Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Lawrence Bittaker & Roy Norris

Killing Ground

Lawrence Bittaker, arrest photo
Lawrence Bittaker,
arrest photo

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.

Roy Norris, just before arrest
Roy Norris, just
before arrest

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".


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