The story of California’s Tool Box Killers is the stuff that nightmares are made of. Over a five-month span in 1979, Lawrence Bittaker and Roy Norris, two ex-cons who became friends in prison, terrorized Southern California with a number of gruesome murders. The deadly duo earned the nickname The Tool Box Killers due to the various tools they used to torture and kill their innocent victims.
Bittaker and Norris both had troubled backgrounds and had been in and out of prison for years. Bittaker had a long rap sheet that included auto theft and burglary. Norris had served time for repeatedly attacking women. The two met in state prison in San Luis Obispo, California in 1977, where they became friends. Behind bars, their conversations became focused on one thing: the two decided they would go on a murder spree after they were released from prison. Their grisly plan called for them to kill 7 girls, one each from the ages of 13-19.
Bittaker was released from prison in October 1978 and found work in Los Angeles. Norris got out soon after, in January 1979. The two bought a van with no side windows for the sole purpose of abducting and killing young women, a vehicle they nicknamed “Murder Mack.” Between February and June 1979, Bittaker and Norris picked up over 20 female hitchhikers and dropped them all off safely. These test runs set the stage for their 5-month-long murder spree.
From June 24 until October 31, 1979, the men who became known as The Tool Box Killers murdered 5 young women, ranging in age from 13 to 18-years-old. Bittaker and Norris drove their victims into the San Gabriel Mountains north of Los Angeles and proceeded to rape, torture, and ultimately murder them in their van. Then they would dump the women’s bodies in isolated areas. Bittaker and Norris displayed incredibly savage tendencies during their horrific crimes, repeatedly raping their victims and torturing them with pliers, vises, and ice picks.
In November 1979, a man named Jimmy Dalton approached police with a terrifying story. Dalton had served time in prison with Roy Norris, and they had remained friends since being released. Norris boasted to Dalton about the murders and other attacks he and Bittaker had committed, and Dalton in turn told his attorney. The attorney advised Dalton to alert the police. After hearing Dalton’s story, the LAPD contacted Redondo Beach police, where Norris had told Dalton he and Bittaker had maced, abducted, and raped a woman in September 1979. Redondo Beach officers questioned the victim, and she immediately identified Lawrence Bittaker and Roy Norris as the men who had attacked her.
Bittaker and Norris were put under surveillance by the police, and both were arrested on drug charges, Bittaker for selling marijuana out of the motel where he lived in Burbank. Police searched Bittaker’s motel room and found polaroids of some of the missing women. In the “Murder Mack” van, police found a chilling scene: a sledgehammer, a bag filled with lead weights that could be used as a weapon, necklaces belonging to two of the victims, and, in a horrible twist, an audio recording of one of the young women, 16-year-old Shirley Ledford, screaming and begging for her life as she was brutalized in the van.
The men initially denied any involvement in the murders, but Roy Norris eventually cracked under pressure. In his confession, Norris portrayed Bittaker as the man more responsible for the horrific crimes. Roy Norris testified against Lawrence Bittaker, his friend and partner in crime, in order to avoid the death penalty. The two men stood trial and were both found guilty. Bittaker received a death sentence, and, 36 years after his judgement was handed down, still sits on death row in California’s San Quentin Prison. Roy Norris is serving a life sentence behind bars.
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