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The ‘Hillside Strangler’ Was a Duo Who Terrorized 1970s Los Angeles

Photo Credit: Bettmann / Getty Images / Cropped and Colorized
Photo Credit: Bettmann / Getty Images / Cropped and Colorized

The most famous killing spree associated with Los Angeles is undoubtedly the murders committed by Charles Manson and his cult followers, but those weren’t the only ones. Over the span of four months in 1977 and 1978, the ‘Hillside Strangler’ terrorized the public. It was later revealed that there were two men behind the deaths: Kenneth Bianchi and Angelo Buono Jr., cousins who were also partners in crime.

Before the Hillside Strangler

Bianchi moved to Los Angeles in January 1976 to live with his cousin, Buono. Although their major crimes were committed as the Hillside Strangler – a name given by the press that reflected the location where the bodies were found and the cause of death – they were involved in questionable activities well before that. As his cousin was running out of money, Buono came up with the idea of finding two women they could manage as prostitutes, getting a cut of whatever money was brought in.

Kenneth Bianchi getting out of a sheriff's car surrounded by other men.
Kenneth Bianchi gets out of a sheriff’s car on arrival at his arraignment, 1979. (Photo Credit: Bettmann/ Getty Images)

They soon met Sabra Hannan and Becky Spears, who were teenage runaways. Both girls were forced to prostitute themselves so Bianchi and Buono could earn cash. Spears eventually met a lawyer who was able to help her escape from the city. Not long after, Hannan also ran away. This forced the men to find new girls to work for them. To do so, they impersonated police officers.

The first victims of the Hillside Strangler

This plan soon turned deadly when Bianchi and Buono purchased a list of frequent customers from a prostitute named Deborah Noble. The list was delivered by Noble and another escort named Yolanda Washington. As it turned out, the list was fake. The men decided that they wanted to get revenge. Rather than go after Noble, they went after Washington as she had told them the area where she frequently worked. Her body was found near the Ventura Freeway on October 17, 1977, making her the first kill of the Hillside Stranglers.

Side by side photographs of Sonja Johnson and Dolores Cepeda.
Sonja Johnson and Dolores Cepeda, both victims of the Hillside Strangler. (Photo Credit: Unknown Author / Los Angeles Times / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Ronald LeMieux was the last person to see Washington alive. He told police that he had seen two other officers pull up, put her in handcuffs, and then into their car. This method would remain consistent for most of the murders – the men pretended that they were police taking the women to the station. In reality, Washington was taken to Buono’s upholstery shop, never to be heard from again.

By the end of November 1977, eight women had been killed: Yolanda Washington, Judith Miller, Lissa Kastin, Sonja Johnson, Dolores Cepeda, Kristina Weckler, Evelyn King, and Lauren Wagner. All of the women had been sexually assaulted and tortured before they were strangled to death.

Final killings

The Hillside Stranglers next killed Kimberly Martin, an 18-year-old call girl. By this point, women throughout Los Angeles were terrified, as the police hadn’t made any breakthroughs in the cases. Despite the rapid string of killings once Bianchi and Buono started, there was a two-month period where there were no attacks or murders. This didn’t last long, however, as Cindy Hudspeth showed up at the upholstery shop one night, and the men decided to make her their next and final victim.

Angelo Buono in handcuffs walking through a hallway.
Angelo Buono arriving at the Los Angeles Criminal Court Building for his arraignment, 1979. (Photo Credit: Bettmann/ Getty Images)

The end of the Hillside Stranglers’ killing spree coincided with the birth of Bianchi’s son. Throughout the rampage, he had been trying to marry his girlfriend, Kelli Boyd, but she never agreed. They did have a child together, and the birth may have been a motivating factor to stop the murders. Only a few weeks later Boyd decided to leave Bianchi and move to Washington. Bianchi followed her.

Police investigation

Moving to a new state was a fresh start for him and he resumed his killing all over again, this time without his partner. On January 11, 1979, he abducted and murdered two students from Western Washington University. As it turns out, Buono had been the brains of the operation. Without him, Bianchi did a bad job of covering his tracks and was soon caught by police – only a day after committing the murders.

Daryl Gates given a press conference about the Hillside Strangler while surrounded by reporters.
Assistant Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates disclosed at a press conference that they received descriptions of the Hillside Strangler which will enable them to make new composite drawings of the suspects, 1977. (Photo Credit: Bettmann/ Getty Images)

It didn’t take long for him to give up his partner either, who was soon arrested. Bianchi attempted to get out of the death penalty by trying to plead insanity while the police were interviewing him on the two most recent murders. He claimed that he had dissociative identity disorder, which was quickly discredited by a court psychologist who said he was actually just very good at manipulation. Instead, Bianchi finally admitted to the crime, as well as the Los Angeles murders, and he agreed to testify against Buono.

After his crimes came to light, Bianchi started a relationship with Veronica Compton who acted as a character witness during his trial. The pair also came up with a poorly organized plan to make it look like the Hillside Strangler was still out there. Compton lured a woman into a hotel room with the intent to strangle her and then plant semen given to her by Bianchi. The plan failed and Compton was imprisoned, being released in 2003.

Trial of the Hillside Stranglers

Bianchi pleaded guilty to both murders in Washington, as well as five of the 10 murders in Los Angeles, to ensure that he didn’t get sentenced to death. He was given six life sentences, while his cousin, unable to cut a deal, received life without parole. The jury decided against capital punishment for both men, despite the many heinous acts they committed. This didn’t sit well with the presiding judge.

Kenneth Bianchi, one of the Hillside Stranglers, crying while wearing a suit.
Kenneth Bianchi begins to cry during legal proceedings, 1979. (Photo Credit: Bettmann/ Getty Images)

Judge Ronald George’s final statement to the court was: “Angelo Buono and Kenneth Bianchi slowly squeezed out of their victims their last breath of air and their promise for a future life. And all for what? The momentary sadistic thrill of enjoying a brief perverted sexual satisfaction and the venting of their hatred for women. If ever there was a case where the death penalty is appropriate, this is the case.”

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Buono died in prison in 2002. Bianchi is still serving his sentence and was denied parole when he asked for it in 2010. He will have another opportunity for parole in 2025.

Rosemary Giles

Rosemary Giles is a history content writer with Hive Media. She received both her bachelor of arts degree in history, and her master of arts degree in history from Western University. Her research focused on military, environmental, and Canadian history with a specific focus on the Second World War. As a student, she worked in a variety of research positions, including as an archivist. She also worked as a teaching assistant in the History Department.

Since completing her degrees, she has decided to take a step back from academia to focus her career on writing and sharing history in a more accessible way. With a passion for historical learning and historical education, her writing interests include social history, and war history, especially researching obscure facts about the Second World War. In her spare time, Rosemary enjoys spending time with her partner, her cats, and her horse, or sitting down to read a good book.