What do you get when two convicts, with one heinous plan, join forces when they are released from prison? You get The Toolbox Killers, on this edition of True Crime Corner, two men who terrorized teenage girls in California for a few months in 1979.
With a high IQ, Lawrence Sigmund Bittaker’s life could have turned out much differently. He was born on September 27, 1940, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He was quickly given up by his married parents, and was an infant when adopted by his new family. Due to the nature of his adoptive father’s job, the family moved frequently. They were living in California when Bittaker’s brushes with the law began. He started shoplifting and getting into trouble as a preteen. He dropped out of school, and was soon arrested for more serious offenses including car theft. As a result, he spent time in a youth facility until the age of 18. Bittaker was abandoned again, this time by his adoptive parents, when he discovered they moved away when he was in the youth facility. He was on his own after his release, as he never saw them again.
Roy Lewis Norris was born on February 5, 1948, in Greeley, Colorado. He was bounced among his natural family and foster families as a young man. Norris joined the military after dropping out of high school, but was discharged due to mental problems. He had started assaulting women, and was later convicted of it. He was sent to prison to serve his sentence for this crime.
Meanwhile, in 1977, Lawrence Bittaker was already incarcerated at the same prison when Norris arrived. Bittaker was locked up for assault with a deadly weapon (he stabbed a store clerk when accused of shoplifting). The men became friendly with each other, and they spent time discussing their mutual interest of terrorizing young girls. It was their desire to victimize a girl from every age from 13 to 19. They agreed to meet again on the outside after each was released from prison, in order to put their sadistic plan into motion.
Norris was released just three months following Bittaker. Bittaker found a job as a machinist, while Norris worked as an electrician. It didn’t take long for the men to meet and address the plans they hatched in prison. To better snatch young females they approached on the street with the least chance of being caught, the men secured a light-colored cargo van. The vehicle had a big sliding side door, and no rear windows. It was outfitted with a makeshift bed, under which stored a cooler and a toolbox containing instruments they would use on their victims. The van was nicknamed “Murder Mack.”
Before the pair commenced their horrific crimes, they practiced their technique. They wanted to see what worked, and what didn’t, as far as luring girls to their van. They picked up several hitchhikers, posing for Polaroid photos with them, before releasing the very lucky young girls.
When Bittaker and Norris began to act out their sadistic fantasy, at least five teens would be subject to terror beyond belief before they were killed. (Their exact number of victims is unknown). They often tortured these girls with pliers, sledgehammers, and ice picks before strangling them with a wire hanger. Their last victim provided the evidence that would help convict her assailant. An audio recording was recovered by authorities. On the tape were the horrifying sounds of a terrified teen being brutalized, begging for death after enduring torture from the two men. It’s believed there was another recording documenting an attack on a different victim, but it was never found.
As the saying goes, loose lips sink ships. Norris spilled the beans about his and Bittaker’s activities to a former inmate he had met while they were both incarcerated. This man had daughters of his own, and relayed this conversation with Norris to his attorney, who suggested the man go to authorities. So began the beginning of the end of Norris and Bittaker’s terrorizing of teenage girls, when an ex-con turned them in.
At the conclusion of the trials, Lawrence Bittaker was sentenced to death in 1981 for the deaths of five girls. Although a few execution dates have been set, he still sits on death row all these years later. To avoid the death penalty, Norris received 45 years to life in exchange for testifying against Bittaker. Any bids for parole have been unsuccessful. He remains incarcerated in a different prison than his partner in crime.
The crimes took their toll not only on the victims and their families, but also on authorities involved in the case. One of the people working the cases took their life, in part due to fear that Bittaker and Norris may one day be let out of prison.
More on these men and their crimes can be found on an episode of season two of Investigation Discovery’s show, Wicked Attraction. There is also an interesting documentary The Devil and the Death Penalty. It’s very well done and is available to watch on YouTube right here.