Grim Sleeper's Sole Survivor
UPDATE: Police now believe there may have been at least one more survivor of a Grim Sleeper attack. In May 1985, authorities now think Lonnie Franklin Jr. 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.
A Lifetime movie featuring LA Weekly reporter Christine Pelisek explores the DNA-based manhunt for the alleged Grim Sleeper. 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. 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.
Early on Sunday, November 20, 1988, the E.R. doors crashed open at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center in Torrance. A woman had been sexually assaulted and shot, and the bullet that tore through her chest had collapsed her lung and made it nearly impossible to breathe. As workers rushed the blood-drenched victim, Enietra Margette, to surgery, she could hear scattered bits of conversation between two relatives who had raced to her side at the hospital, her aunt and uncle.
Gasping for breath, she was surprised to see Superman himself peering down at her. Superman — a doctor who looks like the late superhero actor George Reeves — leaned close to inform Margette that he had to place a tube in her chest. “I asked him if I was going to die. He said, ‘I don’t know.’”
That bloody night almost 21 years ago is pivotal in helping to solve one of the greatest murder mysteries ever to face Los Angeles police: that of the Grim Sleeper serial killer. Margette, his only known survivor, is Exhibit 1. Or perhaps that honor goes to the smashed bullet dug from her torso — a .25-caliber hunk of metal partially flattened after striking her chest bone, and now a crucial piece of evidence in LAPD’s hunt for the killer.
For five days, Dr. Superman — she can no longer recall the name of her savior at the hospital where she stayed for three weeks — monitored Margette’s dicey condition before extracting the bullet. It needed to “settle,” she says today, rubbing the bullet’s old entry spot, now a small white blemish. The doctor dropped it in a metal container and sent it to the LAPD.
The bullet sitting on a shelf in the city’s vast evidence room would prove to be an explosive link in a chain of DNA and ballistics evidence left at crime scenes by the longest-operating serial killer west of the Mississippi. Yet Margette had no idea she had escaped a madman, that she was the only living victim to have seen him up close or sat inside his car.
L.A.’s elusive Grim Sleeper has murdered with impunity for 23 years. Margette (who requested a fictitious last name be used for this story), has spoken exclusively to L.A. Weekly in recent weeks about many details of her strange journey, which began with a rape and shooting that at the time seemed tragically commonplace, occurring at a desperate point in U.S. urban history, filled with PCP rages and crack wars.
When Margette was attacked that night, Los Angeles’ murder rate — and that of most big cities — had soared to an all-time high. In the 1980s alone, more than 50 black women, mostly prostitutes and drug addicts, were found shot, strangled or stabbed, their bodies left in Dumpsters and alleyways in South Los Angeles.
Margette shrugged off the attack on her as a case of mistaken identity, believing the thin, neat, polite and well-groomed African-American guy who shot her must have thought she was someone he was targeting, somebody he hated.
Taking the Weekly on a short tour through residential streets of South L.A., trying to retrace her steps before and after the shooting, she remembers how her weeks of slow recovery from her chest wound marked “the first time I was ever skinny.” Wearing a pair of black, pointy-rimmed glasses, she laughs loudly at her quip. The buxom mother of three remembers spending far too much time trying to lose weight. Her former husband badgered her about gaining pounds after two of her kids were born. But she’s comfortable in her own skin these days, waltzing into a South L.A. restaurant in tight black jeans, and more than filling out a colorful shirt swirled in pink, black and white. Men glance appreciatively at Margette, a churchgoing toughie who, over lunch, declares that she likes to eat and doesn’t like wasting food — then lectures this reporter for leaving a half-eaten meal.
South L.A. has been her home for all of her five decades. There’s not a street, alleyway or intersection that Margette doesn’t know. She doesn’t mind handing out a little grief, playing back-seat driver when the Weekly accidentally makes a wrong turn after she has given explicit directions, trying to retrace her steps on the night she escaped from the Grim Sleeper.
