The Toolbox Killers
Starting in late June 1979, two men, Lawrence Bittaker and Roy Norris, embarked upon a meticulously-planned spree of rape and murder. Due to their predilection for torturing their victims using common household implements, the media dubbed them the ‘Toolbox Killers’. The crimes they committed were so horrific that, although less famous than other notorious serial killers, Bittaker and Norris are now counted among the most savage and cruel in American history.
Although each man’s story is different, they had much in common. Both men endured unloving upbringings; in Bittaker’s case, he was abandoned soon after birth and was adopted by a man named George Bittaker and his wife. George Bittaker worked in the aircraft industry, and, as a result, the family moved around frequently. Young Lawrence received little attention or affection from his parents and began to compensate by turning to petty crime.
He had his first brush with the law at 12 when he was caught shoplifting. From then on, the nature of his crimes became steadily more serious until at 17, soon after dropping out of school, he was sent to the California Youth Authority for auto theft, hit-and-run and evading arrest. He spent the best part of the next 15 years behind bars, compulsively reoffending each time he was released.
Norris’ childhood was not much happier. Although he spent some time living at home with his mother, a drug addict, he was also sent to stay with relatives for periods. He was an awkward child who made others feel uncomfortable and he had difficulty forming relationships, especially with females.
Norris, too, dropped out of school at 17. He joined the navy, serving mainly in San Diego. He had a short tour of service in Vietnam but never saw combat. After a string of sexual assaults, he was discharged from the navy with “psychological problems” and was eventually committed to Atascadero State Hospital as a mentally disordered sex offender.
Five years later, and only three months after his release from hospital, he attacked another woman, dragging her into bushes and raping her. This time he was convicted and sent to California Men’s Colony at San Louis Obispo – the institution where Bittaker was serving his latest sentence, this time for attempted murder.
At San Louis Obispo, the pair became acquainted. Later, when they discovered they shared similar unhealthy fantasies, they became close friends.
They realized they were both excited by the sadistic domination and control of women, and the two began to hatch plans for when they were released. Specifically, they dreamed up a scheme to rape and murder a girl of each age from 13 to 19.
Fantasy to reality
Bittaker was released on 15th October 1978 and moved to Los Angeles where he found well-paid work as a skilled machinist. Norris was released the following year on 15th January; he moved into his mother’s home in Redondo Beach and used his navy training to find employment as an electrician. Soon after, Norris received a letter from Bittaker, and they began to think about turning their prison fantasies into reality.
One of the most disturbing aspects of this case is the amount of forethought that went into the attacks. Everything was premeditated in the most calculating and cold-blooded way.
First, the pair acquired a vehicle, a windowless 1977 GMC silver cargo van with a sliding door to make it easier to snatch victims from the street. They began to modify the interior, installing a bed on a raised frame, a cooler and a box of household tools. They even gave the van a nickname: “Murder Mack”.
Next, they sought out the perfect location for their intended crimes. They discovered a disused fire road in the San Gabriel mountains. The gate to the road was chained, but Bittaker removed the padlock with a crowbar and replaced it with his own. Now they had access to an isolated spot where they would not be disturbed.
They were almost ready but not quite. From February to June 1979, they embarked on a series of chilling “practice runs” where they would cruise the beaches along the Pacific Coast Highway, picking up female hitchhikers and letting them go unharmed, unaware of the danger they had been in. They were perfecting their techniques for enticing potential victims into their van; around 20 girls passed through their clutches in this way without ever perceiving the peril they were in.
The first victim
Finally, towards the end of June, everything was in place. As Norris later stated, the morning of 24th “started innocently enough”, and they followed their usual habit of driving to the beach, flirting with girls, drinking and smoking marijuana. That evening, they spotted a girl who caught their eye and decided to act. They had chosen their first victim, a 16-year-old named Lucinda Schaefer.
In fact, Cindy was not a hitchhiker. She had just attended a church meeting and was walking back to her grandmother’s home. First, Bittaker and Norris offered her a ride, but she refused. Rather than abandon their attempt, Bittaker drove the van further up the road and parked next to the sidewalk. Norris opened the sliding door and pretended to be engaged in repair work as the girl approached.
As she passed the open door, Norris grabbed her, and she was bundled into the van, losing a shoe in the process. As Bittaker drove away, turning up the radio to drown out her screams, Norris bound and gagged her in the back of the van.
They made their way to the prearranged spot in the hills where they proceeded to take turns raping her. At some point during her ordeal, Cindy pleaded that if they were going to kill her, at least to let her pray first.
