Chater One of from Without Remorse: The Story of
the Woman Who Kept Los Angeles’ Serial Killers Alive
WHAT’S A NICE GIRL DOING IN A PLACE LIKE THIS?
I stepped through the portal slowly, cautiously, as if I were stepping into quicksand, and immediately froze. There was a deafening roar. Metal doors slammed, voices screamed out from unseen loudspeakers, and feet with chains attached to them dragged along the cement floors. The jail was ripe with the stench of stale cigarette smoke, rank body odor, feces, disinfectant, and burnt toast. And there was a heaviness to this foul, repugnant combination of smells that added to the oppressiveness of the atmosphere. Momentarily, I thought I would be sick.
“Stranger in Paradise” bellowed out from an unseen speaker system, and I worked hard to stifle a nervous laugh. Elevator music in a men’s jail? Totally insane!
Looking around, I struggled to take in this alien world. A loud clang sounded. The heavy steel door engaged and was grinding closed behind me. I was inside a men’s jail! Me, a girl from Needles, California; a town of forty-five hundred people located on the edge of the Colorado River, where my father worked for the Santa Fe Railroad and my and my mother clerked for JC Penney. My impulse was to turn and run, but there was no escape; the gate had slammed and locked behind me. I felt tentative and rubbed my sweaty palms along the sides of my skirt. My heart pounding in my ears, the muscles in my neck drawing into a knot. Directly across from the gate I had entered, six male inmates dressed in yellow jumpsuits sat along mustard colored walls on backless wooden benches. Each man had a manacle fastened to his right ankle. Shackles ran from the steel ankle bracelets to metal cylinders that supported the benches anchored into the concrete floor.
Two of the inmates looked at the ceiling as if they were praying. Two others glared at me as if they had never seen a woman. One inmate mumbled and gestured wildly, responding to unseen voices inside his head. The inmate seated at the end of the bench had his jumpsuit unbuttoned to the crotch, urinating noisily into a Styrofoam cup. He faced the long hall, unconcerned that I stood only a few feet away.
I stayed motionless, turning only my head to observe the dingy hallway hoping someone would notice my hesitation and come to my rescue. Half a dozen inmates dressed in blue jumpsuits scrubbed the walls with wooden bristle brushes, some on their knees, others stretching to reach the upper portions. The slamming of the gate had alerted them to my presence.
Wolf whistles followed. Someone screamed out, “New meat! Fresh pussy!”
I felt hot and disoriented. Vonda, get hold of yourself. I mumbled under my breath. Turning to the right about a football Field away, another gate of bars blocked the exit. Metal panels dotted the ceiling with long fluorescent tubes providing bright, monotonous light that bounced annoyingly off the highly polished concrete floor. Intermittent metal doors punctuated the hallway, portals into the sheriff’s administrative offices. And the High Power Module. A module that houses some of the most notorious serial Killers. Voices reverberated down the austere, concrete hallway. I assumed they belonged to the inmates. Unexpectedly, a loud, coarse voice called out above the rest of the fray.
“Yo, sweet little mamma, you wanna fuck?”
Startled, I turned to watch a line of inmates being herded toward me like cattle. They were shackled together with leg irons, the chains ragging along the cold cement floor, scraping and rattling as they moved. Many of the men still pimply faced not looking old enough to be out of high school. Probably not much older than my own two daughters. Studying the fish line, I spotted a wily smile on a fleshy black face that told me he was the offender. He blew a kiss in my direction, and his rotund frame went into motion. He sensed my panic and laughed at my fear. His small, deeply embedded eyes almost disappeared as face contorted into a lecherous grin.
I thought of my Southern Baptist father’s strong sense of proper decorum around women. He would have been incensed at this affront and told the inmate so in no uncertain terms.
The line of inmates stopped opposite me. The hall seemed to shrink as their leering eyes roamed over my body like hot sweaty hands exploring every crevice. I wanted to disappear. Finally, a deputy called out to them.
