Accused Grim Sleeper Lonnie Franklin Jr. Is the Ringmaster of His Own Murder Trial
ILLUSTRATION BY DARRICK RAINEY
UPDATE: Lifetime channel airs The Grim Sleeper movie March 15 at 8 p.m. followed at 10 p.m. by a documentary, Behind the Headlines: The Grim Sleeper, featuring his sole survivor, L.A. Weekly reporter Christine Pelisek who exposed his killings to the public, and the LAPD detectives who hunted him.
The last time Donnell Alexander saw his sister Monique was a couple of days before his 25th birthday, on Aug. 27, 1988. The lovable, sometimes rebellious 18-year-old stopped by to see Alexander at their cousins' house in South Los Angeles. This time, she was there to bury the hatchet.
The siblings had fought the previous week after "I woke up one morning and she had taken off with my rental car," Alexander recalls. "I didn't even know she drove! She brought it back, though, in good condition."
That final day, "We were happy to see each other," he says. "I asked her if she needed any money and she said no, but I gave her money anyway. I gave her $100 and a kiss.
"It was the last time I saw my sister."
Monique Alexander, 18, was found dead on Sept. 11, 1988, in an alley near 43rd Place and Western Avenue. She had been dead several days after someone sexually assaulted her, strangled her and shot her once in the chest.
"I knew that whoever did this, they must have known her," Alexander says. "Obviously she knew him, because she never would have gotten in the car with a stranger."
Alexander's murder remained a mystery for more than two decades, delaying justice for her mom, dad and three brothers who comprised her close-knit family. They were kept in the dark by Los Angeles Police Department detectives as to the true nature of her slaying — by a serial killer L.A. Weekly dubbed the Grim Sleeper because he killed over a period of 23 years but appeared to stop during a mysterious 13-year gap before resuming the murders.
Alleged killer Lonnie Franklin Jr., 61, a married father of two and former LAPD mechanic and sanitation worker for the city of Los Angeles, was finally caught in July 2010 — tripped up by his decision to grab a pizza in Buena Park, where an undercover officer, masquerading as a busboy, waited for LAPD's No. 1 suspect to leave behind food particles or a used glass for DNA testing. The officer came away with a slice of pizza Franklin had chewed on and utensils he'd used. After years of dead-end failures, investigators matched the saliva to the semen and saliva found on 10 murder victims.
Police snared Franklin three days later, in an arrest that involved dozens of cops and drew global media coverage. The case will be dramatized by Lifetime in its original film "The Grim Sleeper," running on March 15 at 8 p.m., followed at 10 p.m. by the one-hour documentary, "Beyond the Headlines: The Grim Sleeper."
In March 2011, a grand jury indicted Franklin, who initially was charged with the murder of Monique Alexander and nine more women found in dumpsters, parks and alleyways along and around a sleazy stretch of Western Avenue. A map of the crime scenes later showed that Franklin's home, where he and his wife raised their son and daughter, was nearly dead-center in the middle of the killing field.
The grand jury indictment was supposed to speed the time to trial. It hasn't.
Instead, from his solitary cell at Men's Central Jail, Franklin has mounted an aggressive defense heavy on delaying tactics. He has managed to draw his loyal wife, Sylvia Franklin — a school employee in Inglewood — into his life behind bars and has attracted visits from a blonde bombshell actress/author who befriends serial killers. He has continued to draw his lifelong L.A. city medical pension of about $1,700 a month, and pushed the buttons of the dead women's appalled families.
Critics say the Lonnie Franklin murder trial is fast becoming L.A.'s serial-killer circus.
After a recent hearing, Donnell Alexander and his two brothers and his parents, Porter and Mary, along with Diana Ware — whose stepdaughter Barbara was shot in the chest and found in a pile of trash with a plastic bag draped over her — gather in the hall outside the courtroom to ask the Los Angeles County prosecutors, Beth Silverman and Marguerite Rizzo, about the continual case delays.
Once Franklin was taken into custody, the victim's families thought the worst was over. They somewhat optimistically believed Franklin's trial would be finished by now, and that he would be sitting on death row.
Instead, Franklin's defense team, led by Seymour Amster, has thrown up a series of procedural hurdles and stall tactics: It is still unclear whether the defense team has finished its testing on the DNA evidence found on the victims, despite having the evidence for months. Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Kathleen Kennedy has been unable to speed things along.
"It is really unfair on the families" of the victims, says Alexander, who attends every court hearing at the criminal courts building with his family. "We are fighting for justice. It is crazy. We don't even have a voice. We manage to get it together and get to court. If we didn't do this, we wouldn't know what is going on, and he would be dragging his feet even more.
