When the Freeway Killer came to Van Nuys

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“Creepily and sadly one of my classmates who lived around the corner was lured and killed by the Freeway Killer while walking along the Pacoima wash to the 7/11 on Valerio/Van Nuys Blvd. That was the way we always rode our bikes…”  —Correspondence from a reader in Wellesley, Mass, who was raised on Lull St. in Van Nuys.

“Our neighbor had originally owned and farmed the land there.  Her husband had been “gassed” during WWI but I didn’t learn what that meant for many years. She had sold all but an acre of the original property and tract houses were put up.  She had retained a magnificent orchard–lemons, limes, tangerines, grapefruits, oranges, plums, peaches, pomegranates, and grew her own vegetables.  She let us have the run of her yard and we were too young to realize that it was full of black widow spiders.  Part of her original property was left undeveloped (a virtually empty field we called the dead end) except for a large old, empty house (the haunted house).  That was our playground….”

William Bonin killed 21 teenaged boys in the Los Angeles area between May 1979-June 1980. He accomplished this in the 1970’s fashion: by luring them into his Chevy van.  They were subdued, raped, then strangled, frequently with their own t-shirts.  The bodies were dropped off alongside freeways around Southern California.  Bonin had six prior convictions of sexual assault at the time of his murder spree, and had been deemed an “untreatable offender” by psychiatrists at Atascadero State Hospital.   Yet there he was, the Hurdy-Gurdy Man on parole, free to cruise Van Nuys Blvd when he found Victim #12, Ronald Gatlin.

Empty fields and fruit trees and free range to ride one’s bike unsupervised was the essence of Valley life for kids in the 1970’s. It was why families chose to live here rather than Venice. Van Nuys was thought of the way we think of Valencia now, a far away land, well removed from the chaos of the city.

Three Strikes laws and electronic dragnets have done away with the William Bonins of California. By any statistical measure, Los Angeles is far safer from random crime than it has ever been.    There are more shaded streets, more crosswalks and more speed bumps and safety helmets, but you don’t see kids wandering around, away from the reach of parents.

The Pacoima wash is fenced off now.  Once the playground is violated, it’s done.  Freedom can be a difficult thing to re-learn.