Southern California has something for everyone. A temperate climate year-round is a boon to agriculture, industry and tourism. Mountains and deserts beckon hikers, while beaches lure surfers and sunbathers. Farms and citrus groves employ underpaid migrant workers from Mexico. Tourists head south, seeking adventure in the streets of Tijuana, Tecate and Mexicali. The Hollywood dream factory devours wannabe stars. Money leaves a trail of stench on Rodeo Drive.
The darker side, of course, is unmentioned in the guidebooks and brochures. As always, crime goes hand-in-hand with affluence. Drugs flow across the border. Prostitutes work the streets near the studios of Disney and Universal. Runaways sleep in culverts, alleyways, or in seedy crash pads such as Hollywood’s notorious “Hotel Hell.” Street gangs and dealers transform streets into shooting galleries.
There are also the predators – aside from the ones in gold chains in limousines.
Southern California is Psycho Central. The region has earned its grim reputation the hard way, producing a full ten percent of the world’s identified serial killers between 1950 and 2000. Predictably, the killers are now celebrities, with nicknames tailor-made for the tabloids, and their inferior cousin, television.
The Night Stalker. The I-5 Killer. The Skid Row Slasher. The Hillside Strangler. The Freeway Killer. The Koreatown Slasher. The Candlelight Killer. The Southside Slayer. The Trash Bag Killer. The Sunset Slayer. The Orange Coast Killer.
No studies have explained the disproportionate number of serial killers in Southern California, but some of the answers are as obvious as a talentless Hollywood nymphet. The first is population. Hunters go where there is game, and Southern California offers an abundance of prey. Los Angeles’ population stood at 3.6 million at the turn of the new century, with another 1.2 million in San Diego. Overall, the sprawl from Santa Barbara to the Baja border totals 20 million. Innumerable others live “off the record” — runaways, illegal immigrants, the homeless, fugitives, and those who simply have fallen through the cracks.
Among those 20 million inhabitants and others yet unrecognized, a predator can find abundant “targets of opportunity.” These include hitchhikers, prostitutes, fringe dwellers, unattended children, and the forgotten elderly. Many won’t be missed. If their bodies are recovered from a shallow grave, a highway culvert or a garbage dumpster, who will care?
Mobility is key. Southern California invented the automobile cult. The population is large, but the density is low. A teeming highway system, for example, has made Los Angeles the global capital of bank robbery.
In a predictable irony, a predator named Mack Ray Edwards helped to build the freeways, slaughtering children from 1953 to 1969, planting their bodies overnight in soil that he would pave with asphalt in the morning. By the time Edwards hanged himself on San Quentin’s death row, the next generation already was cruising those freeways in style.
Their names are nightmarish legend. Harvey Glatman. Thor Christiansen. Kenneth Bianchi and Angelo Buono. Patrick Kearney. William Bonin and Vernon Butts. Fernando Cota. Randy Kraft. The Manson family.
Two of the worst are now all but forgotten today, except by the families of victims and some cops. These slayers never had nicknames, because reporters never learned of them until they were in custody.
Yet one of has selected a nickname.
He signs his prison fan mail “Pliers”.
Bigger Than Manson”
Lawrence Bittaker,arrest photo
Lawrence Sigmund Bittaker was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on September 27, 1940. Mr. and Mrs. George Bittaker adopted the infant who would be known as Lawrence shortly after he was born. George’s work in aircraft factories occasioned frequent moves for the family, from Pennsylvania to Florida, then to Ohio, and finally California. Something of that rootless childhood stuck with Lawrence, and he dropped out of school in 1957, after several brushes with police and juvenile authorities. Soon after dropping out of high school, Bittaker was arrested in Long Beach for auto theft, hit-and-run, and evading arrest. That bust earned him a trip to the California Youth Authority, where he remained until he turned 19.
Within days of his California parole, Bittaker was picked up by FBI agents in Louisiana, charged with violating the Interstate Motor Vehicle Theft Act. Convicted on that charge in August 1959, he was sentenced to serve 18 months at a federal reformatory in Oklahoma. His behavior there soon earned Bittaker a transfer to the U.S. medical center at Springfield, Missouri, where doctors released him after he had served two-thirds of his sentence.
