After killing 10 Black women and at least one Black man in South Central Los Angeles for almost 25 years, a man suspected of being the so-called “Grim Sleeper” was arrested yesterday by the Los Angeles Police Department.
The Robbery-Homicide Division of the LAPD took 57-year-old Lonnie David Franklin Jr. into custody at his home on 81st Street near Western Avenue. His arrest is the culmination of an investigation that began more than two decades ago.
LAPD Detective Dennis Kilcoyne said the Grim Sleeper serial killer was linked by forensic evidence to eight murders between 1985-88 and three murders between 2001-07. He was given the “Grim Sleeper” moniker because of the 13 or 14-year gap between his murder rampages.
The District Attorney’s office has charged Franklin with 10 counts of murder and one count of attempted murder. Prosecutors said he is eligible for the death penalty.
The common links in the killings were that all the victims were Black, all but one were women, and most of them were involved in prostitution or drug activity. Over the years, the LAPD has been criticized by the South Central community and some in the media, who allege that local law enforcement did not vigorously pursue the arrest of the inner city assailant because of the location of the crimes and the race of the victims. Despite the criticism, LAPD officials say the department has been thorough in its pursuit of the suspect in this case.
“We never gave up on this investigation, not for one minute,” Police Chief Charlie Beck said. “Our detectives worked relentlessly, following up on every lead they received. Their hard work has resulted in the apprehension of this vicious killer. I am hopeful that the hard work of these men and women will bring some closure to the families who tragically lost loved ones during the last 23 years.”
Franklin was described as a neighborhood mechanic who showed no signs of being capable of such horrible crimes. “He’s worked on my car about three or four times,” said neighborhood resident Barbara Huggins. “I met him through a co-worker, and I thought he was real nice, he always gave me a good deal and fixed my car right. He was nice; he was funny, he was sweet … this is crazy. I was supposed to meet with him (days before his arrest), but he had to cancel for some reason.”
Other residents from the 1700 block of 81st Street expressed astonishment over the arrest of Franklin, who they described as friendly and easy-going. “This blows me away,” remarked Cynthia Banks. “Everybody who knew Lonnie all knew Lonnie was cool. I’ve known him for about three years. I was never uncomfortable around him. That’s what makes this so shocking. He’s worked on my car.”
South Los Angeles resident Jerry Kirk is a close friend of Franklin. He expressed amazement about the news of his friend’s arrest. “I still can’t believe it,” Kirk says. “Lonnie was just a regular, old guy who liked to work on cars. That’s the guy I know.”
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, another resident spoke from the unique perspective of someone on good terms with Franklin but who is also the uncle of one of the Grim Sleeper’s victims. “He worked on our cars,” the resident said. “He always gave us a good deal. However, he would never let you in his house. If you went near his backyard gate or even went on his front porch to knock on the door, he would get upset with you. Other than that, he was just a regular guy. I really can’t believe it. To think that this man killed my niece, that she was one of the victims, it’s terrible,” he lamented.
Diane Ware was also among those at the site of the arrest. Her daughter, Barbara, was the Grim Sleeper’s fourth victim. She just had a baby and celebrated turning 23 less than a week prior to being murdered. “I’m just glad that he’s caught,” Ware said. “He can’t hurt anybody else. It’s a long time coming, but they finally caught him. I want to thank the task force because they were very diligent, and they hung in there.
“He’s a sick person and whatever happens to him, I hope he never gets out. Whether they give him the death penalty or what, just don’t ever let him out so he can hurt other people,” she said.
Ware was one of several people contacted by the LAPD with news of the arrest of their respective slain relatives’ suspected murderer.
“(LAPD) Chief Beck has met with all the victims’ families,” Robbery-Homicide Division Captain Kevin McClure said. “We have 25 years worth of evidence.”
In recent days, LAPD obtained results of what is known as a familiar DNA search, which patrols through state felon databases for partial DNA matches that would indicate a match to a relative, a source said.
The suspect in the Grim Sleeper murders had left DNA evidence at several of the crime scenes. The LAPD learned that a man in state prison showed a strong familial match. Detectives questioned the man, who was not born at the time of several of the 1980s murders, and he led them to his father, who is Franklin, the source said.
Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley said detectives got a piece of discarded pizza with Franklin’s DNA that connected him with the crime scenes.
