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In Secret Junkyard, Cars Are Reminders of Infamous Crimes

Law enforcement: Vehicles that belonged to such killers as Randy Kraft and William Bonin sit rusting. Officials hope to relocate them to more secure spot.

July 20, 1998|GEOFF BOUCHER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ORANGE COUNTY — In an unmarked graveyard for the cars of killers and dead men, every rusting heap tells a tale of past horrors.

The van used by serial killer William G. Bonin to cruise for victims is here, filled with plastic tarps and puddles, but chunks remain from the carpet that linked him to several victims. In another corner of the lot, a knife murderer's keys dangle from the ignition of his rotting car, as if he might return some day and drive off.

A scuffed baseball sits among glass shards on the floorboard of Randy Kraft's faded brown Toyota--the exact spot where investigators turned back a floor mat to find 47 photographs of victims. Did the ball fly into the lot and through the car's window in anger or error?

Either way, the outside world is creeping in, which is why the lot will soon become history itself.

In this secret junkyard, guarded for six years only by a padlock, razor wire and anonymity, the Orange County Sheriff's Department has tucked away four-wheel relics of homicide cases, from the infamous to the nearly forgotten. But now officials say they are searching for a new, more secure site, where thieves and baseballs will not invade.

"The best security is no one knows the lot exists or where it is," said Lt. Hector Rivera, who acknowledged, however, that car parts have "walked away" from the property.

Most likely, the scavengers are oblivious to the yard's official ownership--or its status as a macabre open-air museum. In a region famous for drivers who practically live in their cars, these dilapidated exhibits document that they die--and kill--in them as well.

"These cars have a pretty awful past to them," said Sgt. Mike Stephany, a homicide unit veteran. "There's probably nothing else around like this place. There's a lot of ugly history."

A history of gang shootings, carjackings, murder for hire, prostitute stabbings and serial killings.

The cars have little if any value as evidence--items deemed important are indexed and tucked away in the county crime lab in Santa Ana. The automobile husks that remain are kept primarily for paperwork reasons and, in unsolved cases, to seal up future legal loopholes.

"If we release the car from one of these old cases and then we get an arrest, a defense attorney will ask the judge why we don't have it and say maybe it had exculpatory evidence," Stephany said. "We do it to protect ourselves."

But little protects the cars, which are ravaged by elements that would probably obliterate any overlooked evidence. Weeds, spiders and vermin own these cars now. But the weathered interiors may offer some insight into killers and their victims.

Near the front gate, cinder blocks support a Honda whose owner was gunned down on a roadside for four tires. Close by is a Ford pickup from an unsolved 1991 gang slaying in Stanton. Three cassette tapes still sit on the dashboard, one of them a 1985 Patti Austin album with a jolting title: "Gettin' Away With Murder."

Tucked in a rear corner of the yard, near a pile of lawn mower engines, is the pickup truck of Thomas Francis Edwards. The gun range expert was driving the truck in the Cleveland National Forest in 1981 when two 12-year-old girls passed by looking for a picnic spot. He turned around, called out, "Hey, girls!" and then shot both of them in the head.

A close inspection of a black Porsche Carrera on the opposite end of the lot shows the impact of invading scavengers. The convertible sports car, owned by a Costa Mesa restaurateur killed in an apparent professional hit, has been stripped of its dashboard instruments and ragtop roof.

Four cars down, another unsolved case is represented by a charred Cadillac, its windows melted into slag. The personalized license plate "JOANS" is still bolted to the car where firefighters found the body of Joan Anderson in 1982. Years later, a mentally disturbed man confessed, only to be released after evidence pointed to a different suspect. The case file now gathers dust.

A property officer had to flip through dogeared inventories to identify Anderson's car, but no research was needed to point out the vehicles belonging to Bonin and Kraft. In this graveyard, these are the famous headstones.

Evidence From Cars Helped Prosecutors

The grisly careers of the prolific killers overlapped in the late 1970s. Both cruised roadways for young men and boys, and their vehicles were often where they tortured and killed.

Bonin, a Downey truck driver, was convicted of 14 murders and believed responsible for at least seven others. Kraft, a soft-spoken computer consultant, was found guilty of murdering 16 young men, but a handwritten, coded "death list" found in the trunk of his Toyota suggests that he may have killed more than 65.

Bonin was executed by lethal injection in 1996, Kraft remains on death row.

The rear doors of Bonin's van now open with a metallic creak and a puff of dirt. A flurry of raccoon prints mark the rear, right panel, along with a "C.B. Trucker" bumper sticker depicting a grinning cartoon truck.

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