The True Story of the Hillside Strangler Will Give You Nightmares

The new Peacock docuseries The Hillside Strangler: Devil in Disguise digs into the terror that blanketed Los Angeles while police hunted for the killer of at least 10 women.

By Natalie Finn Aug 07, 2022 12:00 PMTags
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(Content warning: This story contains mentions of sexual assault)

The first body was found on Oct. 18, 1977.

Yolanda Washington, 20, had been raped, strangled, stripped and dumped on a hillside off the Golden State Freeway, in view of both the Warner Bros. lot and the entrance to Forest Lawn Memorial Park, the famed final resting place of dozens of celebrities. 

Four months later, 18-year-old Cindy Hudspeth—her nude body found in the trunk of her own Datsun, which had been pushed off the edge of the Angeles Crest Highway—was identified as the 10th known victim of the serial killer terrorizing Los Angeles dubbed the "Hillside Strangler."

Peacock's new four-part docuseries The Hillside Strangler: Devil in Disguise dives into the year-long manhunt, the complicated criminal trial and, perhaps most poignantly, the fear that blanketed the City of Angels while the killers were on the loose.

Yes, one of the more salient points to remember is that there were, in fact, two killers working together.

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"There was never any doubt in my mind that there were at least two suspects," retired homicide detective Pete Finnegan recalled in the series. And when one was arrested, his thought was, "I wonder where the other guy is."

Who were the victims of the Hillside Strangler?

Between October 1977 and February 1978, 10 bodies were found around L.A.—in Burbank, Los Feliz, near Dodger Stadium, by City Hall—like points on a demented tourist map.


Several of the victims were sex workers, including Washington and Judith Lynn Miller, a 15-year-old runaway who had dropped out of Hollywood High School. Kimberly Diane Martin, 17, had started working for an escort service ("call girl" was the term at the time) because she was too afraid to work the streets with the Strangler on the loose—but she was the girl who was dispatched when the killers called the service. 

Elissa Kastin, 21, worked as a waitress and was a member of the dance troupe the L.A. Knockers.

Dolores "Dolly" Cepeda, 12, and Sonja Marie Johnson, 14, took a short bus ride home from the mall in Eagle Rock to Highland Park together—then were found by a 9-year-old boy hunting for treasure on a trash heap near Chavez Ravine.

Kristina Weckler, 20, a student at the ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena; aspiring actress Jane Evelyn King, 28; and Lauren Rae Wagner, 18, a college student who lived with her parents in the San Fernando Valley, were found between Nov. 20-29. 


The method was mostly the same: All female victims, all strangled, all showing signs of sexual assault and torture. 

But other haunting details stood out. Weckler had been injected with Windex and had a piece of a stove's gas pipe in her mouth and a plastic bag over her head.

Wagner, who had burn marks on her palms, was abducted just across the street from her family's house. Her parents saw her car door hanging open when they got up the next morning. A neighbor told police she heard someone cry, "You won't get away with this!" that night, and when she looked outside she saw two men. (The woman also told detectives, when pressed about why she didn't call police, that she herself was a rape victim and had become paralyzed with fear as the memories came flooding back.)

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Witnesses later recalled hearing screams the night of Dec. 14, when Martin was murdered in a vacant Hollywood apartment that the killers had broken into, giving that building as their address to the escort service. But as one tenant told police, screams in that building weren't unusual.

After so much carnage in less than three months, and with no new murders to begin 1978, detectives thought perhaps the horrendous spree was over. But then Hudspeth was found in February, strangled and dumped on a hillside—though along with her entire car, which was a shift in the pattern.

(During this time, there were other women whose deaths were suspected to be the work of the Hillside Strangler—such as 18-year-old Jill Barcomb, whose body was found in a ravine near the Hollywood sign in November 1977—but only these 10 were officially named Strangler victims. Rodney Alcala had already been in prison for decades when he was convicted of Barcomb's murder in 2010. He died behind bars in 2021.)

How did police catch the Hillside Strangler?

After Hudspeth, however, the killings attributed to the Strangler did stop—at least in California.

In January 1979, 27-year-old Kenneth Bianchi was arrested in Bellingham, Wash., on suspicion of murder. He had strangled two Western Washington University students, Karen Mandic, 22, and Diane Wilder, 27, on Jan. 11, after luring them into a house where he was working as a security guard.

Finding a Los Angeles driver's license on Bianchi, local police reached out to the L.A. County Sheriff's Office for a background check and, according to Darcy O'Brien's 1987 book on the crimes, The Hillside Stranglers, an investigator working the Hillside Strangler case took the call.


Bianchi's address matching one of the victims was the only alarm bell authorities needed.

