Sunday, January 12, 2014

Keeping Serial Killers Alive in Los Angeles County Jail - Dr. Vonda Pelto, Ph.D

In addition to spending untold hours reading and doing field research for The Rainy Day Murders, my researcher and I have also conducted hundreds of phone and in-person interviews with people who have had some connection with the John Norman Collins case or who have worked in the field of forensics and have some clinical psychology background with serial killers. It's been quite a learning experience.

Last September, I met with Dr. Vonda Pelto at the train station in San Juan Capistrano. I drove up from San Diego, and she drove down from Long Beach, so we could meet and discuss serial killers over lunch. Although this topic doesn't make for good dining conversation generally, she and I had a lively and spirited visit.

Dr. Pelto's job for three years in the 1980s was to keep Los Angeles County Jail's serial killer population alive so they could stand trial. It was a unique job nobody wanted, but she was a single mother of two with a new psych degree who needed a job desperately.

The back story of the job was that "In the late part of 1980, one of the Freeway Killers, Vernon Butts, was arrested and confessed that he and William Bonin had used various knives, ice picks, acid, and chloral hydrate in the commission of six murders. Butts later admitted that he was there but contended that Bonin actually committed the crimes."

LA County prosecutor, John Van de Kamp, offered a plea bargain to Butts rather than the death penalty. Van de Kamp offered Butts life in prison if he would roll over on his partner, William Bonin.

Dr. Kline, head of the Forensic Outpatient Unit at the mens jail, explained to Dr. Pelto at her job interview,

"Butts was poised to testify against his friend, when he became despondent and tired of incarceration. He made the choice to end his life. Hanged himself!

"The District Attorney was mad as hell at us, the press had a field day, and we got a lot of heat over it. Believe me, we can't ever let that happen again.

"Dr. Pelto, after Butts' suicide, we decided to create a new position in the jail's forensic team. We want someone to see the high profile inmates, the men whose names and faces are featured predominately in the news media. That's the job we're offering you....

"The main thing is we have to keep these guys alive during their incarcerations. The State wants the opportunity to extract its own revenge."


For seven years prior to this job, Dr. Pelto had worked with

Dr. Vonda Pelto, Ph.D
sexually molested victims and their perpetrators for Orange County Mental Health. She couldn't imagine that the felons in jail could be much worse. So she reluctantly took the job.

After thirty-some years away from that traumatic environment, Dr. Vonda Pelto was finally able to collect her thoughts and write a memoir of her experiences called Without Remorse, published in 2012. 

Pelto writes about the Hillside Stranglers, Kenneth Bianchi and Angelo Buono; the Freeway Killers, Jim Munro and William Bonin; the Sunset Strip Killer, Doug Clark; the Trash Bag Murderers, Elihua Komerchero, Joseph Zakaria, and Yehunda Avital; Arthur Jackson, attempted murder of Theresa Saldana; and wild card, John (The Wadd) Holmes, implicated in the Wonderland Murders.

Dr. Pelto would meet with these men in her office, a converted 8'x10' cell that was retrofitted with a Dutch door. Her work space was situated near the prisoners' phone bank. A barbers' chair was bolted to the floor, and the inmates would be handcuffed to the chair whenever they came in to see her. Usually, inmates were brought in one at a time to be evaluated but not always.

Dr. Pelto's book not only tells her stories of interacting with these psychotic men, but it also tells her story of being a single mother working to raise two daughters. It tells of her long struggle to pass the California State Boards to become a clinical psychologist and go into private practice. Vonda reveals much about her self-doubt and her personal history with men that readers will find deeply revealing. 

Dr. Pelto has sold the movie rights to Without Remorse and a screenplay is in development. I'll be anxious to see the movie when it comes out.

Check out this five minute video link of Dr. Vonda Pelto discussing Without Remorse

Link to Without Remorse: