Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

William Bonin: The Freeway Killer

The Freeway Killer

At the end of 1979, Southern California was in a state of near panic. Parents were afraid to let their children out of the house, and it appeared that the police were powerless to stop a vicious killer who liked to rape, strangle and stab. The Freeway Killer could practice his grisly trade at will.

The first to die was an exchange student from Germany named Marcus Grabs. The 17-year-old was on a backpacking tour of the United States. Marcus was last seen hitchhiking on the scenic Pacific Coast Highway in Newport Beach on August 5, 1979. His last mistake in this world was accepting a lift from William Bonin.

Sometime between 6 p.m. and 10 p.m., according to police, Bonin and a friend, Vernon Butts, picked up Marcus, sodomized and beat the German and left his nude body in Malibu Canyon. Grabs had been stabbed more than 70 times and was found with a yellow nylon rope around his neck. An electrical cord was wrapped around one ankle.

William later told a friend that he had killed Marcus Grabs out of self-defense, although this explanation is unlikely to be true.

Vernon Butts
Vernon Butts

Vernon Butts was a lowlife drifter with a long criminal record of petty offences who was what prosecutors refer to as "doing life in prison on the installment plan." He had been in and out of penal institutions, and was excited by sadistic homosexual activities undoubtedly something he had picked up during one of his stays behind bars.

Butts accompanied Bonin on several of his killing forays, and was as depraved and twisted as William. Together, they would prowl the highways of Southern California in Bonin's olive drab van, looking for teens to ravage.

Butts would eventually be arrested for his role in the freeway killings and saved the taxpayers of California a great deal of time and expense by hanging himself in his Los Angeles County jail cell.

Three weeks after Grabs' nude body was found in Malibu Canyon, 15-year-old Donald Hyden of Hollywood turned up dead and mutilated in a trash bin near the Ventura Freeway. He had last been seen near the Gay Community Services Center in LA. Bonin and Butts had struck again. Hyden was raped and strangled with a ligature. His throat had also been slashed and an attempt had been made to castrate him.

On September 12, 1979, the body of David Murillo, 17, was found near the Ventura Freeway. He had disappeared while riding his bike to the movies three days earlier. His head had been bashed in with a tire iron, he had been sodomized and strangled with a ligature.

For some time, Orange and Los Angeles County officials denied that they had a serial killer on their hands. Although the modus operandi of the three killings were similar, it wasn't until several more slayings occurred that authorities acknowledged what the media had been reporting for weeks. But the facts were there: somewhere in Southern California a serial killer was loose leaving few clues and seemed free to murder whenever the mood struck.


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