The Toolbox Killers — A True Halloween Nightmare

 

The Toolbox KillersHalloween night, 1979, 16-year-old Shirley Lynette Ledford made one fatal mistake — trusting the two men who offered her a ride. Forty-eight hours later, a jogger found her naked remains on a random front lawn in Sunland, California. Posed with her legs apart, her mutilated corpse lay in an ivy patch.

No one could have imagined the horror she’d endured.

If you’re at all squeamish, you may want to stop reading. The following is a true account.

It all started in 1977 when 29-year-old Roy Norris met 36-year-old Lawrence Bittaker while incarcerated at California Men’s Colony in San Luis Obispo. The two men — later dubbed “The Toolbox Killers” — shared sexually violent fantasies, which led to a deadly pact. Upon release they’d planned to rape, torture, and murder teenage girls. Specifically, one girl of each teenage year from 13 – 19. Two years later, they teamed up on the outside and bought a silver 1977 GM cargo van. They nicknamed the van “Murder Mack.”

From February to June, 1979, this menacing duo picked up more than twenty female hitchhikers, not to assault but to practice luring girls into the van. They also used this time to search for desolated locales. In April, they discovered a secluded fire road in the San Gabriel Mountains. Crowbar in hand, Bittaker snapped the lock on the gate to the fire road and replaced it with his own.

All they needed now was a victim.

On June 24th, 16 year-old Lucinda Lynn Schaefer left her Presbyterian Church meeting in Redondo Beach. She couldn’t have known the evil that awaited her.

After Bittaker and Norris had finished constructing the bed in the rear of the van, beneath which they placed tools, clothes, and a cooler filled with beer and soda, they drove to the beach around 7:45 p.m. Lucinda was walking down a side street, and Bittaker remarked, “There’s a cute little blonde.” But their first attempt to entice her into the van was unsuccessful. Bribes of marijuana, beer, and a ride home didn’t work. So they drove passed her and parked alongside a driveway, where Norris exited the vehicle, slid open the side-door, and leaned into the van with his head and shoulders obscured from view. When Lucinda passed, she exchanged a few words with Norris before he pounced, dragging her into the van.

That moment sealed her fate.

With bound wrists and ankles, her mouth duct-taped, Lucinda had no way to defend herself. Despite her initial scream, the only thing she could control was denying these monsters the satisfaction of witnessing her pain.

“She displayed a magnificent state of self-control and composed acceptance of the conditions of which she had no control,” claimed Bittaker in a written statement. “She shed no tears, offered no resistance, and expressed no great concern for her safety. I guess she knew what was coming.”

With the radio volume at full-blast, Bittaker drove to their pre-arraigned spot in the mountains while Norris stayed in the back of the van with Lucinda. Once on the fire road each man raped Lucinda while the other “took a walk.” The only thing Lucinda asked for was “a second to pray” before Norris attempted to manually strangled her. Forty-five seconds in, and he became so freaked out by her protruding eyes he ran to the front bumper of the van, vomiting. Bittaker strangled Lucinda till her body wilted to the ground, where she went into convulsions. Then he wrapped a wire coat hanger around her throat and squeezed it tight with pliers — an act both men would repeat.

The Toolbox Killers - Lawrence Bittaker

Lawrence Bittaker at his trial in 1979.

Norris and Bittaker rolled Lucinda’s dead body in a plastic shower curtain and tossed her into a canyon, where they expected wild animals to cover their heinous act.

A similar cycle occurred two weeks later when the murderous pair spotted 18-year-old Andrea Joy Hall hitchhiking along the Pacific Coast Highway. After raping and torturing Andrea, they forced her to pose for Polaroids. Sheer terror shone on her face as she pleaded for her life. Neither man listened. Instead, they drove an ice pick through her skull, strangled her, and then dumped her corpse off a cliff.

On September 3rd, Jackie Doris Gilliam and Jacqueline Leah Lamp waited at the bus stop near Hermosa Beach. Luring the two girls into the van with marijuana and a free ride worked. Until, the girls noticed Bittaker wasn’t driving toward the Pacific Coast Highway. Instead, he headed toward the San Gabriel Mountains. When 13-year-old Jacqueline slid open the side-door, Norris slammed her over the head with a pre-filled bag of lead weights, knocking her momentarily unconscious. He then attempted to bind and gag 15-year-old Jackie Gilliam, but Jacqueline regained composure and again tried to escape. Sadly, she was no match for Norris, who wrenched her arm behind her back and dragged her back into the van.

The Toolbox Killers

Roy Norris shortly before his arrest.

