40 years later, convicted Hillside Strangler Kenneth Bianchi is still filing appeals

For the last 40 years, Kenneth A. Bianchi has kept himself busy in prison by filing multiple lawsuits and more than a dozen personal restraint petitions professing his innocence.

In order to escape the death penalty, Bianchi pleaded guilty on Oct. 19, 1979, to killing Western Washington University students Karen Mandic and Diane Wilder in January of that year. He also pleaded guilty to five of the now-infamous Hillside Strangler murders in Los Angeles that happened in 1977 and 1978, and confessed to five other Hillside Strangler killings.

Bianchi, 68, was originally sentenced to two consecutive life sentences for the deaths of Mandic and Wilder, and five life terms in California for those murders. In 1990, due to a change in state law, Bianchi’s Washington sentence was changed to require him to serve a minimum of 118½ years in prison. He’s expected to begin serving his second life term soon, according to Washington state court records. If he ever completes his Washington sentence, he will be sent to California to begin serving time there.

In his roughly 20 personal restraint petitions, Bianchi has taken issue with various points of his Washington case, such as Wilder and Mandic’s time of death, that there were illegal searches and seizures, that his defense attorney failed to investigate his case, that the prosecutor withheld evidence, that his confessions were coerced, and that Bellingham police detectives lied about forensic details, court records show. A personal restraint petition is a way for inmates to appeal their convictions.

All of Bianchi’s petitions have been denied. Those he’s appealed to the state Supreme Court were again denied. Bianchi has been saying he’s innocent and attempting to overcome his confession for nearly four decades.

Bianchi has filed almost a dozen public disclosure requests — most of which are for his most recent petitions — with various agencies across Whatcom County and the city of Bellingham over the past several years, according to records obtained by The Bellingham Herald.

In addition to filing the petitions and public disclosure requests, Bianchi has also sued police, former longtime Whatcom County Prosecutor Dave McEachran, an author who wrote a book about him, the makers of a True Crime trading card featuring him, the prison, and Washington state for denying him conjugal visits with his then-wife, according to court records and The Herald’s archives.

“His life stopped in 1979, and he has nothing else to do but pick at this thing,” said Fred Nolte, a former Bellingham police detective who investigated the case, in a 1994 story in The Bellingham Herald.

But in a recent email interview with The Bellingham Herald, Bianchi said the Washington court system has never taken his petitions seriously.

“The most frustrating part about all of this for me is the real killer(s) was never charged, and I’ve spent 40 years in jail/prison for crimes I did not commit,” Bianchi said. “I can’t point to just one thing as the gravest error in my case, there’s so many egregious errors.”

After pleading guilty to the murders of two Western Washington University women, Kenneth Bianchi breaks down during court proceedings Oct. 19, 1979, in Whatcom County Superior Court. Bianchi agreed to plead guilty to five of the 13 “Hillside Strangler” slayings in exchange for a life sentence instead of execution. (AP Photo/The Bellingham Herald, Don Anderson) MANDATORY CREDIT Don Anderson The Bellingham Herald file

Death penalty used as a ruse?

In June, Bianchi filed three petitions in Whatcom County Superior Court asserting his innocence.

He argued that the death penalty was used as a ruse to get him to plead guilty, that based on clouding in the eyes after death, he could not have killed Mandic and Wilder, and that the science behind hair evidence used in the case has now been discredited by the FBI, court records state.

His petitions were initially filed with Whatcom County Superior Court, but were soon transferred to the Court of Appeals.

In the petition surrounding the death penalty, Bianchi said in 2016 he learned from a 1981 Los Angeles Times article that he was never eligible for the death penalty due to technicalities in Washington and California state laws. The LA Times’ article included a quote from a California prosecuting attorney stating that Bianchi was ineligible, but they never mentioned that detail to him, the petition and LA Times article state.

Bianchi said throughout the investigative process, he was reminded that he faced capital punishment, and that the sole basis for his guilty plea was to escape the death penalty — which he said he thought had happened until he read the article, the petition states.

Bianchi’s petition also claims his defense attorney, who was a personal injury lawyer appointed to handle his case, failed to investigate the facts of his case, including whether or not he was eligible to be put to death, court records state. Bianchi said the prosecutor caused a false impression that was the basis of signing his multi-state plea agreement, and that the ineffectiveness of counsel amounted to a “manifest injustice” in his case, court records state.

But McEachran, who prosecuted Bianchi, said Bianchi was eligible for the death penalty. McEachran said he believed there were built-in problems with the statute back in 1979, which eventually led him to offer the plea agreement.

“The death penalty was a real thing. It was a law on the books presumed to be Constitutional. The law was valid and it certainly was applicable to him,” McEachran said in an interview with The Bellingham Herald. “We really wanted to have the death penalty served on him. I was very reluctant to pull it off the table, but because of the needs of California and what I viewed as a problem with the legality of the statute, I thought it was a very appropriate thing to do. But it was not a ruse, I can tell you that.”

In Bianchi’s second petition filed in June, he argued that he could not have killed Mandic and Wilder based on the time clouding became present in their eyes after death, records show.

Bianchi’s petition states that Mandic and Wilder were strangled to death sometime between 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. on Jan. 11, 1979. The young women’s bodies were found the following afternoon in the backseat of a car in the Edgemoor neighborhood.

