In August 2008, then–L.A. Weekly staff writer Christine Pelisek broke the story that California's most elusive murderer — the longest-operating serial killer west of the Mississippi — was on the loose again. The killer, dubbed the Grim Sleeper by the Weekly because he took a 13-year break before bizarrely resuming his slayings, is believed to have begun his awful crime spree on a warm August night in 1985, when the body of cocktail waitress Debra Jackson was found in an alley near West Gage Avenue.
In total, DNA testing and ballistics matching would link the Grim Sleeper to the deaths of 10 women and one man; the most recent, Janecia Peters, was found dead on the first day of 2007. The women ranged in age from 14 to 35, and most of them were discovered along a strip of Western Avenue in South L.A.
Pelisek went on to write a series of in-depth articles about the Grim Sleeper for the Weekly before LAPD finally tracked him down in 2010. Lonnie Franklin Jr. was arrested thanks to the historic use of “familial DNA” sleuthing, in which Gov. Jerry Brown agreed to tap the DNA profiles of every man in the California prison system to compare saliva and other DNA left on Grim Sleeper victims. That move led authorities straight to Franklin's incarcerated son, and then to him.
Now a senior writer at People, Pelisek covered Franklin's 2016 death-penalty trial. Below is an excerpt from her book, The Grim Sleeper: The Lost Women of South Central, published June 13 by Counterpoint.
There were no nods of encouragement or waves of support from Lonnie David Franklin Jr.'s family members as he was escorted to his seat at the defendant's table in the windowless courtroom on the ninth floor of the Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center. None of them were there for the long-delayed start of his trial. Sylvia, his wife of more than 30 years, was a no-show. His two children, Crystal, 37, and Christopher, 34, whose DNA profile led to his father's arrest, didn't make an appearance either.
Instead, on this day, the 16th of February, 2016, the four rows of long wooden benches in the spectator's gallery were thick with a mix of media, police, deputy district attorneys, and family members of the women Franklin was accused of murdering.
Franklin looked different from the day in 2010 when the world first saw his mug shot. Five and a half years behind bars had changed him. Once a burly man who appeared strong enough to toss a body into a dumpster, this now-bespectacled 63-year-old sat slouched next to his defense team. He appeared to have shriveled since his arrest. His long-sleeved, light blue shirt and dark blue slacks hung loosely on his now-thin frame.
Beyond his diminished look, Franklin was clean-shaven, his salt-and-pepper hair clipped short. He resembled a college professor or a bookish grandfather, not a stereotypical serial killer.
The man now known as the Grim Sleeper appeared unfazed and emotionless, never once turning his dark eyes toward the spectator gallery behind him. He just stared straight ahead at the courtroom wall, seemingly oblivious to the family members' hostile glares burrowing into the back of his head, and the unblinking stares of the mass media recording his every moment.
Almost everyone in the courtroom was convinced of his guilt, but none could fathom why. Was he simply a man who hated women and killed them when they made him angry? Or were his motives more complicated?
Lonnie Franklin, in many ways, was a chameleon.
He was born in Los Angeles on Aug. 30, 1952. His mother, Ruby, was a strong-willed former beauty-school student from Texas, and his father, Lonnie Sr., a laid-back longshoreman. The timeline is somewhat vague, but not too long before Lonnie Jr. was born, possibly while Ruby was still pregnant with him, his parents got into a head-on collision and his mother was thrown out of the car. Doctors had to reattach her left ankle.
She survived and Lonnie Jr. grew up in South Central on East 78th Street, then Grand Avenue and then 85th Street with her and his father and his sister, Patricia, who was five years younger than he. Otis, Ruby's older son from another relationship, grew up in Texas with relatives but visited the Franklin home during the summer.
Franklin was somewhat of a sickly child. He had perpetual colds and started suffering from migraines that were so bad that he would throw up and have to lie down in a darkened room. These didn't subside until he was in his early 40s. As an adult, he was also afflicted with bleeding ulcers.
Franklin was a poor student who had problems with reading and writing. When he was in the fifth grade, Ruby hired a college student to tutor him, but the extra studying didn't help his grades. He struggled throughout high school and changed schools before he transferred to Dominguez High School in Compton, where he enrolled in the work-study program — he went to school in the morning and then to a job in the afternoon.
Franklin may not have been book smart but he excelled at fixing cars. Being an accomplished gearhead became a lifeline for the social teen to impress girls and show the local gangsters he was somebody they could go to. Franklin's dad taught him to drive when he was 7. When he was 14, his dad gave him his first car and allowed Franklin to drive it around the neighborhood.
As a youngster, Franklin was a fast talker and a flirt, always ready with a compliment.
His first childhood crush was on a neighborhood girl when he was 7 or 8. In the eighth grade, he fell for a girl named Kate and lost his virginity to her when he was 14. They were a couple for about a year. In ninth grade, he dated a classmate named Shannon, until she moved to another state at the end of the school year. Franklin told some people he got Shannon pregnant and she had a son by him. It’s unclear if Franklin had anything to do with the child or if the story is even true.