Meanwhile, Bittaker, noting the struggle was in full view of witnesses, stopped the van. To regain control he punched Jacqueline in the face, then assisted Norris in binding and gagging the two girls. When they finally arrived in the San Gabriel Mountains, Jackie and Jacqueline were held captive for nearly two full days while being repeatedly raped and forced to pose for pornographic Polaroids. Bittaker tape-recorded the first time he’d raped young Jackie, telling her to “feel free to express your pain.”

At trial, Norris claimed he buried the tape in a cemetery, but it’s never been recovered.

These poor girls were tortured in unimaginable ways, including having their breasts stabbed with an ice pick. Norris also tore off one of Jackie’s nipple with pliers.

Even death didn’t come swiftly. Bittaker drilled an ice pick into both of Jackie’s ears before strangling her to death. He beat Jacqueline with a sledgehammer, strangled her for fun, beat her again, and then strangled her to death. The Toolbox Killers tossed both bodies over an embankment into a California chaparral.

From the grave Shirley Lynette Ledford, whom I mentioned at the beginning of this post, ignited the strongest emotional response from the jury and courtroom audience when the prosecutor played 17 minutes of a tape recording which showed the amount of terror Shirley endured before death. The transcript of which you can find here. Before you do, I need to caution you. This isn’t easy reading, nor is it easy to listen to the first few minutes of the accompanying video, where Shirley’s blood-curdling screams carry through closed courtroom doors. This sweet, young girl endured masochist behavior at the hands of pure evil. Proceed at your own risk.

Some say 16-year-old Shirley Ledford accepted a ride on that fateful Halloween night because she recognized Bittaker from the restaurant where she’d worked as a part-time waitress. Apparently, Bittaker frequented the establishment. Moments after Shirley climbed inside the van, Bittaker drove to a secluded street while Norris drew a knife. He then bound and gagged Shirley with barricade tape.

The nightmare had begun.

Bittaker traded places with Norris, who drove aimlessly for over an hour as Bittaker tormented Shirley, ordering her to “scream louder. What’s the matter? Don’t you like to scream?”

On tape, Shirley pleaded with Bittaker. “No. Don’t touch me.” To which Bittaker replied, “Scream as loud as you wish,” and then slammed her with a sledgehammer, struck her breasts with his fist in order to, in his words, “beat them back into her chest.” As Bittaker raped and sodomized Shirley, he tortured her with pliers. At trial, Norris later described he heard, “screams … constant screams” from the rear of the van.

“We’ve all heard women scream in horror films … still, we know that no one is really screaming. Why? Simply because an actress can’t produce some sounds that convince us that something vile and heinous is happening. If you ever heard that tape, there is just no possible way that you’d not begin crying and trembling. I doubt you could listen to more than a full sixty seconds of it.” ~ Serial Killer Roy Norris

Keep in mind, Norris had an IQ of 135. So even though he tried to downplay his involvement during his testimony, he still switched places with Bittaker, and Norris the one who also switched on the tape recorder to memorialize his own sadistic treatment of Shirley. Make no mistake, both men were equally vicious. They had no empathy for the victims or their families. In my opinion, Norris deserved equal punishment, but he cut a deal and testified for the prosecution.

Shirley Lynette Ledford

Back in the van, Shirley saw Norris grab the sledgehammer, and screamed, “Oh no!” Norris struck her in the left elbow, shattering the bone, but he didn’t stop there. Shirley begged him not to hit her again. In return, Norris struck that same elbow 25 more times. When he finally stopped, he glared at Shriley, who was sobbing, shaking, and terrified. “What are you sniveling about?” he said.

After two solid hours of agony, Norris finally killed Shirley by strangling her with a coat hanger, tightening the wire with pliers. Bittaker opted to pose her body on a random lawn in Sunland to gage the reaction of the media, and Norris agreed. As Bittaker played look-out Norris posed Shirley’s mutilated corpse on the ivy patch. With one last chance to humiliate this poor girl, he wrenched open her legs.

The autopsy revealed extensive blunt-force trauma to the face, head, breasts, left elbow, with her olecranon (the bony tip of the elbow) sustaining multiple fractures. Torn genitalia and rectum was caused in part by Bittaker raping her with pliers. Her left hand bore a puncture wound and she had a deep slash mark to a finger on her right hand. At trial, Bittaker claimed the tape recording was nothing but a threesome, but added that toward the very end Shirley Ledford pleaded for death.

Can you blame her?

Investigators eventually found the remains of Jacqueline Leah Lamp and Jackie Doris Gilliam in the San Gabriel Mountains. The bodies of Lucinda Schaefer and Andrea Hall remain undiscovered.

As for Bittaker, an initial execution date was set for December 29, 1989, which Bittaker appealed. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the decision of execution and set a new date of July 23, 1991. Again, Bittaker appealed. Only this time the court granted a stay of execution on July 9, 1991. As of 2017, Lawrence Bittaker remains on death row in San Quentin State Prison.

