Crime File

Hillside Stranglers – IV
End of the Road

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.

A good number of investigators interviewed Kenneth after he agreed to take the deal to obtain information that could be used to convict Angelo without overly relying on the testimony of Kenneth. When asked to elaborate upon how they committed the crimes, Kenneth told how the two of them pretended to be policemen, flashed their fake badges and got the girls into their car. Salerno asked Kenny about what they had used to blindfold Judy Miller and when Kenneth told that it was foam, they got a piece of information they could independently prove because some of the fluff, which could be foam, was found on the eyelids of Miller. With that, they had gotten a step closer to sealing the case against Angelo Buono.
Kenneth also told that the hillside area was picked as the preferred dumping ground for the bodies because Angelo was familiar with the area as a girlfriend of his lived there. This was also a useful piece of information. Kenneth went on with the descriptions of the murders casually without remorse or concern. He also described the killing of Kristina Weckler by gas asphyxiation, for which they had put a bag around her neck securing it with a cord around her neck and had inserted a pipe from a stove into the bag and turned the gas on. After an hour and half of extreme suffering, Weckler died a horrifying death.

Kenneth’s admission of guilt under the arrangement with the prosecution got him two life sentences in the state of Washington, after which he was brought to California where he received additional life sentences for his crimes there. In total, Kenneth had thirty-five years to serve in California prisons and additional sentence to serve in Washington.

Kenneth’s detailed description of Angelo’s involvement led to his arrest on October 22, 1979. They found his wallet with fake police badge that he had used to make the victims pliant. However, the situation in California was quickly turning unsuitable to put Angelo on trial because Kenneth had become less manageable with threat of death penalty gone. He had no incentive to cooperate in getting Angelo convicted and had every reason to do all he could to weaken the prosecution’s case against Angelo so that Kenneth was not seen as a snitch in prison, given that informers did not fare well in the prison system. Also, he might have started feeling a bit guilty about incriminating Angelo to get himself a lighter sentence.
Kenneth started to make up stories and even invented another accomplice to change his story about Angelo’s involvement. Soon, he became an unreliable witness, whose testimony could be of no use to the prosecution.

Veronica

Kenneth’s tale took a bizarre turn when one Veronica Compton, who was attempting a play about a woman serial killer titled The Mutilated Cutter, got in touch with Kenneth to have a better understanding of the inner workings of a serial killer’s mind, and fell in love with him instantly.
Kenneth thought up a plan to make the best use of his relationship with Veronica and asked her to strangle a random girl in Bellingham to make it seem that the killer of Mandic and Wilder was still out there. Veronica readily agreed, but did not have the stomach or the capability to carry it out. Despite cocaine and alcohol in her system, she could not kill the woman she had managed to lure into a motel room. The woman turned out to be far stronger and got away. Veronica made many other mistakes that led the police straight to her, one of which was sending a letter to the Bellingham police telling them that Kenneth was innocent and the strangler was still on the loose, and referred to the attempted strangling of a woman in Bellingham. Veronica landed in prison, but before that she had found another serial killer to fall for — Douglas Clark – after Kenneth’s affection for her dried up quickly in the wake of her botched attempt.

The Trial

The Los Angeles investigators thought it prudent to put together sufficient evidence to support their case against Angelo in addition to Bianchi’s implication of him. The fibres found on Judy Miller’s eyelids and Wagner’s hands were tested against the material in Angelo’s house and upholstery and they were found to match. Also, the animal fur found on Lauren’s hands was found to have come from the rabbits raised by Angelo. There was an imprint of the police badge on Angelo’s wallet and there were puncture marks where the badge had been stuck. In addition to that, the investigators also asked Beulah Stofer and Markust Camden to pick Angelo from a lineup of pictures presented to them, which they did not have any problem doing.

Despite all the evidence, prosecutor Roger Kelly did not think it was a good case to prosecute. Kelly was known to play safe and press only those cases which he thought he could surely obtain a conviction in, and this one did not seem like a sure case to him after Bianchi’s credibility had become questionable.

The first key issue before the Superior Court Judge Ronald M. George, to whose court the case had been assigned, was whether to separate the murders from other offences like sodomy, rape etc., for which Angelo had to be tried. The judge decided to separate the charges so as to reduce the possibility of a reversal in appeal.

On July 6, 1981, Bianchi completely destroyed his implication of Angelo, saying that he might have pretended to have a multiple personality disorder, but he could not say if he was telling the truth when he said Angelo was connected to the murders anyway. He went right ahead and also said that he did not know if even he was associated with the murders. That took away any confidence that Kelly might have had to successfully prosecute Angelo for the murders, and he moved to drop all murder charges against Angelo. Kelly was convinced that Angelo could not be convicted.

Usually, the judges would let the prosecutor decide whether or not the evidence was sufficient to take the case to trial, but in this case that did not happen, and while Kelly was convinced that he could not obtain a verdict against Angelo, Judge George thought otherwise.