The series of killings includes victims, usually females, in Los Angeles, unincorporated areas of L.A. County, and in Inglewood since the 1980s. A survivor in 1988 described her attacker as Black, in his 20s, 5-8 to 5-10, 160 pounds with neatly trimmed hair.
Franklin has twice been convicted of felonies, according to court records, both for receiving stolen property. One was in 1993 and the other was in 2003. He served a year in jail for the first conviction and was sentenced to 270 days in jail in the 2003 case.
In 1997, he pleaded guilty to one count of misdemeanor battery. As part of the plea deal, a charge of false imprisonment was dropped, according to court records. In 1999, he was convicted of misdemeanor assault with a deadly weapon. He was sentenced to 90 days in jail. Details of that case were not immediately available.
Grisly precedents for the Grim Sleeper
By Gregg Reese
Retired Los Angeles Police Department Captain Pierce Brooks deems prostitutes the “easiest victims to kill. All you have to do is drive up, wave a $5 or $2. [She] hops in the car and off you go. No muss no fuss.” -From Prostitution and Pornography Philosophical Debate about the Sex Industry Edited by Jessica Spector, Stanford University Press, 2006.
In the 1980s, South Los Angeles like many American inner cities was no stranger to violent homicides, fueled in part by the influx of crack cocaine and the gang battles over the turf to sell this lucrative commodity. So, that dynamic was in play when a couple of young women were found shot to death in an area roughly adjacent to the Western Avenue corridor between Imperial Highway and Martin Luther King Blvd. they attracted little special attention. Because these crimes remained unsolved, the absence of closure prompted concerned residents to pressure law enforcement, in turn leading to the formation of a task force in 1986 designed to focus on apprehending the perpetrator(s), even as three more victims surfaced in the following year with no plausible suspects showing up on the radar of either the Sheriffs or LAPD.
Complicating all this were the murders of prostitutes along the Figueroa “stroll” where a veteran Sheriff’s Deputy and lay minister, Rickey Ross (no relation to either the drug realer or rapper) was arrested for these crimes, tried, and convicted before his sentence was abruptly overturned.
Then, after three more murders in 1988 the killings ended as abruptly as they started, and the special unit formed by the police and County Sheriff, dubbed the South Side Slayer Task Force, broke up as tangible leads dried up. Contemporary investigative doctrine holds that serial killings with common characteristics (occurring in separate events over different time periods) committed by the same individual(s) are a specific (albeit abnormal) behavioral pattern and the culprit had likely died, been incarcerated, or had simply moved away, which would explain the cessation of slaughter.
Paradoxically, after a quiet interlude of some 14 years, the new millennium found the South L.A. community the grisly gift of a new string of deaths. These were linked by police forensics to the previous slayings, and the unknown “prep” was christened by the media as “the Grim Sleeper,” a reference to his curious decade-plus “sabbatical” from butchery.
Over the years, the police have come under fire from both the community and media with allegations that a successful solution to these crimes was hampered, possibly because most of the victims had engaged in such high-risk and socially objectionable activities as drug consumption and/or prostitution, or because they all were Black. Conversely these tragedies have attracted attention because of the cultural fascination with serial killers, real and fictional over the last few decades. Depictions are included within popular music from such diverse genres as the Rolling Stones, who made the Boston Strangler the central subject of their 1969 hit song “Midnight Rambler,” to Eminem’s verbalizing his own homicidal fantasies in the song “3 a.m.” from his 2009 album “Relapse.” Serial killers figure prominently in the plots of films like “Halloween,” “Psycho,” and “The Silence of the Lambs,” the cable series “Dexter,” and propel the storylines of countless true crime and mystery murder novels.
Playing the race card
Although racial indifference cannot be totally ruled out for the delayed resolution of this local carnage, it bears mentioning that scores of serial killers have escaped justice, a fair share of them right here in California which is notorious for its links to deviant behavior. Among these are the following: “The Doodler” who committed 14 slayings in San Francisco’s gay community from 1974 to 1975; the “Goleta Murders” of 1979 and 1981; the “Original Night Stalker” who plagued Ventura, Santa Barbara, Orange, and Los Angeles Counties between 1979-1986; and perhaps most infamously, the “Zodiac Killer” who terrorized the Bay Area in the late 1960s, all of whom remain at large.
The popular perception of the stereotypical serial killer is of a male Caucasian who is reasonably personable, and of at least average intelligence. This is a categorization that fits most of the high profile killers who have become known to the public, such as Ted Bundy or the “Hillside Strangler” duo of cousins Kenneth Bianchi and Angelo Buono.
