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Missing the Grim Sleeper by a Hair 

LAPD stakeout in 1988 was three houses away from suspect Lonnie Franklin Jr.'s home

Thursday, Jul 15 2010
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Soon after LAPD Detective Rich Haro got the call in 1988 about a woman clinging to life at Harbor-UCLA hospital, he learned that telltale markings on a .25 caliber slug dug from her chest matched those from bullets fired by a serial killer who had slain Debra Jackson, Henrietta Wright, Thomas Steele, Barbara Ware, Bernita Sparks, Mary Lowe, Lachrica Jefferson and Monique Alexander.

Thrilled to have a hot lead, Haro interviewed the groggy survivor, Enietra Margette Washington, in her hospital bed.

A month later, when Washington could sit up, Haro drove her through the rough streets of South Los Angeles looking for the spots where a charming, well-spoken black man had struck up a conversation with her, taken her for a ride, stopped at his uncle's house to get money, then, blocks away, pulled a gun and shot her.

click to flip through (3) PHOTO BY TED SOQUI - Lonnie Franklin Jr. lived here at 1728 West 81st Street, three doors from home police staked-out.
  • PHOTO BY TED SOQUI
  • Lonnie Franklin Jr. lived here at 1728 West 81st Street, three doors from home police staked-out.
   
 

Washington told Haro how, after being shot, she was jolted back to consciousness by a flash of light to find the man raping her — and photographing her with a Polaroid camera. The attacker shoved her from his car and left her for dead. She remembered that he drove an orange Ford Pinto that "looked like a Hot Wheels car" with a tricked-out interior.

Inside Haro's LAPD car, driving up and down the streets, Washington spotted a small, neat Spanish bungalow on West 81st Street and excitedly cried out, "This is the house!"

It was the home of Othus White, a now-deceased neighborhood fixture who often hosted a game of cards or dominos on his front porch in the shade of an evergreen tree. After work, friends and locals dropped by to enjoy a beer with the affable White.

Police canvassed nearby houses, where a neighbor said she had seen a rust-colored Pinto parked on the street. The LAPD quietly set up a surveillance team kitty-corner from White's home in a closed-down business on Western Avenue that is now an abandoned church.

For a month, teams of police watched and waited from inside the cold, darkened storefront. In that era, police had to call in on a pay phone and type up their reports on electric typewriters. Any clue took far longer to check out than it would today.

"We probably exhausted all the leads," Haro recalls today, eight years after he retired. "There were a lot of things we did."

But one thing, they missed.

The home of Othus White, the center of the LAPD stakeout for a full month in 1988, was just three doors away from the home of Grim Sleeper suspect Lonnie David Franklin Jr.

White's house on West 81st Street was number 1742. Franklin's is number 1728.

Until Franklin's arrest last week, police never knew that they nearly had the suspect more than two decades ago, or that he slipped away allegedly to kill again.

Detective Dennis Kilcoyne, supervisor of the Grim Sleeper task force, says much remains unknown about how close police got to the Grim Sleeper in 1988, and why they never knew.

"I don't believe they knocked on Franklin's door," Kilcoyne says. "I don't know."

Police say Franklin, 57, went on to kill three more people in the 2000s — Princess Berthomieux, Valerie McCorvey and Janecia Peters.

"We were that close?" says Donnell Alexander, the brother of victim Monique Alexander, a teenager who vanished in September 1988 after asking her dad if he wanted anything from the liquor store, and never returned home. "He was right there, under my nose."

Donnell Alexander has attended every press conference and vigil since L.A. Weekly broke the story of the secret task force in 2008. The Weekly was the first to inform the victims' families that their daughters and sisters had been murdered by a serial killer — information that the LAPD, for reasons former chiefs William Bratton and Daryl Gates never fully explained, chose not to share with the families.

Says a shocked Yvonne Bell, victim Lachrica Jefferson's aunt, "He lived right next to me!" during the 1988 LAPD investigation that focused on White's home. Yet she does not recall being questioned by police at that time.

Says Kilcoyne: "We were very close, but not close enough, honestly." His only explanation is, "We had nothing to push us over the edge."

Lost in the fog of faded memories is whether Franklin was ever directly questioned by police, though he lived just three doors away.

Did they knock on his door? Did he sweat it out?

"We talked to hundreds of people," says Haro, who still seems moved when talking about the efforts the police undertook. "Today, you have DNA and Facebook and information on YouTube. Back then we had to rely on fliers and going to midnight roll calls" at police stations to find new clues that might be related.

Some critics of this long saga would argue that if a white woman or a middle-class victim had been shot in the chest, people throughout the community would have been warned back then that a serial killer was afoot.

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