Bonin was born in Connecticut in January 1947, the second of three brothers. His father was a compulsive gambler and alcoholic, Bonin’s mother, Alice, was also an alcoholic, who frequently left Bonin and his brothers in the care of their grandfather, a convicted child molester. Bonin and his brothers were neglected as children, and were often fed by neighbors. In 1953, aged 6, Bonin was placed in an orphanage, where he remained until the age of 9. At the age of 10, Bonin was arrested for stealing license plates and ended up in a juvenile detention center for other minor crimes. By his teens, back home with his mother, Bonin began molesting younger children. After graduating from high school in 1965, Bonin became engaged to marry, and joined the U.S. Air Force. He served in the Vietnam War as an aerial gunner, logging over 700 hours of combat and patrol time and earning a Good Conduct Medal. While serving in Vietnam, Bonin risked his own life under fire to save the life of a fellow soldier, but also later admitted to sexually assaulting two fellow soldiers at gunpoint. Bonin was honorably discharged from the U.S. Air Force in October, 1968 and returned to Connecticut to live with his mother before moving to California.
On November 17, 1968, at age 21, Bonin committed a sexual assault on a youth. In late 1968 and early 1969, he kidnapped and assaulted four youths between the ages of 12 and 18. In 1969, he was indicted on five counts of kidnapping and four counts of sexual assault on five youths. He pleaded guilty to molestation and forced oral copulation and was sentenced to the Atascadero State Hospital as a mentally disordered sexual offender amenable to treatment. In 1971, he was sent to prison, declared unamenable for further treatment. Bonin was released in May 1974 after doctors concluded he was “no longer a danger to others.” Within 16 months of his release, Bonin had been charged with the gunpoint rape of a 14-year-old hitchhiker named David McVicker and the attempted abduction of another teenager, for which he was sentenced to between one and 15 years’ imprisonment at the California Men’s Facility in San Luis Obispo.
On October 11, 1978, Bonin was released from detention with a total of 18 months’ probation. Upon his release, Bonin moved to an apartment complex in the city of Downey in southeast Los Angeles County, where he found employment as a truck driver and began dating a girl whom he told acquaintances he would regularly accompany to Anaheim on Sundays. Shortly after moving to Downey, Bonin became acquainted with a 43-year-old neighbor of his named Everett Fraser. Bonin became a regular attendee at the frequent parties Fraser held at his apartment and through these social gatherings he became acquainted with a 22-year-old factory worker and part-time magician named Vernon Butts and a 19-year-old Texas native named Gregory Miley.
Bonin usually selected young male hitchhikers, schoolboys or, occasionally, male prostitutes as his victims. The victims, aged 12 to 19, were either enticed or forced into his Chevrolet camper van, where they would be overpowered and bound hand and foot with a combination of handcuffs, and wire or cord. They were then sexually assaulted, tortured and usually killed by strangulation with their own T-shirts, although some victims were stabbed or battered to death. One victim, Darin Kendrick, was forced to drink hydrochloric acid; two victims had ice-picks driven into their ears and another victim, Mark Shelton, died of shock. The victims were usually killed inside Bonin’s van and most were discarded alongside various freeways in southern California. In a minimum of 12 of the murders, Bonin was assisted by one or more of his four known accomplices.
The first murder for which Bonin was charged was that of a 13-year-old hitchhiker named Thomas Glen Lundgren. Lundgren was last seen leaving his parents’ house in Reseda on the morning of May 28, 1979: his body was found the same afternoon in Agoura. An autopsy revealed that Lundgren had suffered emasculation and bludgeoning to his face and head. In addition, the youth had been slashed across the throat, stabbed, and strangled to death. In the abduction and murder of Lundgren, Bonin was assisted by Vernon Butts, who is suspected of accompanying Bonin on eight further murders attributed to the Freeway Killer. In the summer of 1979, Bonin was again arrested for molesting a 17-year-old boy in the coastal community of Dana Point. This violation of the conditions of his parole should have resulted in Bonin being returned to prison. However, an administrative error resulted in him being released. Everett Fraser drove to collect Bonin from the Orange County Jail where he had been incarcerated. Fraser later recollected that as he drove Bonin home, Bonin told him: “No one’s going to testify again. This is never going to happen to me again.”
