It was a warm Saturday morning in April when two unmarked Los Angeles Police Department cars pulled into the parking lot of the Freewill Missionary Baptist Church in South Los Angeles.
Armed with trays of sandwiches, cans of soda, and small bags of Ruffles potato chips and Doritos, several serious-looking detectives dressed in business attire made their way into the church’s kitchen.
It wasn’t a typical police investigation.
The confidential affair was invitation-only. The six detectives and two captains chose the church as neutral ground. They wanted as many of the invited as possible to show up, and worried that asking them to a police station might keep some away. Guests trickled into the dining hall, signing in before taking seats at two large cafeteria-style tables covered with pink-and-white tablecloths. Fake red roses and “Reward!” posters stacked next to the salt-and-pepper shakers added an unintentional but slightly morbid feel.
By 11:15 a.m., most of the 25 guests had arrived. A pastor welcomed them, asking them to join hands with the LAPD detectives in prayer. The group ranged in age from 5 to 65. They were strangers in almost every way but one: Several of them recognized one another because they’d recently been on the TV news in Southern California.
The guests were the families of the 11 victims of the Grim Sleeper, the longest-operating serial killer, ever, west of the Mississippi. And all of those gathered this day had lost a daughter, sister, aunt or mother. Little did they know that a few weeks later, in a development that seemed to highlight their shared heartache, police would arrest another long-elusive serial killer, the Westside Rapist, believed responsible for more than 25 killings during the 1970s and ’80s. According to police, in a story broken in the Los Angeles Times on April 30, John Floyd Thomas Jr., a 72-year-old state worker’s-compensation insurance adjuster, is now behind bars, linked by his own DNA to five cold-case Westside Rapist slayings.
DNA testing is also how the families pray police will catch the Grim Sleeper. As with alleged murderer Thomas, they hope, the LAPD or some other police force will eventually take a swab from the mouth of a man who matches the Grim Sleeper’s profile.
The Alexanders last saw their 17-year-old daughter Monique — a friendly teenager who had started to hang around with a bad crowd — 22 years ago when she walked out the front door on her way to the corner store. Sitting near them at the church meeting was a woman who was just a toddler when the body of her mother, Henrietta Wright, was found in an alley south of 2514 W. Vernon Ave.
Across the table from them sat stylishly dressed Larina Corlew, whose stepsister Barbara Ware was shot once in the chest and found in a heap of trash. A few seats from her was LaVerne Peters, who last spoke to her 25-year-old daughter Janecia about moving in with a friend, shortly before the beautiful young woman was found dead in a Dumpster on January 1, 2007, by a homeless man looking for recyclables.
“This has affected a lot of lives,” Los Angeles Police Department detective Dennis Kilcoyne told the families. “We have several generations of people here.... If you want it or not, you are connected.”
The killer, dubbed the Grim Sleeper by L.A. Weekly because he took a 13-year break before bizarrely resuming his slayings, began his awful crime spree on a warm August night in 1985 when the body of cocktail waitress Debra Jackson was found in an alley near West Gage Avenue, shot in the chest three times with a small-caliber pistol.
In total, DNA testing and ballistics matching have linked the Grim Sleeper to the deaths of 11 people, the most recent being Janecia Peters, found slain on the first day of 2007.
The roundtable discussion marked the first time that victims’ family members and detectives met at once to talk about the 10 women and one man murdered almost exclusively along, or near, a section of Western Avenue in South Los Angeles. The Weekly was invited to attend the meeting by the victims’ families, who conducted an impromptu vote to ask the newspaper to sit in.
Victim Barbara Ware’s stepmother, Diana, had asked detectives to bring the families together in the hopes of jogging old memories that might offer clues to police. Did any of the victims know each other? Is there some common thread yet to be recognized by investigators that the family members might unearth once brought together?
Ware, a woman with a persuasive personality, says she told the LAPD detectives, “‘Maybe there is some connection between the families,’ and [Det. Kilcoyne] said he would see if he could set it up.”
“We need your help,” Kilcoyne said matter-of-factly to them. “We don’t have a market on good ideas. If we did, he would have been caught 24 years ago.”
There were plenty of questions from the victims’ relatives. Are the killings ritualistic in some way? Why did he take a 13-year break before resuming his killings a few years ago?
“We can’t discount anything,” answered an amiable Kilcoyne, as the other five serial-killer task-force detectives listened intently to the spirited discussion.
Do the detectives believe the killer is still out there?
Kilcoyne couldn’t be certain. “We don’t have crystal balls.... The worst-case scenario is he is driving around ... or he could have died two years ago.”
“Did he move?” asked Barbara Ware’s aunt, Sherry, saying, “Maybe he went away for a while and is killing somewhere else.”
