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
It was a warm Saturday morning in April when two unmarked Los Angeles Police Department cars pulled into the parking lot of the Freewill Missionary Baptist Church in South Los Angeles.
Armed with trays of sandwiches, cans of soda, and small bags of Ruffles potato chips and Doritos, several serious-looking detectives dressed in business attire made their way into the church’s kitchen.
It wasn’t a typical police investigation.
The confidential affair was invitation-only. The six detectives and two captains chose the church as neutral ground. They wanted as many of the invited as possible to show up, and worried that asking them to a police station might keep some away. Guests trickled into the dining hall, signing in before taking seats at two large cafeteria-style tables covered with pink-and-white tablecloths. Fake red roses and “Reward!” posters stacked next to the salt-and-pepper shakers added an unintentional but slightly morbid feel.
By 11:15 a.m., most of the 25 guests had arrived. A pastor welcomed them, asking them to join hands with the LAPD detectives in prayer. The group ranged in age from 5 to 65. They were strangers in almost every way but one: Several of them recognized one another because they’d recently been on the TV news in Southern California.
The guests were the families of the 11 victims of the Grim Sleeper, the longest-operating serial killer, ever, west of the Mississippi. And all of those gathered this day had lost a daughter, sister, aunt or mother. Little did they know that a few weeks later, in a development that seemed to highlight their shared heartache, police would arrest another long-elusive serial killer, the Westside Rapist, believed responsible for more than 25 killings during the 1970s and ’80s. According to police, in a story broken in the Los Angeles Times on April 30, John Floyd Thomas Jr., a 72-year-old state worker’s-compensation insurance adjuster, is now behind bars, linked by his own DNA to five cold-case Westside Rapist slayings.
DNA testing is also how the families pray police will catch the Grim Sleeper. As with alleged murderer Thomas, they hope, the LAPD or some other police force will eventually take a swab from the mouth of a man who matches the Grim Sleeper’s profile.
The Alexanders last saw their 17-year-old daughter Monique — a friendly teenager who had started to hang around with a bad crowd — 22 years ago when she walked out the front door on her way to the corner store. Sitting near them at the church meeting was a woman who was just a toddler when the body of her mother, Henrietta Wright, was found in an alley south of 2514 W. Vernon Ave.
Across the table from them sat stylishly dressed Larina Corlew, whose stepsister Barbara Ware was shot once in the chest and found in a heap of trash. A few seats from her was LaVerne Peters, who last spoke to her 25-year-old daughter Janecia about moving in with a friend, shortly before the beautiful young woman was found dead in a Dumpster on January 1, 2007, by a homeless man looking for recyclables.
“This has affected a lot of lives,” Los Angeles Police Department detective Dennis Kilcoyne told the families. “We have several generations of people here.... If you want it or not, you are connected.”
The killer, dubbed the Grim Sleeper by L.A. Weekly because he took a 13-year break before bizarrely resuming his slayings, began his awful crime spree on a warm August night in 1985 when the body of cocktail waitress Debra Jackson was found in an alley near West Gage Avenue, shot in the chest three times with a small-caliber pistol.
In total, DNA testing and ballistics matching have linked the Grim Sleeper to the deaths of 11 people, the most recent being Janecia Peters, found slain on the first day of 2007.
The roundtable discussion marked the first time that victims’ family members and detectives met at once to talk about the 10 women and one man murdered almost exclusively along, or near, a section of Western Avenue in South Los Angeles. The Weekly was invited to attend the meeting by the victims’ families, who conducted an impromptu vote to ask the newspaper to sit in.
Victim Barbara Ware’s stepmother, Diana, had asked detectives to bring the families together in the hopes of jogging old memories that might offer clues to police. Did any of the victims know each other? Is there some common thread yet to be recognized by investigators that the family members might unearth once brought together?
Ware, a woman with a persuasive personality, says she told the LAPD detectives, “‘Maybe there is some connection between the families,’ and [Det. Kilcoyne] said he would see if he could set it up.”
“We need your help,” Kilcoyne said matter-of-factly to them. “We don’t have a market on good ideas. If we did, he would have been caught 24 years ago.”
There were plenty of questions from the victims’ relatives. Are the killings ritualistic in some way? Why did he take a 13-year break before resuming his killings a few years ago?