spanning the late 1960s to the mid-1980s when our region seemed to specialize in the incubation of human monsters.

February 21, 1996|ROBERT A. JONES

On Friday, according to the plan, we, the People, will cause William Bonin to be placed on a gurney at San Quentin, secured firmly and otherwise made ready. Shortly thereafter, we will introduce into Bonin's veins a cocktail of sodium pentothal, pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride.

The Last Cocktail, as the saying goes. Bonin will then depart this mortal coil and we will be done with him. William Bonin, a.k.a. the Freeway Killer, who cruised the Garden Grove, the Hollywood, the Long Beach and the San Diego in the late 1970s looking for young men to rape, stab and strangle, will cruise no more.

You may, or may not, enjoy the idea of Bonin fading away on a sea of officially administered sedatives. Either way, that's OK. Because our purpose today is not to extend the debate on the death penalty. It's to mark the end of an era.

Bonin himself carried out his deeds toward the end of this era, and his case remains one of the last to be resolved. We are talking about the era of Big Evil in Southern California, a period spanning the late 1960s to the mid-1980s when our region seemed to specialize in the incubation of human monsters.

This period began as the '60s was drawing to its weary close, and the timing probably carries some significance. In any case, Charles Manson started things off with the stabbings and hangings of Sharon Tate and her beautiful friends in the Hollywood Hills.

Manson set the style of the era. He seemed to be untouched by the magnitude of his crimes, staring into television cameras with those wide, Rasputin eyes. His entourage of pretty young women--who actually carried out the murders at his orders--walked into the courtroom like Barbie dolls gone mad, uttering Satanisms and giggling.

Manson was followed, in no particular order, by the Hillside Stranglers, Kenneth Bianchi and Angelo Buono, who raped and murdered young women in Silver Lake and Glendale, and Richard Ramirez, otherwise known as the Night Stalker, who crawled into open windows and killed people in their beds.

And there was Robert Alton Harris, who laughed as he shot to death two young men in San Diego and ate the burgers they had just bought for lunch; and Robert Diaz, the deranged nurse in Riverside who killed his patients via sundry medical procedures.

Finally there was William Bonin, the Freeway Killer, who trolled Southern California in his van looking for young male hitchhikers. When the police finally caught him, he confessed to killing 21 of these boys, ranging in age from 12 to 19.

There were so many of these monsters. Somehow, during that era, they came to define us. In 1970, Esquire magazine--the old Esquire--devoted an entire issue to the subject. Evil Lurks in California," the cover said. One of the writers described this scene from his travels out here:

"Following snowbanked California 39 through the San Gabriel Mountains, you pull off the road at a service station. As the pump jockey squeegees your windshield, he asks, 'Going to Big Bear?' and, blankly, 'Be careful.' You wonder if somewhere between you and the horizon another Family crouches, chanting in a circle, scratching another death list in the glowing dust.

"Death is most attractive in California."

And so it went. For a while, every rock group in the '70s seemed to have a song about L.A. and evil. We had come to signify the motiveless malice of the modern age, the idea that horror can crawl out of nowhere and strike for no reason.

Joan Didion, who loved L.A.'s malice, once wrote, "This mystical flirtation with the idea of 'sin'--the sense that it was possible to go 'too far,' and that many people were doing it--was very much with us in Los Angeles in 1968 and 1969."

And then, almost imperceptibly, the siege of evil lifted. Serial murderers ceased to appear with the old regularity. Charles Manson began to look quaint and pathetic at his parole hearings. L.A. grew into something more bland and palatable. We know this transformation took place in the '80s. We just don't know why. I suspect it had something to do with the real estate obsessions of the era and the re-emergence of Hollywood after its doldrums in the '70s. It's difficult to feel evil when so many dinner discussions revolve around home equities and the weekly box office. In any case, like it or not, the era of our romance with Big Evil has passed. We are left only with a little mopping up, exemplified by the pending execution date for William Bonin.

Whether or not it proceeds on Friday, please note that California seems to have abandoned evil even with its official executions. Bonin's death is the first in the state scheduled to be carried out the new way, with lethal injection. Antiseptic, painless, almost bland.

In every way, California has entered its new age.

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