By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
Elizabeth McKeown’s great niece, Tracy Michaels has long been haunted by the murder of her warm, wonderful aunt. In December 2007, she began talking to an old L.A. buddy about her planned memoir, and sent him a draft in February.
Her friend was astounded by the tragic chapter about her aunt. He offered to find out what had become of Elizabeth’s unsolved murder, leading him to Detective Richard Bengtson. Michaels spoke to Bengtson on March 19 and says Bengtson told her: “‘I want you to know something.’ He said, ‘We may never solve it, but I will never take it off my desk again. It will never be in a vault again.’ And I knew they would solve it.”
The next morning, Michaels opened a box she had gone through a hundred times, yet for the first time, she came across a picture of her Aunt Elizabeth, one she hadn’t seen for 30 years. To her, its sudden appearance was a sign of hope.
On March 27, Rick Jackson got the call from the LAPD’s crime lab that some DNA results were on the way. He had no idea the matches were the result of Diane Webb’s sleuthing two floors below, to locate and swab the 92 untested men. “They said, ‘Are you by a fax?’ ” Jackson remembers. When he saw that the matches looked like a huge break in the infamous McKeown case, “First thing I did was notify Rich [Bengtson], because it was his baby.” The fax identified as the prime suspect John Floyd Thomas; his DNA had been found at five horrible murder scenes.
“I was probably in disbelief,” says Bengtson.
They were stoked to very quickly determine that Thomas still lived here — and was even listed in the official sex-offender registry, which is found under the widely used Megan’s Law service online. Within a day, undercover officers began surveillance on Thomas at his home in South Los Angeles.
Eerily, he was living just a few, short blocks from the original 1957 sexual attacks he’d committed as a young man, and which he’d manipulated the justice system and D.A. into treating as burglary. On March 31, officers took him to the main Robbery Homicide squad room in Parker Center, where he was interrogated for four hours. Richard Bengtson immediately noticed Thomas’ firm handshake and iron grip. “He was very calm,” says Bengtson. But “sometime during the interview, he became a little more nervous.”
Rick Jackson called Larry Manchester to tell his old friend in Reno the stunning news. He asked the retired detective if he was sitting down, then asked, “Does the name Elizabeth mean anything to you?” Manchester’s quirky decision in 1976 to save all that forensic evidence from the Elizabeth McKeown murder, all because he read a magazine article about newfangled DNA, had come full circle.
After he got off the phone, tough cop Manchester sobbed for several minutes. “The relief I felt was cathartic,” he recalls.
Ofari Hutchinson says that many of Thomas’ co-workers are still in denial. “Our John is accused of all these monstrous things?” he asks, repeating some of the reactions he’s heard. Hutchison asked two of Thomas’ female colleagues if they believed Thomas had committed these heinous crimes. “Hell, no!” they told him.
Hutchinson provided his own theory about the chameleonlike man with whom he worked. “There are two different people. You have this accused mass murderer-rapist-insane guy and now you have this whole other guy who found spiritualism. This guy wouldn’t recognize the John of 20 years ago.
“How could he fool me?” Hutchinson asks. “He didn’t. I saw a different person. It was a whole other John.”
The bittersweet news of Thomas’ capture quickly made its way to Tracy Michaels. “Bengtson called to tell me the LAPD had arrested the man who they are absolutely certain killed [my aunt]. Even listening to him, I was somehow very aware that my whole family was hearing this news with me.”
The story isn’t over. Bengtson and Jackson are now probing whether Thomas is linked to more than 30 Westside Rapist and other unsolved cases. In many instances, the DNA has been denigrated or the old forensic evidence tossed out. Bengtson has received more than 40 calls from people who believe their loved ones or friends are Thomas’ victims.
Webb, for her part, was not formally alerted that her plan to cull the 1,500 men in search of the Grim Sleeper had, by some dark serendipity, caught a different high-profile psycho in its web. She got no awards plaque and received no flowers. She had simply done her job, and she heard the news, not from Bengtson or Jackson, but through the police grapevine.
Dennis Kilcoyne, who heads up the LAPD search for the Grim Sleeper, is happy on one hand, but on the other, he’s “disappointed it wasn’t our guy. We are keeping our fingers crossed that lightning will strike twice on old [sex-offender] registrants.”
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