Bellingham police chief who helped crack Hillside Strangler case dies at 76

Bellingham Police Department mug shots of Kenneth Bianchi taken Jan. 12, 1979.
Bellingham Police Department mug shots of Kenneth Bianchi taken Jan. 12, 1979. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

Former Bellingham Police Chief Terry Mangan died this week at a hospital near Washington, D.C., following a long illness. He was 76.

Mangan served 11 years as the chief of Bellingham police in the 1970s and ’80s. He’s perhaps best known for helping to crack the notorious Hillside Strangler case, by linking the murders of two Western Washington University students — Karen Mandic, 22, and Diane Wilder, 27 — to a string of similar killings in California.

He later worked as a police chief in Spokane and as an FBI leadership instructor.

Mangan “sort of backed into a career in police work” in the 1960s, according to Bellingham Herald archives. By the time he became a cop, he had already earned a master’s degree, been ordained as a priest in the Catholic order of Oratorian Fathers, and marched in Selma and Montgomery, Ala., with Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. He left the priesthood to become a graveyard-shift officer in Seaside, Calif., in 1966.

Ten years later, he was hired out of a pool of 68 candidates as chief of the Bellingham Police Department. He told the Herald he’d been drawn to be a police officer by the same thing that drew him to become a priest: “an interest in people.”

On the afternoon of Jan. 11, 1979, the bodies of two young women, strangled to death, were found in the back seat of a car in the Edgemoor neighborhood.

Mangan, who had worked in Lakewood in Los Angeles, noticed similarities to the Hillside Strangler case. So he personally made phone calls to contacts in California. One woman he reached, a nun who had known two of the California victims, told Mangan those girls wouldn’t go anywhere with a stranger, unless it was a police officer. Kenneth Alessio Bianchi, the now-infamous serial killer, had been working as a security guard in Bellingham at the time.

By the end of a meticulous investigation, Bianchi had been tied to the deaths of the two Bellingham women and 10 other strangled women and girls in the Los Angeles hillsides.

“The significance of the case was to show you don’t have to have limitless resources, you don’t have to be a major metropolitan department to maintain an absolutely credible technical and forensic capability,” Mangan told a Herald reporter years later.

Mangan was elected as the president of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs in 1984.

Tim Douglas, a former mayor, recalled one day when Mangan, who had been absent from a regular meeting, walked into the room and dropped off a note: TIM, MUST TALK TO YOU. URGENT EMERGENCY.

Outside of the room Mangan explained there was a sniper on the roof of the Bellingham Towers building, and the news media in the Council Chambers was clamoring to know what was going to be done about the situation. Douglas’ heart pounded as he pushed open the chamber door — and was greeted by city employees wishing him a happy 50th birthday.

“It wasn’t like him to make light of any situation,” Douglas said. “But that day, he was a perfect actor.”

Mangan left Bellingham for a job as chief of police in Spokane in 1987. His successor in Bellingham, Don Pierce, knew Mangan from when they worked on a state group in the 1970s to develop Washington’s classification system for sex offenders.

“Terry was a very complex person, very interesting to spend time with,” Pierce said, referring to Mangan’s background as a priest. “Terry did community policing when community policing wasn’t cool. (He) has got to be one of the top 10 most influential administrators in our state in law enforcement.”

In Spokane, Mangan was known for creating neighborhood COPS offices. According to The Spokesman-Review newspaper, he tried to put the city at the forefront of advances in law enforcement, by improving technology and crime analysis, and by seeking funds to bring in a group of minority and women recruits.

He left to join the FBI in 1998. There he worked as a leadership instructor “in the area of counter-terrorism,” according to the FBI’s National Executive Institute Associates.

On the side, Mangan wrote and produced mystery dinner plays for charities, according to the NEIA.

Mangan died at a Virginia hospital outside of Washington, D.C. Services are expected in Virginia but have not been scheduled.

The Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs said in a notice to members that law enforcement in Washington state and around the country “lost a deeply good man, a dear friend, a tremendous leader, a champion.”