On Halloween night, after a five-month killing spree throughout San Fernando Valley, California in 1979, Lawrence Bittaker and Roy Norris sadistically humiliated, tortured, raped and killed their last victim. It was their most brutal murder yet. And they got it all on tape. The two organized killers escalated in violence after each kill, like they were chasing a high, but thankfully their terrible reign came to a swift end when Norris divulged their dark secrets to a former fellow inmate who was disgusted by what they had done.
Born: Lawrence Bittaker, September 27, 1940, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Roy Norris, February 5, 1948, Greeley, Colorado
Current Whereabouts: Lawrence Bittaker, San Quentin State Prison, San Quentin, CA; Roy Norris, Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility, San Diego County, CA
M.O.: Lured teenage girls into their van where they bound and gagged them with duct tape; most of the girls were then taken to a secluded location in the San Gabriel Mountains where they were strangled by a wire coat hanger tightened by vise-grip pliers or killed by blunt force trauma from an ice pick or sledgehammer after torture and rape
Motive: Attempting to deal with past humiliations, likely caused by a mother figure, girlfriend or potential girlfriend, Bittaker and Norris sought revenge against women by dominating and humiliating younger girls whom they could easily overpower
Victim Count: 5
Best known for: Using common household tools, like pliers and sledgehammers, to brutally torture their victims; taping on audio cassette the torture, rape and murder of Shirley Ledford. This tape is so graphic, it’s used by the FBI to desensitize recruits.
“I like women. I don’t think they’re beneath us. I got wrapped up in a screwball fantasy. It wasn’t exciting. Well, it was exciting in a certain sense. Age is not relevant as long as they’re young and attractive. I got a problem with women anywhere near my adopted mother’s age. My adopted parents were kind of old when they adopted me, in their 40s. Having sex with a woman of that age reminds me of my mother, a sex object,” - Lawrence Bittaker.
“We’ve all heard women scream in horror films...still, we know that no-one is really screaming. Why? Simply because an actress can't produce some sounds that convince us that something vile and heinous is happening. If you ever heard that tape, there is just no possible way that you'd not begin crying and trembling. I doubt you could listen to more than a full sixty seconds of it,” - Roy Norris.
Roy Norris and Lawrence Bittaker met in 1977 while serving time at the California Men’s Colony, a prison in San Luis Obispo. The former had been convicted of rape and the latter of attempted murder. There, the two criminals formed a pernicious bond and planned out the toolbox killings they would later commit. Upon release, the “gruesome twosome” brought out the worst in one another, egging each other on to commit criminal acts that neither one would have committed on their own. Of the two individuals, Bittaker had the dominant personality and a near-genius IQ level of 138, so he took the lead in plotting and executing their crimes. Although Norris occupied a more subordinate role, he was a willing and eager accomplice.
Both had abandonment issues, dislike for the people who raised them and early brushes with the law. Bittaker’s birth mother placed him in an orphanage when he was a baby, and he was eventually adopted by the Bittaker family. His criminal record began at the age of twelve with petty theft and shoplifting, but he was sent to a juvenile detention center at the age of seventeen for auto-theft, a hit and run and evading arrest. The psychiatrist there described him as an extremely hostile and manipulative. In a later jail stint, another psychiatrist diagnosed him as a borderline psychotic and as having a borderline personality disorder. Bittaker was described to have: a resistance to acknowledging responsibility for his actions, a disconnect from reality, an unstable sense of self, unstable relationships with others and unstable emotional states. When he was released from juvie at eighteen, he learned that the Bittakers had disowned him and moved away.
Norris, estranged and then eventually also abandoned by his biological parents, was in and out of foster care growing up, and he claimed that one family sexually abused him. During a brief time with his biological parents when he was sixteen, Norris made a sexual pass at a female relative. His father found out and threatened to beat him. Norris then stole his father’s car and tried to commit suicide but was apprehended as a runaway and returned home. Unwanted, his parents abandoned him, and he joined the U.S. Navy. He was deployed to Vietnam, but never saw active combat. After four months, and several sexual assaults against women, military psychologists diagnosed Norris as having a severe schizoid personality and discharged him from the service. In other words, Norris lacked interest in social relationships, preferred solidarity, secretiveness and had difficulty in expressing emotions. Even when directly provoked, he had difficulty expressing hostility or aggression in social situations, and instead appeared emotionally cold, apathetic, absent-minded and self-absorbed. But below the surface, his suppressed feelings and rage bubbled up inside him. When it eventually burst, his victims suffered the impact of its release.
Both men were uncomfortable around older women and targeted teenage girls, because they could be easily controlled, manipulated and overpowered. They purchased a 1977 GMC cargo van and named it the “Murder Mac.” Before their murder spree began, Bittaker and Norris practiced luring girls into their van by picking up hitchhikers along the Pacific Coast Highway.Norris tried to strangle their first victim, Cindy Shaefer, but couldn’t do it after seeing a certain look in her eye. He exited the van to vomit while Bittaker finished the job. Their last victim, Shirley Ledford, was the only victim not picked up along the Pacific Coastal Highway and taken to the San Gabriel Mountains where the others were killed and disposed. Up until this point, their other victims were just missing girls. Bittaker craved attention and desperately wanted to read about himself in the newspapers, so they abducted Shirley Ledford from a residential neighborhood and left her body out on a lawn.
When the testimonies of a former prison inmate and rape victim lead to their arrest, Norris asserted he didn’t harm anyone. But mounting evidence forced him to confess. He only confessed to raping the girls, blaming Bittaker for their murders. Aside from hoping to save his own skin, Norris turned against his partner because he felt resentment towards him. It’s likely Norris was pressured into doing things he didn’t want to do by Bittaker, but because of his schizoid personality, he couldn’t stand up for himself in the moment. In court, Bittaker similarly claimed that he raped the girls and left, only “finding out” that Norris murdered them after their arrest. The audio tape of Shirley Ledford’s torture, rape and murder, however, exposed both men’s lies.
Norris is currently serving a life sentence and Bittaker is still on Death Row, his execution date having been pushed back multiple times with California’s changing legal stance on the death penalty.