On July 21, 1981, Judge George dismissed Kelly’s motion, saying that in his opinion there was “more than sufficient evidence to show presumption of guilt by Mr. Buono”. The judge pointed out several pieces of evidence that he felt were sufficiently strong for the prosecution to bring the case against Angelo to trial. Judge George observed that it was not the function of the court to “automatically ‘rubber-stamp’ the prosecutor’s decision to abandon the People’s case…Applicable standards indicate that a prosecutor must under ordinary circumstances pursue the prosecution of serious charges where there is sufficient evidence for a jury to convict, without concern for the consequences to his reputation should he be unsuccessful in obtaining a conviction.”

It was an unusual observation by a judge, and the DA’s office withdrew from the case, and Attorney General George Deukmejian roped in Michael Nash and Roger Boren as prosecutors to have another look at the evidence and suggest if the evidence was good enough. The Attorney General also appointed Paul Tulleners as a special investigator to assist the prosecutors to ascertain the strength of the evidence. The prosecutors were supposed to present their findings to a panel of four widely respected prosecutors, who were to then advice the Attorney General on the matter. The prosecutors presented their findings and the panel of prosecutors unanimously advised the Attorney General to prosecute Angelo Buono.

The trial commenced in November 1981 only to be repeatedly interrupted and disrupted by adjournments and motions that went in appeal right up to the California Supreme Court, and the trial finally began a few months into 1982. There was a pile of witnesses, mostly constituting the girls and women Angelo had subjected to brutality, but the most significant witness was Bianchi, who was in no mood to cooperate, which was until Judge George informed him that in not cooperating, he could be in violation of his parole agreement, and that could potentially land him back into the harsh environment of Washington’s Walla Walla prison. Bianchi fell in line in no time. But despite Bianchi’s cooperation, it did not work quite as well for the prosecution, for defence counsel, Chaleff, cross-examined Bianchi well enough to draw several pieces of mutually inconsistent and contradictory statements.

The prosecution took Judge George and the members of the jury to places where the bodies of the victims had been discovered, and these “jury-views” were accompanied by on-site presentations by the detectives, which was quite dramatic at least in some cases.

Over a thousand exhibits were presented to the jury and some 250 witnesses testified, after which a woman came forward to testify against Angelo. Angelo had startled and terrorized this woman while he was waiting for Kenny to call Climax modeling agency the night Kimberly Martin had been killed. When the woman testified that Angelo was the person that night she had seen, it connected Angelo to the payphone use to call Kimberly before she was killed, and with that prosecution was done presenting its case to the jury.

The defence tried to assail the testimony of Markust Camden on the grounds of mental instability, which did not work, and then tried to suggest that the viscous substance on Lauren Wagner’s breast was left there by someone other than Angelo or Bianchi, and that turned out to be right when it was established that the substance was the oral secretions from the mouths of the ants that were eating Lauren’s flesh.

In a rather desperate attempt, defence counsel Katherine Mader called Veronica Compton to the stands to tell the strange tale of a conspiracy to frame Angelo, hatched by none other than herself and Kenny. Both the story and the telling failed to convince anybody.

During the cross-examination, prosecutor Michael Nash trashed the credibility of Veronica, who went on to admit that she had elaborate plans with serial killer Douglas Clark to engage in all kinds of kinky things and also that she was still angry with Bianchi for making her attempt a strangling in Bellingham to help him out. By the time Nash concluded his cross-examination, Veronica’s testimony, which had not been convincing to start with anyway, had been reduced to dirt.

The closing arguments by Roger Boren carried on for eleven days. The trial had already become the longest criminal trial in the history of the United States. The jury began deliberating on October 21, 1983, and returned a verdict of guilty on October 31, 1983 for the murder of Lauren Wagner. On November 3, 1983, they found Angelo not guilty of Yolanda Washington’s murder, but a few days later returned another guilty verdict against Angelo in the murder of July Miller. Having been convicted of multiple murders, Angelo could either be handed a death penalty or a life imprisonment without parole under the law in California back then. Angelo was also found guilty for the murders of Sonja Johnson, Kristina Weckler, Cindy Hudspeth, Dolores Cepeda, Kimberly Martin, Jane King and Lissa Kastin. Angelo cried foul. “My morals and constitutional rights have been broken,” he declared.

Jury deliberated for an hour over whether or not to award Angelo the death penalty and finally decided to settled for life in prison without the possibility of parole to the utter displeasure of the presiding judge, who said, “Angelo Buono and Kenneth Bianchi subjected various of their murder victims to the administration of lethal gas, electrocution, strangulation by rope, and lethal hypodermic injection. Yet, the two defendants are destined to spend their lives in prison, housed, fed and clothed at taxpayer expense, better cared for than some of the destitute law-abiding members of our community.”

Angelo Buono married Christine Kizuka, a supervisor at the California State Employment Development and the mother of three in 1986 while he was serving life imprisonment. Angelo died in September 2002. Kenneth Bianchi is serving life imprisonment in the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla, Washington. On August 18, 2010, he was denied parole, and would be next eligible to apply for the same in 2025.

Concluded

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HemRaj Singh

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