By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
This is not the first time the shooting cases have been investigated. In 1987, two detectives from LAPD’s robbery-homicide unit began looking into the deaths because they stood out from 20 slayings attributed at the time to the so-called Southside Slayer. All of the shooting victims were black. Some of the women had been sexually assaulted. Ballistics tests found they’d all been shot at close range with a small-caliber pistol. All of their bodies, except for that of a pimp named Thomas Steele, had been dumped in alleys. The seven LAPD cases were later linked to another victim in Lennox handled by the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department.
“Except for the small-caliber bullet there is nothing terribly unique,” says Sergeant Cliff Shepard, who is investigating the LAPD cases. “Some were dressed, some weren’t.”
The first murder occurred around August 10, 1985. Debra Jackson, a cocktail waitress, was last seen leaving a friend’s home in Lynwood to take a bus back to her apartment in South-Central. Days later, her decomposing body was found covered with a carpet in an alley west of Vermont Avenue. She was shot twice in the chest.
A year later, Henrietta Wright was shot twice in the chest. Her clothed body was found wrapped in a blanket and covered with a mattress on August 12, 1986. Wright was arrested for prostitution at 47th Street and Figueroa Street in 1982. She had been sexually assaulted. Barbara Ware, 23, was found on January 10, 1987. She was shot once in the chest, dumped in an alley and covered with trash. A plastic bag was draped over her upper body. She had a prior arrest for prostitution in 1982.
Bernita Sparks, 25, had been shot in the chest, strangled and beaten on April 16, 1987. She told her mother that she was going to go to the store to buy a pack of cigarettes. She was found inside a trash bin the next morning, covered with trash, on the 9400 block of South Western Avenue. Police believe she was sexually assaulted.
Mary Lowe, 26, was attending a Halloween party at a club the night before she was found dead in an alley behind bushes on November 1, 1987. The receptionist, who lived at home with her parents, died from a gunshot wound to the chest. She was arrested for prostitution in 1979. Lachrica Jefferson, 22, died from two gunshots to the chest. She was found in an alley on January 30, 1988, by L.A. County sheriff’s deputies. Alicia Alexander, 17, was found nude and covered with a mattress in an alley around 43rd Place and Western Avenue on September 11, 1988. She had been shot twice in the chest and sexually assaulted.
The only male victim was 36-year-old Steele, who was shot once behind his right ear and dumped along a road. According to detectives, the San Diego native had stopped in L.A. for the day to visit his sister. Police believe his death could have been drug related. He had been arrested on pimping and prostitution charges in Sacramento in 1978.
At the time, police considered many possible suspects. One was a black male, 28 to 35 years old, with a pockmarked face. He had a Caribbean accent. A surviving victim told detectives that a man driving an orange Pinto offered her a ride. When she got into the car, he pointed a gun at her. She was able to jump out of the car and escape.
Detectives began wondering whether the killings could be the work of the Southside Slayer, blamed for 20 other slayings in the Los Angeles area. The victims had been dumped in parks, alleys, roadsides and schoolyards. They ranged in age from 22 to 41. Most were black prostitutes working in South Los Angeles. Some had been strangled. Others were stabbed. Many had been sexually assaulted. Adding to the mystery: Cat hair was found on a number of victims. The first woman identified as a Southside Slayer victim was 25-year-old transient Sonia Smith. Her nude, strangled body was found near Gage and Central avenues on August 18, 1980.
The Southside Slayer was big news at the time. Both the L.A. Times and the L.A. Herald Examiner covered the killings closely. The city and county offered a $35,000 reward. But it wasn’t enough attention for the Black Coalition Fighting Black Serial Murders, an organization formed in 1986 over concerns that “the low-profile media coverage and problems with the investigation are all examples of women’s lives not counting and black prostitute women counting least of all.” That same year, the LAPD and Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department set up a 49-member task force to examine the slayings.
“This was the advent of rock cocaine,” says Shepard. “It took hold all over the city. It was an explosion down here, and the murder of women suddenly increased and gangs really started taking off.”
Close to 50 black women were murdered that decade alone. But no one was ever charged. Police “were all sharing information,” Shepard says. “They were looking for anyone who fit the description. They didn’t know if they were looking for one guy or multiple suspects. They were looking at everything. They were looking at registered sex offenders. Looking at people who lived in the area where the bodies were found. We have three books of people they were interested in.”