His only known associate was his cousin Angelo Buono Jr., an auto upholsterer who owned his own shop on Colorado Boulevard in Glendale. Questioned by investigators, the 44-year-old divorced father of five denied knowing anything about the Hillside Strangler killings.

Bianchi also initially denied having anything to do with the L.A. murders. But detectives were trying everything, including hypnosis—which, according to investigators, Bianchi tried to use to his advantage, pretending to exhibit signs of dissociative personality disorder. First, while pretending to be hypnotized, he laid the blame for the crimes on his alter-ego Steve. Several other personalities emerged, including one named Billy.

Charged with the murders of Mandic and Wilder in Washington, Bianchi pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity—which prosecutors pushed back against with their own experts.

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Bianchi eventually agreed to plead guilty to the two Bellingham murders and five of the L.A. murders (Washington, King, Weckler, Martin and Hudspeth)—and to testify against Buono for all 10—in exchange for the death penalty being taken off the table in both states.

Buono was arrested on Oct. 22, 1979, and charged with 10 counts of first-degree murder, assault, rape and other related charges.


Who was the "Copycat Strangler"?

In June 1980, Veronica Compton of Los Angeles started writing to Bianchi in jail, obviously enamored with the suspected serial killer. He eventually agreed to see her if she came to visit.

According to O'Brien's book, Compton talked enthusiastically about how wonderful it would be if they could commit murder together. Instead, Bianchi suggested to her that if she, perhaps, went up to Washington and strangled someone in a similar fashion to how he killed Mandic and Wilder and leave different DNA at the scene, then that could help get him freed.

Compton did go up to Washington and tried to strangle 26-year-old Kim Breed. Dubbed the "Copycat Strangler," Compton ended up sentenced to life in prison for attempted murder.


"She was a bizarre character," prosecutor Dave McEachran, who was involved with both Compton and Bianchi's cases in Washington, told A&E True Crime in 2019. "It was a very unusual case, to say the least."

Maintaining she had been under the equivalent of an evil spell cast by Bianchi, Compton was paroled in 1996, but swiftly locked up again for parole violation. As another chance to go free approached in 1999, she told the Seattle Times, "Rehabilitation is real. Not just for me but for the other women...We can change. Here, miracles can happen." 

She was again granted parole in 2003 and published a book called Eating the Ashes: Seeking Rehabilitation within the US Penal System. Compton was interviewed for Peacock's The Hillside Strangler: Devil in Disguise, recalling Bianchi's manipulations. 

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Why did the case against Angelo Buono almost fall apart?

The preliminary hearing to determine whether there was enough evidence to put Buono on trial for the Hillside Strangler murders lasted 10 months.

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In November 1980, Buono's house in Glendale—where authorities believed most of the killings took place—had been bulldozed to the ground after Buono signed over the deed to a nearby glass shop. His shop, in a refurbished garage next to the house, remained standing.

Dozens of witnesses were called to testify about the cousins' behavior, but it wasn't until an LAPD criminalist matched a fiber found on victim No. 2 Judy Miller's eyelid to material found at the upholstery shop that they had physical evidence. 

A judge ruled in March 1981 that the case could go forward, setting trial for September.


But once Bianchi was in L.A. to testify, he started to write letters to his psychiatrist and a lady friend from jail saying that he actually didn't remember killing anybody and he didn't really know if Buono had anything to do with the murders. He simply told prosecutor Roger Kelly that he had agreed to a plea deal to save his own life.

He became so unhelpful, the L.A. County District Attorney's Office moved to drop all 10 murder charges against Buono in July 1981, explaining to the judge that they didn't think they could convict him beyond a reasonable doubt without his cousin's testimony.

In what was considered a very controversial legal move, L.A. Superior Court Judge Ronald M. George denied the motion. With local prosecutors unwilling to keep going, the case ended up in the hands of the California Attorney General's Office, then headed up by George Deukmejian (who went on to be elected governor in 1983), and jury selection finally got underway on Nov. 16, 1981.

It only took three-and-a-half months to seat a jury.

What was learned about Bianchi and Buono at trial?

Start to finish, Buono's murder trial lasted more than 23 months, making it the longest criminal trial in California history. The jury heard 56,000 pages' worth of testimony from 400 witnesses and were shown 2,000 exhibits. And Bianchi did end up taking the stand in order to preserve his deal.

Bianchi had moved from his hometown of Rochester, N.Y., to L.A. in 1976. Buono let him stay in a spare bedroom and Bianchi—who fancied his cousin a real ladies' man—promised he'd move out as soon as he was settled with a job. 

