UPDATE: On May 15, 2007 Chester Turner was sentenced to death. Click here to read Christine Pelisek's story of the sentencing.
One Spring day in 1993, Jerri Johnson held a “repast dinner” for her 29-year-old murdered daughter, Andrea Tripplett. It was the end of a day marked by two burials: Andrea’s, and that of her 5-and-a-half-month-old fetus, poignantly laid to rest at her mother’s feet.
Close by — filling her home and backyard, bringing food and eating together — were family and friends, including a quiet and familiar neighborhood man, Chester Turner.
Turner joined other mourners “in the backyard, eating my food,” Johnson says. Widely known for his violent temper, he hung around the nearby liquor store on Figueroa and 76th streets and earned the nickname “Cisco” for a wine cooler he favored. Standing around, says Johnson — “that is what [Turner] was known for.”
He also used to walk the streets near his home with a buddy named Elliott, hang out with the local prostitutes on Figueroa, and get in brawls with neighborhood kids. “He was known in the neighborhood as someone who was off his rocker when he got mad,” says a close friend who has always known Turner — but refused to be identified.
(from left, Natalie Price, Desarae Jones, Andrea Tripplett – Photos courtesy LAPD)As Turner awaits sentencing on 11 murder convictions for slaying one fetus and 10 young and middle-aged women in downtown and South L.A. over an incredible 11 years, a tale has emerged of a silent wraith who lived where he killed — and killed with impunity.
Police believe Turner, an often unemployed father of four with a history of violent relationships, so seamlessly fit into the troubled streets of L.A. that he even killed while he worked “security” at the old Midnight Mission, where he lived for a time. So brazen was he that he showed up — and chowed down — at the funeral dinner held for his pregnant victim Andrea Tripplett.
Said by police to be the most prolific serial killer in Los Angeles city history, with 13 dead women and two fetuses linked to his DNA, Turner was charged with killing 10 of those women and one fetus, all found within 20 blocks of his various homes and flophouses. The murder sites create a horrific map of sorts — with Turner’s address always close to the mayhem.
He was such a successful chameleon that the cops spent years looking for entirely different suspects. Harriet Evans, a friend of victims Tripplett and Desarae Jones, tells L.A. Weekly that Turner “didn’t look suspicious because we saw him all the time. . . . He played us — he knew that area.” Police blamed big, brooding Chester’s murders on a composite dubbed the South Side Slayer, possibly with a Caribbean accent, possibly a pockmarked face. Those dozens of murders turned out to be the work of several men, including Turner.
TV and print media barely noticed his killings of mostly black women such as Tripplett with promiscuous lives, “strawberries” who traded casual sex for drugs — who nevertheless didn’t deserve to die. But there’s little argument that those 15 deaths would have been global news had the women been from Santa Monica or Silver Lake.
Dr. Jeff Victoroff, associate professor of clinical neurology and psychiatry at the University of Southern California, says, “Society tends to focus on dramatic explosions of violence against people with whom they identify,” so when drug-using minority women die, “it usually fails to stimulate much public outrage… There might even be in some people’s minds some kind of moral difference drawn.”
Turner seemed to mine this truism about the mean streets. Truc Do, one of two prosecutors during Turner’s five-week trial, says, “Their addiction made them an invisible class… On the fringes of society.”
In the end, it took an extremely unusual act by a troubled victim, who broke through her own indifference bred of street life and drugs, to report Turner’s brutal rape to police. Thanks to the guts of Maria Martinez, Turner is widely expected to get the death penalty.
“I never thought that he was that kind of person,” says the longtime friend who never suspected a thing. While Turner’s mother could be too tough on him as a teen, “locking the food up” and making him wait outside until she got home from work, “You have to deal with those things. I knew he had problems — but I never thought he would go out and kill people.”
How did Chester Turner, who the relatives of one victim say was dubbed by his classmates in school “Chester the Molester,” fall so utterly through the cracks? Looking back, it seems obvious.
