Despite the eternal popularity of Jack Kerouac’s ode to life On The Road, hitchhiking didn’t quite survive the surge in popularity it experienced when that book was published in the 1950s. The idea of sticking one’s thumb out while walking down the highway, hoping to get a free ride to wherever the driver was willing to take you, could indeed lead to a thrilling adventure into another world. However, it can just as quickly spell horrific doom for those who dare accept a ride from the wrong stranger.
Thanks to vicious men like “The Freeway Killer” William Bonin, the general public has come to believe the second outcome is more prevalent than the first and have thus largely done away with hitchhiking as a method of travel. All it took was a single year of Bonin and several weak-minded accomplices terrorizing the California highways, and most of America realized just how dangerous it was to get in a car with someone they didn’t personally know. Double that danger if the hitchhiker happens to be a teenager or even younger and the person behind the wheel a grown adult, which was always the case when Bonin committed his atrocities.
Arguably the most terrifying element of Bonin’s crime spree is that he almost evaded capture, only getting apprehended due to the betrayal of an accomplice and through no fault of his own. This means his crimes would have continued indefinitely, taking away countless more lives in the process, instilling into all people greater fear for their lives as they traveled down the highway. To learn what they had to be afraid of, keep reading for 15 harrowing facts about “The Freeway Killer” William Bonin.
15. His Grandfather Was A S——l Predator
The first question most people ask about serial killers is how they could possibly commit the senseless acts of murder that come to define their lives. In the case of William Bonin, as with at least half of the career criminals this site has reported on, the answer begins with his very early childhood. Bonin’s immediate family life was bad enough, both of his parents being severe alcoholics and his father physically abusive. Worse than that, Bonin’s grandfather was a serial sexual abuser, having assaulted his daughter, Bonin’s mother, Alice, when she was a child. Ignoring or repressing this fact, Alice repeatedly left her children under her father’s care, uncaring to the fact he went on to abuse all of her children as well. Alice also believes it’s possible her husband had sexually abused their children, meaning William was conditioned at a very young age to believe this was acceptable behavior amongst men.
14. He Was Further Beaten And Abused After Getting Sent To An Orphanage
After repeat physical and sexual abuse from his father and grandfather, William Bonin’s mother finally made the decision to take the kid far, far away from his awful male family members. Seeing it as her only option, Alice Bonin also cut herself out of the picture by sending her children to an orphanage. The Bonin brothers didn’t stay at the home for long, in part due to extreme abuse they suffered from other older housemates. Additionally, the particular institution Bonin was sent to believed in strict punishments for unruly children, including severe beatings and borderline torturous penances, further shaping Bonin’s young mind through violence and darkness in general. Something about the orphanage was so horrific that Bonin would refuse to discuss it in detail later in life, even after openly and graphically detailing the many crimes he committed, plus the other information on this list. Clearly, it must’ve been pretty horrific and likely played a huge role in how he turned out so evil… on the other hand, maybe he’s hiding earlier crimes we don’t even know about.
13. He Experienced Even More Abuse While In Juvie
In case anyone reading that last entry thinks it was a little harsh of us to accuse an abused child of lying about his time in an orphanage, keep reading. By the young age of 8, William Bonin was transitioning from an abused victim to a horrific abuser himself, having been arrested for the first time before even hitting double digits in age. Initially, his crimes were minor burglaries and petty robberies, yet they soon started escalating to more serious felonies like grand theft. This sort of behavior gets a kid sent to juvenile hall, an institution that Bonin first visited when he was 10. As went the horrible trend in his life, once again, virtually every older inmate or male counselor at the detention center sexually abused Bonin in some way. Up until his teens, Bonin never experienced a normal relationship with an adult male or authority figure, making it highly unlikely he ever would.
12. His Crimes Escalated To Abuse Shockingly Fast
Given his life experience, without any sort of psychiatric intervention, it was practically a matter of time before William Bonin started mimicking the behavior all male adults in his life taught him. Almost immediately after being released from the juvenile hall, Bonin proved incarceration in no way taught him his lesson, at least not the one the legal system was created to teach. What Bonin did learn was how to sexually abuse people and get away with it. Using this knowledge, Bonin made his own younger brother his first victim, followed by whatever other kids he could lure to his house. The two things all victims had in common was that they were male and younger than Bonin, trends that would hold true throughout his later crime sprees as well. Though Bonin’s mother was clearly aware one of her sons abused the other, she did nothing to stop it.
