The Freeway Killer | Years Active:1979-1980
Victims Known – 14
The notorious Freeway Killer was found guilty of murdering fourteen victims. His modus operandi was to pick up hitchhikers along freeways or off streets, trap them into his Death Van and strangle them with their t-shirts. He had four accomplices: Vernon Butts, Gregory Miley, James Munro who assisted in murder and Billy Pugh who witnessed one murder. Strangulation was his signature. His trademark.
When Howatt asked what drove Bonin’s urge to kill St. John said, “I talked to two people who spent quite a bit of time with Bonin and had access to his criminal and psychological history. One was the DA who prosecuted him who told me Bonin was passionate about killing. He loved killing those kids. Bonin wasn’t the kind of killer who killed out of the usual motives like jealousy or greed or money. He was a stone-cold psychopath. Killing turned him on.”
After his arrest, Bonin told a reporter if he hadn’t been arrested, he’d still be killing because he couldn’t stop. It got easier each time. He was executed on February 23, 1996.
The Desert Murders | Years Active: 1984
Victims Known – 2
This smooth-talking, amateur photographer lured two women, Shari Miller and Tracey Campbell, to the Mojave Desert and strangled them – one with her shoelaces and the other with the rope. His first arrest was for battery at age thirteen, but by age twenty-six, he’d committed seventeen criminal offenses. While on death row, he wrote to his lover: “I must say your stationery has a manner of expressing a part of you forever locked in my mind. Will I ever feel your kisses again?”
St. John gave Howatt his impression of Bradford: “He was a ticking time bomb. A clear pattern started to emerge at an early age: several sexual assaults and convictions for auto theft. By his mid-twenties, Bradford was headed down a path that probably wouldn’t get better.”
Bradford attracted the young girls with a promise of fame and in the modeling industry. His kill zone was the Mojave Desert, where he told one rape victim who survived, “You can scream all you want. No one can hear you.”
He was convicted of first-degree murder and given the death sentence. In 2006, the discovery of hundreds of Bradford’s photographs made national news and raised suspicion about his involvement in other murders. He died in Vacaville State Prison, March 3, 1998.
Age: 21 | Died: 7/4/84 | Bradford
A twenty-year-old talented athlete who loved roller-skating, Shari was an accomplished car mechanic and artist with big dreams of a modeling and design career. Her dream was to kick her drug habit and attend Ortis Parson’s school of design.
During an interview with Howatt, Mara Lyn Miller, Shari’s mother, recollected the last day she saw her daughter. “I took her to lunch on her birthday to a new Italian restaurant. We went shopping, and I bought her everything – shoes, sweaters, blouses. I helped her fill out an application for Otis Parson’s School of Design. Her birthday surprise was she’d been clean for twenty-one days. No speed. No pills. No dope.”
That same afternoon, Miller overheard Shari call a man about a modeling job asking if the job was still available. When it was, she was “so glad.” She’d model leather jackets and boots for In the Wind magazine. When Mara Lyn asked the photographer’s name, Shari said, “His name is Bill.”
Age: 15 | Died: 8/12/84 | Bradford
A fifteen-year-old transplant from Missoula, Montana, her dream was to break into modeling. She lived with her family in Los Angeles. During the summer, she’d tidy the apartment, read, or go to the beach with her best friend. What she liked most was being home with her cat, her books, her Camel cigarettes, and soap operas.
“Every chance she got, she was reading,” Mrs. McCabe told the jury. “She was reading Cujo when I left for work on August 12.” Tracey was murdered that day.
Bill Bradford lived in the adjacent apartment complex less than a minute from the Campbell’s front door.
Age: 14 | Died: 4/11/80 | Bonin
A sophomore at Columbus High School in Bellflower, weighed only eighty-eight-pounds but had big dreams of becoming a jockey. During an interview with his mother, Barbara Bien, she elaborated: “Steven was a doll,” she said. “He was sunshine and made me laugh all the time. He was a school smack, which means he was a good kid. Look at his eyes! Here he was for Halloween all dressed up. He was a peanut butter and jelly kid. Would you like to see his death certificate?”
St. John figures Steven Wood accepted a ride to school; otherwise, he might have been later for his Driver’s Education class. It so happened his path likely intersected with Bill Bonin, who bought his morning newspaper at a liquor store at that same corner. His body was found near a loading dock in Long Beach.