But Bianchi argues that he was seen by his boss around 7:30 p.m. that night, that two police officers saw two women matching Mandic and Wilder’s descriptions leaving a party around 11 p.m., and that based on clouding in their eyes, their deaths couldn’t have happened until 11 p.m. or midnight, when he was home with his girlfriend. Bianchi relies on a missing person’s report filed by a friend of Mandic and Wilder to estimate the time the officers saw the two women, and scientific articles about estimating time of death from eye clouding, court records show.

In a 1994 article in The Herald, Bianchi argued that the women had to have been killed prior to 7:30 p.m. based on fogging on the car windows in the vehicle the women’s bodies were found, Herald archives show.

In Bianchi’s third appeal, he claims that the two of his pubic hairs found in the house where Mandic and Wilder were murdered were planted, and that using hair evidence in criminal cases has since been discredited by the FBI. He also said his defense attorney should have been aware of the problems in using hair evidence in criminal trials, court records state.

Bianchi police mugs.jpg
1/8/99/Kenneth Bianchi mug/PDKBellingham Police Department mug shots of Kenneth Bianchi taken on Jan. 12, 1979. (Photo credit: Bellingham Police Department) Bellingham Police Department Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

Denial of petitions

Bianchi filed all three petitions acting as his own attorney. He said finding new evidence to discredit his conviction while he’s a prisoner is “challenging if not impossible.”

“I’ve needed a proper attorney for 40 years, but especially to handle the appeals, but to no avail. All my (petitions) have been done pro se, not by choice,” Bianchi said. “No question the heightened notoriety of the killings caused bias, infected my defense efforts, and caused police to put blinders on. And the courts to do what they do still.”

On Aug. 29, the Court of Appeals dismissed Bianchi’s three recent petitions, saying his claims were not new.

“He has been filing petitions challenging his conviction on ineffective counsel grounds, and on other grounds, since the 1980s,” the record states.

Bianchi said that’s not true, but that he missed the deadline to file an appeal with the state Supreme Court because of a miscommunication between him and an attorney. He said there are no next steps for him.

“The courts in my three legal briefs gave each lip service, never ruled on the merits, never recognized the truth of each, and dismissed based on procedure, not merit. All my briefs have true and correct merit,” Bianchi said. “I’ve had courts ignore my facts, and instead adopt information from old news stories. Facts are the most important part of any petition, and over the years, as facts came to my knowledge, and through case law a legal ground arose, I filed.”

Bianchi in state prison.jpg
94 Bianchi 3 GNS NEWS 1994 Rochester Democrat Herald photos of convicted murder Kenneth Bianchi in the Walla Walla State prison. Jamie Germano/Rochester Democrat Herald The Bellingham Herald file

A multitude of petitions, lawsuits and records requests

McEachran said during his nearly half-century as prosecutor, his office had dealt with numerous personal restraint petitions and lawsuits filed by Bianchi.

After Bianchi was sentenced, McEachran said he expected the amount of appeals and lawsuits, and that Bianchi stands out in terms of the number of petitions he’s filed.

McEachran said the case against Bianchi has always been strong, and that law enforcement put a great deal of work into it.

“I’m very, very happy he is where he is. I’m glad that his earliest release date should exceed his life expectancy. We knew he would not come out alive from prison,” McEachran said.

In addition to the petitions, Bianchi has filed roughly 11 public disclosure requests over the past several years with Whatcom County courts, prosecutor’s office, Bellingham police, and the city, records obtained by The Herald show.

James Erb, a Bellingham attorney and the city’s public records officer, said he spent hours over several days organizing Bianchi’s file so the city could better comply with his requests.

Erb said when he first received the Bianchi file, it was disorganized, given to him as a stack of papers. He said he went through it all and put the papers in chronological order.

When Erb first started handling Bianchi’s requests, he said they were complicated. Rather than filing for the complete record, Bianchi would ask for very specific things, such as all reports written by a single detective, he said. Erb said the file has now been digitized and redacted in accordance with exemptions in the state’s public records law, making complying with requests easier.

“We wouldn’t be just looking for a needle in a haystack. We’d be looking for a specific record in an organized file,” Erb said of complying with Bianchi’s requests.

Bianchi at Walla Walla State prison.jpg
94 Bianchi 5 GNS NEWS 1994 Rochester Democrat Herald photos of convicted murder Kenneth Bianchi in the Walla Walla State prison. Jamie Germano/Rochester Democrat Herald The Bellingham Herald file

Erb said while the file is organized, it’s incomplete. He said they no longer have the original file, but have been able to gather a number of the records that were part of the original file. Erb said the Washington State Archives has requested the original file, but Erb has told them they don’t have it.

“We don’t know what’s missing or what happened, we just know the original case file went missing at some time. … We have most of the file. It’s easy to read through there and understand how the investigation unfolded and how police settled on Bianchi as a suspect, but I think there are gaps that we don’t know what happened to those records,” Erb said. “Unfortunately some things were lost.”

Bianchi is currently incarcerated at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla. He is under medium custody supervision, according to a Department of Corrections spokesperson.

Bianchi hasn’t had an infraction in prison since 1996, and has had four total, including one where he allegedly threatened to kill a guard, the spokesperson said.

Reporter Denver Pratt joined The Bellingham Herald in 2017 and covers courts and criminal and social justice. She has worked in Montana, Florida and Virginia.