UPDATE: A Lifetime movie featuring LA Weekly reporter Christine Pelisek explores the DNA-based manhunt for the alleged Grim Sleeper. Suspect Lonnie Franklin Jr. is now in jail in L.A., where he is mounting an aggressive defense against charges that he murdered 10 women -- and where he enjoys regular visits from his wife and, until recently, an actress/author who befriends serial killers. Before his capture, the sole survivor to be attacked and escape with her life courageously told her story to LA Weekly. After his dramatic arrest, the Weekly learned Franklin will collect a city disability pension of about $1,700 monthly for life, even if he goes to Death Row. The serial killer's existence and string of murders were first unveiled by LA Weekly, which dubbed him the Grim Sleeper because he killed many women in the 1980s, then stopped for 13 years before resuming.
See also: A summary of the Grim Sleeper's victims
There’s a small room at LAPD headquarters where the public isn’t allowed, where the door is quickly shut to the hall, where arguments erupt and frustrations fester. It’s off-limits to most other detectives, no press allowed. Lest anyone forget, a memo on the wall says so.
The six men inside call themselves the “800 Task Force” even though they no longer occupy Room 800, having moved to a lower floor of Parker Center to make room for a sex-crimes team. Their new room is cramped, the desks piled with mounds of paperwork. What is striking about their space is its main wall, heavily papered with photographs of dead young women.
The 800 Task Force was assembled in 2007 under Chief Bill Bratton to solve 11 perplexing murders in Los Angeles dating from 1985. Police have followed several trails, made a few arrests, and endlessly theorized about the killer or killers responsible. Homicide detectives have retired, new ones have joined the investigation. Each group thought they detected patterns, each group thought they had solid leads. Each was proved wrong.
For four years, police have known that a single madman is out there, a man whose audacity and sick good luck have made him the most enduring serial killer in California history and the longest-operating serial killer west of the Mississippi. In 1988, he stopped the slaughter for more than 13 years, then killed again in 2002 and 2003. L.A. Weekly has learned that he is actively murdering Angelenos again — and the single best clue to his identity may hinge on whether Attorney General Jerry Brown allows a controversial DNA probe of the California felon database.
“He could be some computer nerd out there for all we know,” says Detective Dennis Kilcoyne, a friendly yet hardened man in his early 50s, as he sips a coffee at a Starbucks one morning in late summer. It was Kilcoyne who urged the LAPD brass to set up the 800 Task Force. “It could be anybody.... In this case, it has gone on so long — we have to be open to any possibility.”
The killing began on a warm August evening in 1985 at a desperate point in U.S. urban history, a time filled with PCP rages and crack wars. Los Angeles’ murder rate — and that of most big cities — had soared to an all-time high. Amid the bloodshed, during a three-year period, seven young women and one man were killed and left in alleyways and Dumpsters, almost exclusively along Western Avenue in South Los Angeles. Ballistics matches showed the same gun was used in each case.
Then, slayings committed with the .25 caliber gun abruptly halted. The crack and PCP era faded. Los Angeles became the second-safest big city in America, and DNA matching became the hot new crime-solving tool. Under orders from Chief Bernard Parks, in 2001 the LAPD began delving into a backlog of unsolved cases from the violent 1990s, ’80s and earlier, testing bits of hair and skin saved from cold crimes. The LAPD’s lab workers in 2004 and 2005 hit pay dirt. Like a long-delayed tripwire, the tests found matches between new killings in 2002 and 2003 and old human traces left at the eight Western Avenue shootings in the ’80s.
A monstrous Phoenix, the 1980s killer, had re-emerged. “I thought, ‘Holy Shit,’” says 800 Task Force detective Cliff Shepard. “This guy is out there working. I was not expecting that.”
Despite the discovery of an old serial killer back in business, detectives were spread thin on cases like that of killer Chester Turner, whose DNA was linked to 14 deaths by strangulation. Chief Parks was forced out of his post by Mayor James Hahn, and newcomer Bill Bratton did not make the South L.A. serial murders a priority. In fact, detectives tell the Weekly that in 2004, one of Bratton’s captains decided, in the wake of the two new murders in 2002 and 2003, that a task force wasn’t even needed. Nor were elected officials paying any attention. The killings weren’t going down in Silver Lake or Westwood, and the year was 2004: City Hall’s leaders were transfixed by a three-way race for mayor between Hahn and challengers Bob Hertzberg and Antonio Villaraigosa.
Nobody with any pull — no homeowners association, no local chamber of commerce — was demanding answers to 10 murders by the same guy in a poor section of town.
Last year, the disinterested Bratton got a wake-up call — of sorts. On January 1 of 2007, a homeless man collecting cans from a Dumpster off Western Avenue discovered the lifeless body of 25-year-old Janecia Peters near a discarded Christmas tree. She’d been placed in a black garbage bag wrapped tightly with a twist tie. She was nude but for her gold heart pendant. Her shooting barely registered with the Los Angeles media, which misreported it, calling it a stabbing.