By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
What police do know is that in August 1985, Debra Jackson was found shot to death. A year later, on August 12, 1986, Henrietta Wright was found dead. Two days later, the body of Thomas Steele was discovered in the middle of an intersection. Barbara Ware was found in a trash bag in January 1987. Bernita Sparks told her mother she was going to buy cigarettes but was found shot to death on April 16, 1987. Mary Lowe told her mother she was going to a Halloween party, and was discovered shot, on November 1, 1987. Lachrica Jefferson was found shot in January 1988. In September 1988, Alicia “Monique” Alexander asked her father if he wanted anything from a liquor store and never returned.
Monique Alexander’s father, Porter, was immediately discouraged by the investigation into her death, remembering it as “a big mess. ... They didn’t put forth any effort. [The detectives] didn’t show no aggressiveness about it.”
Even so, eyewitnesses had seen her vanish into a car, and had given a vehicle description that was to come up yet again. “She got in a car with somebody on Normandie,” recalls her brother Donnell. “That was what was told to us. She supposedly got into a rust or orange-colored hatchback. ... She was tough. It was possible she might have not known him.”
By the mid-’80s, detectives had begun to suspect the killings might be the work of the Southside Slayer, a mythical, evil, single force who at one point was suspected in at least 20 other slayings in the county. Victims were found in parks, alleys, roadsides and school yards. Most were black prostitutes working in South L.A. Many had been sexually assaulted. In one recurring clue, cat hair was found on some of the victims.
Police pursued, but ultimately discarded, many suspects, and investigated numerous alleged getaway cars. They sought a black man between 28 and 35, with a pockmarked face and a Caribbean or East Coast accent. A 1984 dark-colored Buick Regal with a baby seat. A late-model Plymouth station wagon. A 1960 Ford pickup with gray primer. A two-door red Ford Pinto with tinted rear-window glass.
So many “body dumps” were occurring during that ugly era that angry residents lashed out at police, and in 1986 launched the Black Coalition Fighting Black Serial Murders. The coalition declared 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, cops formed a huge 49-member task force to find the killer or killers. In 1987 they got a major break when ballistics tests clearly showed that amid the bodies piling up, eight involved the same .25 caliber handgun.
Then the LAPD got its biggest break of all, in the form of Victim No. 9. She was the sole survivor, attacked just before the Grim Sleeper vanished for 13 years. Victim No. 9, who still lives in Los Angeles (and who the Weekly is not identifying to ensure her safety), provided police the first eyewitness description of the attacker and his car. She said he was a 30-ish black man with short hair, driving a rust, red or orange Ford Pinto — the very car victims Monique Alexander and Mary Lowe were reportedly last seen riding in.
In nightmarish detail, the survivor told police she was picked up by a male motorist on November 20, 1988, on the corner of 81st Street and Western Avenue. But he then wielded a gun, shot her in the chest and then raped her. Seriously wounded, she persuaded the killer to let her jump out of the car.
“She was really lucky,” says retired detective Rich Haro, who investigated the killings, which police at one point dubbed the “Strawberry Murders” — a street term for troubled women who casually trade sex for drugs. Surmises Haro: “It was something she said that convinced him, and he dropped her off.”
And Victim No. 9 provided another solid clue: The bullets removed from her chest turned out to matched the gun used on the eight previous victims.
Haro and his partner caught another break in February 1989 — or so they believed. In a case that would make headlines, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputy Rickey Ross, a black narcotics detective (not to be confused with Freeway Ricky Ross, a kingpin drug dealer) was arrested in his car in the Strawberry Murders “kill area.” Allegedly, he was smoking coke with a prostitute. LAPD patrol cops said Deputy Ross pulled away in an “erratic” manner as they approached his car. They stopped him, and during a search found a 9 mm gun in Ross’ trunk.
The next day, Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates held a press conference and claimed that Ross had been high on cocaine. Amidst intense controversy, Deputy Ross was charged with murdering three prostitutes who’d been slain with a 9 mm gun. But in a development that riveted the city, Ross was released after independent experts determined that the LAPD had botched the ballistics tests on his gun. Moreover, despite Chief Gates’ public claim, Ross had tested negative for cocaine.
Find everything you're looking for in your city
Find the best happy hour deals in your city
Get today's exclusive deals at savings of anywhere from 50-90%
Check out the hottest list of places and things to do around your city