On December 16, 2019, an inmate housed on condemned row at San Quentin State Prison died while awaiting execution. Lawrence Sigmond Bittaker, known as one of the “Tool Box Killers” was sentenced to death in March of 1981 the kidnapping, murder and sexual assault of five young women.
Bittaker and his crime partner, Roy Norris met while they each served a prison term at the California Men’s Colony, near San Luis Obispo. Bittaker was serving a term for attempted murder after stabbing a shopkeeper who tired to stop him from shoplifting. Norris was finishing up his prison sentence for rape and assault. The two men bonded with one another over their common interests…
Norris had served several prison terms for sexual assault, and at one time was committed to the State Hospital in Atascadero as a Mentally Disordered Sex Offender for five years. Mental health professionals deemed him “no further danger” and released him. Three months later he was back behind bars for the rape and strangulation of another woman.
Prior to his release in 1977, a prison psychologist labeled Bittaker as a highly sophisticated sociopath who would reoffend and escalate his criminal activity. When they served time together at the Men’s Colony, a medium security prison, they developed a game involving their fantasies of domination, power, control and torture involving how fun it would be to kidnap girls from thirteen to nineteen and see how long they could keep them alive–and screaming.
In a political climate uncomfortably similar to what we’re seeing today, with a full-court press to release inmates from prison, Bittaker was paroled to Los Angeles in November of 1978 and Norris returned from prison in January of 1979. In February, the pair met at a cheap hotel in Los Angeles and rekindled their fantasies. The first thing they would need to capture their prey was an appropriate vehicle. They pooled their money and Bittaker purchased a 1977 white GMC cargo van. They wanted one with a sliding side door so they could snatch their victims off the street without being seen. They nicknamed the van “Murder Mac.”
From February through June 1978, the pair cruised the Pacific Coast Highway, stopping at beaches and chatting up young girls, often taking their photos. Over 500 photos were found in Bittaker’s possession. They picked up twenty young women and gave them rides, releasing them without evidence of harming a single one. Norris later revealed that these were “test runs” until they found the right girl and had the right place to take her.
On June 24, 1979, sixteen year old Cindy Schaeffer would become their first victim. Instead of the beach, they spotted Cindy walking from a christian youth group at nearby church and targeted her. Bittaker drove and pulled up alongside, allowing Norris to open the sliding door and force the girl inside. Norris quickly bound her and covered her mouth with tape.
They drove to an isolated location in the San Gabriel mountains where Norris and Bittaker took turns raping her. Bittaker handed Norris a coat hanger which went around the young girl’s neck. Bittaker tightened the makeshift garrote with a pair of vice grip pliers from a tool box, strangling Cindy to death. They wrapped her body in a shower curtain and hefted her off a cliff in the mountainous back country.
On July 8, 1979, the duo went out hunting again and picked up eighteen year old Andrea Hall while she was hitchhiking along the Pacific Coast Highway. She got into the front of the van as Bittaker drove and Norris overpowered her from a hiding spot in the rear of the van. They drove to the spot in the mountains and raped Andrea repeatedly. At one point Bittaker took Polaroid photos of the terrorized woman as a memento. Bittaker sent Norris on a beer run while he waited with the victim. Upon his return, Norris found that Bittaker had stabbed the girl with an ice pick, once in each ear, then strangled her to death. Her body was also thrown off a cliffside.
On September 3, 1979, Bittaker and Norris picked up fifteen year old Jackie Gilliam and thirteen year old Leah Lamp as they waited at a bus stop near the Pacific Coast Highway. They told the girls they were going to the beach, but they teens became suspicious when the van took a turn away from the beach. To dissuade their fears, Bittaker pulled into a tennis court claiming it was a safe space to park and get high. Sensing their intentions, Leah was the first to make a move and try to escape. She pulled open the side door and Norris hit her in the head with a baseball bat. Bittaker jumped in and helped his partner subdue the struggling girls, tying them, and placing tape over their mouths. A group of tennis players gathered on the courts watching the struggle. The the van pulled away, the tennis players went back to their games, and it is believed they never reported the strange incident.
They drove the girls to they San Gabriel mountain spot where they raped and tortured the girls for two days. They kept an audio tape of the rape and torture, capturing Norris raping Jackie.
When they grew weary, and it appears that Bittaker needed to report in for work, Bittaker stabbed Jackie in each ear with an ice pick. Once more the stabbing didn’t kill the victim, so they took turns strangling her. Then Bittaker strangled Leah while Norris struck her in the head with a sledge hammer several times. Once more the bodies were disposed of in the forest.
They were nearly caught on October 3, 1979, when Shirley Sanders escaped from the van after she’d been raped. Bittaker and Norris thought the police would track them down at any moment, so they were quiet unit October 31, 1979 when they decided to prowl away from their Pacific Coast Highway hunting ground, turning instead to the residential neighborhoods of San Fernando Valley. They spotted sixteen year old Lynette Ledford hitchhiking and offered her a ride. She accepted and within five minutes she was bound on the floor of the Murder Mac van. Determined not to make the same mistakes that allowed their last victim to escape, Bittaker drove while Norris raped Lynette in the back of the van. They switched places and during the assault, they audio recorded their torture and rape, commanding the woman to scream louder. “Scream baby, scream.” “You can scream louder than that.” “Scream, or I’ll make you scream.”
Norris took the sledge hammer to her elbows, striking them over two dozen times. Bittaker wrapped a length of coast hanger around her neck and tightened it with his pliers.
When they were done, they wanted to see what would happen if they dumped the body on someone’s front lawn. Lynette was discovered the next morning by a jogger. The community reaction was swift in Los Angeles, where only days before, Hillside Strangler Angelo Buono was arrested.
Their crime spree unraveled because Norris bragged about the “game” he and Bittaker had been playing. Former prison acquaintance Jimmy Dalton told authorities that Norris claimed to have kidnapped and killed several woman. Dalton didn’t believe Norris until Lynette Ledford’s body turned up. Dalton mentioned the Murder Mac van and that light colored GMC van struck a chord with investigators. They reinterviewed Shirley Sanders who had described a similar van when she escaped from her attackers. Detectives showed her a photo line up and she immediately identified Norris and Bittaker.
Norris was the weak link and he was arrested in a parole violation for selling marijuana in November 1979. He confessed and implicated Bittaker, blaming him for the murders. The confiscated audio tapes disproved Norris’s claim that he was an unwilling participant. To avoid the death penalty, he agreed to testify against Bittaker and took investigators to the San Gabriel mountains to recover the bodies of their victims.
In February 1980, Norris lead a team of investigators to the bodies of Leah Lamp and Jackie Gilliam. Jackie was found with the ice pick still lodged in her skull. There was no trace of Cindy Schaeffer, or Andrea Hall, but there was enough evidence, with Norris’s testimony, and playing the audio tape of Lynette Ledford’s torture to convict Bittaker.
Bittaker was sentenced to death on March 24, 1981, and Norris was sentenced to forty-five years to life. Norris in now eligible for parole. I had several encounters with Norris over the years and he never accepted responsibility for his role in the murders, preferring to blame his crime partner Bittaker for the more brutal aspects of the crimes. His actions before, and the moments captured on tape, prove a different version of events.
As for Bittaker, he seemed to enjoy his notoriety on death row, playing a regular card games with other serial killers, corresponding with serial killer fans, up until his death, signing his letters with his nickname–Pliers.
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