Arrested next for a Los Angeles robbery, in December 1960, Bittaker was convicted in May 1961, slapped with an indeterminate sentence of one to 15 years in state prison. A 1961 psychiatric examination found Bittaker to be manipulative and “having considerable concealed hostility.” Despite “superior intelligence,” he was diagnosed as a “borderline psychotic” and “basically paranoid.” The following year, a second psychiatrist noted Bittaker’s “poor control of impulsive behavior.” These diagnoses notwithstanding; he was paroled in late 1963, after serving barely one-sixth of his possible maximum sentence.
Freedom never seemed to agree with Larry Bittaker. Two months after his conditional release, he was jailed again for parole violation and suspicion of robbery. Another parole violation sent him back to prison in October 1964. Interviewed by a psychiatrist in 1966, Bittaker confessed that stealing made him feel “important,” then curiously added that his crimes occurred “under circumstances that were not totally my fault.” Another diagnosis of borderline psychosis was recorded — and authorities released him yet again, only to again see another parole violation in June 1967.
One month later, Bittaker was tagged for theft and leaving the scene of a hit-and-run accident. Convicted on those charges, he drew another five-year sentence, but he was paroled after serving less than three years, in April 1970. Arrested for burglary and parole violation in March 1971, he was convicted on both counts that October, receiving an additional sentence of six months to 15 years.
The California prison system at that time was in such disarray that it was hardly surprising that Bittaker was freed three years later, in 1974. His next crime began as simple shoplifting, shoving a steak down the front of his pants in a supermarket. But it escalated to attempted murder in the parking lot, when Bittaker stabbed an employee who tried to stop him.
Forensic psychiatrist Dr. Robert Markman examined Bittaker before trial and rejected the earlier findings of borderline psychosis. He branded Bittaker a “classic sociopath.” As Markman explained that term later, in his memoir Alone with the Devil (1989), the diagnosis simply meant that Bittaker “was incapable of learning to play by the rules, he would never learn by experience, and he would just keep butting his head against the barriers of acceptable behavior.”
In short, he was a hopeless case, beyond any known treatment or rehabilitation.
Dr. Markman also warned that Bittaker was bound to escalate his criminal behavior, moving on to more serious crimes. He was “a highly dangerous man, with no internal controls over his impulses, a man who could kill without hesitation or remorse.” Bittaker later reinforced this surmise, telling a cellmate that someday he planned to be “bigger than Manson.”
Prison psychiatrists concurred with Markman. A 1977 jailhouse evaluation found Bittaker “more than likely” to commit new crimes upon his release. A year later, in July 1978, another psychiatrist dubbed Bittaker “a sophisticated psychopath” whose prospects for successful parole were “guarded at best.” Again the warnings were ignored, and Bittaker was released in November 1978.
But not before he had made a special friend.
No Further Danger”
Roy Norris, just before arrest
Roy Lewis Norris was born in Greeley, Colorado, on February 2, 1948. Unlike Bittaker, Norris lived in his hometown until he was 17, when he dropped out of school and joined the Navy. He was stationed in San Diego, but in 1969 Norris spent four months in Vietnam. Norris never saw combat, but he did see drugs. Marijuana was his drug of choice, and it was widely available.
Back in Southern California by November 1969, Norris attacked a female driver in downtown San Diego. He forced his way into her car and attempted rape. It only took three months for Norris to get arrested again. Free on bail pending trial for attacking the motorist, Norris knocked on another San Diego woman’s door. He asked if he could use her telephone. When the woman refused, he tried to break in through a living room window, then ran around back to the kitchen. Breaching a window there, he finally entered the house, but police arrived before he could harm his intended victim.
At that point, the navy had seen enough of Norris. He received an administrative discharge for “psychological problems” after he was diagnosed as having a “severe schizoid personality.” Still awaiting disposition of his previous assault cases, Norris attacked a young woman in May 1970, on the campus of San Diego State College. He tackled the student from behind, clubbed her with a stone, and then slammed her head repeatedly into a concrete sidewalk. This time the charge was assault with a deadly weapon, and it was finally enough to take Roy Norris off the streets. He was confined to Atascadero State Hospital as a mentally disordered sex offender. He spent five years there before being released on probation. Officially he was described as someone who would bring “no further danger to others.”
