jail cells
Example of jail cells. Photo via Pixabay

A death row inmate , dubbed one of the “Tool Box Killers” for his gruesome torture killings of five teenage girls in the South Bay and San Fernando Valley in 1979, died at San Quentin State Prison, corrections officials announced Monday.

Lawrence Sigmund Bittaker, who died of apparent “natural causes” at 4 p.m. Friday, was 79, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Bittaker and his partner in crime, Roy Lewis Norris, 71 — who is serving 45 years to life in prison in San Diego County — kidnapped, raped, tortured and murdered their five victims between June 24 and Halloween 1979.

The youngest of the girls was 13-year-old Jacqueline Leah Lamp of Redondo Beach, who was killed on Sept. 2, 1979, along with 15-year-old Jackie Gilliam of Long Beach. Bittaker and Norris also murdered Lucinda Schaefer, 16, of Torrance, on June 24 of that year; Andrea Joy Hall, 18, of Tujunga, on July 8, 1979; and Shirley Lynette Ledford, 16, of Sun Valley, on Halloween 1979.

The bodies of the Torrance and Tujunga residents were never recovered.

Then-Assistant District Attorney Stephen Kay, who prosecuted the Bittaker case and also helped convict Charles Manson and his followers, called Bittaker “the most heinous murderer to ever set foot in a Los Angeles County courthouse, and that includes Charles Manson.”

Kay made the statement in 1989, when Bittaker was scheduled for execution.

In February of this year, the now-retired prosecutor told the Daily Breeze that Bittaker outlived half of the jurors who convicted him, as well as the judge, lead detective and an assistant prosecutor.

Kay said a terror tape the killers made of Ledford begging for her life as Bittaker, a machinist, twisted her breasts with pliers and smashed her elbows with a sledgehammer, still plays in his mind.

“I had nightmares for almost two years after the Bittaker trial,” Kay told a columnist for the newspaper. “I’d hear the girls screaming, and run to help them, but always get there too late. I’d wake up in a cold sweat.”

The audiotape was discovered in Bittaker’s van, along with a tool box that served as a key piece of evidence. The men hunted girls in the van, picked them up hitchhiking and then repeatedly raped and tortured them before killing them and dumping their bodies in remote mountain areas above Glendora.

Bittaker jammed an ice pick into the 15-year-old victim’s head before strangling her with a wire hanger, Norris testified. The youngest victim briefly escaped near some Redondo Beach tennis courts, but Bittaker captured her, punched her in the face and later hit her over the head with a sledgehammer before strangling her, Norris told jurors.

Norris testified that Bittaker suggested tightening a wire hanger with pliers to strangle their victims because “it was more of a job to strangle someone than on television.”

Some of the trial testimony was televised by NBC4, reportedly the first time in California that a television crew was granted permission to film a capital case.

In addition to the audiotape, the killers took Polaroid photos of their victims as mementos.

Norris bragged about the murders to an ex-con who alerted police. His tips led to a woman who had been attacked by the pair and escaped.

Norris pleaded guilty to all counts in exchange for prosecutors’ agreement not seeking the death penalty and was sentenced in Los Angeles County on April 28, 1981.

One 19-year-old girl testified in Bittaker’s defense, telling jurors that he took friends of hers out to eat when they didn’t have any money and let them sleep in the back of his van. On cross-examination, the girl admitted that Bittaker also gave the teens drugs and asked her to arrange “dates” with young girls.

A jury convicted Bittaker of more than two dozen counts, including five counts of murder, five counts of kidnapping, criminal conspiracy, rape, oral copulation, sodomy and being an ex-felon in possession of a firearm. He was sentenced on March 22, 1981, to be put to death in the gas chamber and had been housed on death row since March 30, 1981.

The Marin County coroner will determine Bittaker’s specific cause of death, but prison officials categorized it as resulting from natural causes.

Since 1978, when California reinstated capital punishment, 82 other condemned inmates have died from natural causes, 27 have committed suicide, 13 have been executed in California, one was executed in Missouri, one was executed in Virginia, 14 have died from other causes and four — including Bittaker — are pending an official cause of death. There are currently 729 offenders on California’s death row, according to state officials.

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