The Hillside Stranglers: Terror in LA

Starting in October 1977, New York-born cousins Kenneth Bianchi and Angelo Buono Jr. caused one of the darkest periods in LA history. They terrorized the streets of LA, causing fear and panic as a new victim was found in the hills on an almost weekly basis. By February 1978, there were already ten women dead.

Kenneth Bianchi / The Hillside Stranglers’ victims / Angelo Buono / Angelo Buono.
Source: Getty Images

Initially, the police thought only one person was responsible for the murders, but they quickly figured out two people were involved. While Bianchi and Buono were eventually brought to justice for their heinous crimes, no one will ever forget the horrible things they did to their victims.

A Troubling Past

Born in May 1951, Kenneth Bianchi was just two weeks old when his unstable, alcoholic mother gave him up for adoption. Nicholas and Frances Bianchi took the infant in as their oldest child. Bianchi showed troubling signs from a young age, with his adoptive mother describing him as a “compulsive liar.”

A portrait of Kenneth Bianchi.
Kenneth Bianchi. Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

He rarely told the truth from the time he could talk and was diagnosed with petit mal seizures by age five. Bianchi had behavioral issues, which his parents tried to correct through a psychiatrist. Bianchi was a bright child but an underachiever in school. He refused to do work and moved schools twice.

He Didn’t Cry

Bianchi’s adoptive parents didn’t have an easy time raising him but did their best. After his father unexpectedly passed away from pneumonia in 1964, Bianchi didn’t cry or show any signs of sadness. His mom wrote it off as his way of coping, but it did worry her.

Kenneth Bianchi gets out of a sheriff's car on his arrival to court.
Kenneth Bianchi. Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

His adoptive mom had to work longer hours after Nicholas’s death, and she kept Bianchi home from school for long periods. When Bianchi eventually graduated high school in New York, he married his high school sweetheart. The union lasted a mere eight months before she left Bianchi without an explanation.

He Wanted to Be a Cop

Bianchi wanted to become a police officer, so he enrolled at the local community college to study psychology. However, he decided to drop out after one semester and apply for a position at the sheriff’s department. They rejected him, so Bianchi drifted through a series of odd jobs.

A photo of Bianchi in court.
Kenneth Bianchi. Source: YouTube

He eventually landed a position as a security guard at a jewelry store, using his job to steal gifts for his girlfriends. Bianchi was fired for theft, but the habit stuck with him. Bianchi decided to move to California a few years later, where his cousin Angelo Buono lived. He looked up to Buono.

Not the Best Role Model

Like Bianchi, Buono was also born in Rochester, New York. He was 17 years older than Bianchi and moved to California when he was five. Buono was a difficult child who bragged to classmates about allegedly assaulting several girls. He openly idolized criminals like Caryl Chessman and committed petty crimes early on.

A photo of Angelo Buono as he takes the witness stand. 
Angelo Buono. Photo by Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

His mom tried to correct Buono’s behavior by placing him in a reform school, but it was useless. In 1955, he married his high school sweetheart after getting her pregnant. Buono left his young wife after just a week of marriage. He then married another woman, Mary Castillo, whom he also impregnated.

He Spent Time in Jail

Buono and his second wife, Castillo, had five children together, but she divorced him in 1964. Castillo claimed he was physically and sexually abusive. She attempted to reconcile, but Buono handcuffed her and threatened Castillo at gunpoint. She abandoned the idea of getting back together.

Angelo Buono listens to his defense attorneys.
Angelo Buono. Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

He married a third time the following year, having two more children. Buono was then arrested and sentenced to a year in jail for stealing cars. However, due to his large family, he received a suspended sentence so he could work and provide for his children.

An Impressionable Young Man

When Bianchi moved to California, he was an impressionable young man who lacked maturity. Buono was nowhere near a good role model for Bianchi, but he seemed to be doing well for himself, which impressed Bianchi. However, he didn’t teach his young cousin the ways of the business.

A dated portrait of Kenneth Bianchi.
Kenneth Bianchi. Source: YouTube

Instead of using his connections to help Bianchi get a real job, Buono taught him how to use a fake police badge to extort prostitutes. The two started working as pimps to make money, and their business started strong when they recruited two young girls.

Back to Square One

The young girls were two teenage runaways who escaped the clutches of Buono and Bianchi after a few weeks of work. That left the cousins with nothing, and they had to form a new plan to make money, especially after Bianchi’s car was repossessed because he couldn’t make payments.

An image of police officers standing next to their vehicle.
Photo by Mercurio Conrad

Bianchi and Buono planned to purchase a list of potential clients from a sex worker named Deborah Noble. When Noble and her friend Yolanda Washington gave the cousins their list in October 1977, they soon realized they had paid for fake names.