Norris proved the prediction wrong three months later, in Redondo Beach. Cruising the streets on a motorcycle, he spied a 27-year-old woman walking home from a restaurant after a quarrel with her boyfriend. Norris stopped to offer her a ride, which she declined. Undeterred by the rejection, Norris leaped off his bike and attacked the woman, strangling her into semi-consciousness with her own scarf. Dazed, she did not resist as Norris dragged her behind a nearby hedge and raped her. Police were unable to act because of her vague description of her attacker. But one month later the woman saw Norris again. She memorized his license number. Convicted of forcible rape, Norris was shipped to the California Men’s Colony at San Louis Obispo.
It could have been worse. The “colony” is easy time, as California prisons go–a cakewalk compared to Soledad, Folsom, or San Quentin. Norris also met a friend at the colony who would change his life.
Reminiscing years later, Norris would claim that Larry Bittaker twice saved his life at San Louis Obispo. The experience bound him to Bittaker, although the details are vague. The “prison code” demanded that Norris follow any plan Bittaker devised, no matter how bizarre.
It helped, of course, that they shared near-identical fantasies of domination, rape and torture. Next time a woman fell into his clutches, Bittaker confided, he would kill her afterward, a sure-fire method of evading punishment. In fact, he thought, it might be fun to play a game, selecting one victim for each “teen” year, 13 through 19, and to see how long each victim could be kept alive and screaming.
Bittaker was paroled on November 15, 1978, returning to Los Angeles, where he found work as a machinist. Norris was freed exactly two months later, on January 15, 1979. He moved in with his mother at an L.A. trailer park, and used his navy training to find work as an electrician. Bittaker wrote to Norris in February 1979 and arranged a rendezvous at a cheap downtown hotel. Over drinks, they renewed their prison friendship and repeated their dark desires.
Spring was coming to the Southland.
It was nearly hunting season.
As a first step toward fulfilling his vision, Bittaker purchased a silver 1977 GMC cargo van. The van had its advantages there were no side windows to worry about and there was a large sliding door on the passenger side. If their intended victims spurned the offer of a ride, Bittaker reasoned, they could “pull up real close and not have to open the doors all the way” to snatch someone from the sidewalk.
Larry named the van “Murder Mack.”
The Murder Mack van
From February to June 1979 Bittaker and Norris cruised up and down the Pacific Coast Highway. They stopped at beaches, flirted with girls, and often took their photos. Norris later estimated that they picked up 20 prospects without harming one, and his estimate may have been low. Detectives later counted some 500 photos of smiling young women among Bittaker’s belongings. Most were never identified.
A lonely stretch in the San Gabriel Mountains
They were test runs, Norris later explained. The rape and murder could wait until they found the perfect isolated spot to take their victims. Sometime in late April, cruising aimlessly, the hunters found a remote fire road in the San Gabriel Mountains, overlooking Glendora. A padlocked gate barred access, but Bittaker smashed the lock with a crow bar. They were in.
Now all they needed was a girl.
They found her on June 24, 1979.
Bittaker would later tell police that the day “started innocently enough.” He spent the night in Murder Mack, parked outside the trailer Roy Norris shared with his mother. They spent the morning working on a bed Bittaker had constructed in the back of the van. The bed was mounted on a frame with space beneath it to conceal a body. At about 11:00 a.m. they began prowling. Bittaker described it as “a nice Sunday to cruise around the beach area, drinking beer, smoking grass and flirting with the girls. We had no set routine.”
Cindy Schaeffer, victim
They made the rounds, driving north and hitting all the stops between Redondo Beach and Santa Monica, keeping an eye out for female hitchhikers. Sometimes they’d park the van and scout a stretch of sand on foot. It was 5:00 p.m., back in Redondo Beach, when they found a likely target. She took them both completely by surprise.