11. He Likely Suffered From Several Mental Disorders
Mental health is still a relatively new field in science, and there are plenty of factors even the experts don’t yet understand. In a case like William Bonin, there’s almost no question the man must’ve been mentally ill in some way. Although the repeat abuses he suffered as a child were definitely a factor, Bonin was also described as unrepentant and free of emotion, two issues that go much deeper than a miserably awful youth. Doctors examining Bonin’s mental capacity theorized he may have suffered brain damage at some point in his life, dulling the part of his brain meant to suppress violent impulses. Other psychiatrists believed Bonin suffered from bipolar disorder, the man himself agreeing with the diagnosis enough to use it during his inevitable murder trial. Either way, having mental disorders obviously doesn’t mean Bonin shouldn’t have been held accountable, as they merely played a small role in the horrific acts he committed throughout his life.
10. He Assaulted Fellow American Soldiers While Serving In Vietnam
It’s almost a cliché for someone to join the armed forces, hoping to “turn their lives around,” yet in the case of William Bonin, it’s understandable why his family would’ve wanted him to give the idea a try. On paper, it almost worked, as Bonin joined the Air Force straight out of high school. When the United States got involved with the Vietnam War shortly thereafter, Bonin served five months of active duty as a helicopter gunner. Upon his honorable discharge, Bonin was awarded a Good Conduct Medal for his service in saving another wounded soldier. Unfortunately, as with the rest of his life, there was a terrible dark side to Bonin’s time in the army. In addition to all the time he spent playing a model soldier, Bonin also sexually assaulted at least two fellow American soldiers at gunpoint during the Tet Offensive. There’s nothing honorable about that.
9. He Was Arrested For Assault Multiple Times Before He Escalated To Murder
Far from a soldier’s welcome, William Bonin found his way back into prison less than one year after returning home from Vietnam. Not that the VA had anything to complain about, as Bonin wasted no time in getting back to the horrific crime spree he started before his deployment, sexually assaulting five teenage boys from 1968 to 1969. He was arrested while attacking his fifth victim and sent to a mental hospital after pleading guilty with an insanity defense. The courts soon saw through his ruse, however, when he continued abusing his fellow inmates at the hospital, soon getting him sent to a real prison. Unfortunately, his sentence wasn’t very long, as he was released in 1974. Barely a year later, Bonin sexually assaulted another victim and was sent back to prison for another distressingly short sentence. A third assault in 1979 nearly sent him back to jail for good, but he was spared due to an administrative error. On the drive home from his third jail sentence, Bonin told a friend “no one’s ever going to testify again,” a prediction that technically came true in reference to his victims.
8. He Killed 21+ Young Boys In Less Than One Year
If anything, repeat stints in jail only emboldened William Bonin to notice he could almost get away with anything. He already sexually assaulted dozens of young victims, and all police could do was send him to jail for a year or so, and sometimes, they couldn’t even do that. Bonin also realized that he would never have gone to jail had his victims never told police about what happened, and like many escalating abusers, this meant he was going to start killing them. With all that happened in his life thus far, it was no surprise he soon discovered the kill itself was more thrilling than the assaults, and not only that; he found the process shockingly easy to get away with. Using the aid of no less than four accomplices, Bonin abducted, abused, tortured, sexually assaulted, and then killed no less than 21 and as many as 40-something young boys, disposing of their bodies on the highways he found them.
7. His Victims Were All Teenage Hitchhikers
Between May 29, 1979 to June 2, 1980, the streets of California were the most dangerous they had ever been. Despite “The Freeway Killer” nickname, Bonin’s victims weren’t all confined to the highway system, as he could just as easily swipe an unsuspecting child from a bus stop or a minor walking down the wrong street late at night. At the time of his worst crimes, Bonin was in his early 30s and preying primarily on teenagers, his youngest victim a 12-year-old boy on his way to Disneyland. In some cases, he would lure the teens with promises of drugs or alcohol before trapping them in his car and assaulting them, while others were outright kidnappings from the very start. There was also unspeakable torture, including forcing victims to drink hydrochloric acid and many terrifying forms of genital mutilation. In the end, Bonin strangled most victims with their own T-shirts, making it hard for forensic scientists to research the killer.
6. A Potential Victim Became An Accomplice Then Told Police About It
Shockingly, for as sick as William Bonin was, he nonetheless found no less than four like-minded individuals who were happy to go along with him as he murdered innocent young boys. Of the four accomplices Bonin would utilize, perhaps the hardest to understand was William Pugh, a 17-year-old the killer met at a party and nearly made a victim before realizing people saw them together. Somehow, despite facing Bonin’s terror head on, Pugh decided it looked fun, joining him as he murdered 15-year-old Harry Todd Turner later that same week. As far as anyone knows, Pugh and Bonin then parted ways for the next year. At that point, Pugh was arrested for petty theft and happened to overhear an officer describing Bonin’s MO. Seeking to make a deal, Pugh gave investigators enough evidence to make them believe Bonin was the Freeway Killer, soon causing his crime spree to finally end.