As police later determined, the bullet dug from her body in 1988 carries the signature scratches and other ballistics marks matching a bullet that, on a warm August evening three years earlier, killed cocktail waitress Debra Jackson. Before Margette was shot, in fact, police had collected bullets from eight murder scenes, all with the same ballistics markings, pointing to the inescapable fact that a serial killer was at work.
Yet until 2006, Margette was unaware of her role in this dark drama. Police kept the existence of the serial killer a secret from the public, and from her — and missed opportunities to use sole eyewitness Margette at police lineups of local thugs and possible suspects.
But after she was shot, the killings with the .25-caliber gun abruptly halted, with eight dead. And Enietra Margette became the all-but-forgotten eyewitness to a serial killer, her name deep inside a thick file at LAPD.
Things might have remained that way, but in 2001, under orders from then Chief Bernard Parks, the LAPD began delving into a backlog of unsolved cases from the violent 1990s, ’80s and earlier, testing bits of hair and skin saved from cold crimes, using the rapidly spreading new technology of DNA testing.
Los Angeles cops were stunned when the tests linked bits of human detritus from murders committed in 2002 and 2003 to old saliva and skin gathered by police from several of the cold-case serial-killer shootings committed decades earlier with the .25-caliber gun.
Suddenly, the cops had a very real, still-active serial killer on their hands, a man operating over such a long stretch of time that even experts on serial killing found it bizarre. “Whoever is living with him is scared of him,” Margette says today of his long period of quiet before killing again. “Someone is scared of him, but I ain’t.”
But the killer was not done. On January 1, 2007, a homeless man collecting cans from a Dumpster off Western Avenue in South Los Angeles discovered the lifeless body of Janecia Peters, an angel-faced 25-year-old left near a discarded Christmas tree. She’d been placed in a black garbage bag and was nude, but for her gold heart pendant. Traces of saliva on items found with Peters’ body matched the saliva and other DNA found at the crime scenes of the previously linked series of old and new killings.
The Grim Sleeper had struck again, for the eleventh time.
For murky reasons still unexplained by Chief William F. Bratton, until three years ago, Margette was left utterly in the dark about the real nature of the horror she faced in 1988. Moreover, most families of the 10 women and one man murdered by the Grim Sleeper were unaware — until finally informed by L.A. Weekly late last year — that their dead loved ones are forever linked by the evil acts of a single man.
Last fall, only after the Weekly revealed both the existence of the Grim Sleeper and the hush-hush LAPD task force investigating the killer, Bratton went public. Uncertain after all these years whether Margette’s stark memories of her attacker from back then were accurate, the stumped police are casting a surprisingly wide net, even collecting and testing the DNA of dark-skinned Latino men in South L.A. They are finally asking for the public’s help. They can only hope that the once-forgotten sole survivor, Enietra Margette, is not the only person who can look him in the eye and remember.
The night she was shot, Margette was still smarting from a breakup with her husband, her Inglewood High School sweetheart. She had just returned from a trip to Louisiana to visit cousins, and was helping out an elderly man in her neighborhood whose wife had recently passed away. As evening approached, she got ready to go to a party with her best friend, Lynda Lewis.
Around dusk, she walked toward her friend’s house, dressed in her favorite blue-and-cream peasant blouse and tight cream-colored Calvin Klein denim mini. She was passing D & S Market in South L.A. when she noticed an orange Ford Pinto with a white racing stripe on the hood. She remembers the parked car because “it looked like a Hot Wheels car,” she says, pointing to the run-down market on West 91st Street and Normandie Avenue where the car sat that day.
From inside, the driver, a black man in his early 30s, asked her if she wanted a ride. He looked neat. Tidy. Kind of geeky. He wore a black polo shirt tucked into khaki trousers. She declined the offer. He kept asking her. She refused again, thinking, “I like chocolate milk, but he wasn’t my type.”
“He told me, ‘That is what is wrong with you black women. You think you are all that,” she says. The two traded friendly barbs back and forth. But his comment, which she took as a playful diss, prompted her to change her mind. Just 30, she enjoyed hitchhiking in those days, and accepted his offer of a ride for a few blocks to her friend’s house. Despite the drug violence raging in neighborhoods around her, it wasn’t neat-looking strangers who had her concerned. “It wasn’t a worry,” she recalls.
