Randy Kraft: The Southern California Strangler

Oct 10, 2009 - by J. J. Maloney - 0 Comments

Randy Kraft

Randy Kraft

The reporter who coined the phrase "Freeway Killer," sets the record straight about why serial-killer Randy Kraft should not be confused with William Bonin.

by J. J. Maloney

There are those who call Randy Kraft the ''Freeway Killer'' and they are wrong. William Bonin, executed at San Quentin in 1996, was the Freeway Killer.

There are police agencies who say the media were wrong to name Bonin the Freeway Killer – that that 'title' belonged to Kraft, whose murder spree began before Bonin's. They too are wrong.

Dennis McDougal's 1991 book Angel of Darkness touts Kraft's murders as ''...the most heinous murder spree of the century.'' That is wrong. McDougal's book is compelling, shocking, detailed, well written and inaccurate.

You cannot discuss the murders Randy Kraft committed without also discussing the Freeway Killer case.

The story began in 1972 when bodies of young men – often Marines – began to be found in Southern California – specifically from the city of Long Beach, through Orange County and into San Diego County. There were several ''signatures'' to the killings: the victims were frequently burned on their left nipple with an automobile cigarette lighter, some of them had their left testicle cut out while they were alive, some had objects shoved into their rectums (in some cases something on the order of a tree branch, in other cases a single sock). The real link to these cases was the use of drugs, the most common being Valium, ingested with alcohol.

The murders were truly horrific. In one instance the victim's eyelids were cut off to prevent him from closing his eyes during the torture.

Not every case carried the signatures of all others – which resulted in differences of opinion from one police agency to another as to whether all of the killings were by the same person.

After a rash of killings through 1975, there was only one such murder in 1976 and one in 1977. The news media did not know about these latter two murders, so it was widely believed the series of killings had stopping in 1975.

Then, in 1978, the murders renewed with a vengeance – with 14 murders occurring between Apr. 16, 1978 through Dec. 13, 1979.

On Dec. 6, 1979, Tim Alger, a young police reporter for the Orange County Register wrote a story that a new killing spree had begun. Significantly, although police in earlier years had been willing to divulge details of the murders – such as burned nipples, emasculation, etc. – they had stopped providing any details whatever, other than name, rank and serial number of the victims.

The following paragraph is an example of what Alger was up against: ''The investigators refuse to give many details of the murders that may link a single suspect to several – or all – of the killings. They talk of ''possibilities'' and ''possible leads'' and, when asked about links between the murders, a detective responded, ''That could be. I can't say one way or another. But it's always a possibility.''''

Alger's story was a lone voice in the wilderness. The Los Angeles Times ignored the killings, as did the television stations.

On Jan. 10, 1980, the Register hired me as an investigative reporter. It seemed obvious that a major serial killer was at work in Orange County and the surrounding areas, whether or not the police cared to admit it. Marv Olsen, the metro editor, assigned me to work on the story full-time.

Since the police wouldn't say there was a serial killer at work, I enlisted the aid of Dr. Albert Rosenstein, a forensic psychologist. On March 24, 1980, the Register ran a story that covered the top third of the front page, titled, '''Freeway Killer' Cruises For Murder.''

Olsen had agreed that giving the killer a 'name' would make him less abstract to the public. It worked. The radio and television stations jumped on the story, and from that point on the killer was a reality to the public. The only major media outlet to shy away from the story was the Times.

My story contained some of the same types of flaws Alger's story had contained. Since the police were withholding details of the murders, Dr. Rosenstein had no way of knowing there were two killers working at the same time, but with different M.O.s. And Rosenstein, in an excess of confidence, had insisted on linking the killer to Patton State Hospital – believing the killer had been incarcerated there as a sex offender.

In his book, McDougal lionizes Orange County detective Jim Sidebotham. When the Register ran its ''Freeway Killer'' story, Sidebotham expressed misgivings about the usefulness of a multi-agency task force, such as had been assembled to catch the Hillside Strangler. Sidebotham argued that, since many of the Freeway Killer victims were unidentified, a multi-agency task force would serve no good purpose. In fact, 10 years after William Bonin was captured, Sidebotham still expressed this view (page 367 of book).

Yet, as McDougal's book demonstrates, a closer relationship between the investigating agencies might have uncovered Kraft much sooner. He was arrested in 1975 in connection with one of the murders, but an assistant prosecutor refused to file charges. Also, a number of victims were known to frequent Ripples, a gay bar where Kraft was a well-known customer.

McDougal adopts the view of some in law enforcement that the Register was ''irresponsible'' in calling Bonin the Freeway Killer, when – they argue – that title belonged to Randy Kraft.

That is untrue. The name ''Freeway Killer'' was coined to describe the serial killer who was in a killing frenzy in early 1980, and that was William Bonin – who murdered 21 young men between August 1979 and his capture on June 11, 1980. In fact, 48 hours before the Register's Mar. 16 story broke, two bodies were found, resulting in a bulletin in the middle of the page one story, that read: ''Two bodies found at noon Saturday between the lower San Juan Campground and Ortega Highway in Cleveland National Forest may be the 30th and 31st victims of the Freeway Killer. The victims were teenaged boys; both were strangled and one was homosexually molested, according to confidential police sources.''

The fact is, long before my story was printed, the police had compiled a 52-inch wall chart, titled, ''The Southern California Strangler(s)'' – a designation apparently unknown to McDougal more than 10 years after the fact. The Los Angeles Police Department on Jan. 31, 1979 issued the first issue of that chart, before Bonin had killed his first victim. Updated versions were issued on May 1, 1979 and July 20, 1979, also before Bonin began killing.

So Randy Kraft is the Southern California Strangler, and William Bonin is the Freeway Killer.

Bonin did not torture or emasculate his victims, while Kraft is accused of that. The most telling difference, however, was that Bonin would stop his vehicle and dump his victims out, while the Southern California Strangler shoved his victims out of a fast-moving vehicle, often leaving long trails of flesh on the highway.


For the story of serial-killer William Bonin, click here to read J.J. Maloney's article''The Freeway Killer.''

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