Bittaker and Norris later quarreled over who was first to notice 16-year-old Cindy Schaeffer. Each man accused the other of pointing her out and suggesting that she be the first contestant in their “game.” Ironically, she was not at the beach or wearing a swimsuit. In fact, Schaeffer was walking back to her grandmother’s house, after a Christian youth meeting at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church. Murder Mack pulled alongside and Norris offered her a ride. Schaeffer declined and ignored the van as it trailed behind her. Then the van surged ahead and swung into a driveway, motor idling.
Norris met her on the sidewalk, smiling, repeating his offer. As Schaeffer brushed past him, Roy grabbed her and muscled her into the van. The sliding door worked perfectly, muffling her cries for help as Bittaker cranked up the radio’s volume. Norris grappled with Schaeffer and then sealed her lips with duct tape. He also bound her wrists and ankles. One shoe was left behind on the sidewalk as Murder Mack sped away.
In his prison-penned memoirs, Bittaker later recalled that “throughout the whole experience, Cindy displayed a magnificent state of self-control and composed acceptance of the conditions and facts over which she had no control. She shed no tears, offered no resistance, and expressed no great concern for her safety. I guess she knew what was coming.”
Or perhaps Bittaker simply lied.
He drove to the mountain fire road and parked out of sight from the highway. The men smoked grass and questioned Schaeffer about her family, until they tired of the routine and ordered her to strip. Bittaker left the van for an hour or so, giving Norris some privacy. Then he came back to take his turn. In custody, months later, each accused the other of insisting that Schaeffer die. Norris first tried to strangle Schaeffer, but he bungled the job. He left to vomit in the weeds.
When he returned, Norris said, Bittaker was choking Schaeffer, but “her body was still jerking…alive to some degree…breathing or trying to breathe.” Bittaker then handed Norris a wire coat hanger and they twisted it around her neck, tightening the makeshift garrote with vice-grip pliers. Norris recalled that Schaeffer “convulsed for 15 seconds or so and that was it. She just died.”
Wrapping the body in a plastic shower curtain, Bittaker and Norris drove back along the fire road until they found a deep canyon. They lifted Schaeffer’s body from the van and heaved her into the chasm. Bittaker said the desert scavengers would clean up after them.
It had been nearly perfect, the exhausted friends agreed, but there was something missing.
Next time, they would keep a trophy of the hunt.
Bittaker and Norris went hunting again on Sunday, July 8, 1979. In early afternoon they saw a likely prospect, thumbing rides along Pacific Coast Highway. But the driver of a white convertible pulled in ahead of them and plucked her from the roadside. Norris grumbled over their bad luck, but Bittaker counseled patience. They would follow the convertible for a while and see where the hitchhiker was dropped off.
Their patience was soon rewarded. The convertible’s driver signaled for an exit ramp ahead, braking first to deposit his passenger on the berm. She stuck a thumb out, waiting for the next ride. Meanwhile, Norris left Murder Mack’s passenger seat and threw himself under the raised bed in back. It was a change in strategy, to make the van appear less threatening.
Andrea Hall, victim
Andrea Hall was 18 and thankful for the ride. She introduced herself to Bittaker as he pulled back into traffic, gratefully accepting his offer of a cold drink. Hall went to fetch it from a cooler in the rear of the van, choosing a soda and turning back toward her seat. Norris lunged from hiding then, and swept her legs out from under her. More grappling on the floor of Murder Mack, more blaring music from the radio as Bittaker drove on. Hall fought for her life, but Norris was too strong. Twisting an arm behind her back until she finally surrendered, the submission enabled Norris to bind her wrists and ankles and cover her mouth with tape.
The fire road was familiar territory now. There was no time for small talk with their second victim. They repeatedly raped her by turns. When both of them were tired, Bittaker loaded his Polaroid camera, dragged Hall from the van, and sent Norris on a beer run, down the mountain to a small roadside convenience store. When Norris returned, he found Bittaker alone, smiling over photos of Andrea Hall, her face contorted by fear.
“He told me that he told her he was going to kill her,” Norris later informed police. “He wanted to see what her argument would be for staying alive. He said that she didn’t put up much of an argument.”
Bittaker told Norris that he had stabbed Hall twice with an ice pick, once in each ear, but he had to strangle her when she refused to die. When the murder was finished, Bittaker said he had pitched her off a cliff.