"It seems like the defense attorney is doing everything he can to drop the ball. Every week he comes to court and there is something new," Alexander says. "It's like the excuse about the dog that ate my homework. We just want to see the ball rolling. I don't think it is too much to ask. It is just not a good feeling when you come in and it's like a circus."
"They are trying to outlast things because people's memories fade," says recently retired LAPD detective Dennis Kilcoyne, who played a key role in tracking, identifying and arresting the elusive Franklin. "That is what they are counting on. The detectives, the family and the prosecutor's memory and interest levels fade. We already lost one mom" — Betty Lowe, mother of Mary Lowe, a 26-year-old found dead in 1987. "The whole thing is shameful."
Police now suspect that Franklin killed at least six additional women, making the loss of life 16 — a number that is expected to grow.
The six newly identified victims range in age from 22 to 43; they were killed between 1984 and 2005. Two are long-missing women, Ayellah Marshall and Rolenia Morris, whose IDs were recovered by police from inside the Franklin home. Detectives discovered the other four women while combing through hundreds of photos stashed in Franklin's home and looking into unsolved homicides and missing-person reports dating to 1976, when Franklin returned from military service in Germany.
The number of survivors who, according to police, were viciously attacked by Lonnie Franklin but lived to tell the tale also has grown.
One heroic woman, Enietra Washington, was long believed to be the sole survivor attacked by the killer to escape with her life. She was profiled by the Weekly in March 2009 in the article "Grim Sleeper's Sole Survivor."
Now, police believe, Franklin in May 1985 tried to kill a 22-year-old woman, who told police she got in his car and he then shot her in the chest, raped her and threw her on the street — eerily similar to the attack on Washington, who fought back from the edge of death after being tossed, severely wounded, on a roadside.
Police won't put a number on the possible body count, but the Los Angeles County Coroner's Office has close to 100 unsolved Jane Doe homicide cases spanning the years of the Grim Sleeper's dark activities, not to mention dozens of missing-persons cases.
As he awaits his July 15 trial date — there is actually little chance a trial will begin in 2014 — Franklin sits in Men's Central Jail near the cell of pizza deliveryman–turned–Death Row inmate Chester Turner, another of South Los Angeles' notorious serial killers, who is awaiting a second trial for four newly uncovered murders after being convicted in 2007 of killing 10 women.
The once-chubby Franklin has dropped more than 40 pounds since his arrest. He is visited regularly by his wife, Sylvia, an employee of the Inglewood Unified School District.
She raised two children with him throughout his alleged bloody spree, in a small turquoise house from which police recovered hundreds of disturbing photographs of naked and clothed young women — some alive and smiling at the camera, others looking dead or drugged.
Retired FBI profiler Mary Ellen O'Toole says of Franklin's wife, "It must be difficult to believe this person is a serial killer. The case hasn't gone to trial yet, so in the minds of the family he has not been convicted. After conviction, the support might drop out — but right now it sounds to me like she is holding out because he is innocent until proven guilty."
Another of Franklin's key jailhouse visitors, until recently, was blond British model-actress Victoria Redstall.
Redstall, a former spokesmodel for "breast enhancement" supplement Herbal Grobust, was the subject of a 2006 article in the Los Angeles Times in which she discussed visiting and forging a close bond with convicted serial killer Wayne Adam Ford, a trucker facing trial in San Bernardino County. She described her first meeting in jail with Ford — now on death row for murdering a hitchhiker and three prostitutes in 1997 and 1998 — as "the dream of a lifetime." Unable to explain how Redstall got access to the killer, the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department launched a "personnel investigation involving inmate Ford and his visitation."
Redstall managed to wangle unorthodox jail visits with Lonnie Franklin, apparently by tricking the Los Angeles County Sheriff's jailers into believing she was a personal acquaintance of Franklin's, who she claimed was her mechanic.
She also met during this period with serial killer Chester Turner and suspected serial killer Michael Gargiulo, charged with murdering Ashton Kutcher's former girlfriend and two others. Both men had cells near Franklin's at the time.
But Franklin's attorney complained to jailers about Redstall's visits after she played recordings and read aloud to a KCAL9 reporter from Franklin's light-hearted phone calls and letters, in which Franklin gives Redstall his meatloaf recipe, inquires about the weather in London and dubs an inmate down the hall "a shady guy."
As the sideshows unfold, prosecutors Beth Silverman and Marguerite Rizzo have implored Judge Kathleen Kennedy and defense attorney Seymour Amster, at almost every hearing before Kennedy, to move forward with the case.
