Crime File

Hillside Stranglers – I | Dead Prostitutes

Between October 1977 and February 1978, Angelo Buono, Jr., and his cousin Kenneth Bianchi kidnapped, raped, tortured and killed at least ten women and girls between the ages of twelve (12) and twenty-eight (28), and dumped the bodies of most of their victims like trash around the hills surrounding greater Los Angeles. HEMRAJ SINGH tells the story of the killers who terrorized Los Angeles in the late 1970s.

The glitter and glamour of Hollywood tends to conceal the fact that in Los Angeles, California, even ordinary people live and work, and like all urban neighbourhoods anywhere, Los Angeles has a seedy underbelly crawling with sordid tales of horrific inhumanity. In the late 1970s, it was the time of discos, nightclubs and newfound sexual liberation in Los Angeles. It was still a long time before prostitutes were looked upon as “sex workers” and treated on a par with other working women, more or less. To put it bluntly, they were looked down upon with disgust, which meant when something bad happened to them, they were not as much of a victim as other women would be in their place. People were, thus, quite willing to look the other way. But Los Angeles was still a promising place, which attracted a lot of transient people looking for better opportunities. Young women found it easy to exchange sexual favours for quick money to keep them going before they could land a job or an opportunity to pursue their dreams. Yolanda Washington (19) had taken to prostitution to support herself and her young son. Little did she know she was going to be the first victim of a serial killer.

The nude body of Yolanda Washington was found near the Forest Lawn Cemetery on October 17, 1977 with ligature marks visible around her ankles, wrist and neck. Apparently, she had been bound before being strangled to death with a rope. Medical examination revealed she had been raped and the body had been cleaned before it was dumped. Washington had served ten days in prison for prostitution and had been released soon before she ran into her killer. No clues were found on or around the body that could in anyway assist the investigation. She was just another prostitute who had succumbed to the perils of her profession. It was not that simple, as it later turned out.

On November 1, 1977, another dead body was found. It was in La Crescenta, Los Angeles, and was nude, like Washington’s body, and also had marks on her neck suggesting strangulation. The body was found in the morning, lying face up in a residential locality, which was why the owner of the house had covered the body with a trap to prevent the children of the neighbourhood from seeing it on their way to school. There were no drag marks on the ground and no sign of struggle at the scene, which meant that she had been killed elsewhere and had been driven to the spot to be dumped. This was Judith Lynn Miller, a runaway 15-year-old prostitute. The owner of the house where the body had been dumped re-located his family out of California to guard against harm. Miller had been tied up much the same way as Washington had been, the pattern of ligature marks indicated.

Before the investigators could make any headway in the previous two murders, another body was found five days later on November 6, 1977. Once again, there were no clothes on the body of the 21-year-old woman, who was later identified as a Lissa Teresa Kastin. She was a waitress and had been last spotted leaving work on November 5, 1977, the night before her body was found. Kastin, unlike the other victims, was not a prostitute. In addition to working as a waitress, she also held a part-time job at the construction and real estate business run by her father. She was also learning ballet and was saving money to carry on training at advanced levels so that she could become a professional dancer in future.

On November 13, 1977, Dolores Cepeda (12) and Sonja Johnson (14) alighted from their school bus and were seen approaching a two-tone sedan on the passenger side, which was the last they were seen alive. On November 20, 1977, their bodies were found by a nine-year-old boy looking for something useful or sellable in a trash heap at the hillside near Dodger Stadium. The medical examination revealed that both had been raped before being strangled to death. The bodies had started decomposing indicating that they had been lying there for a few days. The sedan the two girls had been seen approaching was said to have two men in it at the time, which raised the possibility of two killers acting together.

The same day (November 20, 1977), the nude body of Kristina Weckler (20), a quiet honors student at the Pasadena Art Center of Design who lived in an apartment at 809 East Garfield Avenue in Glendale, was also found. Weckler’s body was in advanced stages of decomposition and had been chanced upon by the hikers on a hillside near Glendale. Weckler had ligature marks on her wrists, ankles and neck, and bruises on her breasts. Blood had oozed from her rectum indicating anal assault. Unlike the other victims, Weckler’s body had two puncture marks on her arm, but there was nothing to suggest that she was a drug user. It would later come to light that Windex, a hard-surface cleaner, had been injected into her. The killer or killers were not just sexually assaulting the victims before killing but also torturing them.

On November 23, 1977, the body of 28-year-old Evelyn Jane King was found near the Los Feliz. King was an actress and had been missing since November 9, 1977. The body was so severely decomposed that it was not possible to ascertain if she had been raped or tortured or both before being strangulated to death. A task force comprising some 30 officers from the LAPD, the Sheriff’s Department and the Glendale Police Department was constituted to investigate the killings. By now the press had started calling the killer the “Hillside Strangler”, assuming wrongly that it was the work of one serial killer.

