Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

William Bonin: The Freeway Killer

"A Caring Man"

Bonin's trial was short and sweet. It didn't take long for the prosecution to poke holes in his claim that Butts was the mind behind the madness and it didn't take long for the jury to decide that William Bonin had to die for his crimes.

But Bonin wasn't finished yet. He took advantage of the American legal system and appealed his sentence. Every time an appeal failed, he tried a different route. He tried to bargain with the knowledge he had of other unsolved murders, but his aid wasn't worth his life, authorities said.

Finally, 17 years after the judge pronounced sentence, the U.S. Supreme Court told the lower federal courts that no more stays would be issued unless they were issued by the Supreme Court. Bonin, had a date with the executioner.

In his 17-year fight, Bonin encountered one piece of good luck. After Robert Alton Harris died slowly and uncomfortably in the California gas chamber, a state court ruled that that method of execution was cruel and unusual. An alternate method would have to be found. California settled on lethal injection. In almost every instance, lethal injection was found to be a quick and relatively painless way to execute a convict.

By the time Bonin had worn out his appeals, he had published a book of short stories, had an exhibition of his abstract paintings at a gallery in Seattle, and corresponded with many of the survivors of his victims. He once told the mother of one of his victims that her son had been his favorite victim because "he was such a screamer" But still, Bonin would not give them the satisfaction of even one word of apology.

He had even been able to win friends on the outside with his "caring nature."

"He has a very basic sense of caring for human beings," said Alexis Skriloff, Bonin's biographer "I know that's completely the opposite of what everyone sees."

The day of the execution, Bonin was taken to a special holding cell on Death Row, issued new uniform pants and shirt, and given access to his spiritual advisor. For his last meal, he ate pepperoni and sausage pizza, Coca-cola and chocolate ice cream. He ate alone.

At 11:01 p.m. prison guards called the telephone company to get the official time and to double-check that the phones in the death chamber were working. An hour earlier, technicians had been in the chamber, preparing the syringes and other medical supplies needed for the execution.

Fifteen minutes before midnight, Bonin was taken from the holding cell and walked into the execution chamber. We have to take the word of the prison staff for how he acted during this time, because no witnesses were allowed to see William until he was strapped down on the gurney and the tranquilizer had been administered. The execution was scheduled to begin at 12:01 a.m., but was delayed for 8 minutes while technicians struggled to find a good vein for the IV.

Witnesses said it was impossible to tell if he was even alive at this point, because he was laying with his eyes closed, breathing in a very shallow manner.

By 12:13 a.m. William Bonin was dead.

The final insult to the people of California didn't come until several weeks later when it was revealed that Bonin's family had been cashing his social security disability checks.

Bonin's mother, Alice Benton, told a newspaper she used the money to make about $75,000 in payments on her Downey home.

The benefit payments, which Bonin began receiving for a mental disability in 1972, should have ended when he went to prison in 1982. But the money kept flowing even though prison officials notified the Social Security Administration that Bonin was behind bars. The error came to light only after a funeral director notified Social Security of Bonin's death.

Of the men who assisted Bonin during his killing spree, only Miley and Munro remain in prison. Miley is serving a 25-to-life term for 1st Degree murder, and Munro has served more than the minimum of his 15 to life sentence for his second-degree murder plea. He was eligible for parole in 2000, but the parents of Steven Wells have made it a point to make sure he serves the maximum.

Munro, who complained recently that he hasn't had a decent night's sleep since he entered prison, has begged the Wells for forgiveness and says he regrets not only participating in the killing of their son, but his guilty plea as well.

"I was just a stupid kid. If I'd known that 15 years to life meant I was never going to get out of prison, I would never have pleaded guilty," Munro told the LA Times.

For the survivors of the Freeway Killer's madness, Bonin's execution hasn't meant an end to their grief.

"Now I stay home all the time, I'm paranoid, I don't go out after dusk. The only thing that gets me out of bed is my hobbies, like crochet and painting," said the mother of one of Bonin's victims. "People say time makes things easier. Well, I'm still waiting. I wish I could be happy; I just can't find my way out of this maze."

For others, the search for their missing children goes on, and the only person who can say for sure whether Bonin was their killer died in the execution chamber at San Quentin.

The mother of one victim whose disappearance bears remarkable similarity to Bonin's M.O. found out only on the day of Bonin's execution that the Freeway Killer was going to take his secrets to the grave. She begged authorities for one more day just to ask about her son, but the governor couldn't be located to issue a stay.

"He was out of town. We tried up until two or three minutes before the execution," said Barbara Brogli, whose 14-year-old son disappeared about the time Bonin was plying his gruesome trade. His bones were found years later near Ortega Highway.

"I would like to know, definitely," she said. "It would be a complete closure. If [Bonin] did do it, the man's been punished and he'll be dealt with at a higher level. . . . For quite a while, I've been really praying to find out, to know whether he's dead or alive, and I've been praying for strength to get through it. I really believe my prayer was answered and God will take care of the rest."

 

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