She Spent Time Keeping Serial Killers Cool Tom Gorbaty, Long Beach Press Telegram Staff Writer
Throughout her girlhood, Vonda Pelto never uttered a bad word. There are words we can scatter throughout this column in a family paper on a regular basis that would’ve had Vonda blushing back when she was living in the small Colorado River town of Needles, the daughter of strict Southern Baptists.
“I wouldn’t even say `darn’ or `shoot’,” she says. “Never mind (flurry of unprintable nouns, gerunds, dangling participles, misplaced modifiers …)”
Then, she started working in a place where, right off the bat, she was being called (unprintable adjective) (unprintable noun)—and much worse. And not even in the bad way. That’s just the way serial killers—and, now, when the occasion merits, Pelto—talk.
From 1979 through 1982, Pelto kept a second-floor office at the L.A. County Men’s Central Jail. Other people had their places on the same floor. Guys like Freeway Killers James Munro and William Bonin; Trash Bag Murderer Yehuda Avital; and Hillside Stranglers Kenneth Bianchi and his cousin, Angelo Buono, Jr.
Right around the corner was the recently vacated room of Charles Manson. It was an all-star squad of superkillers, with dozens—scores—of victims to their names and nicknames. And Pelto’s office was always open.
Pelto, who has lived in Long Beach since 1960 when she and her (now ex-) husband moved to town and settled in El Dorado Park Estates, earned a master’s degree at Cal State Long Beach and, eventually, a doctorate at United States International University (now Alliant International University). She’s retired now from a long career, the latter part spent in the lovely setting of her less murderous private practice office right across the street from the Seal Beach Pier.
But Pelto’s career was kick-started, and her eyes opened, and her vocabulary ultra-colorized with her three-year stint working with, mostly, serial killers as a clinical psychologist while working toward her doctorate.
With law and mental-health officials embarrassed after freeway killer Vernon Butts hanged himself in Men’s Central, the L.A. County Health Department hired Pelto to help keep the serial killers alive while they were in jail awaiting trial.
More than 20 years later, Pelto has finally put her experiences and feelings on paper in a fascinating book, Without Remorse: The Story of the Woman Who Kept Los Angeles’ Serial Killers Alive.
Without Remorse is alive with hyper-salty language, eerily casual conversation with serial killers, run-ins with other thuggish sorts, including guards and other people on the “outside,” along with the author/psychiatrist’s feelings about the job and her charges.
Not only was Pelto’s door always open, so were the doors of the prisoners while she was at work. “They’d come by and look in and say `Hi, Vonda! How’s everything? Howya feeling today?’
“I remember once I had Bianchi and Avital sitting in my office having cookies and arguing over the merits of women wearing tight jeans and makeup,” she says. “The Trash Bag murderer said tight jeans make women look better, the Hillside Strangler said he wouldn’t date a woman wearing tight jeans and makeup.”
A picky man, our Bianchi, who Pelto writes of with fascination of his charisma. And it’s with a bit of fright that she admits if she’d met him on the outside and didn’t know who he was—an insanely vicious and remarkably cruel killer—she’d go on a date with him if he’d asked.
“There were four phones right outside my office and the men were always on the phones chatting away. I was j ust down the hall from Trash Bag, Freeway and Hillside,” says Pelto in serial-killer shorthand. “They came in all the time to talk.”
None came across as particularly crazy, at least in terms of hearing voices or being delusional, she says, and when they did speak of crime, it was utterly emotionless.
“These guys had no guilt, No Remorse. I believe if they were out, they’d kill again.
“I asked Bill Bonin, I said, `Bill, how does it feel when you kill a kid?’ He confessed to killing 21 males between the ages of 12 and 19—and he’s strongly suspected of killing 45—and he said he felt nothing in terms of feeling sorry. He said he killed when he was tense or nervous, and that it helped him to relax. He said he’d fantasize about killing someone all day long, then in the evening he’d kill someone and feel good, and with no sadness for the victim or family. If he wasn’t in prison now, he said he’d never stop killing.”
So, nightmares? “Yes, that’s what kept me from writing the book for 20 years,” says Pelto, who has been married to attorney Jim Lia for 17 years. “Every time I started writing, the nightmares would come.”
The nightmares have finally stopped, she says. And, so, the book is out.
The language though, sounding a bit, well, coarse at times, especially from the grandmother of six, is something that’s left over. Personally, we found it kind of cool, and, she says, it doesn’t bother her kids or grandchildren.
“I heard it so much when I was at the jail that it doesn’t mean a thing to me,” she says. “It’s just sound waves.”