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The Hillside Stranglers

Born to a prostitute mother in Rochester, New York, during May 1951, Ken Bianchi was given up for adoption as an infant. By age eleven, he was falling behind in his school work, given to furious tantrums in class and at home. Married briefly at 18, he would write to a girlfriend two years later, claiming he had killed a local man. She laughed it off, dismissing it as part of Ken’s incessant macho posturing, but homicide was preying on Bianchi’s mind. By 1973, he was certain police suspected him of involvement in Rochester’s brutal “alphabet murders.”

The case got its popular name from the initials of three young victims, raped and murdered over a two-year period. Carmen Colon, age 11, had been the first to die, in 1971. Walda Walkowicz was next, in 1972, and the killer’s victim for 1973 had been 10-year-old Michelle Maenza. In fact, police were not suspicious of Bianchi while he lived in Rochester; it would be six more years before they realized his car resembled one reported near the scene of one “alphabet” slaying.

In January 1976, Bianchi pulled up stakes and moved to Los Angeles, teaming up with his adopted cousin, Angelo Buono, in an amateur white-slave racket. Born at Rochester in October 1934, Buono was a child of divorce, transported across country by his mother at age five. By fourteen, he was stealing cars and displaying a precocious obsession with sodomy. Sentenced for auto theft in 1950, he escaped from the California Youth Authority and was recaptured in December 1951. As a young man, Buono idolized convicted sex offender Caryl Chessman, and in later years he would emulate the so-called “red-light” rapist’s method of procuring victims. In the meantime, though, he fathered several children, viciously abusing several wives and girlfriends in the process. Somehow, in defiance of his violent temper and almost simian appearance, he attracted scores of women, dazzling cousin Kenneth with his “harem” and his method of recruiting prostitutes through rape and torture.

Two of Buono’s favorite hookers managed to escape his clutches during 1977, and Bianchi would later mark their departure as a starting point for L.A.’s reign of terror. In precisely two months time, the so-called “Hillside Stranglers” would abduct and slay ten women, frequently abandoning their naked bodies in a kind of grim display, as if to taunt authorities.

Rejected by the Glendale and Los Angeles police departments, longing for a chance to throw his weight around and show some “real authority,” Bianchi fell in line with Angelo’s suggestions that they should impersonate policemen, stopping female motorists or nabbing prostitutes, according to their whim. Along the way, they would subject their captives to an ordeal of torture, sexual assault and brutality, inevitably ending with a twist of the garrote.

Yolanda Washington, a 19-year-old hooker, was the first to die, murdered on October 17, her nude body discovered the next day near Universal City. Two weeks later, on October 31, police retrieved the corpse of 15-year-old Judith Miller from a flowerbed in La Cresenta. Elissa Kastin, a 21-year-old Hollywood waitress, was abducted and slain November 5, her body discovered next morning on a highway embankment in Glendale. On November 8, Jane King, aspiring actress and model, was kidnapped, raped, and suffocated, her body dumped on an off-ramp of the Golden State Freeway, undiscovered until November 22.

By that time, female residents of Los Angeles were living a nightmare. No less than three victims had been discovered on November 20, including 20-year-old honor student Kristina Wechler, dumped in Highland Park, and two classmates from junior high school, Sonja Johnson and Dolores Cepeda, discovered in Elysian Park a week after their disappearance from a local bus stop. Retrieval of Jane King’s body increased local anxiety, and Thanksgiving week climaxed with the death of Lauren Wagner, and 18-year-old student, found in the Glendale hills on November 29.

By that time, police knew they were looking for dual suspects, based on the testimony of eyewitnesses including one prospective victim – the daughter of screen star Peter Lorre – who had managed to avoid the stranglers’ clutches. On December 9, prostitute Kimberly Martin answered her last out-call in Glendale, turning up nude and dead on an Echo Park hillside next morning. The last to die, at least in California, was Cindy Hudspeth, found in the trunk of her car after it was pushed over a cliff in the Angeles National Forest.

Bianchi sensed that it was time to try a change of scene. Moving to Bellingham, Washington, he found work as a security guard, flirting once more with the police work he craved. On January 11, 1979, Diane Wilder and Karen Mandic were raped and murdered in Bellingham, last seen alive when they went to check out a potential house-sitting job. Bianchi had been their contact, and inconsistent answers led police to hold him for further investigation. A search of his home turned up items stolen from sites he was paid to guard, and further evidence finally linked him with the Bellingham murders. Collaboration with L.A. authorities led to Bianchi’s indictment in five of the Hillside murders, during June 1979.

In custody, Bianchi first denied everything, then feigned submission to hypnosis, manufacturing multiple personalities in his bid to support an insanity defense. Psychiatrists saw through the ruse, and after his indictment, in Los Angeles, Ken agreed to testify against his cousin. His guilty plea to five new counts of homicide was followed by Buono’s arrest, in October 1979, and Angelo was indicted on ten counts of first-degree murder. A ten-month preliminary hearing climaxed in March 1981, with Angelo ordered to stand trial on all counts.

Bianchi, meanwhile, was desperately seeking some way to save himself. In June 1980, he received a letter from Veronica Lynn Compton, a 23-year-old poet, playwright, and aspiring actress, who sought Ken’s opinion on her new play (dealing with a female serial killer). Correspondence and conversations revealed her bizarre obsession with murder, mutilation, and necrophilia, encouraging Bianchi to suggest a bizarre defense strategy. Without a second thought, Veronica agreed to visit Bellingham, strangle a woman there, and deposit specimens of Bianchi’s sperm at the scene, leading police to believe the “real killer” was still at large.

On September 16, 1980, Compton visited Bianchi in prison, receiving a book with part of a rubber glove inside, containing his semen. Flying north to Bellingham, she picked out a female victim but bungled the murder attempt. Arrested in California on October 3, Compton was convicted in Washington during 1981 and sentenced to prison, with no hope of parole before 1994.

(In confinement, she soon tired of writing to Bianchi and turned her attentions to serial slayer Douglas Clark, awaiting execution at San Quentin. Their torrid correspondence struck a consistently ghoulish note, as when Compton wrote to Clark, “Our humor is unusual. I wonder why others don’t see the necrophiliac aspects of existence as we do.” On July 27, 1988, Veronica Compton escaped from the woman’s prison at Gig Harbor, Washington. She remains at large.)

As Buono’s trial date approached, Bianchi began a series of contradictory statements, leading prosecutors to seek dismissal of all charges in July 1981. A courageous judge, Ronald George, refused to postpone the trial, which eventually lasted from November 1981 to November 1983. Convicted on nine counts of murder – excluding Yolanda Washington’s – Buono was sentenced to nine terms of life without parole. His cousin was returned to Washington, for completion of two corresponding terms in the Bellingham case.

On September 21, 2002, Buono died in prison from “unknown causes.”  He left behind a wife, Christine Kizoka, whom he married while in jail in 1986.