“On the wall, home boys! Don’t mad dog the lady.” The inmates turned and pushed face first into the cold wall. Now they stood quietly. The deputy leading the line walked over to the deputy’s booth and after a short conversation returned to the inmates.
“Okay, ladies, let’s move it!” he shouted. With that command, the line continued on down the hall, the men laughing and whispering.
“Thanks,” I said to the guard who had spoken up for me.
“Yeah, sure thing, babe.”
Caught off-guard by the inmate’s remark, I couldn’t remember what the deputy had told me to do.
What did he say? Oh yes, the key, check out the key.
Catching my breath, I walked what seemed like a hundred miles to the deputy’s booth. Actually, it was only ten feet away.
“Excuse me, sir, am I in the right place?”
“Don’t know, sweet cheeks, depends on what you want.”
Laughter bellowed out from the other deputies sitting in the darkened booth. My face burned hot.
“The office key, please.” With less hassle than I had endured earlier, the deputy added my name to the roster, and I took possession of a single silver key. It lay cold on the palm of my hand—a powerful key that opened doors in a jail that housed more than six thousand inmates, and was part of the largest jail system in the world.
“Each time you leave the jail, you are to turn the key in at this booth. If you don’t check it back in at the end of each workday, we will come to your house and retrieve it from you. Understood?”
The deputy’s voice sounded like he was reciting a mantra.
“Yes, sir.” I dropped the power symbol into the side pocket of my skirt and prayed that I would remember to turn it back in when the day was over. Visions of a swat team breaking down my front door and tear gas pouring out of my broken windows flashed before me. I reminded myself to pay close attention to what the dark shadow on the other side of the glass was saying, uncertain of what to do next. Without acknowledging me, the deputy opened the window, leaned out of the opening, and called to a uniformed man standing a few yards to the left.
“Hey, Gonzales, take this lady up to 7100.” The deputy nodded, giving me a quick appraisal, not bothering to introduce himself.
“7100 is on the second floor.” Gonzales stood five foot ten, wore a khaki uniform, had graying hair and a neatly trimmed, full beard. He was on the verge of having a beer belly, with only a couple of notches left on his belt. He tapped my shoulder, directing me toward the elevator just as another line of shackled inmates were approaching. Walking on the solid concrete, my black patent leather pumps echoed throughout the hall, attracting their attention. Already unnerved, I lifted up on tiptoe, trying to soften the sound. The inmates gawked at me as they moved past. I heard one snicker and several others laughed and let out wolf whistles. This time there were no admonitions from a deputy.
“You’re going to FOP, aren’t you?” the deputy asked as he pushed the elevator button.
“I, ah…I’m…is Dr. Kline in FOP?”
“Yes, ma’am, Forensic Outpatient.” The elevator doors slid open and I inhaled a strong odor of urine. Hesitating, I turned to the deputy. He had a knowing smile.
“You’ll get used to it in time.” I wasn’t sure he was right, and began to doubt the sanity of taking this job. Then I reminded myself without a license I didn’t have any other options. When the doors opened I bolted, wanting to break free from the noxious smell.
“Hold up, babe,” Gonzales grabbed my arm to keep me from falling.
“We’re on third, med-surg. You want the second floor.”
“How’s it hanging, Jose?” A tall slender deputy with movie star good looks stepped in.
“Never better than last night, Paul, and yours?” They both laughed. I looked at the floor, pretending to not understand what they were talking about. Gonzales pushed the button, and the elevator started its descent.
“Well, babe, if you’re not a cool drink of water.” The deputy checked me over as if I was a new red Mustang convertible he was thinking of buying.
“You a new file clerk?” he asked with a lecherous grin.
“No,” I said with more emphasis than I’d planned. “I am Dr. Pelto, clinical psychologist.”
