Long Beach Resident Does Hard Time Byron L. Richards, Long Beach Beachcomber Newspaper
Vonda L. Pelto, Ph.D., a Long Beach resident since 1957, knew she wanted to be a psychologist at the age of 10. Little did she know she would be sharing cell space with some of the most notorious serial killers in history.
Raised as a Southern Baptist, her world would change forever when she took a job at the largest county jail system in the world, the Los Angeles County Men’s Jail. The job: keeping serial killers alive.
After the suicide of Vernon Butts, a freeway killer incarcerated in the jail, the Los Angeles Mental Health Department was determined to prevent this from happening again to someone like the Hillside Strangler, Trash Bag Murderer or the Sunset Strip Slayer. The period between the late 70s and the early 80s brought an unprecedented need for someone like Pelto to help these types of people to reconcile to their time behind bars.
Pelto earned her master of science degree in clinical psychology from Cal State Long Beach in 1973 and began working with sexual molesters in the Orange County Mental Health Department. In order for her to receive her doctorate, which she did get nine years later at United States Intl. University (now Alliant International), she had to put in a few years at the men’s jail.
It was between 1979 and 1982 when Pelto received her inspiration for Without Remorse: The Story of the Woman Who Kept Los Angeles’ Serial Killers Alive, a surreal and candid account on her experiences dealing with being a single mother of two working as a psychologist for the country’s most high profile serial killers.
Pelto admits that different readers might feel different things about the book. It reads as a memoir more than a psychoanalyst view of things and will make people cry, cringe but also laugh. This is one of those stories where the most amazing and absurd things are really true.
During her years at the jail she made sure to record her observations as her relationships with many of these killers became more and more personal.
William Bonin, known as the Freeway Killer, raped and killed as many as 36 young men and boys, 14 for which he was convicted of and eventually executed for. According to an excerpt from Without Remorse, Pelto recalls Bonin saying, “He [referring to a judge] told me I was sadistic and guilty of monstrous criminal conduct. I don’t think he had any right to say that to me. I couldn’t help myself. It wasn’t my fault I killed those boys.”
With close conversations like these it’s no wonder it took Pelto 15 years after she started the book to get it finished.
“The nightmares returned as I tried getting my thoughts together,” said Pelto. “But I’ve always been a very tenacious person and was destined to finish it.”
Pelto adds that she did think about giving up on the book, and her life, at least twice. “If I had met one of these charming gentlemen on the outside, I might have gone out with him,” said Pelto. “It’s hard to recognize a true killer.”
Specifically she refers to Ken Bianchi, one of the Hillside Stranglers convicted of kidnapping, raping, torturing and killing females ranging in age from 12 to 28 years old in the hills above Los Angeles.
She goes on to say how handsome and charming Bianchi was. This was before she recognized his blue jumpsuit that categorized him as an inmate. She changed her tune instantly but as the book tells, it was only one of many times she had to adjust her perceptions.
She said that these particular men were wired this way from the beginning and nothing was going to change them. If they were released, they would kill again.
Today Pelto lives in Long Beach with her husband James and continues to eat at the Huff’s Family Restaurant at the corner of Wardlow Road and Norwalk Blvd. where she used to waitress as she worked her way through college. She is retired, but continues to work in the field of psychology while making time for her six grandchildren, traveling and writing. Having finished her first book, Without Remorse, she is currently working on her second.