At one point Bianchi tried to join the Glendale Police Department, but couldn't pass the exams. He found a job with the California Land Title Company and moved into his own place—an apartment in Pasadena in the same building as art student Kristina Weckler. He didn't have much trouble meeting women, but Weckler shunned his advances, according to O'Brien's book, telling a friend he reminded her of a used car salesman.

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But Buono, already familiar with hiring prostitutes, decided they should try their hand at being pimps. In October 1977 he purchased a list of potential clients from a sex worker he knew named Deborah Noble, who later testified at his preliminary hearing that on the night she delivered the list, she brought several colleagues with her to Buono's shop, including Yolanda Washington.

Bianchi testified that their last victim, Cindy Hudspeth, was a spur-of-the-moment decision. She visited Buono's shop in February 1978 to see about getting some floor mats for her new orange Datsun. When Bianchi showed up around closing time, they quickly consulted and decided to kill her. They flipped a coin to see who'd get to strangle her, Bianchi said, and he won.

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Did Bianchi and Buono get starstruck?

The murderous duo did have an intended victim who got away. In 1979, Bianchi told police that one night in late October or early November of 1977, he and Buono stopped a young woman on the street in Hollywood. They flashed the fake police badges they often used to con victims into thinking they were cops, and asked for her identification.

The woman said her wallet had been stolen, but she had papers identifying her as Catharine Lorre and old pictures of her with the German actor Peter Lorre fell out of her purse. The star of and The Maltese Falcon was her father.

She told them she was on her way to an appointment and her ride was waiting for her, and she was able to walk off into the night without incident. Lorre later testified in court that she had no idea until they were arrested that she'd had a run-in with serial killers.


Bianchi and Buono's next brush with celebrity would be when Billy Zane and Dennis Farina played them, respectively, in the 1989 TV movie The Case of the Hillside StranglersC. Thomas Howell and Nicholas Turturro also portrayed the duo in the 2004 indie production The Hillside Strangler. The New York Times called it a "relentlessly unpleasant film."

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Was Angelo Buono Jr. found guilty of all 10 murders?

Buono was first convicted on Oct. 31, 1983, of the murder of Lauren Wagner, after which the jury—sequestered for the deliberations—went back to discuss the other nine counts. Bianchi testified that they had tried to electrocute the teen at Buono's house, accounting for the burn marks on her hands, but failing to kill her that way they strangled her like the others.

Prosecutor Roger Boren acknowledged at the time that Wagner's murder was their strongest case, so they were heartened by the verdict.

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On Nov. 4, Buono was found not guilty of the murder of Washington, the alleged first victim of the Hillside Strangler. 

"I was hoping for 10 convictions but I'm not surprised," Boren told reporters after the verdict, noting that they had the "weakest evidence" in that case. "I think the jury is working very diligently right now."

Washington's mother, Catherine Campbell, seemingly took the verdict calmly, telling UPI, "He will get whatever sentence he deserves eventually. We all have to reach a Judgment Day, and you don't get away with nothing."

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Ultimately Buono was found guilty of nine murders and—against the recommendation of prosecutors Boren and Michael Nash—was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

"Not to impose the death penalty simply cheapens the lives of these girls," Boren told the jury before they deliberated on the penalty. Detailing the various life milestones denied to Buono's victims, the deputy attorney general added, "The most appropriate punishment in this case, the only thing that's right in this case, is putting him to death for the dark deeds of night he committed."

Defense attorney Gerald Chalef argued that Buono shouldn't get a harsher punishment than Bianchi.

"The state made a deal with the devil," he said, "and Mr. Buono was the devil's due."

Where are Angelo Buono and Kenneth Bianchi now?

In 1986, Buono married Christine Kizuka, a mother of three he met when her previous husband spent five months in a cell next to his while serving a term for assault with a deadly weapon. A spokesman for the California Department of Corrections told the Associated Press that Buono was not allowed conjugal visits, nor was he ever likely to be, "due to the nature of his crimes against women."

Buono, who had heart trouble, died in his cell at Calpatria State Prison of natural causes on Sept. 21, 2002. He was 67.

In January 2007, Christopher Buono, one of the killer's grandchildren, shot his grandmother Mary Castillo in the head and then fatally turned the gun on himself. Castillo survived. 

A neighbor who knew of her past told the Orange County Register, "People should leave her alone, or care about her because she's Mary, not because she used to be married to that man."

Meanwhile, Bianchi married Shirlee Joyce Book, who started off as a pen pal, in 1989, meeting her in person for the first time the day before their wedding. Now 71, he remains locked up in Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla. He was denied parole on his first attempt, in 2010, and he can try again in 2025.

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