Two months after the murder of Thomas Lundgren, on August 4, 1979, Bonin and Butts abducted a 17-year-old from Westminster named Mark Shelton as the youth walked to a movie theater near Beach Boulevard. Shelton was violated with foreign objects, causing his body to enter a state of shock which proved fatal. His body was then discarded in San Bernardino County. The following day, Bonin and Butts encountered a 17-year-old West German student named Markus Grabs attempting to hitchhike from Pacific Coast Highway. Grabs was bound with orange ignition wire and driven to Bonin’s home where he was sodomized, beaten and stabbed a total of 77 times before his body was discarded alongside a Malibu freeway. On August 27, Bonin and Butts abducted a 15-year-old Hollywood youth named Donald Ray Hyden. Hyden was last seen alive walking along Santa Monica Boulevard at one a.m. His body was found the same morning in a dumpster located near the Ventura Freeway. The youth had been stabbed in the neck and the genitalia, strangled and bludgeoned about the skull.
Two weeks after the murder of Donald Hyden, on September 9, Bonin and Butts encountered a 17-year-old La Mirada youth named David Murillo cycling to a movie theater. The pair lured Murillo into Bonin’s van where the youth was bound, raped, bludgeoned and strangled before his body was discarded alongside Highway 101. Eight days later, an 18-year-old Newport Beach youth named Robert Wirostek was abducted as he cycled to his job at a grocery store: his body was found on September 19 alongside the Interstate 10 Highway.
Bonin was not known to have killed again until on or about November 29, when he and Butts abducted and murdered an unidentified youth estimated to be around 19 years old. This victim was savagely beaten, then strangled to death before his body was discarded in Kern County. The following day, Bonin—operating alone—abducted and strangled a 17-year-old named Frank Dennis Fox; his nude body was found two days later alongside a highway five miles east of San Diego. Ten days after the murder of Frank Fox, a 15-year-old Long Beach youth named John Kilpatrick disappeared after leaving his parents’ home to socialize with friends. Kilpatrick was strangled to death before his body was discarded in a remote area of Rialto. On January 1, 1980, Bonin brutalized and strangled a 16-year-old Rialto youth named Michael Francis McDonald; his fully clothed body was found in San Bernardino County two days after his murder, although his body was not identified until March 24.
On February 3, Bonin, assisted by an acquaintance of his named Gregory Matthews Miley, drove from Downey to Hollywood, where they encountered a 15-year-old hitchhiker named Charles Miranda hitchhiking upon Santa Monica Boulevard. Miranda was forced to hand his wallet to Bonin before he was overpowered, raped, assaulted with other objects, before Bonin strangled the youth to death with a tire iron by Bonin as Miley repeatedly jumped on his chest. His nude corpse was dumped in an alleyway. Bonin then suggested to Miley: “I’m horny, let’s go and do another one.” A few hours later, in Huntington Beach, Bonin and Miley abducted, raped and killed James Macabe who, at age 12, was Bonin’s youngest victim. Macabe was abducted as he waited for a bus to Disneyland at the corner of Beach Boulevard and Slater Avenue. According to Miley, the boy entered the rear of the van voluntarily as he drove, before Bonin parked the van in a grocery store parking lot. Miley then heard Macabe crying as Bonin beat and raped him, before he himself joined Bonin in beating the youngster simply because he “felt like” doing so. Bonin then strangled Macabe to death with his own T-shirt. His fully clothed, beaten body was found three days later alongside a dumpster in the city of Walnut.
Bonin did not strike again until March 14, when he abducted and killed an 18-year-old Van Nuys youth named Ronald Gatlin. Gatlin was beaten, sodomized and suffered several deep, perforating ice pick wounds to the ear and neck before he was strangled with a ligature. His body was found the following day in the city of Duarte. One week later, on March 21, Bonin lured a 14-year-old named Glenn Barker into his van as the youth hitchhiked to school. Barker was also raped, beaten and strangled to death with a ligature, although his body also bore evidence of numerous burns to the neck which had been inflicted with a lit cigarette. At 4 p.m. the same day, a 15-year-old named Russell Rugh was abducted from a bus stop in Garden Grove. Rugh was bound, beaten and strangled to death before his body was discarded alongside that of Glenn Barker in Cleveland National Forest. The youths’ bodies were found on March 23.
One evening in March, 1980, Bonin offered a 17-year-old named William Pugh a ride home as the pair left the house of Everett Fraser. Within minutes of accepting the ride, Bonin asked Pugh whether he would like to engage in sex. Pugh later stated he panicked upon hearing this question and, after sitting in silence for several minutes, attempted to leave the vehicle once Bonin had slowed the vehicle at a stoplight. In response, Bonin leaned across and grabbed Pugh by the collar, dragging him back into the passenger seat. According to Pugh, Bonin then confided in him that he enjoyed “picking up” young male hitchhikers on Friday and Saturday nights, whom he would abuse before strangling to death with their own T-shirts. In a matter-of-fact tone, Bonin informed Pugh: “If you want to kill somebody, you should make a plan and find a place to dump the body before you even pick a victim.” Pugh was driven to his home without being assaulted.