Bittaker and Norris made their third foray on Labor Day, September 3. Cruising through Hermosa Beach, they spotted two girls seated on the bench at a bus stop, where Pier Avenue met Pacific Coast Highway. Fifteen-year-old Jackie Gilliam and 13-year-old Leah Lamp weren’t waiting for the bus, but they seemed happy to accept a ride with no special destination in mind. Bittaker and Norris later told police the girls were also glad to accept Larry’s offer to smoke a joint.
Leah Lamp and Jackie Gilliam, victims
Lighting up, he passed the joint around and told his passengers that he was heading for the beach. Jackie and Leah challenged him moments later, as Bittaker turned away from the ocean and started driving northward, but he stalled them with excuses, claiming he merely wanted to find a safe place to park while they got high. The girls protested when Bittaker parked near a suburban tennis court. Leah started to open the door, but Norris was faster, swinging a sawed-off baseball bat against her skull.
A fierce struggle ensued. Bittaker waded in to help Norris, finally subduing the teenagers and trussing them with duct tape. Only when they were secured and silenced did he notice several tennis players watching from the nearby courts. Worried that someone might call the police, Bittaker gunned the van and sped away toward his hideout in the San Gabriel Mountains. But no one called the police. The witnesses returned to their tennis games, dismissing the strange incident.
Bittaker and Norris kept their latest hostages alive for nearly two days. They kept an audiotape of their rape and torture. Among other things, the tape captured Norris raping Jackie Gilliam, demanding that she play the role of a cousin who was the object of some of his sexual fantasies.
Tired of the game and running dangerously late for work, Bittaker repeated his trick with the ice pick, stabbing Gilliam in both ears. As with Andrea Hall, it made her scream but failed to kill her, so the rapists took turns strangling Jackie to death. Afterward, they turned on Lamp, Bittaker squeezing her throat while Norris pounded her head seven times with a sledgehammer. They pitched their victims off a cliff, with the ice pick still imbedded in Jackie Gilliam’s skull.
On Sunday, September 30, they selected Shirley Sanders, an Oregon resident visiting her father in Manhattan Beach. When she declined a lift in Murder Mack, they sprayed Sanders with chemical mace and dragged her kicking from the sidewalk. Both men raped her in the van, but they were careless and she escaped. Sanders reported the assault, but she could not identify her assailants. She did not remember the license plate. Unable to pursue the matter further, she returned to Oregon.
Scream, Baby, Scream!”
The next month was nerve-wracking for Bittaker and Norris, worried that police might come for them at any moment. Bittaker found a new apartment in Burbank, while Norris remained with his mother. The killers began to relax as the weeks passed without any signs of police attention.
The pair went hunting again on Halloween night, deviating from their beach routine to prowl the residential streets of the Sunland and Tijunga district in the San Fernando Valley. They spotted 16-year-old Lynette Ledford hitchhiking and offered her a ride. She happily accepted–and within five minutes Norris wrestled her to Murder Mack’s floor.
Bittaker chose not to waste time driving to the mountains. They could rape and torture Ledford just as well, he reasoned, while they drove around the suburbs of Los Angeles. Norris took the driver’s seat, while Bittaker turned on the tape recorder and went to work on their captive. The tape records him slapping her, demanding, “Say something, girl!”
Murder Mack interior after it was searched
“What do you want me to say?” she responds.
The slapping continues, interspersed with cries of pain. Frustrated, Bittaker asks Ledford, “You can scream louder than that, can’t you?”
Ledford tries to accommodate him, but Bittaker wants more. Soon he goes to work with the vice-grip pliers. “Scream, baby!” he urges.
Next, Norris’s voice is heard. “Make noise there, girl!” he orders. “Go ahead and scream or I’ll make you scream!”
“I’ll scream if you stop hitting me,” Ledford sobs when Norris starts striking her elbows with a hammer.
Norris swings the hammer 25 times while he chants mindlessly, “Keep it up, girl! Keep it up! Scream till I say stop!”
Bittaker parked the van and prepared for the kill. “I got a section of coat hanger,” he later told police, “and wrapped it around her throat and tied it up with the pliers.”
