They had his DNA. They had his fingerprints. They had a description from a survivor. Ballistics tests matched the .25 caliber gun used in the crimes. But the elusive Grim Sleeper serial killer remained on the loose and claiming victims in Los Angeles for over a quarter of a century. The Grim Sleeper is believed to be responsible for between 10 to 20 murders and one attempted murder in Los Angeles since 1985. He killed by gunshot or strangulation and in some cases, both, usually after some sort of sexual contact with the victim. Ten of his victims were black women – several were prostitutes, their bodies typically found discarded in alley ways, most near Western Avenue in South Los Angeles.
LA Weekly exposes a hidden investigation
In June 2007, the murder of 25 year old Janecia Peters initiated the formation of the “800 Task Force”, the investigative group responsible for solving the Grim Sleeper case. Consisting of seven top notch detectives and headed by Chief Bill Bratton, they worked quietly for a year before the LA Weekly broke the news that a serial killer was on the loose. The LA Weekly began a deep investigation of the Janecia Peters case and discovered that her murder had been tied to a series of murders going back 23 years. Soon, other victims’ families were shocked to find that their daughters had also been listed as “confirmed kills” of a relentless serial killer.
Janecia Peters had been found shot to death in a trash bin located in an LA alley. A homeless man was collecting cans in the alley on Western Avenue when he discovered her lifeless body near a discarded Christmas tree. She had been placed in a black garbage bag tied tightly with a twist tie. She was completely nude except for a gold heart pendant worn around her neck.
On February 25, 2009, for the first time, Los Angeles Chief Bratton held a press conference regarding the case. During the conference, police formally gave the killer the sinister moniker “Grim Sleeper”, a nickname chosen and printed earlier by the L.A. Weekly (chosen because the killer took a 14-year slumber between killing sprees). During the conference, Bratton surprised reporters when he released an eerie call from the 1980s made to a 911 operator in which a man calmly reports having seen a body being dumped by a man in a van. The victim was later identified as a victim of the Grim Sleeper. Twenty years prior, the witness had provided police with a detailed description and license plate number of the van (license #1PZP746) he had seen.
The Grim Sleeper killings begin
The murder of Debra Jackson – the first Grim Sleeper victim?
Unbeknownst to the public, the Grim Sleeper murders had begun nearly two decades prior to the LA Weekly’s 2007 story. In August of 1985, police received an eerie phone call. “Yes … I’d like to report a murder,” an anonymous caller says on the tape. “The guy that dropped her off was driving a white and blue Dodge van. He threw her out. … He threw a gas tank on top of her. All that you can see sticking out is her feet.”
Police found the scene just as the caller had described. They even found the van which had been owned by a now defunct church group. The victim was identified as 29-year-old cocktail waitress Debra Jackson. Debra Jackson had been shot to death, leaving behind the legacy and notoriety of being the Grim Sleeper’s first known victim.
Debra Jackson had left a friend’s home in Lynwood, California on foot, to catch a bus back to her apartment in South Central LA. Three days later her body was found under a carpet in a back alley near West Gage Avenue. She had been shot three times in the chest with a .25 caliber gun.
The Grim Sleeper murders continue
About one year later, on August 12, 1986, Henrietta Wright was found dead in an alleyway on West Vernon Ave – three miles from the scene of the first murder. Her body had been covered with a mattress. She had been shot twice and had a cloth stuffed into her mouth.
Two days after Henrietta Wright was found, the body of Thomas Steele was discovered in the middle of an intersection. Steele, a petite 35-years-old and from San Diego, was found at the intersection of 71st and Halldale Avenue. She had been in the area visiting her sister.
Barbara Ware was found stuffed in a trash bag in January 1987 in an alley on East 56th Street. Her body had been covered with trash. She had been shot once in the chest. Witnesses saw a man take her remains from a vehicle (details were sketchy). An abandoned blue and white van was discovered nearby and was found to belong to the Cosmopolitan Church on Normandie Ave. Church leaders said it had been loaned out to a member. Many years later, police began to wonder if the killer may have had ties to the now defunct church.
Bernita Sparks told her mother she was going to buy cigarettes and would return home quickly. She was found shot to death on April 16, 1987. Her body was placed in a trash bin on South Western Avenue. She had been strangled, beaten, and shot in the chest.
Mary Lowe told her mother she was going to a Halloween party. She was found shot, on November 1, 1987. She had indeed made it to the party at the Love Trap Bar that Halloween night but was killed sometime after leaving the party. She was last seen entering an orange or rust colored Pinto car with a young black man. She was the Grim Sleeper’s sixth victim.
Lachrica Jefferson was found shot in January 1988. She was a known drug abuser and prostitute. She had been shot twice in the chest. Her body was also discovered in an alley with a cloth napkin placed over her face with the word “AIDS” written on it.
