A promise was made 38 years ago to the families of five teenage girls in the South Bay and San Fernando Valley who had been kidnapped, raped, tortured, and murdered by a monster.
It was a promise not kept.
A jury had voted unanimously to sentence Lawrence Bittaker, 39, to die in the San Quentin gas chamber for the gruesome murders, but he lives on today, approaching his 80th birthday on death row.
Four of his five victims never saw their 17th birthday. One had just turned 18. The girls never had the chance to graduate from high school, go to college, have a career, get married, have kids, and, by now, grandkids.
They never got the chance to grow old like their murderer is.
When the time came during sentencing for the defense to call character witnesses, they could find no one to take the stand on Bittaker’s behalf.
The closest they came was a landlord who said he paid his rent on time.
Bittaker hasn’t paid a dime of rent since. We’ve been picking up his room and board for nearly 40 years. He’s outlived half the jurors, the judge, the lead detective on the case, an assistant prosecutor, and many others who were part of his trial.
“I think they’re just going to let him die of old age,” says Stephen Kay, former Los Angeles County assistant district attorney who prosecuted the Bittaker case, and the Manson family.
That’s the death penalty in California today for cold-blooded killers – old age.
Since 1977, when the death penalty was reinstated, 13 condemned men have died in the San Quentin gas chamber, the last in 2006 by lethal injection.
Meanwhile, more than 100 others have died in their beds.
“I had nightmares for almost two years after the Bittaker trial,” Kay says. “I’d hear the girls screaming, and run to help them, but always get there too late. I’d wake up in a cold sweat.”
He’s 76 now, a grandfather of five, who still replays in his mind a terror tape made of a young Burbank girl, Lynette Ledford, 16, begging for her life as she is being tortured and brutally murdered by Bittaker.
The audio tape was found in the back of Bittaker’s van with his tool box – the final piece of evidence that there could be no doubt he was guilty, no chance of DNA testing later finding a mistake had been made.
It was a slam dunk. The “Tool Box Killer,” as he was known during his six month killing spree in 1979, was sent off to San Quentin’s death row to bide his time until the appeal’s process ran its course – which could take, incredibly, as long as 25 years because of the massive back log.
Bittaker blew by 25 years, then 35, and now begins his 38th year waiting for a promise that hasn’t been kept, and probably never will. Two lawsuits challenging the use of lethal injections have everything on hold.
Bittaker had been on death row two years when I went up to San Quentin to interview him in 1983. I had covered his trial, seen all the evidence and heard the terror tape. I knew I was talking to a monster.
Five minutes into the interview, he began crying. Yes, he had raped the girls, but he didn’t murder them, he said. His partner had done that, not him.
And then he smirked. It was the same smug look he had on his face sitting at the defense table doodling on a pad when Kay played the terror tape in court, and people in the gallery began crying and running out of the courtroom – sick to their stomachs for that poor girl begging this monster for her life.
It’s the same smirk you can see today on his most current mug shot in a line up with more than 750 other condemned men on death row waiting for their promise to be kept.
Bittaker’s hair is neatly combed, and his shirt pressed. He looks like a man who has aged well and adapted nicely to prison life. He doesn’t look worried that the promise will ever happen to him.
I hadn’t thought of him in a long time until this week while going through a stack of old newspapers I’d kept. I came across a front page headline from Feb. 26, 1981 in the Daily Breeze with my byline on the story.
“Bittaker May Outlive the Jurors,” it read.
And, damn if he isn’t.
Dennis McCarthy’s column runs on Sunday in the L.A. Daily News. He can be reached at email@example.com.