Once inside, Margette was impressed by the car’s interior. The gear-shift handle was memorable, pimped out with a ping-pong-sized marble ball. The inside was all-white, with white diamond-patterned upholstery. She liked what she saw, and when he invited himself to the party, she said he was welcome to come.
He merely needed to make a quick stop at his uncle’s house to pick up some money, or so he said.
They wound through residential roads in his sporty car, ending up on a street whose name she did not take note of. The polite stranger parked outside a mustard-colored house partly obscured by hedges, got out, walked up to the house, briefly talked to someone inside, and returned about 10 minutes later.
But now, she says, he was entirely different. He drove off, started to say something, turned a corner — then went quiet. “He asked me, ‘Why did you dog me out?’” she recalls. She had no idea what he was talking about. He called her by the name of a well-known local prostitute who walked the streets around Normandie Avenue and looked like Margette, except the streetwalker wore an auburn wig while Margette’s black hair was cropped short like a boy’s.
Margette remembers thinking that his weird use of the streetwalker’s nickname was an odd coincidence, because a few days earlier somebody else mistook her for the auburn-wigged woman. But Margette, a tough young woman who’d been involved in a few scraps, wasn’t scared. She was much bigger-boned than her thin, spindly-looking companion, and she was irritated by his hostile tone — something she heard often from the malingering drug dealers and gangsters in her area.
“Who do you think you are talking to?” she responded, showing him some attitude. He suddenly pulled a small handgun out of a pocket on the driver’s side of the Pinto, and shot her in the chest as he drove along the residential streets.
Incredibly, Margette did not lose consciousness, panic or flee. More than anything, she remembers being utterly baffled as blood began dripping down her blue-and-white peasant shirt. “That was something that stuck in my head,” she says. She demanded to know: Why had he shot her? And who would take care of her kids if she died? She felt blood trickle down her face, and her blouse grew wet with it.
She blacked out, but was startled awake by the bright flash of a Polaroid camera. The creep had taken her picture and sexually assaulted her. She remembers grabbing at him, and the two struggled. She pleaded to be taken to a hospital. He refused. Despite her half-conscious condition, she’s almost certain he told her he couldn’t take her to a hospital because he didn’t want to get caught.
The gunman peeled off through the night, Margette bleeding beside him. He finally pulled over, beat her senseless with his gun, opened her door and pushed her onto the darkened street.
But police say the Grim Sleeper had never met a victim quite like Enietra Margette. She picked herself up, and, in what is assumed to have been a state of shock, walked the many blocks to her best friend’s house, leaving a bloody meandering trail along the street and smeared on parked cars.
She pounded on her friend Lynda Lewis’ front door, but nobody answered. Lewis, sitting down during Margette’s last stop on a macabre tour conducted for the Weekly one warm afternoon several weeks ago, explains that her children were home alone that night, and “the kids were afraid to open the door” to the horribly bloodied Margette. “She was screaming my name.”
In fact, Lewis had gone on to the party when Margette didn’t show. She and her husband returned at about 1 a.m. and found her nearly incoherent friend lying on the porch. Lewis recalls, “I was shocked and scared to death. [Enietra] said, ‘He hit me in the head with a gun!’?” After the ambulance arrived, says Lewis, “the paramedics were trying to make her stay still.”
It was while recovering in the hospital from her collapsed lung that Margette got a visit from LAPD detectives. She described her attacker to a sketch artist, and drawings hit the streets. Detectives searched Department of Motor Vehicles records for an orange Ford Pinto, but there were thousands of those small hatchbacks — or cars that looked like them — in California. Detectives took Margette to look at a car in Long Beach one day, but it didn’t pan out.
The police tried to insinuate she was a prostitute, which still riles her today. “I didn’t solicit the man,” she huffs. “My friends had a search party looking for him, they were so pissed.”
