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Copyright © 2008 Jack Levin
All right reserved.
CONVERSING WITH THE DEVIL
By the time of my visit to Washington State's largest penitentiary in Walla Walla, Ken Bianchi had already served five years of his life sentence there. Along with his older cousin Angelo Buono, Bianchi had brutally tortured and killed ten girls and women in the Los Angeles area. And then, on his own, he relocated to Bellingham, Washington, where he murdered two more young women. While in partnership with his cousin, Bianchi had left virtually no physical evidence at the crime scenes. In fact, the police in Los Angeles suggested that the killing cousins must have scrubbed the walls and furniture in Angelo's upholstery shop where their victims had been tortured, because literally no fingerprints or other incriminating evidence could be found anywhere on the premises. Indeed, the fact that absolutely no fingerprints had been left on the walls, the furniture, or the glassware indicated that something was very wrong. This was not a normal living area. The killers had taken great pains to clean the crime scene.
Operating alone in Bellingham, however, Bianchi was not as careful. Shortly after he arrived in Bellingham, the bodies of two female college students,Karen Mandic and Diane Wilder, were discovered in the back of an automobile off a highway in a wooded area of the city. They had been raped and murdered.
The two young women had been hired by Ken Bianchi, who was working as a security guard for Coastal Security Company, to housesit an upscale single-family home. It was in the Bayside neighborhood, and the alarm system was temporarily down.
Unlike his modus operandi with his cousin in Los Angeles, Bianchi left physical evidence that implicated him in the murders. At the crime scene in Bellingham, he left pubic hairs on the carpet. In his house, the police found blood- and semen-stained clothing, as well as Karen Mandic's phone number. Of course, the phone number alone wasn't much evidence because Bianchi had hired her, but all the evidence together pointed to him. Apparently, it was Angelo Buono who was the organized and careful member of the team. If Bianchi had killed without his partner in Los Angeles, he might have been caught without having amassed a large body count.
Bianchi was finally apprehended. As a result of a plea bargain, however, he was never tried in California and didn't get the death penalty. In exchange for a life sentence, he consented to cooperate with the prosecution in testifying against his cousin Angelo, who was convicted, sentenced to life, and later died of heart failure in his prison cell at Calipatria State Prison.
The state of Washington has had a number of high-profile slayings in addition to those perpetrated by Bianchi. After remaining on the loose for more than twenty years, fifty-three-year-old Gary Ridgway, aka the Green River Killer, was convicted of the brutal murders of forty-eight prostitutes in the Seattle area. A couple of decades earlier, Ted Bundy of Tacoma confessed to twenty-eight murders in states around the country, including Washington, and was executed in Old Sparky by the state of Florida. Near Vancouver, Washington, Westley Allan Dodd tortured and killed three boys over a ten-week period. Serial killer Robert Yates Jr. was found guilty of taking the lives of fifteen women in Spokane County. And John Allen Muhammad, a former resident of Tacoma and one of the so-called DC Snipers, was sentenced to die by the state of Virginia after his fatal shooting of ten people in and around Washington, DC. He also killed victims in Alabama, Louisiana, Georgia, Arizona, and his former residence, the state of Washington.
I met Ken Bianchi in a small visitors' room in the Walla Walla prison in 1987. He was noticeably larger and more mature than he had appeared just after being apprehended in 1979. It was obvious from his muscular physique that, during his confinement, the Hillside Strangler-as Bianchi had come to be known-had taken full advantage of the exercise yard by pumping iron on a regular basis. He was now more than willing to talk-but only in the third-person plural. Like so many other killers, Bianchi continued to hope against hope that he would get a new trial, so he maintained his innocence. Speaking with me, he talked about the motives, methods, and personal characteristics of serial killers in general rather than about himself and the crimes he had perpetrated.
Bianchi and I shook hands. His grip was so tight that I grimaced in pain. I am convinced that he wanted to send me a message: "Look Dr. Levin, you might have your PhD and all that, but as long as we are together in this room, I am in charge, I am in control ... and don't you forget it!" And this was the hand that had throttled the necks of numerous women.