On March 24, Bonin and Pugh abducted a 15-year-old runaway named Harry Todd Turner from a Los Angeles street. Turner had absconded from a boys’ home in the desert community of Lancaster four days prior to his meeting Bonin and Pugh. According to Pugh, he and Bonin lured Turner into Bonin’s van with an offer of $20 for sex. After binding, sodomizing and biting the youth, Bonin ordered Pugh to “beat him (Turner) up.” After Pugh had bludgeoned and beat Turner about the head and body for several minutes, Bonin strangled the youth to death with his own T-shirt before discarding his body in a Los Angeles alleyway. Turner’s autopsy subsequently revealed the youth had received a total of eight fractures to the skull inflicted by a blunt instrument before he had been strangled.
On April 10, Bonin killed twice on the same day; abducting a 16-year-old Bellflower youth named Steven Wood and discarding his nude body beside the Pacific Coast Highway, then, hours later, abducting and killing an 18-year-old acquaintance of his named Lawrence Sharp. Sharp was beaten, strangled and discarded behind a Westminster gas station. Three weeks later, on April 29 in Stanton, Bonin and Butts lured a 19-year-old supermarket employee named Darin Kendrick into Bonin’s van while parked in the parking lot of the store where Kendrick worked. Kendrick was forced to drink hydrochloric acid by Bonin before Butts drove an ice pick into his ear. His body was discarded near the Artesia Freeway.
On May 19, Bonin again asked Butts to accompany him on a killing; however, Butts reportedly refused to accompany him. Operating alone, Bonin abducted a 14-year-old South Gate youth named Sean King from a bus stop in Downey and discarded his body in Yucaipa. Bonin then visited Butts’ residence and bragged of the killing to his accomplice. Nine days after the murder of Sean King, Bonin invited a 19-year-old homeless drifter named James Munro to move into his apartment. Munro accepted Bonin’s accommodation offer; later describing his initial impression of Bonin as being “a good guy; really normal.” The youth also accepted a subsequent offer of employment at the Montebello delivery firm where Bonin worked.
By the spring of 1980, the murders committed by the Freeway Killer, as he was known in the press, were receiving considerable media attention. On May 29, William Pugh (who had been arrested for auto theft), heard the details of the ongoing series of murders on a local radio broadcast and confided to a counselor his suspicions that Bonin may be behind the killings. The counselor reported his suspicions to the police, who in turn relayed the information to a LAPD homicide sergeant named John St. John. Upon hearing the confidential tip from the counselor, St. John interviewed Pugh and deduced from his conversation with the youth that Bonin might indeed be the Freeway Killer. An investigation into the background of Bonin revealed his string of convictions for sexually assaulting teenage boys. Detective St. John assigned a surveillance team to monitor Bonin’s movements. The surveillance of William Bonin began June 2, 1980.
On June 2, the same day as police surveillance of Bonin began, Bonin, accompanied by James Munro, enticed an 18-year-old print shop worker named Steven Jay Wells from a bus stop on El Segundo Boulevard into Bonin’s van. Wells was driven to Bonin’s apartment where, according to Munro, the youth was raped, beaten, then strangled with his own T-shirt. Bonin then placed Wells’ body inside a cardboard box which he and Munro then carried to his van. The pair then drove to the residence of Vernon Butts, whom Bonin asked for advice as to disposal of Wells’ body. At Bonin’s subsequent trial, Munro recalled Butts’ response: “‘Try a gas station like’ or ‘where’ ‘we dumped the last one.'” Munro also later testified that as Bonin showed Butts the body of Wells, Butts had advised Bonin against discarding the youth’s body in the nearby canyons due to the late hour. Wells’ body was discarded behind a Huntington Beach gas station. The day after Bonin was arrested, Munro stole Bonin’s car and fled to his native Michigan.
On June 11, after nine days of surveillance, police observed Bonin attempting to pick up five separate teenage boys, then succeed in luring a youth into his van. The police followed him until his van parked in a desolate parking lot, where they arrested him in the act of assaulting a 15-year-old identified as Harold T. Bonin and his four known accomplices in murder were convicted of 14 murders committed between August 5, 1979, and June 2, 1980, although Bonin was also charged with two additional murders for which he was acquitted at his first trial in Los Angeles County. Of these murders for which Bonin was convicted, 10 were committed in Los Angeles County and four in nearby Orange County; however, the Freeway Killer was suspected of committing at least 21 murders.
