How a Slice of Pizza May Have Helped Catch California's Longest-Active Serial Killer
Lonnie David Franklin, Jr. was arrested in 2010 for allegedly murdering ten black women in South LA over a period of two decades. Now he's finally going on trial.
Onlookers stand outside the scene of a LAPD crime scene investigation on Wednesday, July 7, 2010, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)
Diana Ware has been waiting almost three decades to see justice for her stepdaughter Barbara, whose body was discovered in 1987 in a South Los Angeles alley buried under trash and a gas tank. Since Lonnie David Franklin, Jr., better known as the Grim Sleeper, was arrested in 2010, the elder Ware says she's taken hundreds of bus trips from West Covina to downtown LA to attend pre-trial hearings.
"It's beginning to take a little bit of a toll," Ware tells me.
Her legs and knees are beginning to give out, but Ware trudges on for Barbara—and for her own late husband, who she says died before discovering his daughter was the victim of a serial killer. "He was thinking it was just another murder in South Central," she explains.
After more than two decades of allegedly wreaking terror on the streets of South Los Angeles, Franklin—who if convicted would be the longest-active serial killer in California history—is going on trial this month. The arduous road leading up to this moment has been frustrating for cops and community members alike. Critics of the LAPD say they were lazy in their investigation, neglected to follow up on leads, and regarded the victims as insignificant because they were black women, and some were sex workers. Police paint a much different picture, describing a complicated array of factors that made finding the Grim Sleeper extremely tough, including the height of the crack cocaine epidemic, a surge in violent crime, and even other active serial killers.
In fact, Franklin was only arrested in 2010 after pioneering DNA technology—and a semi-secretive police task force—helped connect him to at least ten murders that stretched from 1985 to 2007, according to the Los Angeles Police Department. The gruesome nickname refers to the "hiatus" police initially believed Franklin took from killing in the 1990s, though it's possible he simply hasn't been connected to murders in that era.
All of Franklin's alleged victims were black women between the ages of 15 and 35. All were shot, strangled or both. Most were callously discarded in bushes, alleyways or dumpsters, in various states of undress. One victim, 22-year-old Lachrica Jefferson, was found in January 1988 with a napkin placed across her face with the word "AIDS" written on it, according to court documents.
Although a 2011 grand jury indictment was expected to speed up the death penalty case, delays and bizarre courtroom antics have dragged on pre-trial proceedings for more than five years. Witnesses have retired or died, and new experts have had to be summoned to reanalyze evidence, according to Deputy District Attorney Beth Silverman. Meanwhile, the victims' families have been waiting for some sort of resolution, and some have even passed away while waiting for trial.
"That means that some of these victims will have no one to speak for them or about them at penalty phase, or to see that justice was done at the end of this process," Silverman writes VICE in an email. "To me, that is a disgrace."
In addition to Ware and Jefferson, Franklin is accused of killing 18-year-old Alicia Alexander; 35-year-old Valerie McCorvey; 34-year-old Henrietta Wright; 29-year-old Debra Jackson; 26-year-old Bernita Sparks; 26-year-old Mary Lowe; 25-year-old Janecia Peters; and 15-year-old Princess Berthomieux. Franklin is also charged with the attempted murder of 30-year-old Enietra Washington, whom he allegedly picked up in his car, shot in the chest, sexually assaulted, and dumped on the street.
Upon Franklin's arrest, a police search of his property yielded a trove of naked photos, videos, and homemade porn, prompting speculation about how high the real victim count might climb. The LAPD posted a photo gallery online with portraits of nearly 200 women in the hopes of identifying and locating them. Today, at least 35 photos remain, and police are still seeking the public's help.
(Franklin pleaded not guilty to all murder charges when they were first leveled in 2010.)
Horrifying as it may be that a serial murderer would remain loose for so many years, there were a slew of issues at the time that made this case tricky, according to LAPD Detective Daryn Dupree, the current lead investigator on the case. Beginning in the late 1970s and stretching well into the 80s, crack cocaine took South LA by storm, he says, leading to a spike in drug-related crime, drive-by shootings, and murders. This was only further muddied by the activities of other serial killers in the surrounding areas.
