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Crime News Serial Killers

Who is William Bonin, Southern California's Freeway Killer?

William Bonin was convicted of killing 14 boys and young men in Southern California, sexually assaulting and torturing many of them in his van — and he had help. 

By Grace Jidoun
Killer Motive: What Drives People To Kill?

Before the world knew William Bonin's name, he was known as the Freeway Killer in households across Southern California. He was convicted of killing, sexually assaulting and brutally torturing 14 boys and young men between May of 1979 and June of 1980 when he would roam the labyrinthine roads of SoCal in his beat-up van cruising for victims. He is suspected of at least 15 additional murders, for which he was never charged.

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Bonin was dubbed the Freeway Killer because his victims were found dumped alongside major highways and roads. As far as authorities know, he was 32 the first time he took a life, but the two-time parolee already had stints in jail with a rap sheet a mile long for kidnapping, assault, and rape. Highly unusual for a serial killer, Bonin was not a solo operator. He recruited four known accomplices between the ages of 17 to 21 that helped him commit at least a dozen of these heinous crimes.

Here’s everything you need to know about the serial killer.

What was William Bonin's childhood like?

Born in 1947, Bonin grew up in Connecticut, the middle son of a troubled parents. According to testimony from his mother, Bonin’s violent and alcoholic father often beat her in front of the children, and beat the boys when she wasn't around. His father was also a compulsive gambler, once gambling away their family home.

The parents frequently abandoned their three boys for long periods, according to the Los Angeles Times, and reports from neighbors at the time described them as always hungry and disheveled. When they weren’t fending for themselves, Bonin’s maternal grandfather watched them, a convicted pedophile who had repeatedly molested his own daughter. Bonin's mother, Alice Benton, suspected her father also molested Bonin when he was young, according to a court declaration by a psychiatrist who interviewed her.

William Bonin G

At 6, Bonin was sent to a Catholic orphanage and then shunted off to a detention center, where court records show he was sexually assaulted when he was 8. According state medical records obtained by the Los Angeles Times, Bonin stayed there until he was 9, and though he didn't talk much about his time there, he revealed that he "agreed" to sex with an older male, but only if the abuser would tie his hands behind his back. He explained that having his hands bound would make him feel less afraid.

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The family moved across the country to Downey, California, in 1961, when Bonin was 14. By that time, Bonin had already begun molesting his younger brother, according to the Los Angeles Times.   

William Bonin Was Arrested Before Freeway Killer Crimes

Before he became known as the Freeway Killer and Freeway Strangler, Bonin served as an aerial gunner in the Vietnam War, earning medals of commendation for risking his life to save fellow wounded soldiers. However, it was learned later that he assaulted two soldiers under his command.

After an honorable discharge from the Air Force, Bonin returned home to live with his mother in Downey, and according the Los Angeles Times, neighbors recall screams from his house, and attempts to lure in young males with X-rated movies and alcohol. He was convicted twice, first in 1969 and again in 1975, for sexually assaulting a total of five boys between the ages of 12 and 18. He pleaded guilty to charges including molestation, sodomizing, and kidnapping, and underwent psychiatric examinations that determined he was mentally disordered. When he was paroled for a second time in 1978, he soon found a job as a truck driver and his predatory ways quickly spiraled downward into murder.

Was William Bonin married? 

Bonin and a young woman began dating before he joined the military. His mother reportedly pushed for an engagement, hoping it would curb his homosexuality, which was a source of contention between the mother and son, according to the mother's testimony. But after returning home from Vietnam, Bonin discovered the woman he was supposed to marry ran off to marry another man, a defense witness testified.

Where did William Bonin kill his victims?

Bonin trolled neighborhoods and highways in a dingy 1972 Ford van looking for young victims, whom he usually bound, sexually assaulted, tortured and killed in the vehicle. Focusing on hitchhikers, schoolboys, and occasionally male prostitutes, his modus operandi was to lure them into his van and quickly overpower them, binding their hands and feet with wire cords or handcuffs.

He bludgeoned his victims (often with a tire iron) around the head and genitals before raping, choking, and sometimes stabbing and torturing them. Several of his victims were strangled with their T-shirts. Their naked and half-clothed bodies were discarded alongside freeways, roads, and behind dumpsters.

During his year-long killing spree between 1979 and 1980, Bonin managed to recruit four young men to help him at different times, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

RELATED: Serial Killers Still Roam America’s Highways — Here Are Some Of The Most Notorious Roadway Murderers Of All Time

Ultimately, one accomplice, William Pugh, proved to be Bonin’s undoing. After an arrest on auto theft charges, Pugh confided to detectives that Bonin might be the Freeway Killer, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Police put a surveillance team on Bonin, and they caught him sexually assaulting a 15-year-old boy in a parking lot on June 11, 1980. While in custody, Bonin confessed to murdering 21 boys but was only charged with the murders of 14 of them. After getting arrested, all his accomplices turned on him, agreeing to testify against Bonin to escape the death penalty.

When did William Bonin die?

Bonin was sentenced to death in 1982 for 10 murders in Los Angeles and, a year later, earned a second death penalty for another four murders in Orange County. He was executed on February 23, 1996 at age 49 at San Quentin State Prison, and he was the first California inmate to die by lethal injection.

Called the “poster child for capital punishment" by then-California Gov. Pete Wilson, according to the Los Angeles Times, Bonin's case became a political lightning rod in the `90s. During his 14 years on death row, public opinion on executions in California had changed, and lethal gas was determined cruel and unusual punishment by a federal judge in 1994 because of the likelihood a person would feel pain.

As Bonin died, pro and anti-capital punishment activists (including a few celebrities) faced off in a demonstration outside the prison walls of San Quentin. Bonin never expressed remorse for his actions, and in his last words, stated that he feels "the death penalty is not an answer to the problems at hand," according to the L.A. Times. He also gave some advice to those thinking about committing crimes in his final statement before dying, writing, “And I would suggest that when a person has thought of doing anything serious against the law, that before they did, that they should go to a quiet place and think about it seriously.”

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