Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Lawrence Bittaker & Roy Norris

"Bigger Than Manson"

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.

 

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