Friday, August 3, 2012

Lonnie David Franklin Jr: The Grim Sleeper

A hidden killer

Sketch of suspect
Sketch of suspect
The victims were found covered by dirty mattresses or carpets in dirtier alleys, or dumped in trash bags, discarded like garbage. Except for one man, they were all women, and they were all black. Some had drug problems, many had been prostitutes. Most had been shot at close range with a small caliber handgun, but a few were strangled to death. Many had been raped before they were killed.
Back then, the streets of South Los Angeles, better known to the greater universe as South Central, were littered with the dead and the forgotten. The people were jaded; used to being ignored by the police, and were living with an even worse enemy: the crack epidemic.
The murders blended in—there were nearly 800 in 1985 in the city, according a Nightline report. In South L.A., over a four-year period, 52 prostitutes were killed—garnering them the nickname, the "strawberry murders," after a street term for women who traded sex for drugs. According to The Vancouver Sun, a number people were convicted for some of the killings—but 34 of the 52 murders remained unsolved. The police told ABC News at the time, they believed the murders were the work of four or five different men. One of the killers, Michael Hughes, was caught. Another, Chester Turner was sentenced to death. Another, Louis Crane was convicted of strangling four prostitutes and later died in prison.
Sketch of suspect with age progression
Sketch of suspect with age progression
But, it wasn't until relatively recently that the Los Angeles Police Department realized that there was still a serial killer in their midst.
Nicknamed "the Grim Sleeper" by Christine Pelisek, the reporter for LA Weekly who broke the case, the unknown man was still at large on the streets of South L.A., looking for his next victim.
Until July 2010.
Lonnie David Franklin Jr. in 1988
Lonnie David Franklin Jr. in 1988
A suspect was identified by a "familial" DNA search of one million samples and ordered by Attorney General Edmund "Jerry" Brown—the DNA of the son of the suspect served as the initial clue for the LAPD. On Wednesday, July 7, they were issued a search warrant, by Thursday morning, the green house at 1728 West 81st Street in Los Angeles, had been turned into a crime scene and media circus. One Lonnie David Franklin Jr. was arrested and charged with ten counts of murder and one count of attempted murder.
But for years—even just last week—it seemed the case might never be solved.

The victims

The murders linked to the killer first began in 1985, at the height of the crack epidemic in Los Angeles. The first known victim was Deborah Jackson. She was 29 when she was found with three bullet wounds to the chest. She was a cocktail waitress, who, according to America's Most Wanted, had left her friend's apartment and was walking to the bus stop when she disappeared.
Victims from left to right: Debra Jackson, Henrietta Wright and Thomas Steele
Victims from left to right: Debra Jackson, Henrietta Wright and Thomas Steele
Just over a year later, another victim, Henrietta Wright was found a few miles away from Jackson's body. Like the other women, she had been sexually assaulted and shot.
Bernita Sparks
Bernita Sparks
Hot on the heels of Wright's death, on August 14, 1986, another body was found. This one proved to be the anomaly—Thomas Steele, 36, who, LA Weekly reported, had once worked as a pimp, and who was in town from San Diego visiting family, was found in the middle of an intersection.
Many of the victims had been just going out to run an errand, or had been on their way to a party or a quick stop somewhere. Bernita Sparks, 23, had run out to grab some cigarettes on April 15, 1987, and never came home. She was found in the dumpster on Western Avenue the next day: Sparks' cigarette run turned into a beating, strangulation and death by shooting.
America's Most Wanted reported that Alicia "Monique" Alexander, 18, had been making a run to the store for her dad; she never returned and was found a few days later. Like others, she had been sexually assaulted and shot.
Mary Lowe, 26, had gone out on Halloween night in 1987 to the Love Trap Bar. Walking to or from her destination, at some point, the killer picked her up. She was found the next day in an alleyway on Western Avenue. According to America's Most Wanted, a neighbor had spotted her getting into a reddish-orange Pinto, thus giving police one of their first clues. The neighbor also stated that the driver was male, young and black.
Victims from left: Alicia Alexander, Mary Lowe and Lachrica Jefferson
Victims from left: Alicia Alexander, Mary Lowe and Lachrica Jefferson
One victim seemed to signal that the killer was trying to communicate something to or by his victims: Lachrica Jefferson's body was left in an alley, her faced covered with a napkin. The word "AIDS" was scrawled ominously on the napkin.

