In the 1980s, when Los Angeles averaged 800 murders a year, more than half of that toll was in South Central. An average weekend brought several unknown victims to the coroner’s office, and understaffed police struggled to solve these crimes. In the midst of this, a serial killer began his work, targeting young African American women.
The Grim Sleeper, released in June by award-winning journalist Christine Pelisek, focuses on these women, with a chapter dedicated to each known victim, with a story of the woman’s life–and how she would have come into the killer’s path. The common thread between the women becomes predictable: a drug addiction that threw their lives into chaos. The desperation that would lead them to prostitution, and to getting in a car with a stranger.
These stories serve as a tragic reminder of how drugs devastate families, and how crack ripped through South Central like a tornado in the 1980s and 1990s. One of the victims, 18-year-old Monique Alexander, came from a loving, two-parent home. She grew up taking ice-skating lessons and riding horses. Her photo shows a smiling, healthy teenager. But even girls like that were not immune.
Pelisek became involved with the case in the early 2000s, while she was covering the crime beat for L.A. Weekly. A 15-year-old girl, Princess Berthomieux, was killed in 2002, and forensics were able to match the bullet to those pulled from a series of victims in the 1980s. Pelisek then coined the nickname the Grim Sleeper, to explain the 14-year gap between his murders.
What followed was a painstaking and frustrating attempt to revisit the cold cases of the 1980s and figure out what had been going on. As Pelisek describes, it seemed like police were getting nowhere, and local activists were outraged that little had been done to publicize the crimes. The activists might have been right, that police focused less on the deaths of poor black women than on suburban white women. But Pelisek points out that prejudice ran both ways. When a murder took place in an affluent area, neighbors and witnesses ran to the police with information. In South Central, “don’t snitch” was a way of life, and police had trouble getting any assistance. Even when they put up billboards with a sketch of the killer and offered a reward, nobody identified him.
In this case, it is hard to blame the police for not seeing immediately what was going on, especially during the Grim Sleeper’s 1980s spree. In the horrific body count that came with the crack epidemic, teasing out which ones were the victims of a serial killer was harder than it seemed. Even when it became obvious that someone was targeting African American women, and the police had a task force dedicated to the “Southside Slayer,” a darker truth remained hidden. There was not one serial killer. There were six.
This took place against a backdrop of historic police racism, and a community understandably skeptical of the LAPD. The 1990s then brought three crises shaking the relationship of the LAPD with people of color–the Rodney King riots, the O.J. Simpson case, and the Rampart scandal.
Meanwhile, the victims were already marginalized. Most were prostitutes and addicts, whose situations offered up a range of potential suspects (pimps, dealers, johns). All from an underworld unlikely to be forthcoming with witness statements.
The Grim Sleeper turned out to be Lonnie David Franklin, Jr., a middle-aged auto mechanic who lived in South Central. He was finally convicted in 2016 of ten murders, although he is suspected of having committed more.
The serial killer shelf at the bookstore features many biographies of deviants like him, lingering on the abusive childhood, the early transgressions, the authors’ warped fascination making these demons seem like heroes. This book, refreshingly, spends little time analyzing (or mitigating) Franklin’s brutal crimes. As you might expect, he is a nasty piece of work. Obsessed with sex, he lived with a wife most charitably described as willfully ignorant of his constant womanizing (and the growing collection of souvenirs in the house from women he had killed).
The Grim Sleeper case also demonstrates how new techniques in forensics can change the landscape of detection. Franklin had left DNA samples on his victims, but he was in no database. He was finally caught after a familial DNA comparison was made with California’s criminal database. His son was in the system after a 2009 weapons conviction, and that DNA matched as a male relative. From there, it was only a quick search of property records to Franklin’s house.
Familial DNA searches by law enforcement are controversial, and it does present a quandary for some ethicists. The framers of the Constitution never conceived of the Fourth Amendment needing to protect people from their own cells, or the situation of a suspect only being caught because a relative was on file.
However, without the DNA link, the detectives would have been stuck at the same dead end they faced for years. Although Franklin had once been convicted of rape as a young man in the army, while stationed in Germany–he had no rap sheet in California. He wasn’t even on any cop’s mental list of local perverts, that unofficial roll-call of sketchy guys to question anytime an assault is reported.
He was able to get away with his crimes through a combination of luck and circumstance. Chillingly, Pelisek suggests there probably wasn’t a gap between crimes: his victims in that period have just never been found. Franklin’s targets all had unstable lives: The ones we don’t know about might not even have been reported missing.
Pelisek has invested years in this case, and her devotion to the victims’ families (and the one woman who survived her attack) is clear. But there was room for a firmer editing hand. There are some linguistic infelicities, for instance: A detective is described as “unwittingly unaware” at one point that further murders would take place. Is it possible to be “wittingly” unable to predict the future? Her recreation of scenes where she was not present, including dialog, are also a weakness.
Nonetheless, for a picture of dogged journalism, this is an impressive work. When so much popular culture celebrates violence against women (how many cop dramas begin with a woman’s body?), by reminding us to think of the victims rather than the monster, Pelisek has done us all a service.
Katrina Gulliver is an historian and writer.