Police knew they had multiple dead victims, but kept Margette in the dark. They were focused on several murders in which the victims “were passengers [in the killer’s car],” says retired detective Rich Haro, who investigated the eight linked killings as well as Margette’s assault.
Trying to find some method to the suspect’s madness, police had dubbed the killings the “strawberry” murders — a street term for troubled women who casually trade sex for drugs. The serial killer would coax women into his car, police believed, then “the suspect leans over and shoots them.” Police “worked around the clock” to determine which of the many killings were the work of the suspect, Haro recalls, and used a “pathologist [who] was familiar with the wounds we were looking for.”
Aside from the incredible eyewitness account from Margette, “it was kind of hard to get witnesses at the time of the night” that many victims were believed to have been abducted, Haro told the Weekly last year. “We put a composite [sketch] out. We handed out fliers to the patrol guys. ... We generated a lot of clues that involved the arrest of other people — but not our killer.”
Long before he tried to kill Margette, LAPD detectives had wrongly theorized that the Grim Sleeper was a man they dubbed the Southside Slayer, a mythical, evil force whom they suspected of at least 20 other slayings. Police pursued but ultimately discarded many suspects, and investigated numerous possible getaway cars.
They cast a wide net that went nowhere. A black man between 28 and 35 with a pockmarked face and a Caribbean or East Coast accent. A dark-colored 1984 Buick Regal with a baby seat. A late-model Plymouth station wagon. A 1960 Ford pickup with gray primer.
So many “body dumps” were occurring that angry South Central and South L.A. residents lashed out at police, and in 1986, two years before Margette was raped, shot and left for dead, community members launched the Black Coalition Fighting Black Serial Murders. The coalition bitterly complained that “the low-profile media coverage and problems with the investigation are all examples of women’s lives not counting and black prostitute women counting least of all.”
Chief Daryl Gates formed a 49-member task force to find the killer, or killers. In 1987, they got a major break when ballistics tests clearly showed that among the many bodies piling up, eight of those murdered were killed by the same .25-caliber handgun. But they kept the discovery under wraps. The fact that several of the killings were the work of one man was leaked by police sources to KABC-TV on February 16, 1989, the year after Margette was attacked, when KABC reported that a murderer was targeting “prostitutes.” But in fact, some of them were just young women who, like Margette, got in the wrong car.
Although it seems almost unthinkable, LAPD did not clue Margette in that she was the living victim of an active serial murderer. She read stories about a man killing prostitutes, but never connected the dots. She was trying to put her life back together, staying at her mother’s house and planning to take a two-year college course in medical assisting.
She was also suffering from nightmares — and dating was out of the question. She wouldn’t date a man again until 1992. “I believe in God and kept going,” she says today. “I really owe him for restoring my faith.”
In reaction to the leaked news that a new killer, someone other than the supposed Southside Slayer, was at work, the Black Coalition Fighting Black Serial Murders stormed a police-commission meeting, carrying placards saying, “No more police cover-up” and “Every life is of value,” and criticizing Gates for failing to warn residents about the murders.
Ironically, because LAPD had all but ceased contact with Margette, she did not know her case was part of the Black Coalition’s protests, and the group did not know she existed. The coalition demanded a list of all the women slain in the South Central area since 1983. An LAPD spokesman denied allegations of a cover-up, saying instead: “The mere publicity in this investigation would hinder our efforts.”
That reasoning didn’t fly with Black Coalition founder Margaret Prescod, who shot back, in an interview with the Los Angeles Herald Examiner in 1989, “The claim it would hamper the investigation is like playing Russian roulette with the lives of women. It’s a deadly calculation.”
It was Prescod, and not the LAPD, who would be proved right over time. They never cracked the case, yet successive chiefs, from Daryl Gates to Willie Brown to William Bratton, decided to keep the probe into the serial killings under wraps.