Getting Their Revenge

Angry over the deception, Buono and Bianchi wanted to show Noble not to mess with them. However, they didn’t know where to find her, but they knew where Washington hung out. The cousins decided to take their anger out on her instead.

Angelo Buono is led handcuffed to a waiting sheriff's car during his arrest. 
Angelo Buono. Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

Washington became their first victim on October 17, 1977. Her naked body was found on a hillside near the Ventura Freeway. The 19-year-old was assaulted and strangled before they cleaned off any possible evidence that would connect them to the crime. She wouldn’t be the last victim.

They Had a Ruse

The last person to see Washington alive was music store owner Ronald LeMieux. He later testified that he saw two men flash police badges and pull Washington off the street into the backseat of an unmarked car. This became Bianchi and Buono’s routine to deceive victims.

An image from the police finding one of the victims at the crime scene.
Source: Los Angeles Public Library

They would pretend to be cops, flash their fake badges, and tell a woman she had to come down to the station. As they were not cops, the two would take their victim to Buono’s upholstery shop and have their way with her.

They Killed Again

Less than two weeks after dumping Washington’s body, Buono and Bianchi struck again. They kidnapped 15-year-old Judith Miller, a runaway who survived on the streets by selling her body. On November 1, 1977, police were called after her body was found in a residential area.

A photo from the police arriving at the crime scene.
Photo by Bec Heim

About 12 miles north of downtown LA, Miller was discovered by a homeowner in La Crescenta. He covered her body so children wouldn’t see it on their way to school before the police showed up. Detective Frank Salerno started investigating the young girl’s murder.

They Changed Victims

While their previous victims had been sex workers, Buono and Bianchi chose a different woman to be their third victim. Five days after Miller’s murder, the two abducted Lissa Kastin. The 21-year-old waitress left her shift when the men followed her home and pulled her over.

A photo of Angelo Buono talking to a girl.
Angelo Buono. Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

Kastin was the first victim who wasn’t a sex worker. She was working to pay for her dance lessons and was fooled into thinking Buono and Bianchi were real police officers. Her body was found near the Chevy Chase Country Club in Glendale.

They Let Her Go

In November 1977, the men approached 24-year-old Catharine Lorre Baker intending to abduct her. Like their other victims, Buono and Bianchi flashed their fake badges, but something stopped them. As they went through Baker’s belongings, they found a picture of her and her father.

A picture of Catherine Lorre Baker and Peter Lorre.
Catherin Lorre Baker, Peter Lorre. Source: Pinterest

They realized Baker was the daughter of Peter Lorre, the actor famous for playing a serial killer in Fritz Lang’s M. They let Baker go because they thought killing a celebrity’s child would attract too much police and press attention. She didn’t remember them until their arrests.

Attracting Attention

While the first three murders didn’t attract much press coverage, Buono and Bianchi’s fourth and fifth victims caused much more public outrage. On November 13, 1988, 12-year-old Dolores Cepeda and 14-year-old Sonja Johnson boarded a bus from a shopping center to their home.

A photo of Dolores Cepeda / A portrait of Sonja Johnson.
Dolores Cepeda, Sonja Johnson. Source: Pinterest

They were not runaways or sex workers, just two regular young girls. Cepeda and Johnson were last seen alive getting off the bus and being approached by a two-tone sedan with two men inside. Buono and Bianchi abducted them in plain sight.

A Child Found Them

It took about a week for Johnson and Cepeda’s bodies to be found. A nine-year-old boy who was rummaging through trash found their bodies on a hillside near Dodger Stadium on November 20. He thought they were mannequins, so he wasn’t afraid to get close.

An image from the killers’ victims.
Source: YouTube

Both girls had started to decompose, and it was determined that they had been assaulted and strangled like the other victims. Sadly, Johnson and Cepeda weren’t the only two victims found on that day. Another woman had been discovered earlier, on November 20.

They Experimented on Her

Kristina Weckler was the other victim found that day. Hikers discovered the 20-year-old’s body on a hillside between Glendale and Eagle Rock. She was a student at the Art Center College of Design and was loved by her peers. When police arrived, they noticed that she was also strangled.

A portrait of Kristina Weckler.
Kristina Weckler. Source: Pinterest

However, unlike the other victims, she was covered in bruises and had puncture marks on her arm. There was no evidence that she used drugs. During her autopsy, it was revealed that she had been injected with Windex and other household cleaners.

The Police Got Serious

On November 23, 1977, the decomposed body of 28-year-old Evelyn King was discovered off a ramp of the Golden State Freeway. She had been missing since November 9. The LAPD created a task force to catch the predator they called the “Hillside Strangler.”