The 1980s were a violent time, with a crack epidemic, a PCP epidemic — and the city still reeling from mass murders and serial killings that began in 1969 when Charles Manson and his followers committed the sensational Tate-LaBianca murders.
The “Skid Row Slasher,” Vaughn Greenwood, terrorized transients, cutting their throats as they slept. The “Freeway Killer,” William Bonin, an unemployed Downey truck driver, was convicted of murdering and raping 14 boys and men in Orange and Los Angeles counties in 1979 and 1980. Then came “Night Stalker” Richard Ramirez, convicted in 1989 of 13 horrific torture-murders.
Beyond those ghastly cases, Southside cops had their hands full when the bodies of victims started to pile up along the Figueroa Corridor, a 30-block-long area known for its prostitution, drugs and desperation.
“We were averaging 25 to 30 murders a year, with two detectives,” recalls Detective Victor Pietrantoni, who worked the Southeast Division. “When I left Southeast after three years I had just shy of 100 murder investigations.”
Yet even against all that background noise, in April 1985, authorities began to suspect that a serial killer was afoot, when the bodies of mostly black prostitutes were found dumped in parks, alleys, along unpaved roadsides and even in a schoolyard.
Public pressure at first was nearly nonexistent, but the black community demanded action. The Black Coalition Fighting Back Serial Murders was formed in 1986, its organizers citing concerns 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.”
(from left, Diane Johnson, Annette Ernest, Anita Fishman)It was nothing like 1965, when popular black crooner Sam Cooke was found killed in the same area. “[Sam] Cooke’s death got a lot of attention, and these murder victims got no attention,” says Detective Cliff Shepard, who helped crack the Turner case and was a patrol officer at the time.
But the police did pay attention. That January of 1986, the LAPD and Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department created the South Side Slayer Task Force — 49 detectives who logged more than 4,800 tips in just two years and solved dozens of felonies, including two murders.
They had one, clear fact in hand: a black man, or men, was killing people — despite the urban legend that serial killers are white. Victoroff, of USC, calls it “an equal-opportunity profession.” But in fact, police were dealing with one of the most effective sociopathic killers in L.A. history, operating at a perfect time: Turner worked his evil amid the largest crime wave in city history, when murders topped 1,000 a year.
“They were murdered in his own backyard,” says Do. “The women were easy prey.”
Police considered many suspects, but never the well-known local, Chester DeWayne Turner. Says Shepard, “With Chester, no one came forward.” Police investigated a Southern California Rapid Transit District supervisor and a teenage boy who claimed to be on a Satanic mission. Their biggest arrest was 31-year-old Louis Craine, an unemployed construction worker from Watts with an IQ of 69 who committed some of the murders ascribed to a then-imagined South Side Slayer.
Then, following a KABC-TV report that at least nine women had been found shot to death between 1985 and 1989, Rickey Ross, an L.A. County Sheriff’s narcotics officer assigned to LAX, was arrested — but ballistic tests linking Ross to the murders were proven wrong.
Turner blended in, sharing with his mom a modest one-story bungalow in the 600 block of West Century Boulevard. His mother owned her own cleaning business, and he attended Harte Junior High, Gompers Middle School and Locke High School.
There was nothing in Turner’s life to tip off authorities, and he later offered surprisingly garden-variety complaints to detectives: His father was too strict, his stepmother used to hit him, and he wasn’t allowed to fight back against his half siblings.
At 17, he dropped out of high school and his life became a series of brushes with the law. In one stabbing incident, he knifed a childhood friend after the teen pulled a weapon on him. He claims that he was jumped by three thugs who sliced his right cheek, leaving a dramatic facial scar. According to police, he began a rocky relationship with a childhood friend named Felicia Collier who lived across the street. With Collier, Turner became a father.
None of it fit the stereotypical profile of a serial rapist-killer. “His arrests were not what we expected,” says Shepard. “I was expecting someone with an extensive wrap sheet, especially for sexual assaults.”