Under normal circumstances, a hard handshake might indicate little if anything about the motivation of an individual. Many ordinary and decent people shake hands firmly. But it occurred to me immediately that Bianchi's excessively strong grip was another sign of just how much he craved power and control. He enjoyed inflicting pain and suffering-it made him feel superior. Bianchi's sadistic behavior with his victims expressed the same theme. And he had held the entire city of Los Angeles in the grip of terror for several months, as he tortured, raped, and sodomized his victims and then dumped their nude bodies on the hillsides surrounding the area. Almost everything he did, both large and small, was designed to enhance his feeling of superiority.
In the beginning of their killing spree, Bianchi and Buono strangled their victims. But over time, their taste for sadism became more and more intense. They required larger amounts of brutality in order to get high on killing, much like a drug addict who needs ever-larger quantities of heroin to stay high. Strangulation alone was no longer satisfying enough. They then began tying their victims to a chair in Angelo's upholstery shop, where they performed the most hideous acts-electrocuting them and injecting cleaning fluid into their veins to make them convulse. Enjoying the screams and the pleas for mercy, they shared a good laugh at the expense of their victims' suffering. And then, when he and his cousin Angelo had had their fun, Bianchi put his victims out of their misery by strangling them and dumping their lifeless bodies.
The cousins also modified their choice of victim. Bianchi and Buono began with a prostitute. But as their victim count mounted, they began to select younger middle-class girls who were riskier to abduct and more likely to be missed. Like so many other serial killers, Bianchi and Buono-"the Hillside Stranglers"-were feeling invincible. After all, though they had stayed on the loose for months, they were not even suspects on anybody's list. So they cut corners, took unnecessary risks, and got careless. And that is exactly how they were eventually apprehended, when Bianchi made a fatal mistake.
My visit with the Hillside Strangler gave me a lesson at the gut level. Bianchi's message of power and control definitely got through to me. After shaking hands, we sat across from one another at a small table. As soon as the security guard left the room and we were alone, my anxiety level soared. And I suddenly was on my best behavior. After all, I was about to interview a sadistic serial killer-a man who had mercilessly murdered his victims, and all for the sake of a thrill, the excitement, the sense of power that he received from perpetrating his heinous crimes.
On the other hand, Bianchi was cagey with me. He never confessed to the murders, never discussed the details of his crimes, but instead talked in the third person about serial killers generally. Yes, serial killers possess skills that other criminals seem to lack. Yes, serial killers may be manipulative. Yes, serial killers may be motivated to achieve a sense of power.
I am sure that Bianchi was hoping (against hope) to gain some advantage from the law-a new trial, a reduced sentence, better accommodations, even a pardon from the governor. Serial killers never give up. They manipulate their victims, they manipulate the public, they manipulate law enforcement, they manipulate the prison system when they are apprehended, and they even manipulate criminologists. On the other hand, it should be noted that Bianchi did admit to me that he had lied about statements he made to psychiatrists about his mother's abusive behavior. He said that he had been told that his insanity defense would stand a much better chance if he could indicate having been brutalized during childhood. It was at this point that Bianchi had invented the story about his mother's holding his hand over a hot stove as a punishment for stealing.
Police found a large number of books in Bianchi's Bellingham apartment that could have taught him how to act insane, feign being hypnotized, and behave as if he had multiple personalities. He had apparently read about criminal investigations, about The Three Faces of Eve, about hypnosis, about abnormal psychology, and about criminology. He had purchased a number of college diplomas through the mail that he hadn't earned-a PhD in psychology and a certificate of achievement confirming that he was educated as a medical doctor. He had fooled his common-law wife into thinking that he was working on his dissertation in psychology. She wondered about it, but believed every word. The Ken she lived with wouldn't have killed anyone; he was a trustworthy person, as far as she knew.