My dream to become a psychologist and have my own private practice started when I was eleven years old. My sixth-grade teacher gave me his Introduction to Psychology textbook, and although it was impossible to understand much of what I read, the subject matter fascinated me. But as often happens in life, fate stepped in and diverted me from my goal for many years.
“Well, hot shit! Since when did they let girls become doctors?” I looked away from the deputy.
“Hey, sweet cheeks, you gonna analyze me?” Paul reached out to touch my shoulder. I pulled away and stood against the elevator’s filthy, urine-stained back wall. I wanted to say, I only do it for money, but thought better of it.
“I’d sure like to come over sometime and lay on your couch.”
“Some inmates are scrubbing the walls downstairs. Do they get paid for it?” I asked, wanting to direct the attention away from myself.
“Nope,” Paul snapped.
“Do they have other jobs to keep them busy?”
“They fix the food for the staff and inmates. You’ll get a chance to evaluate their culinary skills down in the cafeteria,” Gonzales answered in a more tolerant tone.
“Jose, you got some sense of humor. All these perps do is sit around on their fat asses and complain all day.”
“Why not painting or repairs?”
Paul jumped back in. “Honey, the unions would go through the fucking roof. They have contracts with the county and they make a hell of a lot of money. They’d go out on strike if they lost these jobs to the inmates.”
“It would save us taxpayers a lot of money if the inmates did the repairs.”
“Sweet cheeks, you sure you’re a psychologist? You sound more like a union buster.”
“There was a great story about drugs being brought in here a while back.” Gonzales sensed the growing tension between Paul and me and wanted to cool the situation down by changing the subject. I took a deep breath and exhaled slowly.
“One of the perp’s mothers sewed a baggy of coke into the crotch of her kid’s skivvies and left ‘em with the deputies for him. She didn’t know her boy had got kicked out in the midnight release. The kid’s shorts lay around the booth for several days until a deputy decided to clean up. He picked up the shorts and noticed a lump in the crotch and cut it open and found the contraband. A few days later the ditzy broad came back to visit her other son. Deputies were waiting for her. Cuffed her on the spot and transported her over to SBI.”
“SBI?” I asked.
“Sybil Bran Institute, woman’s jail. Babe, you’re a fish. You gotta lot to learn,” Jose answered me with a softness in his voice.
“Yep, someone new to the game.”
“That’s me,” I mumbled under my breath.
“These inmates are real creative,” Paul said as he licked his lips. “They say they can get anything they want in here. Even a good piece of ass. Know what I mean, babe?”
Yes, I did, but I wasn’t going to let him know he was bugging me!
I gave Paul a sweet smile—one that could probably give you a cavity.
In the ‘60s when I grew up, being called honey, babe, or sweetheart sounded endearing and protective. I know other women would have been offended, but I wasn’t. Now, the way the deputies were using the names, I felt demeaned. This was sexual harassment. And I didn’t like it. But this wasn’t the time to make an issue of it. I would bide my time. The elevator stopped with a jolt.
“This is FOP”, Gonzales said as he guided me out into a hallway that mirrored the one below. An instrumental version of “Mack the Knife” assaulted my ears. The air was still and dead. Even with no windows, the overhead lights gave the appearance of bright sunlight. In this sealed environment, I couldn’t tell if it was day or night, or if there was still another world existing outside the building. I was incarcerated and couldn’t escape this prison any more than the inmates could. Four coin-operated telephones hung on the wall opposite of the elevator and to the left of an office door.
A wooden bench secured to the concrete floor sat beneath the phones reminiscent of the pews I sat on as a kid when our family attended the Baptist Church. During the endless sermons about fire, hell, and damnation, we kids would entertain ourselves by paging through the “Broadman Hymnal”, saying “between the bed sheets” after the title of each song, like “How Great Thou Art”, between the bed sheets, or “Onward Christian Solders”, between the bed sheets. Well, you get the idea.