"There were so many people dying out there," Dupree tells me. "It was hard for police to decipher the different MOs."
During this era, killings spiked in Los Angeles. Between 1970 and 1979, the homicide rate in LA city alone rose 84 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). DNA technology was limited, so police had to rely on basics like witness testimony and ballistics evidence, and although DNA obtained at many of the crime scenes was run against CODIS—the FBI's national databank—it didn't strike a match.
In fact, it wasn't until 2008 that California adopted a new (and controversial) DNA practice that ultimately provided investigators with the lynchpin they needed to nab Franklin. The state was the first to adopt a familial search program, which uses "unique computer software and rigorous protocols" to link a "family member of a convicted offender with DNA taken from a murder or rape scene," state Attorney General Edmund Brown Jr. explained in a statement after Franklin's arrest.
When Franklin's son was arrested on a felony weapons charge in 2009, a sample of his DNA was sent to the state data bank. There, the lab uncovered a link between Franklin's son and DNA evidence collected at the Grim Sleeper murder scenes, and leap-frogged to Franklin. (Franklin's son himself was never considered a suspect in the case, police say.)
On July 5, 2010, two LAPD detectives keeping tabs on Franklin saw him head into Buena Park restaurant called John's Incredible Pizza for a kid's birthday party, according to court documents. One of the detectives donned a restaurant uniform, posed as an employee, and collected napkins, glasses, a fork, and a partially-eaten slice of pizza from Franklin. DNA evidence from these items clinched the cops' case, and two days later they arrested Franklin.
Of course, for many in South LA and beyond, this apparent resolution comes way too late. Critics argue the LAPD waited far too long to warn people there was even a serial killer on the loose. Some say it was only after LA Weekly reporter Christine Pelisek broke the news to the victims' families that the news really went public.
Margaret Prescod, founder of the Black Coalition Fighting Back Serial Murders, argues the lives of the women killed seemed to be of "less value" to the LAPD (and much of the mainstream media) for too long.
"The women were impoverished, they were black, they were women," Presocd says. "We knew right away that if this many women had been murdered in an affluent part of Los Angeles, that that would not be the case."
Through her coalition, Prescod says she rallied a crew to distribute more than 100,000 flyers in the community, including to the "working women... on the strip." The group also organized weekly vigils outside police headquarters and started issuing press releases in a bid to force police, city officials, and the media to pay attention to the murders.
One of Prescod's first (and ongoing) disputes with the LAPD was over their classification and description of the deaths as "the prostitute killings." Although many of Franklin's victims were sex workers, some perhaps lured into his grasp by the promise of crack cocaine, the LAPD's label was derogatory and inaccurate, according to Prescod, as some of the victims were not even involved in sex work.
"This whole image of who the women were was problematic also, because it gave other women a false sense of security," Prescod tells me. "To say, 'Well if I'm not a sex worker, I don't have to worry,' you know, without knowing that there's somebody out there hunting down and killing women."
Prescod continues to host coalition meetings, is pushing to get a memorial installed to honor the victims, and remains in touch with many of the family members today. That includes Porter Alexander Jr., whose daughter Alicia was one of the youngest victims; at 18, she was found naked with a shirt knotted around her neck, hidden under a foam mattress in an alley, court documents say.
"He took the most precious thing [that] could have ever, more or less, been given to me," Alexander says in an interview. "He took my child."
Since Franklin's arrest, there's been an HBO documentary called Tales of the Grim Sleeper and a Lifetime movie called The Grim Sleeper made about him. Media coverage of his case has been sporadic, but interest in the trial has grown so intense that there's now a press waitlist to secure a spot in the courtroom audience on Tuesday.
Families like Alexander's will be guaranteed seats. After all these years, the 75-year-old father is just hoping to have his daughter's life understood, and if the jury finds Franklin guilty, for justice to be doled out with no restraint.
"There's no rehabilitation for him. He's too far gone," Alexander says of Franklin. "He either gets life without parole, or give him death."
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