The sole survivor

Enietra Margette
Enietra Margette
The cops had a break in the case on November 20, 1988, when Enietra Margette (a pseudonym given to the media) had an encounter with the killer. Like the others, she was walking to the store, on her way to a party, when she came across a well-dressed man driving an orange Pinto with white racing stripes which made it look much like a toy car. She told America's Most Wanted and LA Weekly that he had asked her if she wanted a ride; she initially rebuffed him in a playful back and forth, before he persuaded her to enter the car. Once inside, LA Weekly reported, Margette was impressed. The car was well taken care, the man was clean cut, if not exactly her type, and she invited him along to the party she was going to. He stopped at the house he claimed to be his uncle's, and got out a few minutes. Returning, though, his mood had changed: "He asked me, 'Why did you dog me out?'" When she protested, he pulled a gun and fired.
He had shot her, and, though she noticed the blood, she didn't panic—yet. She blacked out and when she woke up, a Polaroid camera was flashing in her face and the man was on top of her, raping her. She pleaded with him to take her to the hospital; he refused, saying that he couldn't get caught, and pushed her out of the car while it was still in motion.
According the LA Weekly interview, Margette made her way back to the friend's house and waited for them to come back from the party; she was taken to the emergency room, and managed to survive. In 2008, she began to give interviews to the press, first under the cover of the dark, then showing her face, using a fake name.
Margette told Newsweek that her assailant had called her by the name of a very well known neighborhood prostitute, for whom she'd been mistaken just a week before.
"I turned around and said, 'What did you say?' and as soon as I turned to face him, that's when he shot me ... I said, 'Why did you shoot me?' He said, 'You dogged [insulted] me.' I told him, 'You don't know me. You've got the wrong person.' "
This, in tandem with the "AIDS" message on the napkin over Jefferson's face seemed to indicate a person who was spiteful of prostitutes or prostitution in general. The bullet extracted from her wound was matched to those of prior victims of the "strawberry killings."
Perhaps spooked by the close encounter, this was the last known attempt by the killer for many years: Eight victims over three years. And then, just like that, the assailant disappeared. People were still being murdered and dumped in alleys in South Central, of course. But, police would come to determine, none of the subsequent murders could be connected to the initial eight murders for 14 years.

Two suspects

Roger Hausmann
Roger Hausmann
Throughout the investigation, only two suspects had reared their heads: one was Roger Hausmann, who the LA Weekly did an extensive profile on. Hausmann was an unlikely suspect—for one thing he didn't match the profile of a middle-aged black man. According to the LA Weekly, Hausmann had been arrested for having sex with a minor but then married the minor in question. Unquestionably unsavory, he had been picked up throughout the years for assault, pimping, lewd acts against a child, carrying loaded and concealed weapons, among other petty crimes, according to an LA Weekly profile. It didn't help that he had allegedly mouthed off to Fresnopolice about killing prostitutes, according to an LA Weekly story. But when his DNA was tested, he was off the hook. He wasn't the killer.
Los AngelesSheriff's Deputy Rickey Ross, though, was the first suspect pursued seriously by police.
In 1989, Ross was arrested in connection to the string of crimes now believed to be that of the 'Grim Sleeper.' He was arrested and found with a 9mm in February 1989, but after several months and an independent investigation discovered that the LAPD crime lab's ballistics tests were inaccurate, the charges were dropped.
At first glance, Ross seemed like a good fit, especially considering the eyewitness details of Enietra Margiette. He was black and well dressed, but he didn't look a whit like the picture she had conjured with the sketch artist. And though he allegedly had personal problems and was picked up by police with a prostitute, he wasn't guilty. He was fired, and later sued the department for $400 million. The case was settled out of court.

A break in the case

In 2001, Los Angeles Police Chief Bernard C. Parks ordered that unsolved and cold case files be reopened and reexamined, particularly cases where there might be DNA evidence that could now be harnessed.
A few years later, in 2004, the LAPD caught a break, thanks to Detective Cliff Shephard. It was Shephard who was faced with the task of looking at the glut of South Los Angeles murder cases.
After a nearly 14-year period, the killer had struck again. This time, his method of murder was different: strangulation, instead of shooting. The victim was found three months after her disappearance on December 21, 2001, in March 2002.

