Express & Star

How a Wolverhampton man escaped the clutches of a serial killer

Back in the 1970s, backpacker Roger Sproston had a passion for travel. He visited many far-flung places until things took a very sinister turn...


Roger Sproston was a backpacker long before it became fashionable. When he decided to leave his home in Wolverhampton in 1978, at the age of 26, and hit the road, backpacking was a unpredictable affair, with no mobile phones or internet to bail you out if the going got tough.

Roger Sproston

Even so, his travels took him to some far-flung places, including a few of which it would be ill-advised to travel now – India, Iran, Afghanistan and Nepal, along with a jaunt along the West Coast of the United States.

His was a life of adventure, of wild and unpredictable times flying by the seat of his pants. He saw and did things that most of us could only dream about, and the dreams wouldn't always be pleasant ones.

In early 1980, Roger found himself in California, where he briefly lived in a skip.

And it was in California that Roger Sproston should have been killed.

William Bonin was born in Connecticut, USA in 1947. Neglected by his alcoholic mother and frequently left in the care of his grandfather, a convicted child molester, he was a petty criminal by the age of 10 and was committing sex crimes against younger children by his teens.

Service as an air gunner in the Vietnam War did nothing to curb his depraved appetites, and he spent much of the late 60s and the first half of the 70s in correctional facilities for sexual offences, assaults and kidnapping.

In late 1978, Bonin was released from his latest four-and-a-half year stretch and moved to Downey in Los Angeles County. He became settled, and made friends in the local area, friends who shared his dark proclivities.

And it was on the highways and freeways of California that William Bonin, alone or with accomplices, set out in his camper van, and started murdering backpackers, hitchhikers and other young male waifs and strays.

Some of William Bonin's victims

Roger Sproston was born in Aldersley in 1953, and subsequently lived in Bushbury and Rakegate in Wolverhampton. At the age of 'fifteen and three-quarters' he joined the Navy, but was court-martialled after jumping ship.

In his mid-twenties he became fascinated by the idea of backpacking after reading a newspaper article on the subject and, his wanderlust ignited, he set out on an overland trip to India.

To say that the road to Delhi and back was fraught with peril, would be an understatement. In Munich, he was hired to deliver one of a fleet of cars to Istanbul, only for him and his co-drivers to be arrested because the cars were stolen.

"We were left high and dry," he says. "When you enter Turkey, you get a stamp in your passport that shows you have a car – and you have to leave with that car or you're liable for the full value. We tried to get the stamp taken off on the black market but it didn't work at all. In the end I just had to rip the page out of the passport. I travelled across all the borders with that passport with a page missing. I got the impression that I wasn't the first person either."

From Turkey, he travelled through Iran into Afghanistan, then up the Khyber Pass into Pakistan, and then he finally made it into India, where he was promptly laid low with amoebic dysentery after eating some dodgy fish. "I got the runs," he says.

"And when you're spending time on trains in India. . . Well, it was pretty grim."

He was taken in by a rickshaw driver, nursed back to health, and headed for some relative peace in Nepal.

In Nepal Roger fell from a rope bridge

Even so, he recalls: "I was walking across a rope bridge and. . . I don't know if it had been deliberately cut, but it plunged down into the river and I came out covered head to toe with leeches. When I got out, there was a guy there with a bottle of Dettol, and I gave him a few rupees to pour it all over me. I had a feeling that that was how he made his living. My feet swelled up to the size of plates."

When it became time to make the return journey, he reveals: "That's when the fun and games began. When I got into Afghanistan, the Russians had invaded. We managed to get into Iran but that was out of the frying pan and into the fire. The Ayatollah Khomeini was now in power and the Shah had been deposed, and anyone Western was the infidel, basically.

Roger faced political unrest in Iran

"At one point, close to the Iranian border, we were ordered off our bus and the bus was blown up, right there. A lot of people were getting shot at that time, it was heavy. We made our way across Iran by night, laying low in the day. We found a Shah-friendly town, laid up there for a couple of days, and then some Russians at the border led us back into Turkey."

War zone - the Russians had invaded Afghanistan as Roger arrived in the country

When Roger finally got back to Wolverhampton, he weighed six and a half stone.

By the time 1980 arrived, William Bonin had committed the murders of 10 young men.

Many might have been dissuaded by such life-threatening mayhem, but Roger was smitten with the madness of his adventures on the road and in 1980 headed for the USA.