The police arrive at the crime scene.
Source: Pinterest

A few days later, the body of 18-year-old Laren Wagner was found in the hills around Mount Washington. Like all the previous victims, she also had ligature marks on her ankles, wrists, and neck. Wagner’s parents reported her missing after finding her car door open in the driveway.

There Were Witnesses

When Buono and Bianchi abducted Wagner, they didn’t realize someone had seen them. A woman who lived across from Wagner’s parents told the police that she saw two men take Wagner. She described one man as tall and young and the other as older and shorter with bushy hair.

Police officers investigate Wagner’s car.
Wagner’s car. Source: Pinterest

The woman added that she heard Wagner scream, “You won’t get away with this.” Sadly, the police didn’t find Wagner until it was too late. The news quickly spread about the Hillside Strangler, with everyone believing it was one person.

Women Feared for Their Safety

After the discovery of Weckler, women in LA started to live in fear. Buono and Bianchi had achieved widespread terror without people realizing who they were. One woman, Kimberly Martin, joined a call girl agency hoping they’d keep her safe. Unfortunately, it led the men to her.

An image from the police discovering another victim.
Source: Los Angeles Police Department

The agency accepted a call from Buono and Bianchi and unknowingly sent Martin to her death. On December 14, 1977, her body was found with ligature marks like the other victims and burns on her palms. She was the ninth victim.

They Waited a While

Although bodies had turned up week after week since October, Buono and Bianchi waited almost two months to strike again. Cindy Hudspeth was their tenth and final victim, but they didn’t plan to kill her. She came to Buono’s upholstery shop to hire him.

Investigators find another victim in her car.
Source: Los Angeles Police Department

On February 16, 1978, Bianchi walked in on Hudspeth and Buono discussing upholstery work she wanted done on her car. Bianchi pulled Buono away to speak privately, and they decided she would be their next victim. Her body was found the following day.

The Murders Stopped

After the tenth victim, the murders suddenly stopped. Bianchi continued to apply to law enforcement jobs during the killing spree and made acquaintance with LAPD officers. He went on a ride-along with some officers, driving a wedge between him and Buono.

An image of Kenneth Bianchi testifying in court.
Kenneth Bianchi. Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

On the night they tried to abduct their 11th victim, the two got into a heated argument. Bianchi revealed that he had been questioned about the Hillside Strangler case. Buono threatened to kill him if he didn’t leave town, so Bianchi moved to Washington state.

He Went Out on His Own

Bianchi took his newborn son and girlfriend with him to Bellingham, Washington. He applied to the local police department but was rejected again. Instead, Bianchi got another job as a security guard. He tried to stay under the radar to avoid unwanted attention.

A portrait of Kenneth Bianchi.
Kenneth Bianchi. Source: Pinterest

However, Bianchi couldn’t stop his impulses. In January 1979, Bianchi abducted two students from Western Washington University. Karen Mandic and Diane Wilder were assaulted, tortured, and murdered at a house Bianchi guarded for work. Without Buono’s help, he made mistakes and left behind evidence.

He Got Caught

When Bianchi murdered Mandic and Wilder, he left behind enough evidence for the police to connect him to the scene. A witness saw the women leave with Bianchi, and his car was spotted with California plates that connected him to two of the Hillside Strangler victims.

Kenneth Bianchi cries in court.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

Bianchi was arrested on January 12, 1979. When they saw his California driver’s license, the police realized they had one-half of the Hillside Stranglers. After some investigation, authorities realized two people committed the crimes based on the positions of the victims.

He Told the Police Everything

When authorities threatened Bianchi with the death penalty, he quickly told them about Buono’s involvement in the murders. A witness confirmed what the police already knew. When Bianchi’s photo was broadcasted on the news in LA, investigators received a call from David Wood.

A photo of Bianchi during his time in prison.
Kenneth Bianchi. Source: Pinterest

Wood was a lawyer representing two women, Sabra Hannan and Becky Spears, who escaped Bianchi and Buono after they pimped them out. Wood tipped the police off about Buono, and he was arrested on January 22, 1979. The Hillside Stranglers were finally off the streets.

He Tried to Fake Insanity

Bianchi had seen films like Sybil and The Three Faces of Eve many times, which helped him concoct an insanity defense. He claimed to have multiple personalities, blaming the murders on “Steve,” one of his personalities. Psychiatrists examined Bianchi and dismissed his story.