Eighteen-year-old Lauren Rae Wagner was found dead on November 29, 1977. The body had ligature marks on her neck, ankles and wrists indicating that, like other victims, she had also been tied up and tortured before she was killed by strangulation. Wagner was a business student and lived with her parents in the San Fernando Valley. Her parents expected her to be home before midnight, but the day she went missing, her car was found parked across the street from her house with the door open. When Wagner’s father asked around the neighbourhood, if anybody had seen anything, it turned out that a neighbour had witnessed the abduction. The neighbour told that she had seen two men, one was relatively taller and younger than the other, who had bushy hair. She had also heard Wagner yell “you won’t get away with this!” when the two men were abducting her. The theory that it was the work of two men gained more ground with the neighbour’s disclosure. However, the information was not released to the press, which is why they continued to refer to the killers in the singular – the Hillside Strangler.

Wagner’s eyewitness neighbour, Beulah Stofer, told the police that the abductors of Wagner drove a large car with a white top. The incident, she further said, had terrified her so much that she chose to not share what she had witnessed even with her husband, who was at home throughout the incident. The abduction horrified her so much that she got a violent asthma attack.

Stofer had claimed that she was standing by her window when she witnessed the crime. However, the police officers were convinced that she had to be much closer than that to give a description of the abductors as clear and vivid as she had provided. Also, she could not have heard what Wagner had said to the abductors while Stoger’s Doberman was barking nearby, if she was at her window. So, she was probably far closer to the spot of abduction; perhaps behind the bushes in her front yard. It seemed that for some reason she was not telling the whole truth about how close she was, but it did not matter all that much because she had told all she could and had also said that she could recognize Wagner’s abductors, if she saw them again.  

Before the investigators could put the information gathered to any use, the naked body of Kimberly Diane Martin, a 17-year-old prostitute, was found in a deserted area near Los Angeles City Hall on December 14, 1977. Her body had ligature marks similar to those found on other victims and she, too, had been similarly tortured. Fearing that she might fall prey to the “Hillside Strangler”, Kimberly had enlisted with a call girl agency. To her misfortune, the killers called the agency from a pay phone at Hollywood Public Library and she was the call girl dispatched resulting in the consequences which Kimberly had joined the agency to escape.

On February 16, 1978, an orange Datsun was spotted abandoned off a cliff in the Angeles Crest area. In the trunk of the car the police found the body of the owner of the car, a 20-year-old Cindy Hudspeth. The ligature marks left on the body of Cindy’s body left no doubt that she was the latest victim of the same killers.

Cindy was a well liked, spirited young woman, who worked as a clerk and hoped to earn and save enough money to attend college someday. Cindy was also a good dancer and had won several dance contests. She had been last seen in her apartment building at 800 East Garfield Avenue, and it was perhaps when she was walking towards Glendale Community College, where she worked, to report for night duty that she was abducted in the late afternoon.

Cindy Hudspeth and Kristina Weckler (another victim of the same killers) lived in Glendale and although the women did not know each other, the fact that they lived in the same general vicinity made it probable that at least one of the two killers, if not both, lived in the same area.

In 1977, the two killers gave a ride to Catharine Lorre and she could have met the same fate as the other victims, but when the killers realized that she was the daughter of Hungarian actor Peter Lorre, they chose to drop her unharmed. Only after their arrest did Lorre realize the grim incident her father’s renown had prevented.

However, after Cindy Hudspeth, the killers seemed to have turned inactive. For months no body turned up, and the clues that the investigators had managed to gather did not lead to any results either. Just an unusual development took place when a psychic from Berlin came across one of the investigators working the case. The psychic scribbled in German who the police should look for: two Italian brothers, aged around thirty-five. But that was no real lead, and since there were no other leads to pursue, the investigation into the murders took a backseat until January 1979.

On January 12, 1979, two Western Washington University students, Karen Mandic and Diane Wilder, who were also roommates, were reported missing to the police in Bellingham, Washington. Mandic and Wilder were not given to taking off without telling anybody. So, when Karen did not report for work, her boss found it worrying. He recalled that she had told him about taking a house-sitting job in a very wealthy Bayside neighborhood. The job had been arranged by a friend of hers who was a security guard. The information was passed on to the police, who contacted the security firm for which the security guard in question worked.

The security firm called the guard concerned. The house-sitting job was supposedly for a client of the security firm. The guard said that he did not know anything about it and also did not know any of the two missing women. The security guard told his employer that on the night the two women went missing he was attending a Sheriff’s Reserve meeting. He was lying.

The police discovered that the security guard was not at the Sheriff’s Reserve meeting, and they got in touch with the security guard directly. He turned out to be a friendly fellow and explained to the officers that he had decided against attending the meeting because it was about something he already knew well – first aid. At this point the police had no reason to suspect a crime because, even if highly unlike the women, it was still possible that they had gone away for the weekend at the spur of the moment and has missed telling anybody. Even so, the idea did not sit all that well with the new Bellingham police chief, Terry Mangan, who went to the house of the girls and found a hungry cat. Owners of pets are not usually as careless with their beloved pets and make suitable arrangement for their pets before leaving for extended periods of time; even the kind that might fail to inform their bosses about going away.

…to be continued

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HemRaj Singh

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