Karen Mandic, 22, of Bellevue, and Diane Wilder, 27, of Bremerton, were both Western students and employees at Fred Meyer.
The evening of their disappearance, Mandic and Wilder took an extended dinner break from Fred Meyer to watch an Edgemore home while Mandic's former coworker, Kenneth Bianchi, installed security alarms as a guard with Whatcom Security Agency.
The absent cat-owners were the serial killer's newest victims. Months later, Bianchi would be tried by a jury and convicted for the murder of the two women and five others in southern California--Bellingham police had finally captured the elusive Hillside Strangler. More than half of the Bellingham police force aided the investigation. Th irty years after their murders, the case is still the largest, farthest-reaching, most complex and compelling crime to ever hit the Bellingham community.
Bellingham Police Chief Terry Mangan had spent two and a half years on the Bellingham Police Force when he received a phone call Jan. 12, 1979 from a Bellingham State Patrol commander whose son's girlfriend, Mandic, had gone missing.
"That was enough to warrant a feeling that something was wrong and my little alarm bells went off ," Mangan says. "I took Captain Schenck with me to the girls' address. When we got there, things were not right. The apartment looked like they had just gotten back from the grocery store, and hadn't put everything away. The cat was out and hungry and the neighbors said they always took good care of the cat, and this was a cold January day. It looked like people had left planning only to be gone for a short time and Wilder's car was missing."
It was suffi cient evidence for Mangan to start the intense investigation. After receiving a search warrant, Mangan found the name and phone number of Bianchi in the women's apartment.
The previous day, Mandic had told her boyfriend she was going to help house-sit while Bianchi changed the alarm system on the home, Wilder was to go with her. Bianchi's employer, Whatcom Security Agency, did not have the job on record in their fi les.
The Bellingham Police called a search for the missing women through Whatcom County. Bellingham police enlisted the help of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the sheriff 's department, coast guard and air patrol to look for Wilder's vehicle. At least half the police force was out searching, former Bellingham Detective Fred Nolte says.
"At 5 p.m., I got a call that the car had been spotted in an undeveloped cul de sac in Fairhaven," Mangan says. "Th rough the back of the hatchback you could see the bodies of the two girls."
Police picked up physical evidence within the car and in the house Wilder and Mandic went to watch. Evidence indicated the murders occurred in the house and the bodies were then driven to the isolated area. The markings on the bodies showed the women were killed by strangulation using a wire or cable from behind.
Both Nolte and Mangan agree the murder motive was revenge for the rejection Bianchi felt through Mandic's refusal to date him.
"He did not accept rejection from females at all: it angers him greatly," Nolte says. "He then decided to punish Mandic by killing her. In the process, she demanded that Wilder go with her to the home. He decided not to back down and killed both of them."
Had Chief Mangan not been familiar with details from the Los Angles strangling occurred during a four-month period from late 1977 to early 1978, he may have not made the connection between Bianchi and the Hillside Strangler. Prior to working in Bellingham, Mangan had worked as a police offi cer in California. During that time, Mangan became familiar with the Hillside Strangler case and had met the father of an earlier victim. The Hillside Strangler taskforce ﬂ ew up to Bellingham to view the victims' bodies at the morgue and, although the LA police believed the California murders were executed with an accomplice, the similarities between the two cases were unarguable.
"This whole thing started to come together and look like it was related," Mangan says. "The women were found in a trunk of the car and so was the last LA victim."
The evidence pointing to Bianchi began stacking up as his alibi unraveled.Nolte, after spending many hours interviewing Bianchi, realized early on he had something to hide.
"During the first interview it appeared that he was smooth, intelligent, but a pathological liar," Nolte says. "He was also the number one suspect from the beginning."
The ten-month investigation met several diffi culties, Mangan says, like complications with evidence and forged paperwork. Bianchi also tried to mislead psychiatrists by adapting a multiple personality disorder. Interestingly, Bianchi had recently been reading literature in his jail cell about multiple personality disorder.
"It was as obvious as the sun coming out," Nolte says. "The guy's not a good actor. When it came to regular acting stuff , he was terrible, plus the book Sybil was in his cell."
Bianchi pled guilty to conspiracy to commit murder, possession of stolen property and two counts of murder. He then plead guilty in California to five counts of murder in the fi rst-degree, conspiracy to rape and sodomy charges. Bianchi also agreed to testify that his cousin, Angelo Buono, was an accomplice in the California murders. Bianchi is now serving two life sentences without the possibility of parole in solitary max-confi nement at Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla. After those counts, Bianchi is set to serve 10 consecutive life sentences in California.
"The reason he is so extremely dangerous is because he is cunning and able to get people's sympathy and fool them," Mangan says. "He is defi nitely a sexual sociopath that kills for the pleasure and power it gives him. He should never be let out."
The murders of the two college women sent ripples of fear throughout Bellingham, Mangan says.
"The community was absolutely shocked, both from the active community at WWU and the community at large, especially when it turned out it was the Hillside Strangler from LA," Mangan says. "It was absolutely unbelievable to the community."
Thirty-years later, thousands of students have come and gone through Western not knowing the role their community played in catching a killer. Yet, there are a few in Bellingham who still remember and will never forget.