Did the Grim Sleeper kill 180 women? Trial begins for alleged serial killer
Did the Grim Sleeper kill 180 women? Trial begins for alleged serial killer
Sitting in the dock with a formal blue shirt and a pair of reading glasses, Lonnie Franklin Jr watches the big screen as the faces of ten women are shown to the jury.
The 63-year-old former police mechanic from Los Angeles is accused of killing the women over a period between 1985 and 2007, having taken a break between 1988 and 2002. The gap between the murders earned him the moniker ‘Grim Sleeper’.
Franklin denies the murders. But when detectives raided his house they found a bizarre collection of more than 1,000 photographs and several hundred hours of video. Police believe as many as 180 of those women have been killed by the Grim Sleeper.
Over the next four months, prosecutors will attempt to link Franklin to the first ten killings. The youngest victim was just 15. At the same time, detectives will interrogate cold case files to try and link Franklin to other unsolved cases, some of which date from the 1970s.
The bodies of all ten women were found within five miles of Franklin’s home in South Los Angeles.
Prosecutor Beth Sliverman set the scene. Many of the young women had been shot. Most had been subjected to some form of sexual assault. Their bodies were dumped in alleys, stuffed into garbage bins while some were covered with a mattress.
One, Janecia Peters, was found by a homeless man who was collecting cans. Her body was discovered on New Year’s Day, 2007, hidden under Christmas tree, approximately five miles south of Franklin’s home.
The 25-year-old victim had been shot in the back, but police at the time could not identify her. Her family were unaware of her murder until after Franklin’s arrest.
Officers discovered a bizarre collection of images in his house. They released 180 pictures to the public to see if they could identify anybody. At least one of those pictured was an unidentified murder victim. Peters was 119 on the list.
She is the final victim on the charge sheet, but police and prosecutors believe there are others.
Franklin insists he has not killed anyone.
Franklin, according to prosecutors, was invisible, able to blend in perfectly amid the chaos of a city which was blighted by crack cocaine.
For the families, the graphic details were too much. Photographs of each victim were shown to the court. Groups of family members wept openly. Some had to leave the court.
After 30 years, Franklin appeared in court, almost six years since his arrest in 2010.
Prosecutors claim that all the victims, bar one, had cocaine in their system.
The families claim that the LAPD was not interested in investigating the deaths of young black women, some of whom had turned to prostitution to pay for their addiction.
In the Grim Sleeper’s South Los Angeles of the mid 1980s, crack cocaine spread through the community destroying lives. The victims came mostly from poor backgrounds and had a multitude of problems.
Police are undecided over the Grim Sleeper’s true record of death. One victim survived an attack in 1988 which some believe scared the killer into taking a break until 2002 when the urge to murder became too strong.
Others say a serial killer will not take a break and there are more victims out there. Women who had disappeared and their bodies never found.
The woman who survived despite being raped and shot told detectives her attacker was a black man in his 20s and between 5’8 and 5’10 tall weighing about 160 pounds.
She described him as ‘soft-spoken and articulate’. She said his hair was trimmed and he had a ‘pockmarked face’.
One team of detectives has been going through cold case files going back to the 1970s to see if any of the unsolved cases match the Grim Sleeper’s profile.
Silverman stood before the jury to open the case against Franklin. She spoke about the crack cocaine problem which swept the city and accused Franklin of targeting the women ‘willing to sell their bodies and their souls in order to gratify their dependency on this powerful drug’.
She said: ‘This was the perfect opportunity for someone who preyed on women.
‘Someone who knew the streets and the dark alleys by heart, someone who lived there and was able to blend in, someone who knew where the drug-addicted women and perhaps prostitutes would congregate and who knew how to lure potential victims into the darkness and the isolation of a vehicle through the promise of crack.’
Against this, Franklin’s attorney Seymour Amster will attempt to spread doubt among the jury, to convince them that the LAPD have got the wrong man.
Speaking shortly before the trial, Amster said: ‘There more to it than people want to believe.’
Soon he will get the opportunity to address the jury with his own opening statement.
Yet Silverman tantalised the jury about the forensic evidence that had been gathered. Ballistics reports which link the killings to various firearms. DNA which matched Franklin.
Two of the photographs shown to the jury came from Franklin’s home. The images featured two of the Grim Sleeper’s victims, one of whom had been photographs after being shot in the chest.
Despite the abundance of evidence referred to by Silverman, police made very little progress in the case for the first couple of decades.
As many as 30 detectives investigated the case in the 1980s, but potential leads turned into dead ends.
When Janecia Peters was found in June 2007, a special squad of detectives was assembled, tasked with capturing the Grim Sleeper. The 25-year-old’s naked body had been dumped in a trash bag. She was laying in a foetal position. She had been shot.
It took a further three years for officers to arrest Franklin, even though he had a prior criminal record. His DNA profile should have been on file, yet it had been discarded by mistake.
Police decided to try and match the DNA found at the various crime scenes to see if they could identify a family member, to narrow down the search.
Franklin’s son Christopher had been found guilty of a weapons charge. As part of the process his DNA had been entered onto a database. When officers ran the mystery DNA though the database, they found a partial match with Christopher Franklin.
Police then launched an elaborate sting to secure his father’s DNA.
One undercover officer, posing as a waiter in a pizza restaurant served Franklin. As soon as the suspected finished his food, the officer bagged the remaining pizza crusts, dishes and utensils.
The unorthodox technique provided a match. The legality of this approach is bound to be tested by the defence.
Speaking at the time of Franklin’s arrest, police chief Charlie Beck released a montage of 180 woman whose photographs had been found inside the suspect’s house.
He told a press conference: ‘These people are not suspects. We don’t even know if they’re victims.
‘But we do now the reign of terror in Los Angeles, which spanned well over two decades culminating in almost a dozen murder victims certainly needs to be investigated further.’
One family recognised the photograph of their relative among those which had been found in Franklin’s house.
Number 119 on the list, Janecia Peters was given a name. Her body was found dumped under a Christmas tree on January 1, 2007 by a homeless man who was collecting cans. She had been shot and covered with a garbage bag.
At the time of her murder, she was listed as unidentified.
Yet, relatives of the victims have been frustrated by the length of time it has taken to bring the case to court.
Porter Alexander was 48 when his 18-year-old daughter was murdered. Now he is 75, yet the emotion is still raw.
‘The day of reckoning is here. You can’t help but be excited that you lived to see an end to this madness. It’s been a long road, and I’m glad I’ll physically be able to be there.’