But according to Zeke Perlo, a directing attorney for the Indigent Criminal Defense Appointments Program, judges tend to be more lenient toward the defense during death-penalty cases because of the threat of future appeals if the judge or attorney makes any error. "The system isn't happy with the death penalty, and they work doubly hard to be careful," Perlo says. "Judges don't like to be reversed, so they are very careful with what they do. [Kennedy] is a smart woman and she knows the expense of retrying a case."
Amster has previously challenged Judge Kennedy's handling of a murder case, having argued the appeal for murderess Sante Kimes. Kimes, whose crimes were committed with the help of her son, Kenneth, was convicted in Kennedy's courtroom of the murder of Granada Hills businessman David Kazdin, and became the subject of two TV movies, one starring Mary Tyler Moore. In the Kimes case, Amster unsuccessfully argued to the Second Appellate District Court of Appeal that Kennedy erred by not instructing the jury that several witnesses were accomplices and thus potentially liable for the murder.
As to Kennedy's oversight of the Grim Sleeper case, Amster correctly points out, "I was appointed to do a job, and if the court feels we are taking too much time, the court ... can deny a continuance and deem us ready" for trial.
A wily advocate, Amster is best known for defending David A. Garcia, who pled guilty to killing Burbank Police Officer Matthew Pavelka in November 2003. Pavelka, a rookie, was killed in a ferocious exchange of gunfire outside a Ramada Inn after he and his partner pulled over Garcia and another man.
"It seems like they are not making any progress and they will probably not meet the July 15 trial date," says 74-year-old Ware, the stepmother of Barbara Ware, whose killing at age 23 left behind a 4-year-old daughter. Now Ware's stepmom takes a one-hour bus ride from West Covina every two weeks to attend the hearings on the ninth floor of the Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center.
The kindly, elderly grandmother has been to all but one or two hearings. "It was a long time before we even found out there was a serial killer involved, and once we found out the information, it was still slow getting to us," Ware says. "It has been very frustrating."
For years, Franklin's identity was unknown to police because his DNA, found in saliva and semen on the victims, did not match anyone ever DNA-swabbed by law enforcement in the United States. He finally was identified in 2010 when then–Attorney General Jerry Brown agreed to the first-ever "familial" DNA scan of a database containing millions of convicted felons and felony arrestees. The unusual, systemwide test unearthed a strong family match to the Grim Sleeper's DNA: Franklin's son, 28, who'd been swabbed when arrested on a weapons charge in 2009.
But ballistic and DNA evidence once celebrated by police as a slam-dunk — matching slugs and matching saliva found near or in the bodies of many of the murdered women — now are sources of intense frustration.
The prosecutor's expert took only a few weeks to complete the DNA evidence testing on Lonnie Franklin. But the same DNA evidence has been in the hands of the defense's expert for two years, and it is still unknown if the defense's lab has gotten around to doing its tests.
"It took them almost two years to pick up the DNA evidence," retired LAPD detective Kilcoyne says. "And they haven't even talked about the ballistic evidence yet."
Kilcoyne was supervisor of the 800 Task Force, a secret team that had quietly been investigating the Grim Sleeper killings for a year when the Weekly published its August 2008 expose, "Grim Sleeper Returns: He's Murdering Angelenos, as Cops Hunt His DNA," revealing the killer's existence and the special task force committed to running him to ground.
Kilcoyne calls what is now unfolding at court "typical defense attorney 101 stuff: Stall. Stall. Stall." He alleges that Amster is maneuvering so that the case will "outlive some of the [now elderly] family members" of the dead.
With 20,000 pages making up the case files, Kilcoyne says, "For the most part, it seems like [the defense attorneys] haven't even read the case."
Currently, the defense is arguing that the 1,000-plus pieces of evidence collected by a series of LAPD detectives over many years, some of it dating to the early 1980s, all needs to be separately examined for possible DNA testing.
This could include, for example, hundreds of bits of dumpster garbage in which several of the victims were found — food wrappers, to-go cups, cigarette butts, at least some of it potentially thrown away by gang members and other criminals who frequented the tough streets where Franklin allegedly operated.
"It will be a monster project," Kilcoyne says. "They want to look at all the items so they can determine if there should be any DNA worked on. It's a stall tactic to throw mud at the wall to see what will stick" — the hope being that a jury will begin to question whether somebody else was involved.
Such an effort, Kilcoyne says, "is a yearlong project. If you did five items of evidence a day, you would be doing good.
"The judge is between a rock and a hard place," he adds, because if she were to replace Amster on the case, a new, taxpayer-financed defense attorney would have to start at the beginning. "Everyone knows that the clock would start over — if they get a new attorney."
Kilcoyne says Amster is hoping "to make some discovery that we have destroyed [old] evidence or found a different [DNA] profile."
