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L.A. City Pensioner Lonnie Franklin Jr. 

Grim Sleeper suspect will haul in $1 million from taxpayers and city

Thursday, Aug 19 2010
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UPDATE: Suspect Lonnie Franklin Jr. is now in jail in L.A., where he is mounting an aggressive defense against charges that he murdered 10 women -- and where he enjoys regular visits from his wife and, until recently, an actress/author who befriends serial killers. Before his capture, the sole survivor to be attacked and escape with her life courageously told her story to LA Weekly. After his dramatic arrest, the Weekly learned Franklin will collect a city disability pension of about $1,700 monthly for life, even if he goes to Death Row. The serial killer's existence and string of murders were first unveiled by LA Weekly, which dubbed him the Grim Sleeper because he killed many women in the 1980s, then stopped for 13 years before resuming.

A Lifetime movie featuring LA Weekly reporter Christine Pelisek explores the DNA-based manhunt for the alleged Grim Sleeper.

When L.A.P.D. detectives swooped in to arrest Grim Sleeper serial-killer suspect Lonnie Franklin Jr., word leaked that the case was going to be "very embarrassing" to the city. The reason soon became clear: When detectives asked Franklin routine questions for a final report, the mechanic said he once worked as a trash collector for the Department of Sanitation, and even worked pumping gas — for the Los Angeles Police Department.

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Franklin told L.A.P.D. Detective Dennis Kilcoyne he retired as a trash collector due to a shoulder injury, but Franklin also told Kilcoyne he'd never bothered to file a disability claim.

That was a $300,000 lie.

With grotesquely huge pensions for city employees in towns like Bell and Indio a staple of the nightly news, the money being paid to the Grim Sleeper suspect — which will be paid to Franklin until he dies — provides an unsettling new chapter about the ways taxpayer money is spent on municipal retirees.

City documents obtained by L.A. Weekly show that Franklin, charged with the murders of 10 women and the attempted murder of another, has been collecting monthly disability pension checks from the L.A. pension system for 19 years, since age 36, after working as a garbage collector for nine years.

"He said he never pursued" an injury claim, says Kilcoyne, who interviewed Franklin on July 7. "I didn't realize he was getting a disability pension." He adds, with a note of sarcasm: "I am sure old Lonnie is not real good at telling the truth."

Franklin's lifelong monthly checks grow thanks to a formula tied to inflation. The first checks, in 1991, were a little less than $900; they are now $1,658.54 per month, according to documents obtained by the Weekly.

By the Weekly's calculations, corroborated by a certified public accountant, Franklin has collected about $300,000. According to the Office of the City Attorney, Franklin cannot be cut off, even if convicted and sent to death row. He or his family will be paid until he dies.

If Franklin lives 25 more years, to age 82, the bite will hit $1 million.

These huge sums, and what is now alleged about Franklin, raise disturbing questions:

Was Lonnie Franklin Jr. permanently disabled with a bad right shoulder because he was picking up old-style garbage cans?

Many of the brutal Grim Sleeper killings he allegedly committed occurred during the same years and even the same months that Franklin claimed a rotator cuff injury. The killings required heavy lifting and brute strength, particularly to dispose of the bodies.

Some victims were wrapped in rugs and hefted into big garbage bins, or dragged into alleys, at the same time Franklin was on city-approved "Injured on Duty" leave and being paid his full monthly salary, $2,200, to stay home.

Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council activist Jack Humphreville, a critic of City Hall's fiscal deficit and its troubled retirement system, scoffs, "You need contributions from four city workers to pay this son of a bitch's disability payments! It doesn't sound to me that they have a good mechanism in place to prevent fraud."

City records show Franklin's work-related claims began in January 1983, just six months after he was hired by the Sanitation Department as a maintenance laborer. By 1985, he had filed three more Injured on Duty, or "IOD," claims.

Where and how was Franklin actually injured, and was the incident witnessed?

Those records are not available because of privacy laws. But it is known that Franklin submitted an injury claim two months after cocktail waitress Debra Jackson, allegedly his first victim, was found dead and covered by a carpet, her body dragged into an alley west of Vermont Avenue on August 10, 1985.

On April 15, 1987, Bernita Sparks' 165-pound body was found heaved into a commercial garbage bin in an alley near 94th and Western Avenue. Seven months later, on November 10, 1987, Mary Lowe was killed, her body hauled into an alleyway.

Nine days after Lowe was killed, Franklin was granted paid temporary injury leave from his city job.

While he was still on leave in January 1988, being paid $2,200 a month by the city, police say he killed Lachrica Jefferson.

Then, still on city leave for his shoulder injury in September 1988, police say he sexually assaulted and murdered Alicia "Monique" Alexander.

Franklin also was on paid city leave when he allegedly assaulted, badly beat and shot the Grim Sleeper's sole known survivor, Enietra Margette Washington, on November 20, 1988. Washington, who told her story to the Weekly in 2009, offered no recollections of a man nursing a bad shoulder, instead describing a man who savagely beat her.

Nor was the severity of Franklin's rotator cuff injury all that clear-cut: In the early '90s, two city-paid orthopedists disagreed over whether he should be granted "disability retirement," as Franklin had requested. A third doctor, finally brought in to settle the case, ruled that "Mr. Franklin must unfortunately be considered disabled."

Before the city awarded him disability retirement in 1991, the city picked up Franklin's $15,000 in medical bills.

Recently, trying to imagine what city officials were thinking 19 years ago, Bruce Whidden, executive director of the Los Angeles Personnel Department, says pension officials may have thought "it was cheaper to pension him off instead of making him a workable employee."

But, in fact, that decision will cost Los Angeles a tidy fortune. Franklin's checks will rise to $3,000 monthly by age 82. If he lives longer, his total payout will surpass $1 million.

City officials tell the Weekly that once a city employee such as Franklin wins a "disability pension," Los Angeles has no fraud unit employed to recheck workers occasionally, to make certain they are not committing fraud against taxpayers.

This news about Franklin comes at a time when the cost of retirement benefits for city employees is under intense scrutiny. Los Angeles city pension payouts will skyrocket by $800 million over the next five years, dramatically eroding money available for core public services to L.A. residents.

City Administrative Officer Miguel Santana told members of the City Council that pensions and health benefits for current and future retirees would jump from $1.4 billion next year to at least $2.2 billion in 2015.

"There doesn't appear to be a lot of oversight or control of the disability policy," says Humphreville.

According to a memo from the Los Angeles City Employees' Retirement System's Board of Administration, Franklin applied for "disability retirement" on November 5, 1991.

Franklin seemed to snap back immediately upon retirement. On the same day that the LACERS retirement board approved his lifelong checks, Franklin, with his 11-year-old son at his side, was arrested for grand theft after a red Toyota and a 1991 Jeep Wrangler were found by police in his garage on 81st Street. The Wrangler was partially stripped — a task that requires a lot of lifting and upper-body strength.

During his many run-ins with the law for stealing cars, one probation officer declared in a report: "It appears that [Franklin] was motivated by his need and desire for quick cash without the benefit of labor."

Police allege that Franklin, during his nine years as a city garbage collector in the 1980s, murdered seven women in South Los Angeles. He killed three more in the 2000s, police say, after a 13-year hiatus during which no known murders were committed.

On August 23, the Grim Sleeper suspect is expected to enter a plea of not guilty.

Guilty or not, under the arcane public-employee retirement rules, the city owes Lonnie Franklin Jr. — and it must pay him, or his family, for many years to come. Says Kilcoyne with disgust: "He will continue to get a paycheck."

Reach the writer at cpelisek@laweekly.com

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