Similarly, while awaiting trial, Bianchi was able to convince several young women that he was an innocent man; that they could save his life by falsely providing him with an alibi. The most extreme case was that of freelance writer Veronica Compton, who wrote to Bianchi asking for his critique of a screenplay she had written about a female serial killer. Before long, the twenty-something woman had fallen in love with Bianchi. During a visit together, the serial killer suggested to her a plan that he hoped would result in his exoneration. He placed some of his semen in a rubber glove that Compton would smuggle out of the prison. Bianchi asked the groupie to convince the authorities that the real serial killer was still on the loose, making Bianchi look totally free of guilt. Compton was supposed to kill a woman and leave Bianchi's sperm at the crime scene to suggest that the murder was sexually motivated. The technology wasn't what it is today, so the DNA could not have been traced back to Bianchi. How could Bianchi be guilty when the sexually motivated murders continued to occur while he was imprisoned? Amazingly, Compton did what she could to comply with Bianchi's request, although she failed in her attempt to strangle a twenty-six-year-old cocktail waitress in Bellingham. Compton was later convicted of attempted murder.
Later, Bianchi was able to deceive several psychiatrists and psychologists-all experts in multiple personality and hypnosis-into believing that he was a genuine multiple personality. Under hypnosis, Ken became Steve, his alter ego, the sadistic personality within him. Bianchi told the expert witnesses that, as a young child, he created an imaginary playmate named Steve as a psychological defense against the severe abuse that had he received from his mother. Later on, Steve became permanently etched into Ken's personality.
Not believing Bianchi's story, one of the psychiatrists for the prosecution, Dr. Martin Orne, planted an idea with the defendant to see how he would react. Orne told Bianchi, in a casual conversation while he was in an awake state, that there are almost never only two personalities in someone suffering from multiple personality syndrome; there are usually at least three. During his next hypnotic session, another alter ego suddenly emerged, that of Billy. Bianchi had taken the bait.
Even more damning, the true origin of Ken's alter ego, Steve, finally emerged. While still in the Los Angeles area, Bianchi had pretended to be a clinical psychologist with an advanced degree. He placed an ad in the newspaper, looking for another psychologist with whom to share office space. He asked that applicants send him their résumés as well as their college transcripts. Bianchi received an answer from a young man named Thomas Steven Walker. Bianchi deleted Walker's name from the transcript and substituted his own. He later used the forged transcript to apply for various positions as a professional psychologist. He also took Walker's name "Steve" as his supposed alter ego. Thus, Steve turned out to be a product of Bianchi's scheming character, not his childhood fantasies.
The manipulative nature of a serial killer knows no bounds. Bianchi was so convincing that some prosecution experts continued to believe his story long after Bianchi's trial had ended and even after he was found guilty. Serial killers know how to play the game: they are masters of presentation of self; they are experts at managing an impression of themselves that they wish to be accepted by others. They typically look and act more like victims than villains.
By the time of my visit with Bianchi, his insanity plea had failed, and I am sure that he no longer believed that he had a reason to hide the truth-finally, it seemed obvious to most objective observers-though probably not to his dedicated groupies-that he was a malingerer as well as a sadistic killer. He had feigned multiple personalities and hypnosis to avoid conviction. Then, when his plea was denied, he could afford, in a practical sense, to help free his mother from the stigma of being regarded as an abusive parent. His mother's needs counted, but only when they did not interfere with satisfying his own needs.
I didn't learn much more about the Hillside Strangler from our conversation together. Accompanied by my colleague James Alan Fox, also a criminologist, I had already spoken with Bianchi's mother and had studied hundreds of pages of his medical records, which included his psychiatric history. Court testimony by expert witnesses in psychiatry and psychology also helped to illuminate the details of the case.
After I spent a couple of hours with Ken Bianchi, the security guard returned and offered to show me out. When I was secure in knowing that I was leaving and Bianchi was staying behind, I decided to pay him back for his painful handshake. As we parted company, I grabbed his hand to shake it and attempted to impose a hurtful grip-the same tight grasp that he had used on me when we met. Bianchi only laughed. He knew exactly what I was up to, what I had in mind, and he enjoyed humiliating me again. It was a flea on an elephant, it was like a ninety-nine-pound weakling (though I am heavier than ninety-nine pounds) trying to kick sand in the face of King Kong. Ken Bianchi was still in charge of things, and he let me know it.
Excerpted from serial killers AND SADISTIC MURDERERS Up Close and Personal by JACK LEVIN Copyright © 2008 by Jack Levin. Excerpted by permission.
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