From flower power to mass murder: the seventies opened in an orgy of killings and mayhem that left ordinary Americans living in fear.
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Next Door Neighbors
The Seventies opened in an orgy of murder and mayhem that left ordinary Americans living in fear.
All the hopes and aspirations of the flower power decade were trampled in a series of bloody crimes that shocked and horrified the nation.
These weren’t atrocities involving strangers a world away in places like Vietnam, and they weren’t the collateral damage in some organized crime gangland feud where the violence was largely directed at other criminals.
This was happening to friends and neighbors living right next door.
Women were being targeted, celebrities were butchered, children were no longer safe to play out in the yard.
Cities like New York and Chicago were fighting rising crime statistics and stretching law enforcement resources to breaking point. But most insidious of all was the rise of the serial killer.
This was a phenomenon that wasn’t just new to the public…it was also a disturbing new challenge for the police and other crime-busting organizations like the FBI.
Sure, serial killers had been around since before the days when Jack the Ripper haunted the back alleys of London, but never before had there been a mass media sensationalizing the most horrific of killings in lurid headlines that fueled a national paranoia.
The country was dragged kicking and screaming into the seventies on the heels of the Manson murders in Hollywood that were relived in the courtroom in gory detail through 1970 and 1971.
With a sinister regularity, the psychopaths and twisted sociopaths emerged as the decade progressed, some christened with media-friendly monikers, others sparking terror enough with the mention of their names.
There was Bundy and Gacy.
Then there was Son of Sam, the Hillside Strangler, the Zodiac Killer and The BTK Killer.
This was Halloween without the tricks or treats, a period when the dark stars aligned so tightly nobody felt safe.
The technology, as basic as it was compared to today, was still progressive enough for the time to help find crime patterns that may have eluded law enforcement in years gone by.
Forensic science, rudimentary as it undoubtedly was, matched up clues that would otherwise have remained loose strands.
Maybe in the past, serial killers hid the scale of the killing by packing up and moving on every time things got hot. Now they were the shocking face of the country’s waking nightmare.
The Mason Family
Even now, the name Charles Manson remains synonymous with evil.
Locked away at Corcoran State Prison in California, the crazy stare and a swastika tattooed above his eyes are perhaps the only clue to the hold he once maintained over the psyche of the nation.
With three of his “family” followers, Manson was found guilty on January 25, 1971 of the brutal murders of pregnant actress Sharon Tate – wife of movie director Roman Polanski – and four others in Hollywood.
In all, Manson and his followers committed a series of nine murders at four locations over a period of five weeks in the summer of 1969 as part of his “Helter Skelter” campaign of terror.
Mugshot of Manson taken in 1971.
Taking the name from the Beatles song, Manson believed in an impending apocalyptic race war and engendered a fierce loyalty among his “family” that held sway even after his incarceration.
Manson’s initial death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment in 1972 after the Supreme Court temporarily struck down the state’s capital punishment statute.
In 1975, Manson family member Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme pulled a gun on President Gerald Ford in a thwarted assassination attempt. Manson, now 80, will die behind bars.
John Wayne Gacy
For six years between 1972 and 1978, John Wayne Gacy stalked Chicago as a child’s ultimate nightmare – a killer clown.
After being caught, Gacy confessed to murdering 33 boys and young men after luring them to his Norwood Park Township house, where he buried most of them in a crawl space under the floor. Almost all his victims were sexually assaulted and choked to death.
Dressed as “Pogo the Clown,” Gacy hid behind his garish uniform at children’s parties and charity events as well as when he was actually carrying out some of the grisly murders.
Born on March 17 1942, Gacy grew up in Chicago with a brutal alcoholic father who would beat his wife and three children with a razor strap and once beat him into unconsciousness with a broomstick.
Although he was married, he was jailed in 1968 for 10 years for sexually assaulting two teenage boys and released on parole after serving just two years of the sentence.
Outwardly, he became a pillar of the local community, marrying again and running a lucrative construction firm. But a police search of his home by police searching for a missing teen revealed the horrifying truth.
After his conviction, Gacy spent 14 years on death row, eventually being executed on May 10, 1994.
Son of Sam
David Berkowitz taunted police in New York by leaving letters signed “Son of Sam” predicting where he was going to strike next in a killing spree that spread panic across the entire city.
Beginning in the summer of 1976, six people were killed and seven others wounded by a .44-caliber Bulldog revolver. Most of the victims were women with long hair.
Until April 1977, the murder weapon was the only real link police had connecting the deaths, but then Berkowitz left his first letter near the scene of a murder and the publicity surrounding the spree gradually dialed up to boiling point.
His killing spree began on July 29, 1976 when he shot two girl teens sitting on a car outside their Bronx apartment. One died and the other was hit in the thigh and survived.
Three months later he struck again, shooting at a couple in a parked car, severely damaging a man’s skull. Then two more girls were shot walking home, leaving one a paraplegic.
By then police were starting to connect the dots, but six women were dead before his arrest in August 1977.
Berkowitz claimed he was following the orders of a demonic neighbor called Sam who sent murderous messages to him through his dog, Harvey.
