Detective Diane Webb was determined. The Grim Sleeper, an anonymous killer who’d stopped murdering for 13 years, had resurfaced, and she had a plan for tripping him up. It was the fall of 2008, and she happened to show Detective Lauren Rauch, one of 33 officers who work for Webb monitoring the city’s vast population of registered sex offenders, a recent L.A. Weekly news story headlined, “The Grim Sleeper: The most elusive serial killer west of the Mississippi took a 13-year break. Now he’s back, murdering Angelenos, as cops hunt his DNA.”
Webb, a hardcore number-cruncher and sex-crimes expert, floated an idea to Rauch and a few other cops in Parker Center.
What if she designed a special database search of the city’s 5,212 registered sex offenders — enough bad seeds and creeps to populate a small town — that could pinpoint those men who fit the Grim Sleeper profile, and from that list try to determine whether any had avoided the required DNA test? What if a DNA match to the Grim Sleeper was, in essence, hiding in the data?
Rauch remembers how resolutely Webb told him, “We have to ID this guy. He is still out there somewhere. We need to ... collect samples from everyone.”
She also ran her idea by a familiar LAPD figure, Dennis Kilcoyne, who is supervisor of the special task force that has been searching for the Grim Sleeper. “It was her belief that our guy could be one of those,” lurking undiscovered in the files, says Kilcoyne, who told her he heartily backed her plan.
Webb — an Edie Falco look-alike — did not end up finding the Grim Sleeper in her long-shot quest. He wasn’t there, in all those files. Instead, through tantalizing coincidences and teamwork that tapped the memories of long-retired cops, LAPD found the alleged serial killer The Westside Rapist, a man who had slipped away from the cops in 1957 and went on to terrorize elderly women in Southern California for a generation.
The state of California has required sex offenders to register since 1947, the year of the globally sensational Black Dahlia murder case. And Webb’s team, called REACT (Registration Enforcement and Compliance Team), keeps tabs on where they are living and whether they are in trouble with the law.
Her number-crunching peek into the database quickly determined that 1,500 sex offenders fit the rough description of the Grim Sleeper: a black man who now would be middle-aged or older. Most importantly, deep in data, Webb confirmed a troubling anomaly that her gut had told her to expect: Ninety-two of the 1,500 had never been cheek-swabbed for DNA, as required by law.
If any of the 92 were killing or raping Angelenos, and leaving behind their sperm, saliva, blood, hair or other traces, they were doing so with impunity, invisible to the vast DNA-tracking system.
Webb, who spent years probing sex crimes in the City of Angels, has met more rape victims and rapists than the lead players in Law and Order: SVU and knows too well the sinister deeds perpetrated by humans upon their fellow humans. “Most people think registered sex offenders are under some formal supervision,” says Webb. Not so. Only about a quarter are under parole oversight or other direct supervision.
You might say that Webb, who sports a feathered, blond bob, is obsessed with sex, though not in a twisted way. Like many former sex-crimes detectives, she’s haunted by a specific case. In the early 1990s, a registered sex offender got out on parole, committed a series of rapes and then savagely attacked a young girl in Inglewood. Webb believes that if her REACT monitoring team had been in place then, that career pervert would have been noticed, picked up — stopped.
“I have always felt very badly that this guy wasn’t caught sooner, when it could have been possible,” she says.
When Webb ordered her massive manhunt last fall for the 92 unswabbed men who might include the Grim Sleeper, she couldn’t have known that hers was the final act in a series of decisions by detectives stretching over three decades, in what amounts to one of the longest-running manhunts in L.A. history. Without these independent acts, from Detective Larry Manchester’s quirky 1970s decision to save trace evidence after reading about newfangled “DNA science” to a random decision by cold-case detective Richard Bengtson in 2002 to reopen Manchester’s unsolved Elizabeth McKeown murder case, suspected Westside Rapist John Floyd Thomas would not be safely locked away.
Last October 22, Thomas, a gregarious state workers’ compensation fund insurance adjuster, strolled into LAPD’s Southwest Division wearing a red, long-sleeve dress shirt and slacks, to be tested for DNA as part of Webb’s 92-man sweep. The one indication on Thomas’ rap sheet that he deserved a far closer look was his single rape conviction for brutally assaulting the elderly Mrs. Stellern (her first name has never been released) in Pasadena in 1978; in his fury, he had snapped her ankle to the bone.