Prescod recalls today how, in reaction to the information vacuum, rumors flew through South Central and South L.A. Many people — including her — came to believe the killer was a cop. “Outside my bedroom window there was a dead bird” tied on a string, recalls Prescod, who now hosts KPFK’s “Sojourner Truth” talk show. “It was left hanging from a tree. Of course, the police referred to women as ‘birds.’?”
She remembers being called to a gathering of “black church hot shots” who said they would be glad to organize a private meeting with Gates — if the Black Coalition called off its weekly vigils.
“We said, ‘No thank you very much,’?” she said. “Daryl Gates singled me out and said, I was ‘a hysterical woman bent on bringing down the LAPD.’ We thought that was pretty outrageous. We definitely felt the heat to back off and shut up.”
The paranoia about who was behind the murders bled into the LAPD itself, when on February 25, 1989, veteran Los Angeles County Sheriff’s narcotics investigator Rickey Ross was arrested on suspicion of killing three prostitutes murdered in the fall of 1988.
Gates publicly announced that Ross, who was black, but who did not look a lot like the drawing based on Margette’s close-up account, had been spotted with a prostitute in an unmarked county-government car — and that a loaded 9mm gun found by police in his blue Ford Tempo had been tested and matched to “three murders of women involved in prostitution.”
According to breathless news reports of that era, Ross admitted that he picked up the prostitute, and was “unable to explain what he was doing with her.” With City Hall on tenterhooks over the rising fury in black neighborhoods, a media pile-on exploded against Ross. Police strongly suspected him not just of killing the three prostitutes in 1988, but of being the serial killer in the eight earlier murders — and of shooting Margette. Los Angeles County Sheriff Sherman Block called his arrest “a very sad day for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department,” saying Ross had a “very fine record.”
Ross’ colleagues were blind-sided by the arrest of the born-again Christian who sometimes moonlighted as a security guard. DEA agent Warren Rivera, who worked with Ross for two years, recounts to the Weekly, “He had a great reputation ’til he got arrested.”
In fact, Ross was not the Grim Sleeper. The police theory was wrong — just like their earlier theory of a single Southside Slayer. Ross did not shoot Enietra Margette — who, incredibly, was never asked to ID Ross in a lineup after his arrest, and never knew that the headlines over Rickey Ross involved her and the telltale bullet from her chest. Margette remembers reading the coverage of Ross and thinking, “Wow. [But] I never associated it with me.”
Then, in a development that riveted Los Angeles, Ross was released from jail after independent experts determined the LAPD had wrongly claimed that the bullets used to kill the three prostitutes matched Ross’ gun. In fact, no evidence linked him to those three deaths or any of the eight Grim Sleeper slayings.
Even so, after Ross was released he was fired from his job by Sheriff Block for allegedly abusing alcohol and drugs, and soliciting a prostitute. He soon filed a $400 million federal civil-rights lawsuit, claiming that tests of his gun “were deliberately falsified” by LAPD. A federal jury ruled against him, but he received a private settlement from the Sheriff’s Department over his firing.
“I never thought that man was guilty,” says Rivera today — a hunch that proved true. As police would much later confirm, in fact, the Grim Sleeper continued to kill women even after the wrongly accused Rickey Ross had died.
Rivera says LAPD and the Sheriff’s Department “probably had already made their mind up that he was guilty.” But Dennis Kilcoyne, now the lead LAPD detective on the case, says in defense of the past theories the LAPD developed, “The guys back then wanted to catch the guys as badly as we do,” but they were trying to hunt him down long before the rise of sophisticated tools like DNA testing. “They had different tools than we have to work with today,” Kilcoyne says. “It was almost like the Stone Age.”
On a recent Friday afternoon, Margette is sitting at M & M Soul Food Restaurant on West Manchester Boulevard in Inglewood, eating fried catfish, macaroni and cheese, and collard greens. She is facing the door. She likes to see who is coming in and going out.
She scans old newspaper clippings of the Southside Slayer coverage from the ’80s, periodically lifting her head up to see who is entering. She glances at a story about the late detective Rickey Ross’ arrest. His mug shot accompanies the piece. She shakes her head and says: “That is not him. [Ross] has a pig nose. I would have remembered that.”