Emboldened, they thought it would be amusing to see what happened if they dumped their victim on someone’s front lawn. They chose a yard at random in Hermosa Beach, and loaded Ledford’s corpse into a bed of ivy. The corpse was discovered the next morning.
The find shocked Los Angeles, since it came only days after the arrest of “Hillside Strangler” Angelo Buono. The police said they were unaware of any other Buono victims. There were missing girls and women on the books, of course, but who could say if they were dead? More to the point, how could police identify the killers in the latest unsolved case?
In a sense, Lynette Ledford spoiled the fun. She was the second 16-year-old Bittaker and Norris had murdered; leaving three “teen” ages unaccounted for. The hunters did not worry, though. From where they sat, it seemed as if they had all the time in the world.
But they were mistaken.
Roy Norris himself was part of the problem. Despite the murder game’s shortcomings, Norris enjoyed it so much that he simply couldn’t keep quiet. By October 1979 he had started bragging to another friend from prison, Jimmy Dalton, emphasizing his role as a criminal mastermind. Dalton thought it all was talk until Ledford’s body was found. He called his lawyer and they both went to the Los Angeles police. L.A.’s finest listened to Dalton’s story, then passed him to detectives in Hermosa Beach, where Ledford’s corpse had been discarded.
Hermosa Beach detective Paul Bynum headed the Ledford investigation. He had no forensic evidence to support a charge in the Ledford slaying. But Dalton’s mention of a silver van rang a bell in Bynum’s memory. He dispatched an officer to Oregon to interview Shirley Sanders who was attacked one month before. Photographs were proffered for Sanders to examine. Leafing through the stack, she picked out Bittaker and Norris as the men who had kidnapped and raped her.
D.A. Steve Kay
Bynum approached Deputy District Attorney Steve Kay, who had prosecuted Norris on his previous rape charge, in Redondo Beach. Kay cautioned patience, even though a quick arrest would halt the murder spree. They needed time to build a strong case. Police mounted surveillance on the pair. Once again, Norris was the weak link. He was seen selling marijuana on the street.
Police made their move two days before Thanksgiving 1979. They arrested Norris for parole violation on the marijuana charge, while Bittaker was jailed on suspicion of kidnapping and raping Shirley Sanders. Norris waived his right to counsel, and sparred with the interrogators for a while. Eventually he crumbled, casting himself as a reluctant accomplice to murders planned and carried out by Bittaker. The “prison code” demanded that he go along for the ride, Norris insisted. After all, he owed Bittaker his life–but apparently, not his silence.
On the strength of Norris’s confession, both men were charged with five counts of first-degree murder, plus additional charges of kidnapping, robbery, rape, deviant sexual assault and criminal conspiracy. Each defendant tried to blame the other for the most egregious acts. Norris now claimed that he had been high on drugs most of the time, unable to resist Bittaker. But the audiotapes told a different story, revealing Norris as a full participant. Norris realized he would have to do more to avoid the death penalty.
Sierra Madre Search and Rescue patch
In February 1980 Norris led Detective Bynum, Steve Kay and members of the Sierra Madre Search and Rescue Team on a tour of the San Gabriel murder sites. They found Leah Lamp and Jackie Gilliam, with Bittaker’s ice pick still buried in Gilliam’s ear, but no trace was found of Cindy Schaeffer or Andrea Hall. They were lost forever. But Norris had delivered enough evidence to clinch his plea bargain.
Reluctantly, Steve Kay agreed to waive the death penalty and grant a life sentence with parole eligibility in return for Norris’s testimony against Bittaker. Before a defendant is formally sentenced, California requires a report and a sentencing recommendation from a parole officer.
Roy Norris, prison photo
Norris’ jail inquisitor noted Roy’s “casual, unconcerned manner” as he discussed the five murders without regret. In the officer’s opinion, Norris “appears compulsive in his need and desire to inflict pain and torture upon women. The defendant himself acknowledged …that in the commission of rape upon a woman it was not the sex that was important but the domination of the woman. In considering the defendant’s total lack of remorse about the plight of the victims, he can realistically be regarded as an extreme sociopath, whose depraved, grotesque pattern of behavior is beyond rehabilitation. The magnitude and the enormity of the defendant’s heinous, nightmarish criminal behavior is beyond the comprehension of this probation officer.” With that finding on file, Norris was sentenced to 45 years to life, with a minimum of 30 years to serve before parole. He will be eligible for release in 2010. (Given his record and the nature of his crimes, it is unlikely in the extreme that Norris will be released then.)