But as the veteran detective notes with clear satisfaction, "It doesn't discount that his [DNA] profile is the one that is consistent throughout. ... The only consistent profile is Lonnie Franklin."
Seymour Amster doesn't seem to mind the criticisms leveled against him by the victims' families, the judge and the two prosecutors.
Amster, who has litigated five death-penalty cases, says he faces a huge task investigating multiple crime scenes and scouring more than 20,000 pages of discovery — such as police, property, witness and coroner reports.
"The people [the prosecutors] feel strong on their theory — I am testing their theory," Amster says matter-of-factly. "At the end of the day, if you are asking the people to give someone the ultimate penalty, let's make sure they are correct. It is not about a rush — it is about justice and getting the right person."
In a dig at prosecutors Silverman and Rizzo, Amster says he "can appreciate how families would want it to be rushed when they aren't being properly informed of the entire process" required in a death-penalty case.
And in a veiled message to his critics, he adds, "We have multiple crime scenes and multiple DNA — and the last thing anyone wants is a reversal on appeal for 'ineffective assistance of counsel.' I don't think it is taking that long. Cases of this magnitude take a long time."
He also argues, "What risk is Lonnie to society if [prosecutors] are right?" He is behind bars. ... I feel I am pushing the case forward faster than other death-penalty cases. I really feel that there are times I am a little concerned I am pushing my people too much."
In January, Kennedy ruled that the DNA evidence that led to Franklin's arrest was lawfully obtained by a police officer who posed as a restaurant busboy in July 2010, then nabbed a piece of pizza off the table after Franklin finished eating.
Franklin's defense team filed a motion to suppress the DNA evidence — Franklin's saliva — recovered from the pizza slice, which investigators have matched to the DNA in the saliva and semen on the victims. Amster and co-counsel, Louisa Pensanti, wrote in a motion filed to the court that Franklin "clearly communicated to the undercover officer that he was eating his food" and had left it unattended for just a short period of time.
Amster and Pensanti also argued that Franklin had a reasonable expectation that his food would be thrown in the garbage, and so his human detritus would never undergo lab testing.
"I felt it would be mixed with the rest of the trash," Franklin testified, taking the stand for the first time in January, wearing an orange jumpsuit and wrist shackles.
Judge Kennedy called the defense's argument "specious and ridiculous."
Samara Herard, whose foster sister, Princess Berthomieux, allegedly was strangled to death by Franklin in 2002 at the age of 15 and left in an alley in Inglewood, was present for that hearing.
Her sense of protectiveness toward Berthomieux is fueled by the staggering abuse the slim and pretty Princess endured as a toddler, at the hands of her own father. She was placed in foster care at the age of 3 after she was beaten, tied up and raped by her father's friends.
A champion of her long-dead foster sister, Herard is filled with disgust over what she saw when Franklin took the stand.
"I saw him in a new light," Herard says. "He was much more evil than I anticipated — he was arrogant and nasty, like he was being inconvenienced by the whole thing. He didn't look remorseful. If I am sitting there being accused of killing these family members, even if I didn't kill those people, I am still going to feel sorry that they had a loss like that. I wouldn't be arrogant and nasty. I wouldn't look at them like they were doing him an injustice. I did not see any sense of remorse for what he did. It was just cold. It was very unnerving."
The circus, as some dub it, has expanded beyond the courtroom.
Last summer, co-defense counsel Pensanti's law office, Pensanti & Associates, made tabloid news after one of the firm's attorneys, Polina Polonsky, claimed to Star Magazine that she'd had a six-week affair with former Clippers and Lakers star Lamar Odom when he was still married to Khloe Kardashian.
The 27-year-old Polonsky described to Star her sexual exploits — including how she held off consummating the relationship until her third date with Odom. Polonsky, still employed at Pensanti & Associates, allegedly took a polygraph test — to prove she wasn't making up her tale.
Polonsky called her affair "something in the past," and added that she is not working on Franklin's case. "I didn't violate any ethic rules" by talking to a tabloid or having an affair with the washed-up basketball player, she says. "My generation is a little different."
Meanwhile, actress Redstall regularly attends Franklin's hearings, occasionally with the producer of a low-budget film to be loosely based on the Grim Sleeper, Dancing With Rip. According to the film's Facebook page, Redstall is a technical consultant on the movie. The film is being produced by unknown Nyjo Brennen, whose recent project was "Talking With the Taxman About Poetry."
Despite the long delays and side antics, Herard has not given up her hope that she will see justice for the foster child named Princess, whose early life was a living hell.
"She mattered," Herard says. "She was so wonderful. I don't want anyone to think she wasn't absolutely, positively, adored and loved."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss LA Weekly's biggest stories.