To this day, nobody — not the families of victims, not the prosecutors or cops — understands why he began his reign of terror. His first murder was of Diane Johnson when Turner was a 20-year-old Domino’s Pizza delivery man. Johnson, 21, was found partially nude alongside the 110 freeway in 1987. Then, police believe he strangled Elandra Bunn near 98th and Figueroa streets. Then Annette Ernest, 26, a troubled young mother, was found face down, partially nude, three blocks from where Johnson was discovered. All three women had been sexually assaulted.
Ernest’s mother, Mildred White, a retired nurse and seamstress, sadly recalls of her daughter, “When I found out this happened to her, I went and got her children — and they have been here ever since.” White saw her daughter shortly before her murder: “She had called me, and I said I was cooking turkey wings, gravy and dressing. I brought her a big pan.”
(from left, Regina Washington, Debra Williams, Mildred Beasley)In one tantalizing clue missed until much later, the killings halted for a time, after a violent fight between Turner and his girlfriend, Collier, during which a relative of Collier’s shot Turner in the abdomen.
But the South Side Slayer Task Force was disbanded in 1988, its detectives frustrated by a lack of clues. Then, in early 1989, Anita Fishman, 31, disappeared — and two weeks later a group of elementary-school boys discovered her badly decomposed body behind a mattress in an alley.
Suzanne Sulzbach, her sister, was busy raising five children but had tried to help her sister, who was addicted to crack cocaine. She says with regret, “We just couldn’t help her. She had no self-esteem or self-worth.”
Nine months later, Regina Washington, six and a half months pregnant, was found hanging by an electrical cord inside a garage. Says co-prosecutor Bobby Grace: “Time, effort and cruelty was put in to kill Washington.”
Chester the Molester was growing more vicious, but still no pattern emerged to lead police to him. He was in fact busily training to be a manager at Domino’s. But in late 1991, the very first inkling of Turner’s sexual deviance surfaced. He was arrested for lewd conduct, masturbating in front of a crossing guard. Released in fall 1992, within hours he was again arrested for indecent exposure — then was released from custody the same night.
Three weeks later, the body of Tammie Christmas was found next to a portable classroom at Barrett Elementary School on West 98th Street — a harrowing incident for the school. Then, Debra Williams’ body was found on a stairwell at the school on November 16. One month later, on December 16, 1992, the body of Mary Edwards was discovered near a rundown hotel adjacent to the school. All these sites were within walking distance of Turner’s house.
Police turned out to be dead wrong about the sort of killer who would leave three bodies at or near a grade school. David Allen Jones was convicted of those three murders, but was years later exonerated — after the DNA in two cases was matched to Chester Turner. (Turner was not, however, tried for those two murders.)
Then, on April 2, 1993, Andrea Tripplett vanished, last seen getting into a small brown car with a black male. Just over a month later, Desarae Jones was found in a backyard, in May 1993.
To the Los Angeles media, deaths like that of Desarae Jones did not stand out. But to Jones’ brother Frank Jones, she was worth remembering: a sister who, he told the Weekly, was “smart, outgoing and funny,” working at a rest home for the elderly before she succumbed to her “drug problem.”
Around 1994, police say, new girlfriend Maria Condon moved with Turner to Salt Lake City, where his mother had moved. There, he worked at a homeless shelter and a fast food restaurant, but soon found yet another girlfriend, Annie Bell, and returned to L.A. The body count increased when, in February 1995, Natalie Price, 31, was found dead outside a crack house.
Police say his last known murder victim in his original South Los Angeles environs — before he moved downtown and started killing women there — was 45-year-old Mildred Beasley, who was married and had a teenage son. She had moved to L.A. only eight weeks earlier, from Texas, when her partially nude body was found in the 9600 block of South Broadway in the fall of 1996.
In early 1998, he was living at a downtown hotel when he lured a mentally ill transient named Paula Vance to a walkway next to an office building. Horribly, a security camera caught the images of Vance’s brutal rape and murder, but did not show the face of her killer.
