The first body was found in an alley in South Los Angeles in August of 1985. Debra Jackson, a cocktail waitress, had been shot three times in the chest. The last known victim, 25-year-old Janecia Peters, was discovered in a dumpster on January 1, 2007. She was strangled and shot in the back and placed in a fetal position inside a trash bag. There were eight more victims in between.
“The evidence in the case will tell you a story about a serial killer who stalked the streets of South Los Angeles,” said Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney Beth Silverman during opening statements Tuesday in the trial of Grim Sleeper suspect Lonnie Franklin.
Franklin, a married father of two and former LAPD mechanic and sanitation worker for the city of Los Angeles, was charged in July 2010 with 10 murders and one attempted murder. He faces the death penalty for the alleged 23-year murder spree. All of the women had been shot with a .25 caliber pistol or strangled and were discovered in Dumpsters and alleyways along Western Avenue in South Los Angeles, an area known for its cheap motels, liquor stores, gambling parlors, auto salvage yards and storefront churches.
“All of them, every single one of them was connected to the same serial killer either by DNA evidence or firearms evidence,” said Silverman.
Franklin has plead not guilty to all charges and is represented by defense attorney Seymour Amster, who declined to make opening statements.
Family members have waited for more than five years for justice. “I’m anxious,” says Diana Ware, stepmother of Barbara Ware whose body was found hidden under a gas tank and covered with trash in January of 1987. “But I’m happy the day is finally here.”
“It is a long time coming,” says Donnell Alexander whose 18-year-old sister Monique was found dead on Sept. 11, 1988, in a South Los Angeles alley. She had been sexually assaulted, strangled and shot once in the chest. “This is a process we have to go through. My sister is in a better place. The only thing she did wrong was getting in his car.”
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Victim’s family members somberly watched as gruesome crimes scene photos were projected on a large screen as a bespectacled Franklin, who was dressed in a light blue long sleeved shirt and dark pants, stared silently at the judge.
The series of murders began in 1985 during the crack epidemic. “It was very cheap and extremely potent,” said Silverman of the drug. “It disproportionately effected Black families and left a legacy of destruction.”
During that time, Silverman said, Franklin preyed on women who were addicted to the drug and lured them into his car with the promise of crack.
“He knew they didn’t worry about their safety and they were only focused on getting more,” said Silverman. “They were perfect targets. It was a perfect place in time for a serial killer to roam the streets without detection.”
His victims were all young black women “dumped like trash” in filthy alleyways, said Silverman. “Some of them were left to rot. Some were dumped in trash dumpsters. Some were covered with dirty mattresses. Almost all of them were hidden under debris behind bushes.”
Most of the women, who ranged in age from 15 to 35, were found without their bras, underwear and identification. “They were all taken off to the coroner as Jane Doe’s,” said Silverman.
Eight of Franklin’s alleged killings occurred between 1985 and 1988. The murders resumed again in 2002, 2003 and 2007.
“There was no progress made in the case because of a lack of available leads,” said Silverman. “There were no eyewitnesses to the crime.”
But, in 2007, after the murder of Janecia Peters, the Los Angeles Police Department began a task force to look into the slayings. Although they had the killers DNA, he wasn’t in the state or federal database of felons. “The problem was we didn’t know who owned the DNA,” said Silverman.
All that changed in 2010 when Franklin was finally caught through familial DNA testing after his 28-year-old son, Christopher, was arrested for carrying a weapon in the summer of 2009 and had to give up a DNA swab. Once it was determined that Christopher was related to the killer, detectives followed the elder Franklin to a pizza place in Long Beach. As Franklin finished his meal, a detective who posed as a busboy collected a fork, two plastic cups, a plate and a pizza slice left by Franklin. A few days later, DNA taken from the pizza slice came back as a match to DNA found on alleged Grim Sleeper victim Barbara Ware.
During a police interview, Franklin showed no remorse after he was presented photos of his alleged victims. “He called one of them fat and the other butt ugly,” said Silverman. “He laughs and makes light of the dead women in front of him.”
Police later conducted a massive three-day search of his house and discovered the .25 caliber pistol allegedly used to kill Janecia Peters. Also found inside his home and garage were LAPD handcuffs, 10 different firearms, $17,000 in cash, and a stash of photos, including a picture of Peters and a Polaroid of survivor Enietra Washington, who was shot in the chest and left for dead.
Police suspect that Franklin may have killed at least six additional women in addition to the 10 whose deaths he’s charged with.
“I’m not relieved till it is over,” says Ware’s aunt Sherry Ware Costa about the trial. “There will never be closure, just justice hopefully.”