Victims from left: Princess Berthomieux, Valerie McCorvey, Janica Peters
Victims from left: Princess Berthomieux,
Valerie McCorvey, Janica Peters
And the killers had made an unwise choice—a 14 year-old runaway, who had also been turning tricks, with an unusual name: Princess Berthomieux. It was evidence from her murder that turned the key for investigators and for the LA Weekly writer.
Shortly, thereafter, another woman was found in an alley—Valerie McCorvey had been strangled and raped. Her body was discovered on July 11, 2003.
Through a DNA sample, Shepard was able to match one of the oldest victims to the two newer murders. That, and the ballistics from Margette's 1988 incident, led the police to believe that they had a serial killer on their hands who had resurfaced after 14 years, one of the longest hiatuses on record.
The most recent—and hopefully final victim—was Janecia Peters. She was found in a dumpster, wrapped in a garbage bag on New Year's Day 2007. Unlike the others, she had been shot and strangled.
In 2006, LA Weekly published a story on the murder of Berthomieux and Detective Jeffrey Steinhoff, which connected her death to the others. According to Newsweek, the reporter for the LA Weekly had received a tip about a new batch of so-called dumping victims; it was Berthomieux's case that provided the "aha!" moment in the media.
A year later Janecia Peters was murdered. When DNA found on her connected the case to the older murders, APD Chief William Bratton decided enough was enough. The 800 Task Force was created—so named for the number on the room they were in. Detective Dennis Kilcoyne was put in charge of the investigation, which remained a secret until the LA Weekly reported the case.
The paper gave the killer a nickname, one that would stick in the media and cause a renewed interest in the case: they dubbed him the "Grim Sleeper," because he had been dormant for so many years. A headline was born.

Renewed interest

The story sparked a renewed interest in the case—international news media covered the serial killer with the awkward name. And many of the victims' families and people in the communities were upset that they hadn't been alerted to the fact that the murders were all seemingly connected until recently. After the damn broke, Kilcoyne told "We don't know who he is, but his numbers are building. Once we are done, I am quite confident this will exceed anything we have ever seen in the city."
Barbara Ware
Barbara Ware
Hoping to strike while the iron was hot—the cops released a series of new and updated information—first, in February 2009, they released a 20-year old 911 call; then, in November 2009, they released three versions of a sketch based on Margette's description, aged to represent the likely appearance of the assailant in his mid-50s. And, in May 2009, they plastered the city with billboards depicting all 11 of the victims and touting a $500,000 reward, the largest amount ever offered by the city of Los Angeles in a criminal case.
The February 2009 police news release focused on the case of Barbara Ware who had been found dead on January 10, 1987. That night, the police had received a weird call. The caller on the tape was calm and collected, especially for someone who claimed to be reporting a murder. He patiently told the operator the license plate number of a large blue and white van parked in an alley near 1346 East 56th Street.
"Yes, I'd like to report a murder, a dead body or something," he began. "And the guy that dropped her off was driving as white and blue Dodge van," and proceeded to give the license plate.
When the dispatcher was unable to understand the numbers and letters, he walked her through it.
"OK, are you saying 'T' like in Tom?"
"'P' like in puppy."
"'P' What?"
"Like in Zebra?"
After he finishes the license plate description, he explains that it's been 30 minutes since he saw the murder happen. "'cause I'm down the street at the bottom, so it happened about 30 minutes ago..... and, er, you know he like, he threw her out and the only thing that's hanging out is he threw a gas tank on top of her and, eh, and, eh, the only thing you can see out is her feet."
When they ask for his name, he declines, saying, "Oh, I'm staying anonymous... I know too many people....Okay then. Bye-bye."
With that he hung up. The police arrived in less than an hour to find the body exactly where it had been reported to be. According the LAPD's news release, "the caller had described the Barbara Ware crime scene exactly how responding uniformed officers and detectives documented the scene."
The van was found a few miles away, still hot from use. They were so close, yet so far. The van was registered to a church, The Cosmopolitan Church, but at the time of the original investigation, no connections were made between members of the church and the crime. Later, police had even gone so far as to exhume the body of the pastor and had a DNA test run on him. There was no match.

A slice of pizza

Attorney General Edmund G. Brown Jr.
Attorney General Edmund G. Brown Jr.
Still, the release of the 911 call didn't appear to yield any new leads.
It was a long shot, but the order for use of familial DNA by Attorney General Brown led to the final break in the case. Familial DNA analysis led to Franklin's son, who proved a partial match to the DNA on the bodies. According to the Los Angeles Times, the police interviewed the son, who fingered his dad, who though the LATimes reported that he'd done time in 93 and 2003 for stolen property and misdemeanor assault with a deadly weapon in 1999, had so far eluded authorities.
After trailing Franklin, police got a sample of DNA off a slice of pizza he left at a restaurant, allowing them to link him physically to the evidence left on the victims.

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