By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
Beyond those ghastly cases, Southside cops had their hands full when the bodies of victims started to pile up along the Figueroa Corridor, a 30-block-long area known for its prostitution, drugs and desperation.
“We were averaging 25 to 30 murders a year, with two detectives,” recalls Detective Victor Pietrantoni, who worked the Southeast Division. “When I left Southeast after three years I had just shy of 100 murder investigations.”
Yet even against all that background noise, in April 1985, authorities began to suspect that a serial killer was afoot, when the bodies of mostly black prostitutes were found dumped in parks, alleys, along unpaved roadsides and even in a schoolyard.
Public pressure at first was nearly nonexistent, but the black community demanded action. The Black Coalition Fighting Back Serial Murders was formed in 1986, its organizers citing 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.”
(from left, Diane Johnson, Annette Ernest, Anita Fishman)It was nothing like 1965, when popular black crooner Sam Cooke was found killed in the same area. “[Sam] Cooke’s death got a lot of attention, and these murder victims got no attention,” says Detective Cliff Shepard, who helped crack the Turner case and was a patrol officer at the time.
But the police did pay attention. That January of 1986, the LAPD and Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department created the South Side Slayer Task Force — 49 detectives who logged more than 4,800 tips in just two years and solved dozens of felonies, including two murders.
They had one, clear fact in hand: a black man, or men, was killing people — despite the urban legend that serial killers are white. Victoroff, of USC, calls it “an equal-opportunity profession.” But in fact, police were dealing with one of the most effective sociopathic killers in L.A. history, operating at a perfect time: Turner worked his evil amid the largest crime wave in city history, when murders topped 1,000 a year.
“They were murdered in his own backyard,” says Do. “The women were easy prey.”
Police considered many suspects, but never the well-known local, Chester DeWayne Turner. Says Shepard, “With Chester, no one came forward.” Police investigated a Southern California Rapid Transit District supervisor and a teenage boy who claimed to be on a Satanic mission. Their biggest arrest was 31-year-old Louis Craine, an unemployed construction worker from Watts with an IQ of 69 who committed some of the murders ascribed to a then-imagined South Side Slayer.
Then, following a KABC-TV report that at least nine women had been found shot to death between 1985 and 1989, Rickey Ross, an L.A. County Sheriff’s narcotics officer assigned to LAX, was arrested — but ballistic tests linking Ross to the murders were proven wrong.
Turner blended in, sharing with his mom a modest one-story bungalow in the 600 block of West Century Boulevard. His mother owned her own cleaning business, and he attended Harte Junior High, Gompers Middle School and Locke High School.
There was nothingin Turner’s life to tip off authorities, and he later offered surprisingly garden-variety complaints to detectives: His father was too strict, his stepmother used to hit him, and he wasn’t allowed to fight back against his half siblings.
At 17, he dropped out of high school and his life became a series of brushes with the law. In one stabbing incident, he knifed a childhood friend after the teen pulled a weapon on him. He claims that he was jumped by three thugs who sliced his right cheek, leaving a dramatic facial scar. According to police, he began a rocky relationship with a childhood friend named Felicia Collier who lived across the street. With Collier, Turner became a father.
None of it fit the stereotypical profile of a serial rapist-killer. “His arrests were not what we expected,” says Shepard. “I was expecting someone with an extensive wrap sheet, especially for sexual assaults.”
To this day, nobody — not the families of victims, not the prosecutors or cops — understands why he began his reign of terror. His first murder was of Diane Johnson when Turner was a 20-year-old Domino’s Pizza delivery man. Johnson, 21, was found partially nude alongside the 110 freeway in 1987. Then, police believe he strangled Elandra Bunn near 98th and Figueroa streets. Then Annette Ernest, 26, a troubled young mother, was found face down, partially nude, three blocks from where Johnson was discovered. All three women had been sexually assaulted.
Ernest’s mother, Mildred White, a retired nurse and seamstress, sadly recalls of her daughter, “When I found out this happened to her, I went and got her children — and they have been here ever since.” White saw her daughter shortly before her murder: “She had called me, and I said I was cooking turkey wings, gravy and dressing. I brought her a big pan.”
(from left, Regina Washington, Debra Williams, Mildred Beasley)In one tantalizing clue missed until much later, the killings halted for a time, after a violent fight between Turner and his girlfriend, Collier, during which a relative of Collier’s shot Turner in the abdomen.