More Bonin Victims
Age: 17 | Died: 8/6/79 | Bonin
Grabbs was a seventeen-year-old tourist from Germany who came to California with a plan to hitchhike to Mexico. He was last seen in Newport Beach, California, where he was propositioned and picked up by Bill Bonin and Vernon Butts. Cause of death was blunt force trauma to the head and multiple stab wounds – seventy-seven in all.
Age: 15 | Died: 2/3/80 | Bonin
A fifteen-year-old high school student from Bell Gardens, Charles hung out with his friends at the West Hollywood hot spot The Starwood, on Friday and Saturday nights. On the night of February 3, 1980, he went to the club with friends but got separated, and without a ride (and after telephone calls to friends from a local restaurant for a ride), he started to walk home. He was last seen walking in the vicinity of the Starwood at 3:30 AM. His body was found adjacent to a loading dock in an alley near Second Street in Los Angeles
Age: 15 | Died: 3/22/80 | Bonin
The afternoon of March 3, 1980, Russell Rugh, a sophomore at Westminster High School, was preparing to catch the bus to a local restaurant where he worked. He called his boss to let him know he’d be late and was leaving to catch the bus. His younger brother told detectives he’d seen his brother standing at the stop. But ten minutes later, with no bus in sight, he was gone. When asked if Russell might have hitchhiked, he said yes. When Russell didn’t show up for work, his mother panicked. Russell just had a birthday, was in high spirits, there were no family arguments, he didn’t have a girlfriend and would never have run away.
His body was found in the lower San Juan Campground of the Cleveland National Forest
John St. John
Badge: #1 | Years of Service: 1942 – 1993
The LAPD’s serial murder expert carried the coveted Detective Badge Number One, solving over two-thirds of one-thousand murders. Some of the high-profile cases: Elderly Women murders, Freeway Killer, Onion Field, Night Stalker, and the Black Dahlia. He received his nickname for solving a case where the body was dismembered like a jigsaw puzzle and was portrayed in the 70s television series, “Jigsaw John.” In 1982, he became the second recipient of the LAPD’s Distinguished Service Medal for his eight-year investigation and capture of Freeway Killer, Bill Bonin.
Gene Rock, retired head of the Robbery-Homicide Division, said of St. John, “Departments from coast to coast call him on tough cases. You know the kind of guy John is? When it’s time to kick the door down, and you know there’s a killer in there, John’s the first one in.”
St. John told Jane, “Murder’s no hobby with me. What I do for relaxation is solve different puzzles. My hobby is carpentry. I’ve built a house extension, a boat, and a retirement house on the Klamath River where I can catch salmon instead of psychopaths.”
His empathy for victims was well known. “I don’t know what makes one guy able to cope with murder and another not,” he said. “All I know is, we do it out of a sense of compassion for victims. Somebody’s got to stand for the poor guy who got killed.”
St. John: a lot of Irish charm mixed with a bit of bluster, hard work, and pragmatism. Wrapped in the American flag and topped with a splash of VO. I used a dash after “St. John. He retired in 1993 with fifty-one years under his belt with plans to write books with Howatt, but that never happened. He died of cancer in 1995.
The Writer | Years on the Beat: 11/82 – 3/95
Little League mom and aspiring writer, Jane Howatt, was ready for change. Her boys were ten and eight, and her physician husband was busy with a new career. It was her turn to follow her dream and write.
Looking for story ideas, she read a newspaper article about a famous detective who’d just won a medal for solving a significant murder case and pestered him until he finally gave in. Within three months, she’d abandoned her tennis club’s lunches for cans of spaghetti out of the morgue lunchroom vending machines so she could hang out with St. John in dark, creepy alleys, and visit maximum-security prisons. She learned how to interview a snitch for a nickel’s worth of information and became friends with a bevy of bartenders, waitresses, and ex-cons.
Pollyanna meets Detective “Popeye” Doyle.
Jane became St. John’s sidekick, stealth asset, and his trusted friend for thirteen years. The veteran detective yanked her out of her sports and snack bar world into a world of tragedy and compassion, where she discovered the person she wanted to be and believed she could become. He found what was missing in his life – someone who treasured the man behind the badge. She finally finished Jigsaw and Jane: Thirteen Years of Murder and Mayhem with Badge Number One in 2020.
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