At 5:30 p.m. on a recent Thursday, Los Angeles activist and KPFK radio host Margaret Prescod was passing out fliers printed with images of 11 victims of the Grim Sleeper serial killer to TV reporters outside the Los Angeles Police Department’s Parker Center headquarters. Prescod introduced herself to the reporters, and then said in a cordial yet authoritative voice, her eyes seeking to make contact: “We demand answers.”
Soon, two identically dressed black men joined Prescod’s small protest, carrying placards that read: “Black Lives Count” and “Gone But Not Forgotten.”
It wasn’t dramatic, but it was déjà vu. In the mid-’80s, Prescod, then the young mother of a 4-year-old daughter, made similar demands for police accountability, and for solid information about a serial killer responsible for the brutal murders of many women in South Los Angeles.
In those days, Prescod’s dark hair was cut short in a stylish Afro, and she, like fellow members of the Black Coalition Fighting Back Serial Murders, dressed entirely in black.
Straining for public attention and police action, they held vigils outside Parker Center, toting a mock coffin draped in black cloth and sprinkled with flowers spelling out the names of women slaughtered by the so-called “Southside Slayer.”
Flash-forward to the present. Today, the divorced activist, who wears her blond-brown hair in long dreadlocks, is back — same spot in front of Parker Center, same terrible cause, same black clothing, minus the fake coffin.
“Little did we know we would be back,” says Prescod, who started off as a community organizer in New York before she moved to Los Angeles.
In the 1980s, the murder rate here was at a record high, a nightly bloodbath as PCP and crack cocaine spread through the poorer parts of town. That awful decade, close to 60 women were mysteriously killed, their bodies found in Dumpsters and alleyways.
Urban legends sprang up that these women had been victims of snuff films, rattling the nerves of even the toughest citizens. The city was on edge over the Hillside Strangler murders of the late ’70s and the capture of creepy Night Stalker Richard Ramirez in the mid-’80s.
Police formed a 40-plus-member task force comprising LAPD and Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department detectives to solve the new killings, which began in 1983 in South L.A. Ten young, troubled black women, some of them prostitutes, were stabbed or strangled, their bodies left in alleys and parks, and on school grounds. A few survivors described their attacker as a black male with black, curly hair, large biceps, a pockmarked face and a mustache. Within the year, the body count hit 17.
“We did a lot of work on the cases,” says former LAPD Chief Daryl Gates. “A lot of the ability to tie individuals to those murders was not available to us at that time. We were dealing with women on the street, and it is pretty tough when they meet someone anonymous to them, no relationship, and all you have to go on is the same trademarks you found in some of the other cases.” One huge problem then: “DNA wasn’t a part of the investigative process.”
Prescod, a Barbados native and former teacher who was married to labor organizer Sam Weinstein, started the Black Coalition to demand better police response. Cops had dubbed the serial killer the “Prostitute Killer” even though some of the black women were merely troubled, and not prostitutes.
“We had to protest to get them to change the name to the Southside Slayer Task Force,” says Prescod, still agitated all these years later. “What prompted us was that 10 women were already dead in South L.A. before they even announced it. We were outraged. If it happened in an affluent area, that wouldn’t be the case.”
The coalition pressured LAPD to bulk up the task force, establish a reward and billboard campaign to educate citizens about the existence of the killer, bring in the FBI — and generally be accountable to the community.
Her efforts led the Los Angeles City Council and the County Board of Supervisors to offer a $35,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the Southside Slayer. The late Los Angeles County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn even asked for FBI help, in a Western Union Telefax that partly read: “This is a record number of slayings of black women by one suspected individual in the history of this, the largest county in America.”
Prescod talked to local streetwalkers and passed out fliers along the crime-ridden, grim, action-packed boulevards. The coalition was soon inundated with calls about the discovery of more bodies.
“People were really nervous,” she remembers.
Things were so tense that coalition members provided security for Prescod at her East Los Angeles home. They made that decision after Prescod found a dead bird, seemingly placed outside her bedroom window — a symbol, to some, of an attack on women. On another occasion, a black man who fit the description of the killer sat in a car outside her house for days.
Prescod even got called to a meeting of “black church hot shots,” as she calls them, who warned her to stop protesting at Parker Center. “They told us that they would be glad to organize a private meeting with [Chief] Gates and wanted us to call off the weekly vigils. We said, ‘No thank you very much.’”
On another occasion, she says, “Gates singled me out and said I was a hysterical woman bent on bringing down the LAPD.”
Except Prescod was right all along — the public did need to know. And the horrible menace out there is now known as the Grim Sleeper.
“We were certainly cognizant that we had a serial killer, and it concerned us greatly,” Gates tells L.A. Weekly today. “I have no reason to believe she did it for any other reason except for concern about young girls who were being murdered.”
Gates remembers that “It could be a pain in the neck for detectives, but as far as I am concerned, very healthy. ... There are those that believe that because the victims are black that the police won’t pay as much attention, and that is not true,” at least of the police. “Most of the [Hillside Strangler victims] were white. The media gave that far more attention than the murders in South Central L.A.”
In early 1989, a second wave of slayings by the mysterious man now known as the Grim Sleeper hit the news. A KABC broadcast cited unnamed sources as saying that evidence proved that at least nine, and as many as 12, black women had been shot to death by the same 25-caliber gun.
The killer struck first in August 1985, when a purported “prostitute” was found shot to death off Gage Avenue. In fact, the woman was later identified as cocktail waitress Debra Jackson, the first victim of the Grim Sleeper. Later, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputy Rickey Ross was charged for the shooting deaths of three prostitutes, and some cops believed that Ross, one of their own, was the serial killer. But charges against him were dropped after ballistics tests proved that a gun found in Ross’ car did not match the gun used by the killer. And years later, after Ross died, the Grim Sleeper killings continued.
Prescod says that at the time, Ross and his family beseeched the Black Coalition for support. “He said he was innocent and being set up,” she says. “He wanted to meet us and convince us that it wasn’t him....” But her group was too uncertain. “We just didn’t do it.”
Now Prescod is back. The Grim Sleeper is still out there, his most recent victim killed in 2007. She wants a more open relationship with the new detectives working the cases. She just might get it, now that police attitudes have changed. Says LAPD Detective Dennis Kilcoyne: “I told her I would [help]. I told her the more noise she makes, the more people call me. That is a good thing.”
Prescod is ready. “Our mind is very open,” she says. “We will see how it goes.”