What happened to Norris? The parole board denied his request for release in 2009. Nonetheless, he will have served his full 45-year prison term in 2019. Just think, this monster will walk free in less than two years.

This Halloween, let’s all take a moment to remember these innocent victims who died way too young. Hug your children a little tighter tonight.

About Sue Coletta

Member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and International Thriller Writers, Sue Coletta is the bestselling, award-winning author of psychological thrillers and mysteries. Sue's short stories and flash fiction have appeared in OOTG Flash Fiction Offensive magazine and numerous anthologies, and her forensic articles have appeared in InSinC Quarterly. In 2017, Feedspot awarded her Murder Blog as one of the Top 50 Crime Blogs on the net. Sue's the communications manager for Forensic Science and the Serial Killer Project, and co-hosts the radio show "Partners in Crime" on Writestream Radio Network. As a way to help fellow crime writers, Sue created a team of crime experts (detectives, coroners, police captains, etc.) and founded #ACrimeChat on Twitter. She's also a proud member of the Kill Zone (see details in full bio -- menu bar).

30 Comments

  1. I remember watching a documentary about these two monsters on Discovery a couple of years ago. They were caught in the end, but in my opinion, justice were never served. Only a bullet, a rope or a lethal injection shortly after sentencing could have provided such in this particular case.

  2. That’s just horridly terrifying!! Complete psychopaths, animals, monsters, disgusting, bottom-feeding maggots.
    They’ll pay for all of this for eternity.
    They’ll feel pain then. They’ll feel the entirety of their sins with no relief for the eternities, both pain and anguish of soul, body and mind.

  3. There is an innate dilemma in posting graphic, sadistic actions. However, I think it is important that people do not live in a dreamworld regarding what others are capable of. I don’t think the answer lies in averting our eyes from it as it is an undercurrent socially. I have found myself feeling the same way after writing my memoir “The Remembered Self” – so graphic and violent – sometimes I wish I hadn’t written it. Ignorance of what is going on and what I wrote is going on, is not bliss. It’s better to know it and protect yourself and your kids and teenagers. I admire your site Sue and the fact that you bring these things to the forefront. I think it is important.

    • I’m not an expert. However, I wouldn’t think that posting these behaviors would be a problem to “normal” people. When I read these stories, I am amazed that humans are capable of these acts. I am not tempted to try them. It is disgusting to me that it has happened to others. And it probably makes me more aware of my surroundings and the people I meet.

    • You’re right, MJ. It is a risk posting brutal true crime stories. I always lose a subscriber or two, but I gain more than I lose. It all evens out. Plus, chances are, the ones who unsubscribe won’t be interested in my books, either.

      Thank you for the kind words. I, too, believe it’s important to show that true evil lurks in our world. These monsters look like you and me. If we met them, we might never know what they’re capable of, but maybe, just maybe, by arming ourselves with knowledge we may recognize a subtlety to warn us to be wary. One can hope, anyway.

  4. What a totally sad and wretched life those men must have endured as children. I’m not saying the parents were awful, and they may have been very loving people. But something sure went wrong, or the wrong gene got activated in their DNA, or something.
    However, I am of the belief that certain personalities are not able to be rehabilitated at this point in our knowledge of psychiatric issues. And if we are talking about prison rehabilitation, that would definitely be an oxymoron. When there is a person who fits into this “brain defect” and commits such horrible crimes, if the DNA matches the crime scene, or there is proof on a photo or movie of the crime, I feel that they should be put to death immediately. I don’t want to feed these people for years and years. I don’t want to give them free education, I just want them gone. They are of no use to society, and they cannot be “fixed”.

    • I agree. Incidentally, both men had horrific childhoods (sexual, physical, and emotional abuse, neglect, shuffled from one foster to another). Hence, how they bonded in the first place. Often times the cycle repeats, which is what happened here.

  5. I need to talk to someone about basing a thriller on an actual case. Except in my situation, I didn’t know there was a case. I have written about a guy who was accused of being the American contact in the issues following the 2016 coup in Turkey. Last night I found out that there really was an American contact–Michael Flynn. My book is done. It’s already at the editor. Do I need to change it? (I was just guessing–my story needed an American contact!)

    • I wouldn’t think so, Nancy. Chances are, your book and the real case won’t mirror each other. If they do, then perhaps you’re psychic. Hahaha. Seriously, though, I wouldn’t worry about it. It’s not illegal to write about a real case. If the criminals are behind bars, they can’t profit off their crimes anyway. ‘Course, to be safe, you may want to look up the law for your state. Some states have amended the law.

