'Copycat strangler' brought infamy to recently demolished Shangri-La Motel in Bellingham

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDOctober 28, 2012 

When workers tore down the Shangri-La Downtown Motel last month to make way for a parking lot, they demolished the site of one of the most bizarre crimes in recent Whatcom County history.

It was in room number 10 at the small motel at 611 E. Holly St. that self-described California actress and playwright Veronica Lynn Compton tried to strangle a Bellingham woman in September 1980.

Her motive? To create the impression that confessed Hillside Strangler Kenneth Bianchi was innocent by making it appear the strangler was still at large. Compton quickly became known as the "copycat strangler."

At trial in Bellingham, Compton claimed she was innocent and had staged a bogus attack to gain publicity for her screenplay about a female serial killer. But jurors took just three hours to find her guilty of attempted first-degree murder.

Compton's conviction turned out to be one link in a chain of infamous criminals, prison escapes, and a "free press" court ruling against The Bellingham Herald that reached the U.S. Supreme Court.

The local chain of events began Jan. 11, 1979, with the strangling death of two Western Washington University students, Karen Mandic and Diane Wilder. Suspicion quickly turned to Bianchi, a private security guard who moved to Bellingham from Los Angeles to be with his girlfriend and their child.

Eight months later, Bianchi pleaded guilty to killing the two students, and soon pleaded guilty to five of the 10 Hillside Strangling murders of young women in Los Angeles from late October 1977 to early February 1978. In return for not receiving the death penalty, he promised to help in the prosecution of his adoptive cousin, Angelo Buono Jr., for the Hillside killings.

While Bianchi was in jail in Los Angeles, Compton, then 24, asked him if he would read her screenplay. During jailhouse visits, they agreed to a plan for a copycat strangling, and for Compton to disseminate letters and tapes saying an innocent man was in jail and the real strangler would strike again.

Compton, who was described in news accounts as Bianchi's "self-appointed" girlfriend, flew to Bellingham. Using an alias and wearing a blond wig and padding to make her look pregnant, she befriended and spent an evening drinking with a 26-year-old local woman. On the pretext of returning to the Shangri-La to retrieve something, Compton tried to strangle the woman with a length of clothesline, but the woman escaped.

For a preliminary hearing for Compton, Superior Court Judge Byron Swedberg said reporters who wanted to attend would have to sign a statement agreeing to follow the state's bench-bar-press guidelines, a voluntary code meant to balance a defendant's right to a fair trial with the public's right to a free flow of information. Herald executives endorsed the guidelines but said turning them into a legal requirement would violate free press protections.

The Herald sued but lost in a 5-4 ruling by the state Supreme Court. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the case. In response, several newspaper and broadcast groups in Washington withdrew their endorsement of the guidelines.

Once convicted, Compton was sentenced to life in state prison, with parole possible. Seven years later, she and another woman escaped from the prison for women near Gig Harbor. Both were caught in Arizona, along with the other woman's father, who police said may have disguised himself as a guard and used bolt cutters to cut through four fences at the prison.

Compton was finally released in 2003, having spent 22 years behind bars.

While in prison, she married James Wallace, a retired Eastern Washington University professor and legal affairs expert. Before her release, she wrote a book, "Eating the Ashes: Seeking Rehabilitation Within the US Penal System," about her troubles with drugs and her experiences in prison. It's still available from Algora Publishing and Amazon.com.

Reach DEAN KAHN at dean.kahn@bellinghamherald.com or call 715-2291.

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