The Death Team
sing computers and comparing notes, L.A. County coroner’s investigators last year began sorting through 800 autopsy and investigative reports involving the deaths of women since 2002. They made a separate list of those who had been dumped in alleys or on the sides of roads or in fields. Some of the women had been bound and gagged. Others had been strangled or stabbed. Some were smothered or hit with a blunt instrument. Others had been covered in plastic bags. Some of the women had prostitution in their backgrounds. Others were known narcotics users. Or both.
They came up with a list of 38 deaths that could possibly be the work of a serial killer or killers. The FBI, which was brought in last July, agreed to look at the first 18 cases involving African-Americans.
“Nobody had ever looked at them all because of the sheer number we get,” said Captain Ed Winter, who supervises the coroner’s serial homicide team. “When you start looking at them, there are similarities. There is no one else tracking this. The goal of this unit is to track possible serial-related homicides and supply law enforcement with data to help solve the murders.”
Only two of those cases — the 2002 killing of Princess Berthomieux, a 14-year-old prostitute, and Valerie McCorvey, 35, who was killed in 2003 — are among the 10 cases in which Fresno inmate Roger Hausmann has been named a suspect.
The serial homicide team, which is made up of four investigators, two pathologists and one criminalist, was formed as part of the Special Operations Response Team (SORT). The investigators have received special training by the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit and studied serial killers, their traits and profiles. The coroner’s office became the first in the country to be linked to the FBI’s Violent Criminal Apprehension Program (VICAP), a computer database that seeks to identify similarities in violent crimes that have been committed by the same violent offenders.
Once the list was compiled, coroner’s investigators convened a meeting of area police agencies last July. Investigators asked homicide detectives to research if there were any similarities between cases on the list and those the detectives were working on. Some detectives saw no links with their cases, while others are keeping their options open. An investigator from the special unit now tags along on every case involving a body dumped in L.A. County.
One of the tools that is both helping and hindering investigators is Proposition 69, approved by California voters in 2004. It allows authorities to collect DNA samples from anyone convicted of a felony and from all adults arrested on suspicion of murder and some sex crimes. In 2009, the law will be expanded to include any person arrested on suspicion of any felony and some misdemeanors, regardless of whether they are convicted. LAPD’s cold-case unit, which started in 2001, is overburdened with 6,000 unsolved homicide cases that have fingerprint, DNA or ballistics evidence that has not been fully processed through the FBI’s national database. As for the 38 women on the coroner’s list, it’s unclear how many DNA tests have been conducted. The fact is it could take months, or even years, to process.
ome of the deaths involved prostitutes and drug users who were known to hang out along the Figueroa corridor, a 30-block span of one of South L.A.’s most dangerous territories. It is known for its prostitution, drugs and desperation. The action starts at Vernon Avenue and ends at 120th Street. It is an area full of prostitution lore.