By Dennis Romero, J. Patrick Coolican and Gene Maddaus
[Updated at 6:18 p.m. with District Attorney Steve Cooley helping to explain, after the jump, how the suspect was fingered]: Authorities have arrested a former Los Angeles police employee in connection with the “Grim Sleeper” series of murders in South Los Angeles — as many as eleven homicides and one attempt since 1985 that detectives believe were committed by one man.
Lonnie David Franklin Jr., 57, was being held without bail Wednesday after he was arrested and named as the suspect who allegedly targeted prostitutes, party girls and at least one man in one of the most-deadly murder sprees the West Coast has ever seen. A neighbor interviewed by the Weekly said Franklin liked to to talk about prostitutes:
Ray Santiago, 31, a neighbor who lives on 82nd Street, told the Weekly that although Franklin was “quiet” and “personable,” he “had a habit of talking about prostitutes.”
“They're good meat to work with and they never ask questions,” Santiago recalled Franklin saying.
He said that during conversations, if a “any” woman walked by, like clockwork, Franklin would pause to take a long look. Santiago said he knew the suspect for three years.
On Wednesday afternoon news media gathered near the suspect's home on 81st Street. Neighbors — little old ladies, retired union members, East Coast Crip gang members with tattoos on their necks — amassed at 81st and South Harvard Boulevard and gossiped about Franklin as news choppers buzzed overhead.
Neighbors told the Weekly Franklin once worked at the garage of the Los Angeles Police Department's 77th Division. They said the man, described on a sheriff's booking website page as 5 feet, 7 inches tall and weighing 170 pounds, fixed cars for area residents. “Everyone knew that if you needed your car worked on you would call Lonnie,” Santiago said.
A young woman told the Weekly Franklin recently worked on the brakes on her car and that he took her along as he drove to an auto parts store.
“Some things that were said were a little perverted,” 19-year-old neighbor Chantal Mason told the Weekly. “Comments he made were a little over-the-top when it came to women. I just thought he was an older guy that was a little on the perverted side.”
But, she said, “I never was a afraid of him.”
She said he drove a few different cars, and that they were possibly vehicles that belonged to his customers. Santiago said a car similar to the one featured in a story about the Grim Sleeper on America's Most Wanted — an orange Ford Pinto — was known to be used by Franklin.
Other neighbors told the Weekly he was known to have rented storage space at a facility behind a Big Lots store in Torrance, and that he sometimes brought another female neighbor along when he went there.
A woman told the Weekly she owned an apartment building across the street from Franklin's residence. She said she rented a unit to his son, his son's wife and their three children. The woman, who did not want her name used, described the suspect in fond terms and said “Lonnie helped me string my Christmas lights” one year.
Neighbor Santiago said Franklin often sent flowers to his wife, sometimes after dark.
A woman who claimed to be Franklin's daughter-in-law lingered near crowds at 81st and South Western Avenue but refused to speak to reporters, saying only that she did not want her family name dragged through the mud.
The District Attorney announced a felony complaint charging 10 counts of murder and one count of attempted murder against Franklin.
Detectives followed Franklin to a pizza parlor and recovered DNA evidence that linked the suspect to the murders, D.A. Steve Cooley told the Weekly Wednesday evening. Whether than evidence came from a slice of pizza, a fork or a cup wasn't clear to him, Cooley said.
The case of a murdered man previously connected to the Grim Sleeper saga by detectives did not result in a charge, possibly because there might not have been the same kind of DNA evidence that connected the suspect to other alleged crimes. Cooley said, in fact, that certain testing might not have been completed. But, he said, counts could be added as new evidence comes in.
“We could keep adding counts ad infinitum is the evidence is secured,” Cooley said.
An LAPD spokesman said the suspect's photo would be released Thursday at an 11 a.m. news conference about the case. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, police Chief Charlie Beck and state Attorney General Jerry Brown were scheduled to attend.