Alicia “Monique” Alexander
In September 11, 1988, Alicia “Monique” Alexander asked her father if he wanted anything from a liquor store. She left for a quick trip to the store and never returned. Witnesses saw Monique climb into a car on Normandie which they described as an orange or rust colored hatchback. She was found days later. She had been raped and shot to death.
The lone survivor
The only good description of the Grim Sleeper came from a lone survivor, Enietra Washington, who had survived being shot by the killer on November 20, 1988. At the corner of Western Avenue and 81st Street, the Grim Sleeper had driven alongside her in an rust, red, or orange Ford Pinto with a white stripe on the hood and offered to give her a ride. After a short exchange, she agreed and climbed into the man’s car (who she described as “good looking”). He was a black man, with a low afro, and wore a black polo shirt, a sort of nerdy looking guy according to Washington. She estimated his age to be between 25 and 35. Shortly after climbing into the car, he shot her in the chest and raped her. Seriously wounded, she persuaded the killer to spare her life. While driving to the hospital, the killer pushed her from the car. “I woke up in the dark, I was in the middle of the street.” For many years she remained anonymous until 2009 when the LA Weekly found and interviewed her.
Police determined that the bullet retrieved from her chest matched the .25 caliber gun used in the previous Grim Sleeper murders (at the time however, the series of murders were dubbed the “Strawberry Murders” by the police). Then the killer went quiet for over a decade.
Police pursued, but ultimately discarded, many suspects, and investigated numerous alleged getaway cars. They sought a black man between 28 and 35, with a pockmarked face and a Caribbean or East Coast accent. Vehicle descriptions were inconsistent. A 1984 dark-colored Buick Regal with a baby seat. A late-model Plymouth station wagon. A 1960 Ford pickup with gray primer. A two-door red Ford Pinto with tinted rear-window glass. At every turn, all the police met were dead ends.
Rickey Ross and the formation of the Cold Case Unit
Then in 1999, police got a break. They found the killer – or so they thought. Los Angeles County Sherriff’s Deputy Rickey Ross was arrested after have been caught smoking Coke in the “Strawberry Murdrers” area with a prostitute. Police searched Ross, a LA narcotics officer, and found a 9mm pistol in the trunk. Days later, based on ballistics evidence, Ross was charged with the murder of three black prostitutes. Later, charges were dropped after it was determined that the LAPD had botched the ballistics test. Still, Ross was fired from the LA County Sherriff’s Department. Ross sued and reached a private settlement with the L.A. County’s Sheriff’s Department. Three years later, Ross died.
Despite the botched ballistics test, police were convinced that Ross was their elusive killer. One year later, luck proved Ross’s innocence. In 2001, LAPD started a “cold case” unit with the purpose of going back over old crimes, some as far back as 1960, to use modern techniques in an attempt to solve some of the “unsolved” cases. The unit combed through old homicide books filled with witness descriptions and arrest reports, in an effort to discover old physical evidence. Three years later, their efforts paid off. In 2004, they found a positive hit. Saliva found in the 1987 Mary Lowe case matched DNA found on two later victims that were killed in 2002 and 2003. Rickey Ross had died a month before the 2003 murder. Furthermore, ballistics was used to tie together the other cases in which no DNA evidence was found (or still existed). Police then recognized that their killer had been killing for decades and Ross was not their man.
The Grim Sleeper killings resume after 13-year hiatus
The Grim Sleeper’s first victim after his 13-year hiatus was a habitual teenage runaway turned prostitute, 14-year-old Princess Berthomieux. Reported missing by her foster-care mother on December 21, 2001, her nude body was found four months later in an alley in Inglewood. She had been strangled and beaten. She was the Grim Sleeper’s tenth victim.
In July 11, 2003, a month after the wrongfully accused Ross died, a crossing guard discovered the body of 35-year-old Valerie McCorvey in an alley. She had been strangled and sexually assaulted.
After a short period of quiet, 25 year-old Janecia Peters became the 12th victim. She had been seen the night before at a nearby hotel. Her naked remains were found in a garbage bag. She had been shot once in the back and most likely was strangled to death. Ballistics matched the nearly 30 year old previous murders.
A Unique type of Serial Killer
Serial killers who take long periods off are the exception to the rule. Normally their killing sprees last only a few years and never resume. Regardless, police have several theories for the long period of time that the killer took off. Possibly he was incarcerated. Or maybe he never has stopped killing and police have simply yet to discover or tie together other victims.
Update: a suspect is arrested
On July 7, 2010, the Los Angeles Times reported that an arrest had been made. 57-year-old Lonnie David Franklin Jr., a former garbage collector and police mechanic, was arrested in part due to the use of familial DNA analysis. Police had been unable to match the DNA evidence to anyone in California’s DNA profile database. Thus, police expanded the search to find stored profiles that were sufficiently similar to the crime scene evidence to allow police to infer a family relationship to the killer. Around the middle of June 2010, police found similar DNA belonging to Franklin’s son, Christopher, who had been convicted of a felony weapons charge. The DNA indicated a parental relationship and a follow-up test showed a chromosome passed from father to son.