A man with jailhouse pallor, from lack of sunshine, stood talking on the phone. By many accounts, he could be called handsome, with good bone structure and the kind of thick, dark, wavy hair you’d like to run your fingers through. He stood with one foot propped on the bench, half leaning onto the door frame of an office—an office I would be calling home for the next three years. The opening of the elevator doors had diverted his attention from the phone and he turned to stare at me. His green eyes sparkled as he perused my body, starting with my heels, black stockings, and up my soft black dress to my ample breasts and short red hair. He gave me a nod of approval and flashed a boyish smile. I started to blush. It was flattering. My ego had been hurt sleeping with my first husband for over a year and not being desired by him. I craved male attention. My father was gone, working for the railroad, for long periods of time when I was little, and my brother, who was nine years older than me, left for the Navy the summer he finished high school. From then on, our house consisted of my mother and me.
The man on the phone caught my eye and we exchanged an intimate moment. I felt myself flush and my heartbeat speed up. He smiled. I smiled back. I took a deep breath, exhaled slowly, and relaxed a little.
Why had I expected all of the inmates to look mean and surly?
The tone of his voice was soft and caressing, and his laugh contagious as he replied to the person on the other end of the line. He looked vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t remember where I had seen him. Maybe on the nightly news? I tapped the deputy on the shoulder as soon as we were out of earshot of the man on the phone.
“That man seems very pleasant. Who is he?”
“That’s Ken Bianchi, one of the Hillside Stranglers. Would you like to hear what that ‘pleasant guy’ did, along with his cousin Angelo Buono?” Before I had a chance to answer, Gonzales continued. “Together, they murdered ten young women and threw their bodies out along the hillsides in L.A.” The deputy stopped abruptly and turned to face me. I stopped short to keep from bumping into him and drew in my breath.
“I remember the murder of Kristina Weckler”. His voice full of rage.
“She lived in the same apartment building as Bianchi over on Garfield here in L.A. Ken was always flirting with her, trying to get her to go out with him. She kept turning him down cold. Who knows maybe she sensed something evil about him. Well, shit, pissed Ken off, big time!
“One night he rang her doorbell, told her car had been hit in the parking lot. Said he was a reserve police officer could file a police report. Angelo Buono waited downstairs. When Ken arrived with Kristina, they forced her into Ken’s car and drove over to Angelo’s place. That’s where most of the Hillside Strangling’s occurred. Then these two winners,” the deputy said with force, “took turns raping and sodomizing her. God only knows what else they made her do, probably finished off by forcing her to give them each a blowjob.” Ken, still talking on the phone laughing and gesturing with his Free hand, turned winked at me and flashed a seductive smile. I froze.
“After Buono and Bianchi got their rocks off, they wanted to do some experimenting.” Gonzales’s anger, almost palpable. “Those two assholes injected Windex into Kristina’s neck and elbow; she went into convulsions. Unfortunately for her, she didn’t die right then.”
The deputy clenched his teeth, attempting to hold his anger intact. The veins in his neck stood out like ropes and pulsated with each heartbeat. I edged toward the wall and rubbed my hand on the cold cement in a feeble effort to calm myself down.
I could have been one of their victims.
“Next, they gassed her. Bianchi connected a pipe to the gas outlet on the kitchen stove, placed the flexible end of the pipe down beside her neck, and covered her head with a plastic bag. These assholes thought it would be fun to see how she reacted when they turned on enough gas to almost send her into unconsciousness, then shut it off so she could revive, and then turned the gas on again. They repeated this process God only knows how many times. They did it for entertainment purposes. She finally did black out. When they got bored, they grabbed a cord from Buono’s upholstery shop and strangled her. Later, they drove her out into the hillsides and discarded her nude body.”