After the Grim Sleeper’s encounter with the toughie who lectured him and refused to be his victim, the serial murders abruptly stopped for 13 years. Police did not realize the Grim Sleeper had returned until the LAPD started a cold-case unit under then Chief Bernard Parks to investigate unsolved killings, and crime-lab workers twice matched DNA taken from 1980s murder scenes to fresh murders — one in 2002 and another in 2003.
Police suspect the Grim Sleeper has kept a clean slate, not getting arrested for any crimes that would warrant a DNA swab being gathered and placed in any local, state or federal databases of felons.
“We have his [DNA] profile, we just don’t have a face or name to go with it,” says Detective Kilcoyne.
In the fall of 2006, Margette, by now a full-time student taking classes at a local college to become a pharmacy technician, was paid a visit by two Los Angeles County Sheriff cold-case homicide detectives who were investigating the shooting death of 22-year-old Lachrica Jefferson in 1988 — the same year Margette escaped her attacker.
The pretty young woman had been found in an alley north of 2049 West 102nd Place in Lennox by L.A. County Sheriff’s deputies. A napkin placed over her face had the word “AIDS” written on it. She was later determined to be the Grim Sleeper’s seventh victim.
The detectives had a possible suspect in mind, and they wanted Margette to look at a “six-pack” of photos to see if any of them resembled the ranting gunman who had shot her inside his tricked-out Pinto so many years ago.
“They came back to me and said [my assailant had] started back” attacking women again, she says, a look of amazement on her face. Yet until that moment, “no one told me he was a serial killer.” For years, she thought she had been attacked by a man confusing her with a local prostitute — a belief that had left her feeling, if not safe, at least not threatened. “I thought it was mistaken identity,” she says, repeatedly.
“I hadn’t even told my boyfriend about it,” she says. He was with her when the detectives brought the six-pack of photos to her, meeting her at a nearby Laundromat because she doesn’t like people coming to her home. When her boyfriend learned she had also been raped, he “just looked at me. I think that kind of put a wedge between us.”
When Sheriff’s detectives nearly 20 years after the fact revealed to her that she had been shot by a serial killer, her mind raced. The feisty lady with the nerves of steel began to think back: Was that stranger on a bus who gave her the creeps years ago the serial killer?
What about the day she thought she saw that same man from the bus walking by her and asking, “Do you know me?” She had retorted, with a load of attitude, “Why? Am I supposed to know you?” Would she act that way toward a stranger today knowing what she knows now?
A year after she finally got clued in by the Sheriff’s detectives, the Grim Sleeper struck again, in January 2007. A homeless man discovered the body of Janecia Peters, and a DNA match linked the saliva found at the crime scene to the traces of human DNA left on some of the Sleeper’s victims. That June, with Bratton keeping a lid on things, the LAPD quietly launched the 800 Task Force to track the elusive psychopath.
Detectives have followed leads across the country. Says a frustrated Kilcoyne, “Everything wasn’t automated back in those days. Everything was hand-searched. ... Back then, we would send people out and have them drive by people’s houses to see what the color of the car is.”
In August 2008, L.A. Weekly broke the story that the killer was still active, and dubbed him the Grim Sleeper because of his highly unusual 13-year break before murdering again. Community and city leaders, including former chief turned councilman Bernard Parks, were furious that residents of South Central and South L.A. had not been warned of the ongoing danger. In September, Parks persuaded the Los Angeles City Council to offer a record $500,000 reward for information leading to the conviction of the killer.
The families of the victims now want results. Porter Alexander, whose daughter Monique was slain at 18, referred to the Grim Sleeper as a “turkey” and a “fool.” Alexander has his own theory about the killer: “He is very slick. I think he knows his way around the area. He swoops in and swoops out. He is not an outsider. He is very much aware of South Los Angeles.”
