UPDATE: A documentary titled Tales of the Grim Sleeper takes another look at the case, uncovers new victims and shames the LAPD.
In August 2008, L.A. Weekly investigative reporter Christine Pelisek unveiled the existence of a dormant serial killer who'd emerged from a 13-year hiatus to kill more girls and women in South L.A. His existence had been kept secret by LAPD for years as detectives struggled to identify him, but the newspaper chose to alert the public to this predator.
The Weekly dubbed him the Grim Sleeper, and the story gripped L.A. Victims' families demanded action as the killer eluded all efforts to identify him. On Saturday, March 15, at 8 p.m., Lifetime airs a two-hour feature, The Grim Sleeper, dramatizing Pelisek's and the LAPD's sleuthing – and the capture of Lonnie Franklin Jr. Then, at 10 p.m., Lifetime airs a documentary, Behind the Headlines: The Grim Sleeper, featuring the real Pelisek, detective Cliff Shepard and other key figures from the case.
Pelisek is portrayed in both films as a relentless newshound whose conscience would not rest until South L.A. residents were made fully aware of the existence of the unidentified serial killer and he was found by police.
During the four years Pelisek reported the case for the Weekly, women began to contact her, asking if she would act as an intermediary by delivering a piece of cutlery or facial tissues – used by their husbands or boyfriends – to the cops for DNA testing.
These women feared they might be living with the Grim Sleeper. Pelisek indeed took their items to LAPD homicide detectives for testing, but nothing turned up.
“The whole thing was an unbelievable experience,” says Pelisek, whose Grim Sleeper coverage was also the subject of a 2009 Newsweek cover story, “Eleven and Counting.”
“Everybody pays attention to serial killers when the victims are white women,” she says, “and this story focuses on the injustices inflicted on the families of the poor, young black women who died at the hands of a madman.”
Pelisek goes on to say:
Often victims of crime from poor backgrounds are overlooked by the mainstream media and Hollywood so it's nice to see Lifetime bringing awareness to the heinous crimes allegedly committed by the Grim Sleeper.
I think it's great Lifetime decided to do a movie on a subject that is generally neglected by Hollywood, and I'm flattered they thought my work on the Grim Sleeper case was worth telling.
In the feature film, Pelisek is played by Dreama Walker. It also stars actress-singer Macy Gray (Training Day), Ernie Hudson (Ghostbusters), Michael O'Neill (Dallas Buyers Club) and Susan Ruttan (LA Law).
Director Stanley M. Brooks explains his take on the story:
I felt honored to get to tell the story of Christine's tenacious efforts to push law enforcement to catch this monster. I have produced many true crime films, but as the director I felt a unique and powerful obligation to honor the memories of the victims and their families. Every day I came to set I had them in mind and worked to be sure we got the story accurate and it played emotional.
And getting to work with Dreama, Macy, Michael, Susan and the rest of this amazing cast – what a blessing.
In one clip from Lifetime's The Grim Sleeper, Pelisek (Walker) tries to convince Macy Gray (survivor Enietra Margette) to provide information that could lead to the killer, and in a second clip LAPD detectives (Hudson and O'Neill) debate how to find the elusive orange Pinto some witnesses said the killer drove.
The dramatized version is not strictly accurate, this being Hollywood. So the film contains a few mildly absurd moments that, naturally, never happened.
For example, the real-life, strictly professional Pelisek and the real-life, flinty coroner who tipped her off to a list of 38 apparent homicide victims dumped around Southern California – information that led Pelisek into the case – did not have a flirty, sexy relationship.
In real-life, Lonnie Franklin Jr. is in jail awaiting trial for 10 murders, but the Grim Sleeper murder investigation is ongoing – because the body count is still rising like flood waters after the rain stops.
The original 10 murder victims have now grown to 16 – and police expect that figure to go higher as they delve into cold homicide cases and finish investigating hundreds of disturbing photos of women found stashed inside the home Franklin shared with his wife.