Lawrence Bittaker on the stand
Steve Kay was committed to seeking the death penalty for Lawrence Bittaker. In an unwitting tribute to Bittaker’s jailhouse ambition, Kay declared that for sheer brutality, the crimes of Charles Manson’s cultists “didn’t come close” to Bittaker’s rampage. Despite his experience in prosecuting rapists, murderers and every other kind of felon, Kay twice broke down weeping during Bittaker’s three-week trial.
For his part, the defendant seemed to enjoy the proceedings. Bittaker had prepared for trial by writing his memoirs, fittingly titled The Last Ride. Though warned repeatedly by his attorney, Bittaker insisted on finishing the manuscript, apparently convinced that jurors would believe his assertion that Norris masterminded the operation. The gamble failed, and on February 17, 1981, Bittaker was found guilty on five murder counts and 21 other related felonies.
California, like all other states, holds its criminal trials in stages. The first determines guilt or innocence; the second, if a defendant is convicted, determines punishment. To support a death sentence, California prosecutors must demonstrate “special circumstances”—such as slayings deemed “especially heinous, atrocious or cruel, manifesting exceptional depravity.” Bittaker’s personal audiotapes were replayed for the jury, which promptly recommended death.
As with Norris another probation report was generated. Bittaker’s examiner wrote that “during the years this officer has been submitting evaluations to the court, he has had occasion to interview many individuals convicted of brutal crimes, but none to the extent of the one[s] for which this defendant has been convicted. During the interviews with him, although verbalizing some feeling for the teenage deaths that he has caused, there is no outward expression or emotion displayed. His total attitude was almost as if he had been able to divorce himself from the emotions felt by the major portion of society.”
The report concluded that there was “little doubt that he would return to a life of crime, and possibly a life of violence” if released into society. The jury’s recommended sentence clearly “would be the most permanent protection available.”
The judge agreed, and Bittaker was sentenced to death on March 24, 1981.
Lawrence Bittaker,prison photo
Death penalty sentences are neither sure nor swift. Appeal of a death sentence is automatic, regardless of the defendant’s wishes. Two years elapsed before the California Supreme Court appointed Bittaker’s appellate attorney, six more before the same court affirmed Bittaker’s death sentence on June 28, 1989. Bittaker was absent on October 4, 1989, when Torrance judge John Shook set his execution for December 29, but he had little to fear. His attorney filed yet another appeal that automatically stayed the execution. On June 11, 1990, the California Supreme Court declined to hear the case again.
Later that same year, while actor Scott Glenn was preparing for his role as an FBI profiler in The Silence of the Lambs, he visited the Bureau’s Behavioral Science Unit at Quantico, Virginia. Legendary profiler John Douglas gave Glenn a tour of the facility. Glenn listened to the Bittaker/Norris tapes and he left Douglas’ office in tears. He told reporters that he entered the office as a death penalty opponent. He left staunchly in favor of capital punishment.
When Bittaker was not busy drafting appeals, he amused himself by filing frivolous suits against the state prison system. There were more than 40 in all by October 1995. In one case, where he claimed he had been subjected to “cruel and unusual punishment” by receipt of a broken cookie on his lunch tray, state officials paid $5,000 to have the suit dismissed. Before the state was granted summary judgment, they had to prove that Bittaker could skip his lunch and still survive by only eating breakfast and dinner.
It was all great fun and cost Bittaker nothing, since California prisoners are permitted to file their suits for free. When not pursuing nuisance litigation, Bittaker enjoyed a daily game of bridge with fellow inmates Randy Kraft, Douglas Clark and William Bonin, themselves convicted serial killers with an estimated 94 victims among them. The game was left short-handed in February 1996, after Bonin was executed, but Bittaker has other diversions. In the late 1990s, a catalogue of prison memorabilia offered his fingernail clippings for sale to murder groupies. And there is fan mail — enough to keep him busy between card games.
Bittaker often signs his letters with a nickname.