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
The potentially game-changing microscopic evidence and DNA, involving hundreds of slides from old crimes, somehow “was not in [the coroner’s or LAPD’s] computer-based system. It was unaccounted for.” Bengtson and his partner, Vivian Flores, painstakingly pored over the slides, but in the back of their minds, they had to have been thinking that detective work is too often about red herrings and false leads. What chance was there, really, that a jumbled bunch of forgotten slides would hold clues to the very crimes they were pursuing?
But incredibly, they hit pay dirt: DNA collected at the horrific crime scene where Elizabeth McKeown had been found dead had somehow survived on pieces of glass — for 26 years.
Then, in the summer of 2003, long-retired cop Larry Manchester was drawn back into the McKeown case, thanks to yet another peculiar coincidence, which ultimately helped to snag John Thomas. Manchester was set to play a solo round of golf at the Mile Square Park Golf course, when he was paired with retired Los Angeles County Sheriff’s homicide detective Bill Stoner. Stoner had been featured prominently in James Ellroy’s 1996 crime memoir, My Dark Places, about Ellroy’s hunt for the man who murdered his mother in Los Angeles in 1947 — a crime that remains unsolved.
As they golfed, Manchester told Stoner about Elizabeth McKeown, the long-unsolved case that clearly nagged at him. Stoner traded stories, telling Manchester about similar attacks on elderly white women in Lennox, also in the 1970s. Stoner urged Manchester to contact Detective Rick Jackson, a friend of James Ellroy’s — and a legend at Robbery Homicide downtown.
The universe of elite homicide detectives isn’t very big. As it turned out, Manchester knew Rick Jackson. The two were temporarily partners in 1988 and sent by LAPD to Plattsburgh, New York, to transport back to Los Angeles two Russian immigrants standing trial for the murder of an elderly North Hollywood couple.
Intrigued by Stoner’s information, Manchester contacted Jackson at LAPD’s cold-case unit to share his theory that Elizabeth McKeown had been killed by an as-yet-undetected serial murderer active in Inglewood and Lennox. Jackson alerted his cold-case colleague Bengtson, sitting a few desks away, and suddenly, another piece in the unfolding series of coincidences slid into place: Bengtson, Jackson marvels, “happened to have [the McKeown case] on his desk. Of all the thousands of cases we were reviewing. What a small world.”
Rick Jackson had retired from the LAPD in 1996 and moved to New Hampshire, where, Manchester quips, “there is no sales tax.” But Jackson didn’t take any better to retirement than the fictional Harry Bosch had. In fact, it was thanks to Jackson that Connelly’s detective character was brought back from life support in 2005. At the time, Connelly feared he may have “doomed” his bestselling murder series by turning the brilliant but loose-cannon cop into a private detective on the outs with LAPD. After writing two novels in which Bosch works for hire, “I felt that routine would make me lose interest and the series would die,” Connelly told a newspaper.
The author didn’t know how to rescue Bosch from himself. But then, by coincidence, he heard the true tale of Rick Jackson’s escape to woodsy New Hampshire, and his return to LAPD. Hearing of Jackson’s successful re-entry into policing gave Connelly the idea that he could do the same with Bosch. Connelly told the interviewer, “It was just what I needed right when I was struggling — and was told Harry could come back.”
After Jackson shared Larry Manchester’s theory that Elizabeth McKeown was one in a series of killings by the same man, Richard Bengtson ran hard with the idea, contacting Inglewood police and seeking similar cases. Then, he got word from the LAPD criminologists that McKeown’s killer had indeed left traces of his DNA at the scene of a similar crime, the rape and murder of 68-year-old Ethel Sokoloff right around Thanksgiving in 1972.
Just as with the Grim Sleeper case, LAPD had this killer’s DNA. But they couldn’t find a name or face in any criminal database to match it. Bengtson was hoping that California’s new law, Proposition 69, which requires all felons to submit to a DNA cheek swab, would drag Sokoloff and McKeown’s killer out of the shadows. Instead, he and Jackson got their break — and Manchester’s nagging career quest was resolved — thanks to the woman working on the third floor at Parker Center, the dogged number-cruncher Diane Webb.
Webb, sitting near her computer, overlooked by her office talisman — a Gumby dressed in police blues — says nobody at police headquarters paused to congratulate her. There wasn’t really time. A typical no-nonsense cop, she tries to undersell her role. “There was no big celebration.” Instead, she felt, “We have work to do — this is great, there is a [DNA] hit. Now, let’s investigate.”
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