When I first heard about all the work Laura Brand was doing with serial killers, specifically the Toolbox Murder case, I was seriously impressed. I never dreamed that in a matter of months I’d be on her research team, helping her track down witnesses more than 40 years after Lawrence Bittaker and Roy Norris commited their heinous crimes.
Let me start at the beginning – Laura Brand has interviewed over fifty serial killers. Some of the most vile criminals in the annals of American history. Names like Wayne Adam Ford, Douglas Clark, a.k.a the “Sunset Strip Slayer” and Phillip Jablonski, just to name a few. Her resume reads like a true crime compendium – a master list of malevolence…and she get’s them talking. Many times the conversation turns to previously unknown victims, and that’s the goal. It’s how Laura earned the moniker the “Siren of San Quentin.”
Out of all those meetings and hundreds of hours of interviews, there is just one case that still gives her nightmares, and that is The Toolbox Killers. The name was given to Lawrence Bittaker and Roy Norris, a merciless pair who were convicted in the kidnapping, rape, torture and murder of five teenage girls in the Los Angeles area back in 1979. Her obsession with this case reached a fever pitch as she further cultivated a working relationship with Lawrence Bittaker. You see, over the course of their countless interviews, Bittaker began to give her vital information in regards to the location of several victims, whose remains had never been located.
The amount of details Bittaker was giving Laura were significant, to say the least. Everything from highly detailed topograhical maps, marked with locations of victims, to descriptions of buried evidence. Lawrence Bittaker wanted his story told and Laura Brand would be the one to tell it. Her objective was absolute, she wanted to bring the girls home. The teenaged victims whose remains were never returned to their family, those girls were never forgotten. Just lost, and Laura was hell bent on finding them, soon I would be too.
She channeled her conviction and ferocity, spending countless hours with Bittaker and Norris on death row extracting details. Her unwavering dedication resulted in amassing a considerable amount of information. Much of it never before disclosed and all of it will be revealed in her upcoming book “What Hell is Like; The Untold Story of the Toolbox Killers.” The title is derived from notable prosecuting attorney, Stephen Kay who addresed the jury and spectators at the trial saying “If you don’t know what hell is like, you’re about to find out.” Kay was referring to the audio tape made by Bittaker and Norris that was a nauseating recording of the horrific agony they inflicted upon Lynette Ledford. A recording so brutal it is said to be used to desensitize investigators at the FBI to this day.
In addition to Laura’s book. there is also a documentary in the works and with all that, an extensive amount of research needs to be done. This includes tracking down victims and witnesses from more than four decades ago. In our work – which has really ramped up in the previous weeks with the quarantine – we have managed to locate and contact dozens of people. Among them, various witnesses, former cellmates, teenage victims, and even the sole survivor of the Toolbox Killers.
While assisting with the case I’ve had the opportunity to communicate with some of the people involved and am often struck by how, after all these years, their emotions are still very raw, and rightfully so. A conversation with Julie Lafaye, the sister of missing victim Andrea Hall really resonated with me. Andrea was just 18 when she went missing on a sunny day back in July 1979. Bittaker confessed to killing Andrea and even photographed the horrific moments leading up to her death. The body of Andrea was never found, and to this day, her remains along with those of the other victims are somewhere in the San Gabriel Mountains. After speaking with her sister Julie, I know her families objective is resolute: they want authorities to locate the remains of her beloved sister and bring her home. Julie said, “We never stopped looking for her and we always had hope of bringing her home one day.” Another one of Andrea’s sisters added, “we have renewed hope that we can give Andrea a proper burial among family.”
Many of the victims we have located have rallied together and gotten back in touch with one another online after all these years. A veritable virtual support system for a circle of women, who were once the teenagers that Bittaker and Norris preyed upon in and around Burbank. Their words are inspiring. Robin Morehouse, the sole survivor is resilience incarnate. When asked how she’s doing she said, “Coming full circle. Healed and unstoppable!” Dena Moody told us, “just beginning to see that anything is possible after forty years.” You can see the word perseverance is definitely one that comes to mind when describing these amazing women.
Attorney Stephen Kay has also been instrumental in assisting with the research. Kay was the Assistant District Attorney and his work led to the conviction of Lawrence Bittaker and Roy Norris. If his name rings a bell, you may also remember Kay was just 27 years old when he helped convict Charles Manson and his followers. Having first hand knowledge of so many criminals, I thought it interesting when Kay said that Bittaker was, “the most heinous murderer to ever set foot in a Los Angeles County courthouse, and that includes Charles Manson.” When asked about Laura and the work she’s doing Kay said, “Laura Brand is a top flight investigator and the work she is doing on the Bittaker and Norris case is amazing.”
After lengthy and very public trials Lawrence Bittaker and Roy Norris were sentenced, Bittaker to San Quentin’s death row back in 1981 and Norris to the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility. Norris escaped the death penalty by turning states witness and testifying against his partner in crime. Bittaker managed to escape being put to death by spearheading a myriad of appeals and benefiting from several changes in California death penalty law. Both men, however, would die in prison of natural causes, coincidentally within weeks of one another. Bittaker on December 13, 2019 at age 79 and Norris on February 24, 2020.
Neither would pass away without a final call to Laura Brand, of course. Like a siren who lures the sailors to their untimely deaths, Laura is able to extract vital information in the hopes of bringing families a small piece of solace and locating the remains of these precious lost young women. After working on this case, I can say Laura and the others are not alone in their nightmares. I’m right there with them.