LOS ANGELES -- Vernon Butts, who confessed to taking part in the grisly Freeway Killer murders of young men and boys, was found strangled with a towel in his jail cell Sunday -- a death similar to that of many of his victims.
Sheriff's officers termed it a suicide but Butts' attorney said he 'doubted it.'
Butts, 23, the state's key witness against William Bonin, accused of masterminding the torture-sex slayings, was found hanging from a towel rack in the one-man hospital-room cell, sheriff's officers said.
The towel had been twisted around his neck in the same manner that many of the Freeway Killer victims were strangled with their own T-shirts. Sheriff's officers said Butts did this to himself while in a kneeling position before the towel rack.
Butts's attorney, Joe Inger, said he doubted that Butts killed himself, but did not offer an alternative theory on how he died. Inger described the suspect as 'up,' after a recent court hearing and not depressed about the release of his 1980 confession.
Inger said he had been complaining to authorities that Butts was not completly isolated from other prisoners.
'I've been complaining that nobody should have contact with Butts -- especially Bonin,' he said. 'People (other inmates) were threatening him, especially in the jail busfrom from Los Angeles to Orange County.
'People were jiving him saying, 'you don't look so tough.' He was afraid of these people.'
Sheriff's officers said Butts was locked alone in a cell, isolated from other inmates, and was last checked by deputies 40 minutes before his body was found hanging from the towel rack at 12:50 a.m. PST.
Butts had confessed to taking part in some of the killings and had been arraigned on six counts of murder. His confession, recorded in July 1980, shortly after his arrest, was unsealed and released last Thursday.
The confession tied Bonin, a truck-driver, to 21 murders. He said Bonin had 'kind of a hypnotic way,' which coerced him into assisting in the killings.
Butts said that he would drive Bonin's van while Bonin tortured his victims and then killed them in the back of the vehicle.
Bonin, who was on parole when many of the youths were slain, was called 'the most arch-evil person who ever existed' and more dangerous than mass-murderer Charles Manson, by Deputy District Attorney Aaron Stovitz during a Superior Court appearance.
Stovitz helped prosecute Manson in 1970.
Bonin has pleaded innocent to charges of murder, robbery, sodomy and mayhem.
Butts had not entered a plea and officials said his confession would not be admissible in court.
Butts said most of the victims were strangled with their own tee-shirts, but some were attacked with a variety of butcher, buck, and steak knives and one was killed with an ice pick through his ear.
Bonin was scheduled for trial May 4 on 14 counts of murder. Butts was to be tried July 27 on six counts of murder.
Bonin was charged only with the 14 homicides within Los Angeles County's jurisdiction, but authorties said he was accused of 21 murders and could face prosecution in Orange, San Bernardino, Riverside and Kern counties, also.
Three other young men have been charged with committing other individual murders with Bonin.