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On Halloween 1979, a 16-year-old girl named Shirley "Lynette" Ledford, who lived in Burbank, California, decided to hitchhike home after a party.
She never made it there.
Ledford was tortured and murdered by two men named Roy Norris and Lawrence Bittaker, known as "The Toolbox Killers." During a 5-month span in 1979 they prowled Los Angeles County, kidnapping hitchhikers, raping them, and then torturing them with instruments in their "toolbox." Ledford was their final victim.
"When you look at Lynette Ledford, it's showing this progression of sadism and how worse they're getting with each and every murder," Laura Brand, a criminologist, says in "The Toolbox Killer," a special streaming on Peacock on Thursday, September 23 and airing on Oxygen on Sunday, October 3 at 7/6c. Brand's interviews with Bittaker during his final years in prison are the basis of the special.
Aside from being their final victim, Ledford was also instrumental in ensuring Bittaker and Norris were put behind bars for good. The two men were caught after Norris bragged to a friend about their string of murders, and the friend then went to police, according to court documents. Norris was arrested first, giving Bittaker just enough time to destroy evidence. But he missed one crucial piece of evidence: the audio tape the two men made of Ledford's murder.
The two men had recorded themselves torturing Ledford with screwdrivers, raping her, and strangling her with a coat hanger. The horrifying tape, which featured Ledford screaming and begging for her life, proved instrumental during Bittaker's trial in 1989.
Norris had pleaded guilty and agreed to testify against Bittaker in order to avoid the death penalty. Bittaker, however, had pleaded not guilty.
"For those of you who do not know what hell is like, you will find out," prosecutor Stephen Kay told the jurors, according to a 1981 UPI report.
Bittaker sat emotionless as the 10-minute tape played for the court, the outlet reported. Meanwhile, several jurors started to cry. People fled the court room, including the court room artist, according to "The Toolbox Killer."
Bittaker and Norris could be heard commanding Ledford perform sexual acts as she was tortured, the outlet reported.
"That tape was going to be used for his own sexual gratification. Bittker would want to listen to it again as he thought about what he did to his victims," Mary Ellen O'Toole, a retired FBI agent, Behavioral Analysis Unit, told the special.
In 1981, Bittaker was sentenced to death, The Los Angeles Times reported in 1989. Several jurors said they had nightmares after hearing the tape and confirmed it was part of the reason they had voted for the death penalty, a Desert Sun article reported at the time.
Juror Gwen Pico told the outlet she "tried keep an open mind” but that the tape was “very damaging, it stunned us all," while another juror said after listening to it, "I had a dream I was coming down an elevator at the courthouse and when it opened Bittaker was standing there and he threw cinders in my face."
The tape has never been released to the public.
For more on this case, watch "The Toolbox Killer," a special streaming on Peacock on Thursday, September 23 and airing on Oxygen on Sunday, October 3 at 7/6c.
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