Franklin's next major romance was with a girl named Rachael, and they dated through grades 11 and 12.
At this youthful point in his life, he appeared to others to be a mild-mannered, respectful young man with a gift of gab.
But then he started to change.
In 1969, just 16, Franklin was arrested twice for grand theft auto. The following year, he was arrested for burglary.
Then he was expelled from Dominguez High School just two weeks before graduating for getting into a fight with a classmate. He worked as a box boy until his father suggested he join the military.
On July 26, 1971, one month shy of turning 19, Franklin joined the U.S. Army. He did his basic training at Fort Ord, in Monterey Bay. In January of 1972 he was deployed overseas and stationed with the 71st Air Defense Artillery at the Kelley Barracks in Stuttgart, Germany.
That was where Franklin's true sexual deviance began to emerge.
Franklin maintained a public persona as a doting father and, later, grandfather, and as a kind and thoughtful neighbor who helped needy and elderly people with their car problems.
“He would fix neighbors' cars for free,” Franklin's friend and neighbor Paul Williams Jr. told me. “A lot of the people didn't have money. Sometimes he would buy the parts for them. He would do that for a lot of people. He could get parts for cheap and people trusted him.”
Franklin was said to always have a smile on his face. He also loved to talk about sports and his favorite crime shows.
To Williams, Franklin was a chatterbox who loved to gossip, so much so that he nicknamed him Loni Anderson, after the actress who starred in the '70s and '80s sitcom WKRP in Cincinnati and who later married and divorced Burt Reynolds.
“He talked a lot,” said Williams. “He talked all the time. A lot of the neighbors stay to themselves but Lonnie was the complete opposite. It was a standing joke. You could be going 80 miles an hour down the street and he would flag you down. He would walk out on the street and stop you. He would be talking about your business and other people's business. You would have to find a reason to get away from him. We would laugh, and say, 'Old Lonnie caught me.' You had to stand there and listen to him do all that talking. You had to find a way to get away from him.”
Also, Franklin didn't use drugs or smoke marijuana. He was a self-professed teetotaler, though in reality he was an occasional social drinker. He had his first drink, a can of stout malt liquor, when he was about 8 years old. He got drunk and he never touched malt liquor again, but he admitted to having the occasional beer while in the Army.
On the surface, Franklin and his wife appeared to have a good marriage. But in reality, he had a bevy of girlfriends and prostitutes Sylvia either didn't know about or chose to ignore.
Franklin had at least four girlfriends during his marriage. The first was a woman named Alexis, whom he started dating in 1982. They saw each other about every three or four weeks and the relationship continued for a couple of years. After Alexis, there was a registered nurse he met at a supermarket. Next was a woman named Beverly, whom he began seeing in the mid-'80s.
Sonia was his last known girlfriend. She was with Franklin at John's Incredible Pizza Company when undercover detectives surreptitiously collected his DNA.
To supplement his girlfriends, Franklin spent time with prostitutes, and those dalliances gradually became part of the regular dialogue among certain friends in his circle.
Franklin bragged regularly about his encounters with working girls to Ray Davis, a fellow car aficionado Franklin met drag racing in the late 1970s. Franklin would emerge from his garage holding different stacks of photos he'd taken of various women, most of them nude. Davis, who would later testify against him at the trial, noted that in some of the photos Franklin had cut the heads out of the frame.
“They are my girls,” Franklin would boast to Davis.
Sex seemed ever-present in Franklin's thoughts. When he wasn't boasting about his pictures or a recent sexual conquest, he was showing his confidants a bag full of bras and panties he bought for his “girls.” He hid them from Sylvia in his garage and in a camper on his property.
Franklin named his “girls” according to the size or shape of their breasts and other body parts. He referred to one girl as “Droopy Titties.” Another was “Big Leg.” Another, “Big Butt.” Another, “Skinny Leg.” If they didn't merit a nickname, he referred to them as “my friend” or “my girl.”
Franklin confided to Davis that he would sneak out at night when Sylvia was asleep and search for prostitutes. On the nights that she was awake, police said, he told her he was going out for doughnuts.
Franklin, on occasion, would pull up in his car at Davis' gate with one of his trophies in the car with him. “Where did you get this girl from?” Davis asked during one late-night visit. The girl was sitting in the passenger seat quietly. “Oh, I got her last night,” Franklin told him.
Those who knew this side of Franklin not only knew him as an unfaithful husband and a player but also as a man who could convince women to have sex with him and pose for his homemade porn collection. He also was known for showing off a .25 caliber pistol he carried in his front pocket.
While they were aware he could get a good price on a TV or air conditioner, none of them were privy to the real evil that lurked within — that drove him to kill unsuspecting women and toss them away like trash.
Editors's note: Several details in this excerpt were changed after publication, to reflect changes the publisher later made to the final manuscript.
Author Christine Pelisek will be signing copies of her book, The Grim Sleeper: The Lost Women of South Central, on June 22 at the Last Bookstore.
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