When they had finished with her, according to Norris, the two discussed at length whether to kill her. Norris claimed he wanted to let her live, but in the end, Bittaker convinced him that she had to die. First, Norris attempted to strangle her, but after seeing the look in her eyes, he felt sick and went to vomit in the bushes. Bittaker then strangled her with a wire coat hanger, tightening it with a pair of pliers until she stopped moving. Afterwards, Bittaker supposedly remarked to Norris that it had been a lot more difficult than it looked on TV. They wrapped her body in a shower curtain and threw it into the canyon for the animals.
Bittaker later wrote of these events that “throughout the whole experience, Cindy displayed a magnificent state of self-control and composed acceptance of the conditions and facts over which she had no control. She shed no tears, offered no resistance, and expressed no great concern for her safety. I guess she knew what was coming.” In the end, they hadn’t even allowed her to pray.
The second victim
Perhaps emboldened by their initial success, it was only two weeks before the pair struck again. On 8th July, they spotted a new potential victim, 18-year-old Andrea Hall, who was hitchhiking to Redondo Beach.
Norris and Bittaker decided to pounce, but before they could offer her a ride, she was picked up by another car. Undeterred, the pair followed behind. Norris climbed into the back of the van and hid beneath the bed, and when the first car pulled over to let Andrea out, Bittaker stopped and offered her another ride. She accepted.
Once on the road, Bittaker offered her a drink, saying she could help herself to the cooler in the back. As she was retrieving the drink, Norris emerged from beneath the bed and grabbed her. She was strong and fought fiercely, but eventually, Norris overpowered her; she was bound and gagged with duct tape and Bittaker drove the trio out to the mountains.
They both raped her, although Norris claimed he was less attracted to Andrea than the other victims. At one point, Bittaker left Norris with the van and took Andrea up a hill. After two hours, he returned with a number of polaroid photographs he had just taken, including images of Andrea about to perform oral sex on him.
After they drove deeper into the mountains, Norris took the van to fetch supplies. When he returned, Bittaker was alone. Bittaker had more Polaroids, this time images showing Andrea with a look of abject terror on her face. Norris asked how Bittaker had managed to achieve that look, to which Bittaker replied he had told her he was going to kill her unless she gave him good reasons to let her live. He said she “didn’t put up much of an argument” so he had thrust an ice pick into her brain, once through each ear, and had then strangled her. Norris didn’t see the body.
The third and fourth victims
After their second attack, the pair waited two months before they moved again. On 3rd September, while out cruising in the Murder Mack, Bittaker and Norris spotted 15-year-old Jackie Gilliam and 13-year-old Leah Lamp taking a rest from hitchhiking at a bus stop near Hermosa Beach. They happily accepted the offer of a ride and some marijuana and quickly jumped into the van.
Soon, the girls realized the van was heading in the wrong direction and they began to protest. Bittaker claimed he just wanted to find a secluded spot to smoke, but the girls began to struggle, and Norris was forced to subdue them. He hit Leah in the head with some lead weights in a plastic bag, knocking her unconscious, before attempting to deal with Jackie.
At one moment, while the van was stopped in traffic, Leah came round and managed to open the door. Bittaker left the driver’s seat to help Norris but then noticed a group of tennis players watching from a nearby court. Bittaker told them the girls were just having a bad LSD trip, and soon they were both bound and bundled back into the van. None of the tennis players thought to alert the police, and Bittaker and Norris were able to drive into the mountains unmolested.
Neither Bittaker nor Norris was interested in Leah and both turned their attentions to Jackie. They set about repeatedly raping and torturing her while she offered little resistance. During the rapes, Bittaker forced Jackie to pretend she was enjoying herself, while Norris made her pretend to be a cousin he had fantasized about raping. The attackers had discovered that Jackie was a virgin and decided to make a tape recording the assault. At one point, Bittaker took Leah away from the van to photograph her; he also took photos of Jackie, clothed, naked, during intercourse and during oral copulation.
The pair tormented the girls for almost two days, sleeping next to them in the back of the van overnight. When they were finished, Norris claims there was another discussion about killing the girls. He said he argued that Jackie should be killed quickly since she had been cooperative throughout. Bittaker disagreed, arguing it was unnecessary since “they only died once anyway.”
In the end, Bittaker killed Jackie in the same way he had killed Andrea Hall, stabbing her through the ears with an ice pick before finishing her off by strangling her. He murdered Leah by smashing her over the head with a hammer and then strangling her while Norris continued to beat her with the hammer. As with Cindy Schaefer, their bodies were thrown into the canyon for the scavengers.