Franklin was scheduled to be arraigned in Superior Court downtown at 1:30 p.m.
The Weekly on Wednesday broke the news of how authorities used “familial” DNA from the suspect's son to catch the man they believe is the Grim Sleeper. Of using familial DNA, Cooley said “It's the first” case “in the U.S.” to ride on such technology.
Later in the afternoon Brown, who's running for governor, took credit for the 2008 change in state policy that allows detectives to use familial DNA to help track suspected criminals.
“This arrest provides proof positive that familial DNA searches must be a part of law enforcement's crime-fighting arsenal,” Brown stated. “Although the adoption of this new state policy was unprecedented and controversial, in certain cases, it is the only way to bring a dangerous killer to justice.”
Weekly reporter Christine Pelisek worked on the story of the Sleeper for four years — often getting more information than detectives in the case — but was on vacation in Canada when the story broke Wednesday.
The killer, thought to have operated only in the 1980s, struck again in 2002, 2003 and 2007. He is the longest-operating serial killer west of the Mississippi and took a 13-year break before killing again. Pelisek documented his return, and the police department's and City Hall's relative ambiguity over the case, in a 2008 story titled “Grim Sleeper Returns: He's Murdering Angelenos, as Cops Hunt his DNA.”
His victims were almost entirely black women from working class neighborhoods south of the 10 freeway; nothing compared to the attention and resources dedicated to other high-profile killers across America was dedicated to the case. But the Los Angeles Police Department did create a task force in 2007.
In December 2009 police released several age-enhanced sketches of the Grim Sleeper to the public.
Neighbors told the Weekly Wednesday afternoon that they had seen sketches and renderings of the man believed to be the Grim Sleeper and that those images never made them recall Franklin. But some said that after learning Franklin was a suspect the drawings did bear some resemblance to the former city worker.
For a timeline of the Grim Sleeper's victims and details of when and where each body was found, read “Grim Sleeper's Victims: Eleven lives stolen and one lucky survivor.”
In March 2009 Pelisek wrote the story of Enietra Margette Washington, the Grim Sleeper's sole survivor, who was shot and left for dead by the killer in 1988.
A bullet fired by the Grim Sleeper and containing ballistics evidence was dug from her chest, and Washington was the only living victim to have seen him up close.
She sat inside his car before the killer shot her at point-blank range, shoving her out the door in South Los Angeles and leaving her for dead.
In April 2009 Pelisek interviewed criminal profiler and CNN/Fox News correspondent Pat Brown who believes “that the Grim Sleeper attacks women within one mile from his home, and works to blend into the neighborhood because he doesn't 'want anyone staring at him.'”
This map shows the Los Angeles neighborhood where Washington met the Grim Sleeper.
Associated Press released this video in December 2009 with the new composite sketches and photographs of the Grim Sleeper's victims.
On May 4 2010 Los Angeles Councilman Bernard Parks unveiled six billboards in the South Los Angeles area displaying the composite sketches and a $500,000 reward for information leading to the killer's arrest and conviction.
Pelisek and Weekly news editor Jill Stewart came up with the nickname Grim Sleeper to describe his apparent dormancy in the 1990s.
On Tuesday night LA Weekly discovered that dozens of Los Angeles Police Department employees, including finger-print experts, DNA experts and cold-case officers planned to head out Wednesday morning to serve a search warrant on a “high profile” and “very embarrassing” case, a source told us. The warrant was confirmed Wednesday morning as being related to the “Grim Sleeper” case.
Capt. Kevin McClure of the LAPD's Robbery-Homicide Division said police arrested Franklin at his home in the 1700 block of West 81st Street at 9:20 a.m. Wednesday. (The Weekly later learned the suspect's exact address: 1728 W. 81st St.). Neighbors told the Weekly that detectives knocked on their doors early Wednesday to ask them about the suspect.
-With reporting from Christine Pelisek and Steve La.