The Grim Sleeper was in direct opposition to this conventional tenet, because it was assumed that he is Black (since a White person would have difficulty operating unnoticed in the neighborhoods where the murders took place). Even more curious is the fact that at least three sets of African American serial killers were active in L.A. County during similar time periods.
In the process of collecting DNA samples from known sex offenders to catch the ‘sleeper,’ police found a match for one John Floyd Thomas, Jr., presently in custody for two murders from 1972 and 1976, attributed to the Westside Rapist. Thomas is suspected of another series of attacks in Claremont 10 years later, and other killings as early as 1955.
Chester Dewayne Turner is now on Death Row for murdering 10 women between 1987 to 1998 within the Figueroa Street corridor between Gage Avenue and 108th Street, many of them afflicted with substance abuse issues much like the casualties of the Grim Sleeper. Turner’s conviction set in motion the release of David Allen Jones, a mentally challenged janitor who had served 11 years in the prison system for these murders before he was judged to be wrongly convicted.
A pair of homicidal siblings, Kevin and Reginald Haley, operated concurrently to the Grim Sleeper. Stimulated by the cocaine epidemic that ravaged urban America in that era, the Haleys supplemented their proclivity for burglary and rape with at least eight murders from 1979 to 1984. Like their contemporary, John Floyd Thomas, Jr., they habitually preyed upon elderly women, ranging from 55-year-old Dolores Clement to 90-year-old Isabel Burton, preferring to break into homes, when their victims were present.
The proper definition of a serial killer is a person who has killed three or more people over no less than a month-long period and generally with a time interval between each slaying. They are distinguished in this way from mass murderers who may execute scores of victims at one time like Charles Whitman, who shot 14 people from an observation tower at the University of Texas in 1966, or spree killers like Seung-hui Cho, who shot 32 people, starting at a dormitory before moving on to a lecture hall at Virginia Tech in 2007.
The formal study of serial killers has a special relationship to the City of Angeles, because legendary LAPD detective Pierce Brooks is largely credited with pioneering the methodology for tracking serial murderers by collecting data on similar crimes across the country. Along the way, these criminals have been mythologized through popular culture, and while most depictions have been of White perpetrators, a cursory search on the Internet has disclosed at least 57 culprits of color, here and abroad.
In spite of allegations to the contrary, the Sleeper has generated a fair share of notoriety and a number of interested parties have shared their theories on Internet blogs. A special website solely dedicated to this person was set up, reportedly hosted by a gentleman from the Midlands of central England, and can be accessed at http://find.thegrimsleeper.com/.
As this article was being readied for the press, police arrested a suspect at his home near 81st Street and Western, the epicenter of the area wherein this carnage has taken place. Preliminary press release identify him as Lonnie David Franklin 57, a retired sanitation worker who also worked as a mechanic for the L.A.P.D. Franklin was well known to his neighbors as an outgoing, considerate man who looked out for the elderly and regularly performed services as a handyman and mechanic for nominal fees throughout the community. Attorney General Jerry Brown and LA County District Attorney Steve Cooley attributed the arrest to a genetic match stemming from a search of “familial” DNA, a controversial process in which crime scene evidence is matched to a data base of convicted felons. A slice of pizza thrown away by Franklin contained DNA matching samples taken from his son, who is presently incarcerated within the California State Prison System.
Additional information will certainly follow the official press conference scheduled for Thursday at 11:00a.m. in from the Police Administration Building, but current available details about Franklin indicate he corresponds to the profile of Ted Bundy, John Thomas, and other psychopaths who seamlessly blended into their surroundings. This is a concept that was identified as far back as the 1800s in France, where it was described as manie sans delire (“mania without delirium”), and over the years generated a number of labels and titles, clinical and informal, among them anti-social, psychopath, or sociopath. The idea of a person possessing “emotional poverty,” having the ability to lead a “hidden life,” while choosing the ideal time to exercise their “untreatable predatory nature,” was eventually codified into a seminal 1941 book by American psychiatrist Hervey Cleckley, with the self explanatory title “The Mask of Sanity,” which introduced the term psychopath into popular culture and the language of the layman.
Although Lonnie Franklin has not yet been brought to trial where his guilt or innocence may be determined, all these factors suggest that he too, may have the ability to “hide in plain sight.”