This week on True Crime Corner, the Hillside Strangler is a bit of a misnomer for the killers responsible for terrorizing California in 1977 and 1978. In fact, the rampage was a family affair, perpetrated by two cousins. Who were these men?
The two men were not biological cousins. Kenneth Bianchi was an adopted child, as Bianchi’s birth mother wasn’t able to care for him. Both were from New York, but following the divorce of Buono’s parents, he relocated to California with his mother. Bianchi had issues with the controlling woman who raised him, and he grew into a manipulative liar. He took a job as a security guard after attempts to become a police officer proved unsuccessful. However, Bianchi’s penchant for theft didn’t mix well with his job, and at the age of 23 Bianchi left for California, to live with his older cousin, Angelo Buono.
Both men harbored hostility toward women, with Buono calling out his own mother for her perceived promiscuous behavior. Unlike his cousin, Buono had a successful automobile upholstery business, and his bachelor pad was a revolving door of young women. Although there were no shortage of females, Buono was known for his violent tendencies, according to former spouses. It wasn’t long before Bianchi shared his cousin’s many girlfriends.
Bianchi eventually moved into his own place, holding miscellaneous jobs when he still couldn’t find employment with law enforcement. The two cousins hatched a prostitution scheme. The pair recruited two young girls under the guise of finding them modeling jobs. Desperate to leave the lifestyle they were forced into and the abuse from the cousins, the girls escaped, despite the men’s threats.
Angry and wanting to resume their failed enterprise, they enlisted help from a prostitute. When her assistance proved not to be helpful, they sought their revenge. When they couldn’t find the woman who wronged them, Bianchi strangled a friend of the woman instead.
Over the course of 4 months, several females, ranging in age from 12 to 28, lost their lives to the killing cousins. They started out murdering prostitutes before moving on to women and girls from other areas of society. They would drive through the streets in search of girls who were alone, often passing themselves off as police officers. Once the victims were in their car, they were taken to Buono’s home where they were raped and killed. The bodies were relocated to the hills around the vicinity of Los Angeles, but no great care was taken to conceal them. Their crimes escalated in viciousness. If strangling weren’t horrible enough, they would sometimes choke the women to near death before bringing them back, only to kill them anyway. One woman was choked with the gas from the kitchen stove, and still another received injections of household chemicals. A task force was created to catch The Hillside Strangler, and Buono became nervous about the situation, and urged Bianchi to flee the area. Bianchi moved in with an old flame in Bellingham, Washington, where he again worked in security. Months passed before he killed two more women without the aid of his older cousin. He strangled two women before putting their bodies in the trunk of one of the victim’s cars. It didn’t take police long to arrest Bianchi, because while Buono was neat with his crimes, Bianchi was careless and left clues to his identity in Washington.
Bianchi held a California driver’s license, which prompted authorities to inquire about him in that state. It turns out that one of his former addresses was located close to the residences of a couple of The Hillside Strangler victims. When his Washington home was searched, items provided a connection to the California murders.
Police thought that more than one person was responsible for the stranglings. They believed it would take two people to leave remains at some of the locations where they were found.
When asked by officials, Bianchi’s girlfriend said Angelo Buono was a person close to him. The police kept watch on Buono’s property, but a search of his home yielded no evidence. It wasn’t until his cousin confessed did authorities take a closer look at items from Buono’s home and found evidence connecting him to the murders.
Meanwhile, Bianchi tried to convince the authorities that he was mentally unfit to stand trial. However, they were able to see through his attempt to show that he had multiple personalities. Bianchi agreed to implicate his cousin in the California murders to avoid the death penalty. He pled guilty to the pair of Washington murders, and returned to California to face more charges. It was at this time when Angelo Buono was arrested for his part in the murders.
Bianchi’s testimony vacillated from being detailed about the crimes, to claiming he couldn’t remember much. Because of his wavering, the prosecution wanted to drop the charges against Buono, but the judge did not rule in their favor.
Bianchi received multiple life sentences while Buono received life in prison with no possibility of ever getting out. Both men had somehow escaped the death penalty. Buono had a fatal heart attack in 2002 at the age of 67. Bianchi remains incarcerated for the crimes.
If you would like to read more about this case, Darcy O’Brien wrote The Hillside Stranglers, as well as Two of a Kind: The Hillside Stranglers. There’s also The Hillside Strangler: A Murderer’s Mind by Ted Schwarz.
If you’re looking for videos about the story, there was a 1989 television movie called The Case of the Hillside Stranglers starring Dennis Farina (Buono) and Billy Zane (Bianchi). There is also 2004’s The Hillside Strangler with C. Thomas Howell (Bianchi) and Nicholas Turturro (Buono).