Leaning against the hard surface for support, I fought waves of nausea. I wanted to throw up. I was divorced and dating. I could have met him in a bar, let him buy me a drink and maybe even agreed to a date. Oh my God, I am so naive. My first, up and close, look at this serial killer made me realize these men are indistinguishable. They have no identifying marks that warns the public to be on guard. As time went on I would know this even better. I knew that my first job as a psychologist would be a learning experience but I had no idea what I was in for. Gonzales interrupted my thoughts.
“There’s been a rumor floating around here that Bianchi persuaded one of the nurses to sneak into his cell late one night to have sex with him. I don’t know exactly what happened, if the gossip is true or not, but she got fired. Too bad, ‘cause she was a good nurse.”
I pulled away from the wall turning my attention to another man wearing a blue jumpsuit approach us. I suddenly felt bone weary just wanting to move to a safe place away from the horrors.
“Good morning, Deputy Gonzales,” the inmate called out, cheerfully. “When you get a chance to unlock my door, I’m ready to go back into my cell.”
An inmate locked out of his cell!
“Sure thing, Eli. Have a seat on the bench. I’ll be right back.”
Bianchi saw Eli approaching and hung up the phone. The two Men gave a high five, leaned close together looking at me saying something known only to them and laughed loudly. Shivers ran down my back.
“Those men seem very friendly with each other.”
“Yeah. Elihua Komerchero, he’s a nice guy, always very friendly.”
“One of the Trash Bag Murderers? I caught a story about him on the news driving in this morning.”
I looked back at killers.
How could they be so pleasant and yet capable of such unspeakable crimes?
“Excuse me a minute; wanna check to see if Kline is in his office.” Deputy Gonzales took a few steps to the right and looked into a corner office, an almost useless act, as two of the walls had oversized glass windows reinforced with wire mesh. The deputy mumbled something, shook his head no, and made a left turn down the short hall, pulling out his keys as he walked. I followed behind, frantic to get safely behind a locked door.
Three steel doors with one foot square inch windows cut in them lined the short walk to the Forensic Out-patient Office.
Suddenly, a voice called out, “Deputy, pull me out I want to make a phone call.” I turned to see a pale man with pale hair behind the door. His face seemed suspended in the tiny window.
While studying the man’s face I asked the deputy who he was.
With annoyance in his voice Gonzales replied, “That’s Douglas Clark, the Sunset Killer. He’s always whining and demanding something. Clark, you can see I’m busy.”
The one-man cells were a surprise; I expected to see the cells laid out in long rows with steel bars, like in the movies. And these killers were out walking up and down the hall without shackles or a deputy standing at the ready.
Had an inmate ever taken a staff member hostage?
Gonzales reached out and straightened a red kite-shaped piece of cardboard with K-10 written on it taped to the steel door. “That’s notification that the inmate is high-profile, someone the public is aware of, like the Hillside Strangler. They are at high risk of being hurt by other inmates so they don’t mix with the general population. It would be a real feather in an inmate’s cap to take out one of these famous killers. These high-profile’s are housed here or downstairs in the main hall. The red flag reminds us to use special handling.”
“What does that mean?”
“Special precautions. ‘Bout the only time they leave this floor is to go to court or the medication line, with an escort. They got their own visitors’ room across the hall.” The deputy pointed to a glassed-in booth, where a man’s navy blazer, gray slacks, and a white shirt hung from the window frame inside the room.
We walked a few more steps and stopped in front of a metal door with a large wire-reinforced window.
“Here you are, ma’am.” The deputy unlocked the door to FOP office suite and held it open for me. “Go on in; someone can help you in there.”
“Doc,” Gonzales reached out and gently touched my shoulder with concern in his voice, “please be careful if you’re gonna be working with these guys. Especially Bianchi; he’s a real smooth talker and will try to work you. Never forget he’s a killer.”
The deputy turned to retrace our steps, paused, and looked back at me over his shoulder with a strange smile. “By the way, good luck,” he called out as I headed forward into the FOP office suite.
I stepped through the door, feeling like it was going to take more than luck to cope in this place. I would understand that even better as time passed.