Not long ago, at a press conference held by Councilman Parks to debut a billboard depicting the faces of the 12 Grim Sleeper victims, a special person stood quietly in the crowd. Hers is the only face on the billboard that has been blacked out, as a precaution. As Parks asked for the public’s help and offered up the $500,000 reward, Enietra Margette, the sole survivor of the Grim Sleeper, stood unnoticed. She said nothing.
“I wanted to hear what was really going on besides what the police were saying,” she says. “I was meeting the family members. They were suffering a real loss.”
To finally see it all come out, and to understand the scope of the violence wrought by the man who had left her for dead, shook her to her core.
“I remembered a couple of guys looking at me strange,” says Margette. “It was one of the victims’ brothers and he said, ‘No offense, but you were hurt by him too.’ And he said, ‘He killed my sister.’ He asked me about him. . They were looking for answers.”
Now that the killer is a much older man, and almost certainly changed since 1988, she says, “I felt helpless because I couldn’t give them answers and I couldn’t tell them what he looked like. I don’t know what he looks like now.”
Last month, the national media swarmed over the Grim Sleeper case when Bratton released an eerie audio tape-recording from 1987 in which an anonymous male tipster can clearly be heard reporting a murder to a police dispatcher. He calmly describes watching a man pull a woman’s body out of a blue-and-white van and hide it under a discarded gas tank in an alley in the 1300 block of East 56th Street in South L.A. He clearly states the license-plate number: 1PZP746.
“Is that ‘T’ like Tom?” asks the dispatcher.
“No, ‘P’ like in puppy,” says the deep-voiced man, somewhat casually.
When the dispatcher asks for the killer’s description, the man, after offering all these details, suddenly has no information: “I didn’t see him.” The dispatcher asks the caller for his name. He laughs nervously before responding: “I know too many people. Okay, then. Bye bye.”
The dead woman was 23-year-old Barbara Ware, now known to be the fourth victim of the Grim Sleeper, killed almost two years before Margette was shot. Ware, like many of the victims, was also shot once in the chest.
In large part in reaction to the Weekly’s exposé last fall, LAPD detectives are taking a new tack. They are seeking the public’s help — something they chose not to do for most of the past 24 years. Bratton now publicly calls the killer the Grim Sleeper (with his Boston accent, he pronounces it Grim Sleepah).
Bratton told the swarm of TV, radio and newspaper reporters that the suspect van was still “warm” to the touch in 1987 when the cops found it less than 40 minutes after the anonymous call, parked at the now-defunct Cosmopolitan Church on South Normandie Avenue. Kilcoyne said that the LAPD’s scientific-investigations division inspected the van at that time, but because of the state of technology then they only, as was routine, photographed it, took fingerprints and vacuumed fibers off the seat. The evidence, now considered far too simplistic, produced no good leads.
Today Kilcoyne says the police response to the anonymous call was bungled, but it’s too late to turn back the clock. “Everyone who belonged at that church should have been documented and interviewed and I don’t think they spent a lot of time on it,” he says. “This clue appeared to be shelved. I don’t understand that.” Now, he says, “We are 22 years behind the phone call.”
Task-force detectives have tracked down about 10 men associated with the victims, and have taken DNA samples from them to test against the killer’s DNA. They have checked hundreds of clues, many of which got tossed into the reject pile. One tipster insisted that Kramer from Seinfeld should get a close look, because the 13-year gap in the Grim Sleeper’s activity coincides with the years Seinfeld aired, the killings resuming after the comedy went off the air.
The Weekly has received dozens of tips as well. A “psychic” claims that the Catholic Saint Germain has quietly helped guide the Weekly’s coverage, and that the killer has murdered 33 people. The “psychic” writes that the killer’s name is “Michael” and “when he was young ... his face is a cross between Tiger Woods and O.J. Simpson ... sort of a cute bad boy ... and very articulate.”
Kilcoyne, with his lifetime of detective work to rely upon, also tries to imagine the killer out there. He believes the killer “will probably be an employed individual with a family life,” because “if he was one of our regular customers, we would have had him identified a long time ago.”
Enietra Margette has her own theories. “He is after women who look like his mother,” she says as she drives along Normandie Avenue one afternoon. “He was probably neglected and took abuse at home.”
