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
Thomas was instructed to scrape the inside of his mouth four times, front to back, and drop the swab in an envelope. The meeting was uneventful, says Officer Robert Lanigan. “It was pretty boring, really.”
“He probably would have been the last person we would have suspected,” adds Lanigan’s partner, Amber McDonnell. “He looked professional and was very pleasant to deal with.”
Five months later, that cheek swab was matched to five killings and rapes from the 1970s and ‘80s that featured the same, relatively odd, MO — all the victims were elderly white women, raped and then strangled. The cops had in their hands a rare, multiple DNA hit that strongly suggested an undetected serial killer.
As writer Michael Connelly’s colorful fictional detective Harry Bosch would say, in murder, there are no coincidences. There are only connections that lead inexorably to other connections. The fax trumpeting the five DNA matches did not show up at Webb’s Parker Center office in Room 333. Instead, it arrived two floors above her, where two cold-case cops she’d never met were working to find a long-ago killer-rapist.
In a room decorated with historic crime-scene photos — gifts from novelist James Ellroy — Richard Bengtson and Rick Jackson had been struggling to crack the murders of Elizabeth McKeown and Ethel Sokoloff, elderly women who, more than 30 years ago, were raped and strangled by an anonymous ghoul with an iron grip. After Bengtson reopened the McKeown case, retired Detective Larry Manchester began peddling his hunch that her slaying — Manchester’s sole unsolved homicide during his LAPD career — was the work of an undetected serial murderer.
Now, here was an unexpected fax transmitting the long-elusive answer: John Floyd Thomas was their man.
Jackson immediately phoned Bengtson, a classic, gnarly cop, at home. Bengtson downplays this dramatic moment: “Maybe after [his] conviction, we will go to lunch or something.”
In fact, for “closers” working on dusty, cold cases, this kind of multiple DNA hit is the Holy Grail. Webb’s genius stroke had allowed LAPD to reach far across the years into the vague gloom of the 1950s, the decade in which the Westside Rapist apparently began his hideous career. Thomas is now charged with the murders of Elizabeth McKeown and Ethel Sokoloff. Officials also now say his DNA was left at the 1975 scene of the murder of 79-year-old Cora Perry in Lennox, and Thomas is also the menace who terrorized a single block in Claremont in the 1980s, first raping and killing Isabel Askew — and three years later returning to the same ill-fated apartment to rape and kill her daughter, Adrienne Askew. Inglewood police say Thomas’ DNA also connects him to the 1976 murder of 80-year-old Maybelle Hudson.
Police believe he may be responsible for as many as 34 rapes and murders attributed to the Westside Rapist. Those whose lives were hijacked by this predator hope the right man is finally behind bars. Says Tracy Michaels, the great-niece of Elizabeth McKeown, who still mourns her beloved schoolmarm aunt, “It is a miracle to get an answer after all these years. There are two women in my family who are going to look in his eyes, and mine will be the second.”
Hanging on the door of Parker Center Room 503, two floors above Diane Webb’s own offices, is a framed paragraph from Michael Connelly’s bestseller The Closers, in which Harry Bosch’s new supervisor, Abel Pratt, explains: “This squad is the most noble place in the building. A city that forgets its murder victims is a city lost. This is where we don’t forget. We’re like the guys they bring in in the bottom of the ninth inning, to win or lose the game. The closers. If we can’t do it, nobody can. If we blow it, the game is over because we’re the last resort. Yes, we’re outnumbered. We’ve got nine thousand open-unsolveds since 1960. But we are undaunted. ... We’re the closers, baby.”
The “unsolveds” still on file at LAPD stretch back into the 1800s. In a coincidence that proved prescient, Richard Bengtson’s LAPD bosses in 2002 randomly assigned him to concentrate on a single year — 1976. From the many cold cases in 1976, Bengtson plucked the then-uncrackable Elizabeth McKeown murder.
Bengtson, a quiet, no-nonsense cop with a shy smile, says the case got under his skin. “It was an older lady. She could be your mom or grandmother. It stuck with me.”
He didn’t have much to go on, because in 1976 police rarely worried about saving trace evidence, which today is routinely subjected to DNA tests. But in a moment of synchronicity, one day Bengtson was digging around when he found a forgotten filing cabinet in a dank storage room at the Los Angeles County Department of Coroners. That cabinet turned out to be a treasure trove of forgotten but largely intact microscopic slides of semen, saliva and blood from scores of murder cases from 1972 to 1978.