Berkowitz is still serving a life sentence in New York.
Standing in in his blue suit at his 1978 trial, Ted Bundy, a former law student, was barely distinguishable from the defense attorneys representing him.
Handsome, intelligent, articulate and charismatic, Bundy could have been anything he wanted. But under the suave, composed exterior beat a heart of pure evil – he is suspected of killing as many as 100 victims, which would make him the worst mass murderer in American history.
He was convicted of killing two women in the Chi Omega sorority in Tallahassee, Florida, and sentenced to death after being caught in a chance traffic stop.
Before his execution by electric chair in 1989, Bundy confessed to killing 36 women between 1974 and 1978, but police are certain there were many more.
He preyed on young women, often feigning injury or disability to win their trust before taking them to secluded spots where he beat and raped them, sometimes after they were already dead.
Rather than feel any remorse, he reveled in the pain he caused and decapitated at least a dozen victims and took some of the heads home as grisly souvenirs. Bundy was under no illusions about himself.
Bundy in 1979
He called himself “the most cold-hearted son of a bitch you’ll ever meet.”
The Hillside Strangler
It wasn’t long after the arrest of the “Son of Sam” in New York that another serial killing spree sparked a panic on the other side of the country in Los Angeles.
From October 1977 to February 1978, the bodies of 10 women – aged from 12 to 28 - were found in a hilly area above the City of Angels –all attributed by the media to a sinister killer nicknamed the "Hillside Strangler."
The assumption was that it was the work of one man. Only later did police discover the Hillside Strangler wasn’t one man but two cousins, Angelo Buono Jr. and Kenneth Bianchi, who shared the same sick predilection for the torture and degradation of helpless women.
Life in Prison
When the highly publicized killings suddenly stopped it was because the two men had fallen out.
Before their dispute, the two men would drive around L.A. in Buono’s car and use fake police badges to persuade women they were undercover officers.
They would then order their potential victims into the car and drive them back to their house where both would rape the women before killing them, cleaning their bodies and dumping them on the hillside.
They were caught when Bianchi tried killing alone and wasn’t as meticulous in cleaning up as his cousin. Both were sentenced to life in prison.
The Zodiac Killer
The so-called Zodiac Killer always remained one step ahead of the law despite feeding publicity about the horrific murders by leaving clues for the homicide detectives pursuing him.
Although letters and cyphers were still being sent to newspapers and the authorities right through until the end of 1970, the hunt gradually went cold as the murders stopped along with the messages and other gruesome crimes commanded the headlines through the rest of the decade.
The mystery man killed at least five times in the San Francisco area in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
“I like killing people because it is so much fun,” he wrote in one coded message sent to three local Bay Area newspapers following two 1969 murders.
At one point three newspapers were each sent one-third of a 408-symbol cryptogram the killer claimed contained his identity.
The notes also featured a strange symbol that would become the killer’s calling card – a circle with two intersecting lines running through it
While the police have had several suspects over the years – and books have speculated on the identity of “Zodiac” being anyone from Unabomber Ted Kaczynski to a rare book dealer – nobody has ever been arrested and charged with the murders.
The BTK Killer
Unlike other publicity-hungry monsters who were given their nicknames by the media, Boy Scout leader Dennis Rader came up with his own moniker – The BTK Killer.
The initials stood for “Blind, Torture, Kill” and described his method of murder.
But the name he gave himself was the only obvious thing about Radar, a church-going, married father of two who terrorized his own Wichita, Kansas neighborhood for two decades before he was caught.
Under the Radar
He killed 10 people before his thirst for publicity proved his undoing in 2004. After strangling two parents and their children, aged 11 and 9, in January 1974, he left notes admitting to the killings in a public library book.
The killings continued through the 70s, the 80s and even into the 90s before his DNA was matched to the taunting letters he continued to leave following the crimes, apparently complaining about the lack of publicity the murders were getting in the press.
He was president of the church council for his Christ Lutheran Church and a respected Boy Scout leader.
Radar, who showed no remorse at his trial, is still serving 10 life sentences in a Kansas prison having escaped the death penalty because the murders happened before the state’s 1994 reinstatement of capital punishment.
Gary Gilmore was notorious more for the way he died than by the murders he carried out.
On January 17, 1977, he was shot dead by a volunteer firing squad at Utah State Prison, the first person to be executed in the United States in 10 years and the first after the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty.
A career criminal who had been behind bars for more than half of his life, he killed two men – a gas station attendant and a motel clerk – in cold blood in robberies in the space of two days in 1976 and was turned in by his cousin.
His trial lasted just two days and he was sentenced to death.
But it was Gilmore’s actions following the conviction that dominated headlines around the world.
He refused to appeal the sentence and fired his lawyers when they tried to change his mind.
His mother pleaded with him to fight the death penalty, as did the American Civil Liberties Union, but Gilmore had a letter published in the media asking for them to leave him to his fate.
Given the choice of execution, he chose a firing squad and his wish was granted.
Since 1977 there have been more than 6700 executions in the U.S.