Family members and detectives theorized about who the mystery caller was, his deep voice recorded in January of 1987 as he told an LAPD dispatcher that he had just observed a man dumping a body from a van. The body turned out to be Ware.
And what about the easily recognizable, pimped-out orange Pinto or Pinto-like car with its white marble gear-shift knob and white interior — the car the killer was driving when he raped and shot sole survivor and eyewitness, Enietra Margette, before that orange car seemed to simply vanish from the streets of Los Angeles?
At one eerie point in the luncheon, victim Lachrica Jefferson’s aunt Yvonne Bell, who lived on Western Avenue between 1982 and 1987, insisted “I remember that car.” The 55-year-old Bell, a friendly former custodian for the U.S. Air Force, also felt sure that, “I recognize some of the [photos of the dead] girls ... but it is too late now” to piece together why.
Monique Alexander’s father, Porter, who was wearing a black buttoned-up shirt, black jeans and cowboy boots, wanted to know how the Grim Sleeper could have evaded justice for more than two decades after murdering his teenage daughter, who loved sports and horseback riding.
“He never has committed crimes and never been in the military,” Alexander theorized, as to why the Grim Sleeper’s DNA, which has been found at several crime scenes, does not match anyone’s DNA in any known crime database. “If you can’t attach something to him, you can’t find him. He knows how to protect himself.”
Kilcoyne told the families that all eight of the early victims were connected ballistically, by bullets showing the exact same striations and marring, meaning they were shot by the same gun. That same gun was used against sole survivor Enietra Margette, who was saved after ER workers dug a matching bullet from her chest. Among the eight older murder cases, DNA was recovered from three crime scenes, and that cold-case DNA was ultimately matched to fresh DNA taken from the three recent murders, committed after a 13-year gap.
“We have 10,000 [unsolved] murder cases in our archives,” Kilcoyne said, indicating the vast nature of the job police have faced. “If your cases weren’t connected by this serial killer, very possibly [they would] be archive cases and never looked at – collecting dust in a storage area.”
Detectives were dealt a setback in December when a search of DNA databases, in hopes of determining the killer’s real name by finding near-matches that indicate a male family member, came up empty. Apparently, none of the killer’s brothers or father have genetic profiles in the existing databases.
“Will you retest the familial DNA?” asked Peters. To the relief of family members, Kilcoyne said state Attorney General Jerry Brown’s testing lab plans to search the criminal database for new clues every six months.
“Is there a time limit on the task force?” queried Peters.
“There is no hint of that,” said Kilcoyne. “This is on the front burner of [Chief William J.] Bratton. He is not going to say, ‘We will give up for [the next] 10 years and it will be someone else’s problem.’”
As the families sipped soda and nibbled on potato chips and sandwiches stuffed with ham and turkey, Kilcoyne explained that when he realized, in 2006, that the long-dormant Grim Sleeper had struck again, LAPD was “in the reluctant stage” about alerting the public and media. However, the story broke in L.A. Weekly last fall. The resulting media coverage has led to hundreds of new clues, and serial-killer task-force detectives have ruled out dozens of suspects and have swabbed the mouths of more than 50 men to collect DNA, none of which has matched.
The ideas from the public are sometimes helpful, but also absurd. “Someone asked us to look at Dodger players,” said Kilcoyne. “We are checking every little clue that is coming our way.... Cops are not off-limits. They have been looked at and will continue to be looked at.”
In one instance, detectives followed a potential suspect for days before he dropped a cigarette butt, which police grabbed and analyzed for a DNA match. In another case, a woman flew to California from another state, convinced her ex-husband was the Grim Sleeper. “She was so adamant,” said Captain Denis Cremins. “As it turned out, we eliminated him through DNA.”
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Alexander, father of victim Monique, feels certain that “He is a smooth type of person.... He knows how to handle himself in the street.” Unless “DNA is extracted,” he says, it will be difficult to catch him.
Cremins urged the families not to become cynical or give up hope. “Guys like [Ted] Bundy, they had one flaw — arrogance. Give us that one opportunity. That’s our job, to be there when he makes that mistake.... This guy will slip up.”
“The fortunate part is we have [his] DNA,” added Kilcoyne. “We have a profile ... and that day will come when we will know who he is and have a match to his face.” Kilcoyne is among many in law enforcement who believe “It will be the science that will put this guy in jail.... Sooner or later we are going to get a call.”
By 2 p.m., the families slowly began to trickle out. The pastor ended the three-hour meeting, not with a prayer, but with a gentle joke acknowledging the pain these families have been through. “This is the start of something,” he said. “The meeting was done decently and orderly. It could have gotten ugly up in here.”