He hitchhiked up and down the West Coast of America, taking on temporary jobs like truck driving and apple picking and sleeping rough wherever he could get comfortable. His knack for finding trouble had not evaded him. In Washington State, he visited an Inuit reservation and found that they had spent most of their recently-acquired reparations money from the US government on alcohol and hard drugs. The highly wired and aggressive Inuits chased him off their turf.

He returned to Downtown Los Angeles. For a time, he lived at the Cecil Hotel, a notorious flophouse that itself would count two serial killers, Richard Ramirez, also known as 'The Night Stalker', and Jack Unterweger, among its residents. He soon landed a job selling ice cream for the Mr Jumbo's chain of vans.

The notorious Hotel Cecil where Roger stayed on his travels in LA

His beat was to be Watts County, an impoverished area best known for race riots in the 1960s.

On the day that Roger Sproston cheated death, banana splits had proved to be very popular among the ice cream consumers of Watts County. So much so, in fact, that his van had run out of bananas. So Roger stopped off at a liquor store to buy some more.

When he returned to the unattended van, he found that someone else had in fact attended to it, got inside and driven off. After a phone call to Mr Jumbo's which saw the owners most displeased at one of their vendors losing his vehicle, Roger decided to terminate his short-lived tenure as an ice cream man, and hitch back to Downtown Los Angeles. After spending half an hour on the side of Santa Monica Boulevard with his thumb out, a red Ford Pinto pulled over for him. Roger got in and thanked William Bonin for offering him a lift.

"I'd done a lot of hitchhiking and normally people were quite nice and outgoing," he says. "But this guy. . . As soon as I opened the door there was a real heavy vibe, I felt uneasy. He was muttering to himself, and I still to this day remember that a lot of it was about Israel and Palestine. And then suddenly he just went for me and got a rope around my neck and started pulling it tight."

There were three factors that kept Roger alive. First, Bonin was alone, rather than with one of his occasional accomplices. Secondly, Bonin had opted for a less direct way of trying to kill him than shooting or stabbing him, and so Roger was able to hook a finger under the ligature and prevent it from throttling him. Thirdly, and crucially, he managed to kick Bonin squarely in a place where no man likes to be kicked. He says: "I was young and strong and desperate. I remember the look on his round face when I kicked him. I got out of the car while it was still moving and he drove off."

Roger soon flagged down a passing police car and told them what happened, describing the vehicle and showing them the fresh ligature burn. The police told him that he had had a run-in with a man dubbed 'The Freeway Killer' who was wanted for a string of murders of young men whose mutilated bodies were dumped by the roadside. Not long after Roger's encounter, William Bonin was arrested, in the back of his van. He was in the process of assaulting a 15-year-old boy.

Bonin admitted to the murders of 21 young men, was charged with 16 and found guilty of 14. He had no real modus operandi – he strangled, shot and stabbed. He made one victim drink hydrochloric acid.

When he was asked what would have happened if he hadn't been caught, he said: "Still killing. It got easier each time."

In August 1983, he was sentenced to die in the gas chamber, and on February 23, 1996, after a final meal of pizza, ice cream and Coke, his execution was carried out. Before he died, he advised people thinking of committing a crime to 'go to a quiet place and think about it seriously'.

Not surprisingly, Roger lost the taste for backpacking after Bonin. He says: "I realised that I was putting myself into a culture of danger. The West Coast was like the Wild West. People like Bonin – I don't like to use the word 'nutter' – were all over the place. I'd had enough."

He made his way back across the US and returned to the UK, where he studied in London, earned qualifications, and started a small publishing company, which has grown to boast a roster of 80 writers. Last year, he published his own memoirs, Fighting For Light: The Travels Of A Tin Pot Warrior, and now lives in Derby.

Of Bonin's execution, he says: "Good riddance. What possible use is he, a man who kills people left, right and centre, backpackers in the main. Good riddance to him. That's what I thought then, that's what I think now."

Roger, understandably, was profoundly affected by the attack. "At the time I was just very, very relieved that I'd got out of it," he says. "But for many years I'd wake up having had nightmares. I don't have nightmares about him now, but he's still there. It's something very significant in my life.

"By rights, I should have died there. If a cat has nine lives, I worked out that I have used up six of them, and that was the most significant one. I should be dead. He could easily have blown my head off. I'm very lucky."

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