  6. I don’t have anything to add, just wanted to check in. I wonder if anyone thought to do another search after all the wildfires in California. I’m thinking a sniper rifle on the day the one walks out of prison would settle matters.

    • You know, I wondered the same thing, Craig. I hate to think of the bodies being incinerated, but that may well have happened. A sniper perched on the building across the street when Norris walks out sounds perfect. If you’re volunteering, delete your comment. Hahahaha!

      I’ll be making the rounds today. I’ve lived with these monsters for days now. That’s enough.

  7. What a despicable pair. I watched a documentary about them a while back. Bittaker has been on death row a long time.

    • He certainly has, Guy. And it’s likely that he’ll never be executed. I saw a few documentaries listed, but after researching them — living in their world, if you will — I couldn’t bring myself to spend another second with these sickos.

  8. I’m not sure that Halloween stories should be so horrifically true… this one was horrible and nearly made me throw up!

    • You should see my browsing history, Anita. Once I posted this piece I needed to close the computer and walk away. Those poor girls. Researching these monsters made me sick.

      In fact, after I wrote this piece, I debated whether to even post it. In order to live with myself I toned it down by leaving out a lot of the torture. The point of this article was to show our broken justice system. If California can’t kill Bittaker, then why have the death penalty at all? Don’t get me started on Norris. That sick pig will walk, and there’s nothing we can do about it.

  9. Why was Bittaker given a stay?Are you writing a book about this case?

    • California liberals are scared of executing an innocent man, which is why they haven’t executed anyone in over a decade. In Bittaker’s case, defense attorneys and prosecutors briefed Bittaker’s federal habeas corpus appeal years ago, yet it still sits before Terry Hatter, a federal judge who President Jimmy Carter appointed, ceased hearing cases full-time in 2005. The entire legal disaster makes no sense.

      I’m not writing a book on this particular case, Barbara. I do use certain traits from real-world serial killers to round-off my villains, but after researching these sickos, I need to get them out of my head.

  10. It’s guys like these two and others who torture their victims that make me regret the cruel and unusual punishment clause of our U.S. Constitution. Truly, some detriment other than liberal juries and judges who are looking for ways to excuse the crimes and horrors men and women such as these inflict, should exist.

    • Couldn’t agree more, Jim. If ever there were two killers who deserved to die, it’s Norris and Bittaker. Better yet, torture them like they did their victims. There’s a lot to be said for “an eye for an eye” justice.

  11. In researching claw hammer murders, I discovered tool box killers are a dime a dozen. These guys have no conscience, and they walk among us every day.

    • What a frightening thought, Paul, and so true. The next psycho could be our friend, neighbor, or acquaintance. You never know what sort of sick fantasies are playing in someone’s mind.

  12. Wow! I’ve heard of some sick stuff but these guys are over the top. If there ever was a case for execution, it’s these two animals. How were they caught, Sue?

    • Totally agree, Garry. To make matters worse, like Gacy, Bittaker runs a business from death row, selling “whimsical” greeting cards and other crap. He signs his work “Pliers Bittaker.” I was not about to share the link. Believe it or not, I downplayed much of the torture. What these girls experienced was even worse.

      To answer your question, originally they’d planned to rape and murder separately, and then compare notes, photographs, recordings, and trophies. So, Norris raped a woman who escaped before he could kill her. It was then that they decided to work as a team. This woman (she’s a rape victim, so I don’t feel comfortable releasing her name) eventually went to the police. Her description matched Norris, and the police put the duo under surveillance. Unfortunately, by that time, they’d already tortured and murdered these poor, innocent girls. Before the prosecutor played the recording of Shirley Ledford, he said to everyone in the courtroom, “Soon you’ll know what hell is.”

  13. I’d say there’s little chance Norris will “reform.”
    I agree that knowing this is a true story makes the reading tough. I like to think I can read any fictional depiction of murder, but this one made me queasy. Let’s hope young girls will not accept anything from strangers on Halloween.

    • I agree, Barbara. Norris and Bittaker’s psychopathy runs too deep for any chance of reform. By the time they reached sexual maturity they couldn’t “perform” unless the act was violent. Sickos.

  14. What makes this story most harrowing, Sue, is that it’s true. That alone ought to be enough to stop people in their tracks. Those poor families, too! How truly awful for them – I can’t imagine. And the police who had to investigate this stomach-churning set of crimes. It’s all…horrible.

    • It really is, Margot. After I posted this piece, I had to close my computer and walk away. The research will haunt me for quite a while, I’m sure. I debated for days on whether to post it in the first place. In the end, I toned down the torture. What the girls experienced was much worse.

      My initial motivation to write this article was to show how screwed up our justice system is, but the piece took on a life of its own. I’m still not sure I should have shared this story.

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