In custody, Bonin confessed to abducting, raping, and killing 21 boys and young men, naming Butts as his primary accomplice. Police also suspect Bonin to be responsible for approximately fifteen other murders. Between July 26 and July 29, Bonin was charged with 16 of the murders to which he confessed and upon which the prosecution believed they had sufficient evidence to obtain a conviction. He expressed no remorse and told one reporter who asked Bonin what he would do if he were still at large: “I’d still be killing, I couldn’t stop killing. It got easier each time.” Based on Bonin’s confession, police arrested Vernon Butts on July 25, and charged him with accompanying Bonin on five of the murders. He was later charged with four other murders committed between August 5, 1979 and April 29, 1980. On July 31, Munro was arrested in Michigan and charged with the murder of Steven Wells and on August 22, Miley was arrested in Texas and charged with the murders of Charles Miranda and James Macabe. Butts, Miley and Munro all agreed to testify against Bonin in exchange for being spared the death penalty.
Bonin was brought to trial in Los Angeles County, charged with the murder of 12 of his victims whose bodies had been found within this constituency, on November 5, 1981. Deputy District Attorney Stirling Norris, who prosecuted Bonin, sought the death penalty for each count of murder for which Bonin was tried, stating in his opening speech to the jury: “We will prove he is the Freeway Killer, as he has bragged to a number of witnesses. We will show you that he enjoyed the killings. Not only did he enjoy it, and plan to enjoy it, he had an insatiable demand, an insatiable appetite – not only for sodomy, but for killing.” Bonin was physically linked to many of the murders by blood and semen stains, hair and carpet fibers. Medical evidence showed that six of the murders for which Bonin was charged were committed by a unique “windlass” strangulation method, which was referred to by Norris as “a signature, a trademark.”
Both Miley and Munro testified against Bonin at this trial, describing in graphic detail the murders in which they had accompanied Bonin. Munro testified that after the murder of Stephen Wells, he, Bonin and Butts drove to a McDonald’s restaurant and purchased burgers with money taken from Wells’ wallet. As the trio ate, Bonin laughed and mused: “Thanks, Steve, wherever you are.” Miley testified to his participation in the murders of Miranda and Macabe; describing in graphic detail how both youths were beaten and tortured with a crowbar before their murders and how he heard a “bunch of bones cracking” as one of the youths was strangled by Bonin.
The trial lasted until January 5, 1982. After six days of deliberation, the jury convicted Bonin of 10 of the murders, but cleared him of the murders of Thomas Lundgren and Sean King. Bonin was sentenced to death for the 10 murders of which he was convicted. Bonin was cleared of the murder of Sean King because he had led police to the body of the victim in December, 1980, with the agreement that his leading police to King’s body could not be used against him in court. He was cleared of Thomas Lundgren’s murder because he chose to deny this particular killing at his trial. In March, 1983, Bonin was tried in neighboring Orange County, charged with the murder of four further victims who had been found murdered between November 1979 and April 1980. On August 26, 1983, Bonin was convicted on all four counts of murder.
Bonin spent a total of 14 years on California’s Death Row, awaiting execution in the gas chamber. He filed numerous appeals against his conviction while incarcerated, all unsuccessful. His final submission to the United States Court of Appeals was submitted in October 1994; this appeal was rejected on June 28, 1995. In 1992, following the execution of Robert Alton Harris, the State of California opted to use lethal injection as an alternate method of execution to the gas chamber, branding the gas chamber a “cruel and unusual” method of execution.
William Bonin was executed February 23, 1996, 16 years after his arrest, by lethal injection inside the gas chamber at San Quentin State Prison. Bonin was the first person to be executed by lethal injection in the history of California. In a final interview given to a local radio station less than 24 hours before he was executed, Bonin claimed he had “made peace” with the fact he was about to die. When asked whether there was anything he had to say to the families of his victims, Bonin simply stated: “They feel my death will bring closure, but that’s not the case. They’re going to find out.” At 6 p.m. on the day he was executed, Bonin was moved from his cell to a death watch cell, where he ordered his last meal: two large pizzas, three pints of ice cream and three six-packs of Coke. William Bonin was 49 at the time of his execution.
- January, 08, 1947
- Willimantic, Connecticut
- February, 23, 1996
- San Quentin, California
Cause of Death
- Execution by lethal injection