A more updated mugshot of Kenneth Bianchi.
Kenneth Bianchi. Source: Pinterest

No one was buying his lies, so Bianchi came clean about the murders. He also agreed to testify against Buono to avoid the death penalty in Washington. Meanwhile, someone on the outside was trying to help him get out of the charges.

She Was Obsessed

In the two years leading up to the trial, Bianchi formed a relationship with Veronica Compton. She was an actress and playwright obsessed with serial killers. Compton wrote a screenplay about a female serial killer and sent it to Bianchi to get his opinion.

An image of Veronica Compton in court.
Veronica Compton. Source: Pinterest

Compton grew more and more obsessed with Bianchi, which allowed him to manipulate her into creating a copycat Hillside Strangler. He thought that if the police believed the killer was still on the loose, he would get out of jail. However, it didn’t end well.

She Committed a Crime

Compton was determined to help Bianchi, so she plotted to copy one of his murders. She smuggled some of his DNA out of prison in a rubber glove. DNA evidence had no forensic use at the time, but bodily fluids could be analyzed to determine a man’s blood type.

A dated still of Bianchi during an interview.
Kenneth Bianchi. Source: YouTube

Then, Compton lured a woman to a motel room and attempted to strangle her. But she was overpowered, and the woman got away. Compton was later arrested and convicted for attempting to kill the woman. She was eventually released from jail in 2003.

Buono Claimed He Wasn’t Guilty

During Buono’s trial, he insisted that he did not commit any of the crimes. He claimed there was no physical evidence to tie him to the murders. While Buono’s home was so clean that police couldn’t even find his own fingerprints, the victims had trace evidence.

A photo of Angelo Buono sitting in the courtroom.
Angelo Buono. Source: Los Angeles Public Library

Fibers from Buono’s home and upholstery workshop were found on two of the victims. There was also an imprint of a fake police badge in Buono’s wallet. Additionally, there were hairs from rabbits Buono raised on a victim. Bianchi’s testimony also sealed Buono’s fate.

They Testified

Sabra Hannan and Becky Spears, the two teenagers Bianchi and Buono beat, assaulted, and pimped out before the killing began, testified at their trials. They told the court about the level of brutality Buono and Bianchi used on them. The women felt lucky to have gotten away.

An image of Sabra Hannan taking the witness stand.
Sabra Hannan. Source: Los Angeles Public Library

Hannan told the court how the cousins locked them in a room and would only let them leave if they begged for permission. The testimonies further proved the level of violence Buono and Bianchi were capable of and pushed the juries towards guilty verdicts.

He Took a Deal

To avoid the death penalty, Bianchi pled guilty to the murders in Washington and five of the California murders. He also testified against Buono, allowing the prosecutors to seek life in prison rather than capital punishment. The judge wanted to give him the death penalty.

A video still of Bianchi during his arrest.
Kenneth Bianchi. Source: YouTube

Instead, Bianchi received six life sentences while Buono was sentenced to life without parole. The jury ultimately voted against capital punishment for both men. Judge Ronald George cursed the rules after the jury read the sentencing decision because he felt they both deserved to die.

He Died in Prison

After serving almost 20 years in prison, Bianchi died of a heart attack in 2002. He was 67 years old and luckily never got out of jail before his death. At his sentencing, Judge George said Buono squeezed the life and promise of a future out of his victims.

A video still of Bianchi during his trial.
Kenneth Bianchi. Source: YouTube

Meanwhile, Bianchi is still in jail serving his six life sentences. He will never get out of jail, and he doesn’t deserve to. Bianchi and Buono were dangers to society, and, sadly, 12 women had to die before they were put away for life.

His Grandson Was a Killer

Killing must run in Buono’s genes because his grandson, Christopher Buono, also became a killer. In 2007, Christopher took his own life after shooting his grandmother, Mary Castillo, Buono’s ex-wife. Christopher attempted to kill Castillo because he was angry with Buono.

A mugshot of Christopher Buono.
Christopher Buono. Source: Orange County Register

He didn’t know the true identity of his grandfather until 2005. Christopher grew so angry about Buono even though Castillo divorced him before he became a killer. She had nothing to do with the murders, but Christopher punished her. She remained stable after the attack.

He Sued for His Face

While in prison, Bianchi sued Catherine Yronwode for $8.5 million for using his face on a trading card. He claimed his face was his trademark, and she wasn’t allowed to use it. However, a judge dismissed the case because Bianchi didn’t treat his face like a trademark.

An image of Kenneth Bianchi during the trial.
Kenneth Bianchi. Source: Amazon

The judge said if his face were his trademark, Bianchi wouldn’t have covered it while he was committing all those murders. He wouldn’t have tried to hide his face from the police, and he would have been proud to show off his “trademark.”