On Super Bowl Sunday, the 5-foot-8-inch tall Margette arrives fashionably late at the Free Will Missionary Baptist Church on South Figueroa Street, where she doubles as choir member and secretary of the choir. Dressed in a gold-and-brown jacket and skirt, with gold high-heeled sandals, she rushes inside.
The youthful 50-year-old was up at 6 a.m., baking a cheesecake for a Super Bowl party she plans to attend at a relative’s house after church services. She takes a few minutes to sit down and talk while she multitasks, sitting on a mint-green velvet couch, surrounded by gold paintings, a Persian carpet and a vase of fake roses. She opens envelopes filled with $5 and $10 bills — donations for the church.
She talks about her life, her deceased father, who was a football player with the Los Angeles Rams before he became a carpenter, and about her love of cooking. She has an extensive knowledge of American history and grills a visitor on the subject. The topic quickly changes to ribs. She likes the Rib Nest. “Don’t slow-cook beef,” she says. “It’s a fallacy. Cook quickly.”
She’s had a lot of different jobs, and is comfortable handling a lot of different tasks at the church. Her mother was an escrow officer who “used to come home with paperwork and I would do it. I didn’t know after that it was called appraising.” She has deep roots here, having attended her church since she was 15.
Being the victim of a violent crime hasn’t been easy for her, nor has knowing that she is the only known surviving victim of the Grim Sleeper. “It ruins my relationships,” she says quietly. “If I am not walking the walk, who am I? I want to be settled with myself.”
Her mind often turns to the violence that happened, and is still happening, in her community. “Maybe there are other live victims,” she says, a nagging thought that often returns to her. “Life is a circle. It is coming back around and bringing [the tragedies] to my attention. . What you do will come back to you.”
She seems unafraid of the Grim Sleeper, sometimes growing almost combative and offering up, “If he sees me, he might panic and slip up and make a mistake. [And] I owe him one.”
But soon she’s bustling off, to multitask again, rushing through a corridor, then bolting through a door into the church kitchen, where she joins hands with a dozen praying members of the congregation. They each begin to tell stories about what they have witnessed in their lives. They pray for someone who has emphysema, and then one reports, with thanks, “My mom is doing better.”
“Praise the Lord for that,” they all say together. Margette tells them of an incident involving a young girl she met on the street who was trying to act like a thug. “A girl walked up to me and did one of these” — Margette makes a gesture like she’s grabbing her crotch. “I said, ‘Excuse me?’?”
More people begin to trickle in around 10:30 a.m. and Margette rushes up to the stage to take her place with the choir behind Pastor Stephen McGlover. McGlover only recently learned that she was raped and shot two decades ago. “I was hurt for one thing, and I felt sorry for her,” he says. “That is a pretty bad place to be. It affects people emotionally and can affect them for the rest of their life. It answers questions for me about certain expressions or the emotional state of her sometimes. . She and the Lord have a good relationship. I think it has helped her to grow past the pain.”
As Enietra Margette claps her hands, smiles broadly and sings raucously with the choir, her teenage son, dressed in a suit and tie, pauses to describe in detail his mother’s lasagna — how she mixes three cheeses with tomato sauce and a little meat. He talks about how busy she keeps him during the afterschool hours, with his packed schedule dutifully arranged “so I won’t be in gangs.”
There seems little chance of that. His tough mom survived a sexual assault and a point-blank shooting by the longest-running, most elusive serial killer ever to operate in Los Angeles, remade her life, and chose not to live in fear. ABC, CNN and other networks are trying to interview her, and she finally seems ready to talk.
Reach the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
- Hotel Owner Charged in Venice Homeless Murder
Sat., Sep. 5, 12:30pm
Sat., Sep. 5, 8:00pm
Sun., Sep. 6, 12:35pm
Sun., Sep. 6, 1:00pm
- L.A.'s Small Business Climate Gets Mediocre Grades
- Cop Commission Thinks Twice About Controversial Speech Crackdown