Death of a strangler

Debra J. Saunders

10/2/2002 12:00:00 AM - Debra J. Saunders
His death rated a four-paragraph item on Page A7 of the Sept. 22 paper, but there was a time when Angelo Buono Jr.'s life was the stuff of front-page headlines. In 1977 and 1978, Buono and his cousin Kenneth Bianchi sexually assaulted and murdered as many as 13 young women -- ages 12 to 28 -- in Los Angeles, leaving their naked bodies where they would readily be found. Their deeds became known as the work of the Hillside Strangler. Buono, 67, died in his Calipatria State Prison cell from a "massive heart attack," according to a Department of Corrections spokesman. It was a peaceful death for a violent man. His sordid tale could have had a different ending. The hillside murders -- which, unknown to the world, took place in Buono's auto upholstery shop -- had stopped without a trail. Bianchi had moved to Washington, where he got sloppy. He killed two women and left behind numerous clues that quickly led authorities to him. Then, in order to escape the death penalty, Bianchi agreed to testify against his cousin. Next, Bianchi began changing his testimony. Then-Los Angeles District Attorney John Van de Kamp, who was eyeing the state attorney general's job, was afraid of losing the case. His office told the trial judge, Ronald George, it wanted to drop the murder charges and instead try Buono on the lesser charge of pandering. Van de Kamp explained, "At this point, there is insufficient evidence to file." Court-watchers held their breath; they expected the judge to grant the D.A. 's wishes, as usually happens. Buono would be out, a free man. The judge, however, balked. Letting a killer walk defied his sense of justice. The judge passed the case on to the state attorney general, George Deukmejian. The justice system doesn't lack irony, nor does this story. Voters subsequently elected Deukmejian as governor and Van de Kamp as attorney general. Van de Kamp inherited the case he had tried to escape. Career prosecutors in the A.G.'s office marshaled a convincing case. In 1983, jurors convicted Buono on nine out of 10 murder counts and sentenced him to life without parole. The jury must have been traumatized, after hearing testimony detailing 10 gruesome deaths in a trial that lasted more than two years. In the years since, Buono has been used as an argument against the death penalty. Defense attorneys have argued that if he could evade capital punishment, while juries sentence lesser killers to death, the death penalty is surely "capricious." At the time of sentencing, Judge George made it clear that he would have preferred death sentences for Buono and Bianchi. Still, the judge had sympathy for a jury that had spent two years living the nightmare torture/deaths of innocent young women. He thought jurors were too exhausted after convicting Buono to spend weeks arguing over whether it was fair for Buono to die while Bianchi lived. In 1986, Buono tied the knot for the fourth time -- from Folsom Prison; his bride was Christine Kizuka, a mother of three. Because Buono was not eligible for parole, he was ineligible for conjugal visits. Bianchi resides at the Washington State Penitentiary. Bianchi will be eligible for parole in the year 2059 -- if he's still alive. "The jury vindicated my faith in the system," George told me Monday. That's a modest statement considering that George's bold action allowed victims' families to keep faith in the justice system. If the jury found otherwise, George's name would be mud. Instead, today he is the chief justice of the California Supreme Court.