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Where Did The Urban Legend About Serial Killers Stalking Victims In White Vans Come From?
Serial killer Lawrence Bittaker, the subject of the upcoming Oxygen special "The Toolbox Killer," used a white van to abduct his victims.
You've undoubtedly seen or heard a warning about it before: Look out for white vans.
Somehow, the vehicle has become associated with kidnappers, killers, and criminals. In fact, in recent years, there's been a deluge of social media posts about "suspicious-looking" white vans, according to ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) News.
But does that mean you should turn and flee when you spot a white van? Probably not -- the "kidnapper in the white van" is mostly a myth, police officer Jay Manning told Ohio Fox affiliate Fox-19 in 2019, emphasizing that white vans are rarely involved in criminal activity.
The idea probably comes from the early days of FBI profiling. At the time authorities were trying to determine what kind of person a serial killer was, and as forensic psychologist Dr Christopher Lenning told ABC News, "A typical profile was a person who had duct tape and a knife and scissors and all that sort of stuff and they could drive people around in a van with no windows and that sort of thing."
From there, Hollywood ran with the idea in films like "Silence Of The Lambs," which reinforced the idea of the creepy killer with the white van. But there is also a real-life story that may have helped spawn the urban legend: the notoriously depraved and brutal Toolbox Killers, Roy Norris and Lawrence Bittaker.
Bittaker's interviews with Laura Brand, one of the foremost experts on the Toolbox Killers, are the basis of the upcoming special "The Toolbox Killer," which will stream on Peacock on Thursday, September 23 and air on Sunday, October 3 at 7/6c on Oxygen. Bittaker discusses his horrific killing spree in his own words in this chilling special.
Bittaker and Norris meant while serving time at 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.
For a five-month period in 1979, the two stalked Los Angeles County, kidnapping, raping, and murdering five young women: Lucinda Schaefer, 16; Andrea Hall, 18; Jacqueline Gilliam, 15; Leah Lamp, 13, and Shirley Ledford, 16, according to a 1989 Los Angeles Times article. The pair would take their victims up into the San Gabriel Mountains, where they took videos and recordings of themselves raping and torturing them.
They preyed on their victims in a light-colored GM Cargo van that they nicknamed "Murder Mac" and specifically tailored for their depraved needs, The New York Daily News reported in 2015. They added soundproofing it and police radar, locks that could be disabled from the inside, blackout windows, a bed, and their torture toolbox.
Then they did test runs in the van, picking up women hitchhikers until they were confident in their plans.
Bittaker and Norris forced Lucinda Schaefer into their van while she was walking home in June 1979, eventually strangling her with a wire hanger and throwing her body off a cliff, according to court records. Her remains have never been recovered. A month later, they picked up Hall, who was hitchhiking from the beach. Bittaker strangled her and shoved an ice pick in her ear. Her body has also never found.
In September 1979, Jacqueline Gilliam and Leah Lamp were taken by the pair while hitchhiking. They were held captive for 58 hours. 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. Investigators discovered partial remains of the two girls.
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.
The Toolbox Killers were eventually caught when Norris bragged about the murders to a friend, who turned them into police. Norris took a plea deal and testified against Bittaker. In return, he was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison, CBS News reported in 2020. Bittaker was sentenced to death in 1989, according to The Los Angeles Times.
So, no, you shouldn't be on high alert every time you pass a white van. Most of the drivers are ordinary people. But this particular urban legend does have some horrifying truth to it.
To hear more in Bittaker's own words, watch "The Toolbox Killer," which will stream on Peacock on Thursday, September 23 and air on Sunday, October 3 at 7/6c on Oxygen