Police began tracking Christopher’s father. Most of the time Franklin stayed indoors with occasional pointless drives around the city. Finally, police followed Franklin into a pizza restaurant. After Franklin left, police collected a piece of discarded pizza that Franklin left on the table. DNA from the pizza slice matched DNA evidence found on the breast of one of the victims. Strangely, Franklin had an extensive prior criminal record but his DNA had never been collected and entered into the system.
At 9:20 AM, as Franklin walked out of his house, detectives approached him and quickly whisked Frankly away in a awaiting vehicle. Franklin was charged with ten counts of murder, all linked to DNA evidence. The death of an 11th victim was not included in the charges because no DNA evidence was ever found in that case.
A search of Franklin’s home revealed over 1,000 photos of women and several hundred hours of video in the home. Photos found were mostly of African American women, often nude, some in an unconscious state. Some of the photos date back 30 years. Police told reporters:
“These people are not suspects, we don’t even know if they are victims, but we do know this: Lonnie Franklin’s reign of terror in the city of Los Angeles, which spanned well over two decades, culminating with almost a dozen murder victims, certainly needs to be investigated further.”
In April 2011, the number of victims attributed to the Grim Sleeper climbed from an initial estimate of ten or eleven to nearly twenty when police discovered an additional eight women with connections to Lonnie Franklin Jr. Six of the women had been declared missing and one was the victim of an unsolved homicide. It is suspected that there are many more victims, possibly even some victims from the periods of time when police felt the Grim Sleeper was inactive.
Update: Lonnie David Franklin Jr. goes on trial
Thirty years after the first of the Grim Sleeper serial killer victims was found fatally shot and discarded in a South Los Angeles alley, Lonnie David Franklin Jr. faces a jury on February 16, 2016 in a downtown LA courtroom. Franklin, a former garbage collector and police garage attendant, is charged with killing one girl and nine women ranging in age from 15 to 35 over a span of three decades. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.
Franklin, 63, has pleaded not guilty. His attorney has promised a vigorous defense of the man neighbors described as friendly, helpful and reliable.
“All I can say is stayed tuned.”
The trial is expected to last two to three months, said Deputy District Attorney Beth Silverman, the lead prosecutor on the case.
Update: 5/5/2016: Lonnie David Franklin Jr. found guilty
Nearly 30 years after the first victim’s body was found sprawled in a South Los Angeles alley, the man authorities dubbed the Grim Sleeper serial killer was found guilty Thursday of a series of slayings that spanned more than two decades.
With the verdicts, Lonnie David Franklin Jr., a former Los Angeles police garage attendant and city garbage collector, officially becomes one of California’s most prolific and enduring serial killers. The murder charges at his trial spanned deaths from 1985 to 2007, with a gap of more than 13 years that earned him his ominous nickname.
After a day and a half of deliberations, jurors found Franklin guilty of 10 counts of murder in the killings of nine women and a 15-year-old girl. Jurors also found Franklin guilty of one count of attempted murder.
The trial lasted nearly three months.
Update: 6/6/16: Jurors vote for death sentence
A Los Angeles County jury brought an end to Ware’s wait, deciding that the man known as the “Grim Sleeper” serial killer should be put to death for the series of murders he committed while stalking South L.A. Jurors rejected defense arguments that Lonnie David Franklin Jr. should spend the rest of his life in prison rather than face execution. The verdict closes the legal chapter on the story of one of Los Angeles’ most prolific and elusive serial killers.
The known killings began in 1985 in South Los Angeles, California. The Grim Sleeper took a 14 year hiatus after his last murder in 1988 but began murdering again in 2002. His last confirmed murder was in January 2007. All of his victims were found outdoors, a few miles from downtown Los Angeles. All but one of his victims were black females. One of his suspected victims was a black man. Many of his victims were prostitutes. One witness recalls that Franklin would frequently bring prostitutes into his home. The Grim Sleeper would have sexual contact with victims before strangling or shooting them. He would shoot all of his victims with a .25 caliber gun. Franklin took several photographs of nude women and kept them in his garage.
These are the names of the “Grim Sleepers” victims in order of attack:
Debra Jackson – August 1985
Henrietta Wright – August 12, 1986
Thomas Steele – August 14, 1986
Barbara Ware – January 1987
Bernita Sparks – April 16, 1987
Mary Lowe – November 1, 1987
Lachrica Jefferson – January 1988
Alicia Alexander – September 1988
Unknown victim – November 20, 1988 – survived
Princess Berthomieux – April 2002
Valerie McCorvey – July 2003
Janecia Peters – January 1, 2007
Below are some of the Grim Sleeper photos that the police released to the public in hopes of identifying the person featured in the picture.