5. Police Tracked Bonin Down And Caught Him In The Act
Going off evidence given to them by William Pugh, police tracked down William Bonin through the van wherein he committed most of his crimes. Knowing he was bound to strike again, officers constantly observed Bonin’s actions until they inevitably caught him red-handed, strangling a 17-year-old runaway named Harold Tate. Reports indicate Tate was actually the fifth young man Bonin had approached that day, though the first to accept his advances and enter his van. There’s no way he consented to being handcuffed and assaulted, though, making it easy for police to arrest Bonin on the spot. Initially, Bonin did as serial killers are wont to do and denied everything, until he heard a passionate plea from one of his victims’ parents, begging to know the location of her son’s body. Admitting “embarrassment,” albeit not remorse, over being caught, Bonin confessed to the 21 murders that were soon further proven based on DNA evidence.
4. He Had Several Mentally Incompetent Accomplices
In addition to William Pugh, the man who helped officers apprehend him, William Bonin, had at least three other accomplices who traveled with him as he callously ended young lives. Obviously, all four of these aides had some sort of mental issues similar to Bonin’s, and two of them were heavily predisposed to suggestion, along with all the other drawbacks associated with being mentally challenged. The first accomplice was Vernon Butts, 18 years old when he met Bonin, and his longest serving ally, helping out with many murders across his spree. Gregory Miley, the second man to assist Bonin’s murders, was 18 years old when they killed and possessed a markedly low IQ of 56. Next was William Pugh, the near victim who later turned him in. His fourth, James Munro, was also 18, homeless, and had an IQ somewhere in the low 80s, also well below the average. All were given various prison terms for their involvement, with Munro still serving a life sentence. Only Pugh actually lived to see his release, which came after a mere four years behind bars.
3. Two of His Accomplices Died In Prison
Chances are that three of William Bonin’s accomplices would’ve never gotten out of prison no matter how long they lived. William Pugh got off easy due to being the first to confess and being a near victim, both facts that made it seem like he was coerced or simply terrified into committing the one murder he was involved with. The other three were as unrepentant as Bonin, killing repeatedly and without remorse, and deserved to be incarcerated for an incredibly long time to ensure it could never happen again. Given what they did, however, it’s no surprise two of them had those prison stays shortened the hard way by fellow inmates. First to die was Vernon Butts (pictured above), 22 years old when he was caught, and the most regular accomplice to Bonin’s crimes. Butts died almost immediately after being arrested, with many suspecting suicide, although foul play was never ruled out. Decades later in 2016, George Miley was beaten to death in the prison yard he called home.
2. He Was Executed For His Crimes
Living in California, William Bonin probably assumed no matter what he did, execution wasn’t going to be on the table if he got caught. The Sunshine State has had a long history with capital punishment, briefly banning the practice in 1972, and no California criminals had been executed since 1967 at the point Bonin committed his crimes. However, the death penalty had in fact been reinstated by then, and calling Bonin a “poster child for capital punishment,” state prosecutors were adamant in ensuring he faced it. Ultimately, they succeeded, though it took many decades for the punishment to be enacted. 15 years after admitting his guilt in 1981, Bonin became the first man California executed by lethal injection in 1996. Protestors on both sides of the capital punishment debate arrived in droves, along with family members of his victims, many of whom were literally counting down the minutes for him to die (as pictured).
1. He Wasn’t The Only Freeway Killer
Terrifying as William Bonin was throughout his life, one man alone cannot change the will of teenagers across America. As it would turn out, however, three men can, along with their several accomplices. Perhaps, hitchhiking would still be a common activity had there only been one Freeway Killer, the youth of the world feeling this menace ended upon his execution. Unfortunately, so dark is this world we live in that William Bonin was merely one of three men referred to as the “Freeway Killer,” all of them terrorizing the same stretch of California throughout the 1970s and ‘80s.
Before Bonin, there was a man named Patrick Kearney, who murdered between 21 and 43 young men from 1965 to his capture in 1977. Kearney is also known as “The Trash Bag Murderer” due to his method of disposing bodies. During the same general time span as Bonin, there was also Randy Steven Kraft, who terrorized anywhere from 16 to 67 young men, carefully tallying his victims and leading to a secondary epithet as “The Scorecard Killer.” Unlike Bonin, both Kearney and Kraft remain alive to this day, although luckily, they’re stuck behind bars for as long as they live.
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