Then, just over two months later, Brenda Bries was found dead in a portable bathroom — a ligature tight around her neck. Bries was just 50 yards away from the Regal Hotel, the very place where Chester Turner was staying.
Finally, on St. Patrick’s Day of 2002, authorities say, Chester the Molester attacked and raped a woman who, unlike the others, found a way to fight back — even though the police at first were not exactly sympathetic to this unlikely heroine’s tale of rape.
Although Turner was registered in 2000 as a sex offender for lewd conduct, the Midnight Mission allowed Turner to work as a “security guard” as part of a drug-rehabilitation program for cocaine abuse.
Maria Martinez, an admitted drug dealer and addict, knew Turner from the mission, where she took her showers and sold single cigarettes to feed her habit. Turner later told police he called her the “cigarette lady.”
She glared defiantly at Turner during his sordid trial, recounting the night she was walking to an all-night hamburger joint on Los Angeles Street when Turner called her over for a light. She testified that he grabbed her by the throat and pulled her behind a dumpster, where he raped her repeatedly.
She also testified that Turner threatened, “If I was to tell the police and if he got picked up” he would kill her. As she stumbled away from the rape scene, she told the jury, “I am not feeling. I am just walking.”
In shock, she walked to the LAPD’s nearby Central Division station, thinking, “I could take refuge until he leaves,” she told the jury. But when she tried to report the rape, the front desk cops saw little more than a street person with a wild story. They told her to “sit and wait.” Feeling slighted, she went back to her encampment on Boyd Street.
An administrator at the mission, Carrie Gatlin, urged Martinez to fight back by insisting on talking to police. She encouraged Martinez to file a police report, testifying that Martinez “wanted someone to believe her… She wanted to make it clear with me that she wasn’t partying with him.”
At California Hospital Medical Center, Martinez was given a sexual-assault exam — producing the genetic evidence that positively linked Chester Turner with a rape. Turner was arrested later that day, hiding fully clothed in a shower at the mission.
“I am still puzzled as to why he left her alive,” says Detective Shepard. But Martinez became the turning point the LAPD wanted and needed. At long last, in September 2003, Turner’s DNA was matched with sperm found in Paula Vance and Mildred Beasley.
Praying that this was finally their big break, the detectives began testing a broad swath of about 100 unsolved murders in addition to 35 murders around the Figueroa Corridor.
According to prosecutor Grace, after years of police stumbling, lumping together unrelated murders and dubbing it all the work of the South Side Slayer, the number of definitively linked cases was “like water from a faucet,” even exposing the tragic casualty of David Allen Jones, a mentally retarded janitor wrongly convicted of the three 1992 school-related murders. (Jones was later awarded $720,000 by the city after spending 11 years behind bars.)
(from left, Mary Edwards, Brenda Bries, Paula Vance, Elandra Bunn)In some ways, Chester Turner is still, despite his ghoulish new place in city history, an invisible ghost. One recent day during his trial in the Criminal Courts Building downtown, no crowds pressed forward to catch a glimpse of him. The area around the courthouse was crowded — but the media and onlookers were there to see music legend Phil Spector, on trial in the murder of a beautiful blond actress — the kind of story the media can get behind.
USC’s Victoroff tells the Weekly that despite the belief of police that Turner could be the most prolific killer in city history, his trial is relegated to the inside local pages of the Los Angeles Times and rates only passing mention in other media outlets because the victims “aren’t beautiful young starlets.”
Awaiting his guilty verdict on Monday, Jerri Johnson, the mother of victim Andrea Tripplett, snapped at a Times reporter for describing most of the slain women as “prostitutes,” saying, “My daughter wasn’t a prostitute!” She later wept openly, tears streaming down her face.
The families of the dead wonder what kind of horrible fame Chester Turner would have earned in Los Angeles had he murdered downtown secretaries or well-to-do tourists. But even worse are the questions that haunt those who were close to Turner — and never suspected anything.
Today, an elderly woman in South Los Angeles who knew Turner all his life says he could at times be like Jekyll and Hyde, but “I never would have thought nothing like that.”