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They Were 2 Of California's Most Depraved Serial Killers Ever. How Did The Toolbox Killers Get Caught?

After bonding in prison, Lawrence Bittaker and Roy Norris executed a plan to abduct girls, bring them into the San Gabriel mountains, and rape and torture them.

By Becca van Sambeck

Visualize Southern California in the 1970s, and you likely conjure up images of palm trees and sun-dappled beaches. But the decade was also a dark time for the state: Some of the most notorious killers of all time stalked California during this time period, including the Zodiac Killer, the Golden State Killer, and The Freeway Killer. 

The Toolbox Killers, aka Lawrence Bittaker and Roy Norris, may be slightly less-known, but as a judge presiding over Bittaker' s trial put it, according to The Los Angeles Times, their killing spree is "one of the most horrendous murder cases ever tried in this state." Not only did Bittaker and Norris kidnap and murder five girls during the span of five months, they viciously tortured and repeatedly raped their captives, capturing the girls' torment in photos and on tape. They got their nicknames from the kits they kept in their van, filled with tools for torture.

Audio of one of the victim's ordeals was recovered and played during Bittaker's trial. People cried, vomited, and left the courtroom, according to Laura Brand, one of the foremost experts on the Toolbox Killers, who will be speaking at a panel about the two sadistic murders at CrimeCon 2021 entitled "What Hell Is Like: The Untold Story Of The Toolbox Killers." Her interviews with Bittaker over the years will also be the focus of the upcoming special "The Toolbox Killer." The two-hour special, produced by Mike Mathis Productions, will drop on Thursday, Sept. 23 on Peacock. It will air on Oxygen on Sunday, Oct. 3 at 7/6c.

Here's what you need to know about Bittaker and Norris' brutal crimes, and how they were eventually put away for good:

Who Were The Toolbox Killers?

Lawrence Bittaker, born in 1940, and Roy Norris, born in 1948, grew up under very different circumstances. Bittaker's dad left the family when he was young, and his mom often neglected her two children and had a drinking problem. Eventually, Bittaker and his brother were separated and adopted by different relatives, whom Bittaker claimed were unloving. Norris, on the other hand, reportedly had a relatively happy, normal childhood.

Regardless, the two ended up in the same place: San Luis Obispo Men’s Colony Prison. Bittaker was in prison for stabbing a man and Norris for committing a series of sexual assaults. It was while they were incarcerated that the two men bonded over fantasies of rape and torture. After Bittaker and Norris were released on parole in 1978 and 1979, respectively, they moved to Los Angeles County, reconnected, and turned their depraved fantasies into a horrifying reality.

The two men bought a GM Cargo van they dubbed "Murder Mac," The New York Daily News reported in 2015. They tailored the van for their needs, soundproofing it and adding police radar, locks that could be disabled from the inside, blackout windows, a bed, and the torture toolbox. Then they did test runs, picking up women hitchhikers until they were confident in their plans.

The Toolbox Killers' Victims

In total, Bittaker and Norris kidnapped, raped, tortured, and murdered five women: Lucinda "Cindy" Schaefer, 16; Andrea Hall, 18; Jacqueline Gilliam, 15; Leah Lamp, 13, and Shirley Lynette Ledford, 16, The Los Angeles Times reported in 1989.

Schaefer was the first victim, kidnapped in June 1979 while walking home. After taking her in the van to the San Gabriel Mountains, they eventually strangled her with a wire hanger and dumped her body off a cliff. Her body was never recovered.

Hall was taken in July 1979 after deciding to hitchhike home from the beach. Norris hid under the bed in the back while Bittaker picked her up so she wouldn't be suspicious. He then attacked her. Bittaker forced her to march up a hill before taking photos of her performing a sexual act, The Los Angeles Times reported. Bittaker would eventually jam an ice pick in her ear before strangling her, according to court documents. Like Schaefer, her body was never found. 

Gilliam and Lamp were taken next in September 1979 while they were hitchhiking in Redondo Beach, according to court documents. The girls tried to escape after the two men attacked them in the van but were eventually subdued and held for 58 hours. The men took nude photos of Gilliam and recorded her rape. Gilliam, like Hall, was killed after being struck in the ear with an ice pick and strangled, while Lamp was beaten with a sledge hammer, according to court documents. Partial remains of the two girls were eventually discovered.

The final victim was Shirley Lynette Ledford, who was taken on Halloween 1979. She had been hitchhiking home from her job. The men recorded themselves torturing her before they eventually strangled her with a coat hanger and tossed her body in an ivy bed in a suburban town.

A Tipoff, Potential Witnesses, And Incriminating Photos: How The Toolbox Killers Were Captured

What finally ended their five-month reign of torture was, of all things, Norris' inability to keep his mouth shut. Norris reconnected with an old friend and told him all about what he and Bittaker were doing, as well as their plans for future girls, according to Brand. The friend ended up reporting them to Hermosa Beach police.

Norris and Bittaker had also attacked other women during their crime spree who had survived the assaults, including Jan Malin, who managed to escape when the men tried to abduct her, according to court documents. The van and the two men had been reported to police by these women, so they already had a general description of Norris and Bittaker.

Police placed Norris under surveillance for a few days before arresting him. Bittaker called during the arrest, which was how he was tipped off authorities would be coming after him and was able to destroy or bury evidence, including tape of Gilliam's rape and several pictures. Still, the tape of Ledford and several other incriminating photos were eventually found, providing crucial evidence against the two murderers.

The Trial

After his arrest, Norris confessed to police, although he insisted Bittaker was the real mastermind behind the murder spree. In exchange for a plea deal, he agreed to testify against Bittaker and pled guilty to five counts of murder and two counts of forcible rape and robbery. He was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison, CBS News reported in 2020.

Norris' testimony helped seal Bittaker's fate, as did the gruesome photos and the shocking 17-minute tape of Ledford's screams, which left people in the courtroom in tears. In addition, jailhouse inmates testified Bittaker signed autographs as "Pliers Bittaker," a reference to one of his favorite torture tools, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Bittaker was found guilty of 26 counts of murder, kidnapping, criminal conspiracy, rape, oral copulation, sodomy and being an ex-felon in possession of a firearm. He was sentenced to death for his crimes in 1981, CBS News reported. He died of natural causes in 2019.

Norris died of natural causes while still incarcerated at the age of 72 in 2020.

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Evidence In The Tool Box Killers Case, Explored
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To this day, the bodies of Hall and Schaefer have never been found.

For more on this case, watch "The Toolbox Killer" on Thursday, Sept. 23 on Peacock. It will air on Oxygen on Sunday, Oct. 3 at 7/6c.