Barbara Bien Talks About Her Peanut-Butter and Jelly Son

by | Jan 22, 2021 | Crime Writing | 0 comments

January 2021. Camarillo, California. Thirty-eight years have passed since I interviewed Barbara Bien, mother of Steven Wood, the seventeenth victim of Freeway Killer, Bill Bonin. The memory of that interview is still fresh in my mind.

The day I met Barbara, we sat in her living room, a virtual emporium of knitting needles, crochet tools, colorful balls of yarn stuffed in baskets. I thought how remarkable it felt for two women with such dissimilar backgrounds and histories to have met in the first place, much less to be talking about her teenage son murdered by a notorious serial killer.  

Barbara lived with her three young adult children and second husband in the sprawling community of Bellflower, eighteen miles south of Los Angeles. She worked at a waitressing job she enjoyed because it gave her an opportunity to visit with people. I lived with two teenage boys and physician husband in a Mediterranean-style house surrounded by orange and avocado ranches and spent my days playing tennis, working the kid’s snack-bar and writing a book.  

Her auburn curly hair framed a light-complexioned face with no makeup. She wore slacks and a blouse. I had unruly curly hair, wore glasses, used lipstick and dressed up for the interview in a shirtwaist dress. At least fifteen years and a lifetime of experiences separated us, but shortly after she started to talk about Steven, he came to life in my mind: I can see him on that sofa when he and Barbara watched movies. His room is probably down the hall. I wonder if he dropped his books there when he came home from school and was ravenously hungry like my kids after class.     

Barbara revisited those unbearable days and nights while Detective John St. John, my husband and I sat silent in stiff backed chairs. During the hours she told her story, I thought how insane those moments felt. Why were my kids happy and safe and her son had been terrified, tortured, and murdered in the back of the killer’s van? Just a few hours earlier, I’d left a house with a pool to interview a woman with more courage than a lion and more compassion than a parish priest.  

In a hushed voice that reminded me of the way my friends would hint at a juicy piece of gossip, she asked, “Would you like to see Steven’s bedroom?” I told her yes, then followed her down a narrow hallway. The short walk gave me just seconds to realize Barbara trusted me enough to take me into a sacred place–her dead son’s bedroom. I squeezed my hands into a tight fist, looked up at the ceiling and down at the floor. What the hell I was doing walking toward a murdered boy’s bedroom? I half wanted to run, and half wanted to spend the rest of the day prowling through Steven’s letters, report cards, photos, diaries and school assignments.  

Barbara opened the door and pointed to a simple wood desk with a cardboard box that contained photos of Steven playing with his new train set at Christmas, in a Halloween costume and school pictures. When she asked if I wanted to see his death certificate, I flinched. You’re getting perilously close to my deepest fear– death and dying. I don’t want to see, touch or be close to your son’s death certificate or anything that has to do with death. Barbara handed the certificate to me. I held it, read it and gave it back. Little did I imagine in less than an hour, I’d ask Detective St. John if he’d take me to the Wood crime scene. He would reply yes.

My intent was never to see the dump site. But after talking with Barbara, I thought if I could see where Jimmie L. Brown found Steven’s corpse, it would help me understand the enormity of Barbara’s loss, and what happened the afternoon of April 10, 1980, when Bill Bonin dumped the body of a young boy in a dirty, filthy alley. I had way more questions than answers.     

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