LOS ANGELES — 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. is facing a jury in a downtown 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. Opening statements began Tuesday.
The killings for which Franklin is charged came in spurts that were 13 years apart, resulting in the nickname “the Grim Sleeper” for the period of apparent inactivity.
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,” said the lawyer, Seymour Amster.
The trial is expected to last two to three months, said Deputy District Attorney Beth Silverman, the lead prosecutor on the case.
Silverman told the jury Tuesday that the murders “followed a pattern.”
Victims were taken from a murder scene, and their bodies were dumped in alleys and trash bins, concealed by garbage or mattresses, the prosecutor said.
“Most of them were in various states of undress,” she said in her opening statement. “Some were missing their bras. … Some were missing their underwear.”
All bodies were “Jane Does” when first discovered, and relatives had to identify them later.
“All tested positive for cocaine, except one,” Silverman said of the autopsies.
The defense reserved its opening statements until after the prosecution completes its list of witnesses, at which point the defense will begin presenting its side to the jury.
A case with a lot of notoriety
The case has already spawned a documentary about Franklin, an “official” website and a made-for-TV movie about a local reporter whose stories for the LA Weekly drew attention to the case.
The LAPD has been both criticized for failing to alert the community sooner that there was a serial killer on the prowl (before Franklin was identified by name) and heralded for doggedly pursuing the case once the more recent slayings were discovered.
Evidence in the case will span three decades of policing in Los Angeles: From the murderous, crack-fueled 1980s, during which at least two serial killers were operating in South L.A., to the relative calm of the 2000s and the creation of an LAPD cold case unit charged with taking fresh looks at unsolved slayings, to the modern era of advanced DNA testing.
Prosecutors say they have tied Franklin to the killings with physical evidence, including saliva collected from bodies, and ballistic matches between slugs recovered from crime scenes and a .25 caliber handgun seized from Franklin’s home the day he was arrested.
A woman alleged to be a surviving victim of Franklin is expected to be a star witness against him.
Enietra Washington was shot in the chest with a .25 caliber handgun and sexually assaulted before escaping. She has since identified Franklin as her assailant. In addition to the 10 counts of murder, Franklin is charged with one count of attempted murder in Washington’s attack.
Back to the 1980s
The first killing spree attributed to Franklin began in the summer of 1985 and seemingly ended three years later. Police did not know his identity at the time but had linked seven slayings to the same .25 caliber handgun. The bodies of the victims were found scattered in alleys around South Los Angeles, often covered in debris.
The then-unknown killer apparently fell dormant for years.
Decades later, in 2007, LAPD homicide detectives got word from the department’s forensic lab of “case to case hits” linking one person’s DNA to unsolved slayings in 2002, 2003 and 2007, according to Detective Dennis Kilcoyne.
Detectives were unable to match the killer’s DNA to any known samples contained in databanks. The department formed a task force, which soon discovered that the killings in the 2000s were connected to the unsolved spree in the 1980s, Kilcoyne wrote in a statement submitted to a congressional subcommittee investigating the use of DNA in so-called cold cases.
In 2008, detectives submitted crime scene DNA from both sprees to the California Department of Justice to conduct a “familia search” to determine whether a close relative of the unknown killer was in a state databank of convicted felons’ DNA.
The search came back negative.
But a second attempt, conducted two years later, yielded a hit, Kilcoyne wrote. It matched the DNA to a recently convicted felon.
The criminal’s father turned out to be Franklin, according to authorities.
Detectives placed Franklin under 24-hour surveillance and came up with a plan to obtain a sample of his DNA.
An undercover officer posed as a waiter at a local restaurant and collected a pizza crust left behind by the suspect. DNA taken from the crust matched DNA left by the suspect in multiple murders, Kilcoyne wrote.
An arrest and puzzled neighbors
Franklin was arrested in July of 2010.
When police raided his South Los Angeles home, they discovered photos and videos of 180 women. Police have since accounted for the identities and whereabouts of most of them, but the circumstances surrounding about 30 of the women remain unknown.
In the wake of Franklin’s arrest, neighbors told reporters it was difficult to reconcile the charges with the pleasant, helpful man they knew.
Steve Robinson, who lived across the street from Franklin and said he knew him for more than 20 years, said he had no inkling that his friend could be capable of the acts he’s alleged to have committed.
“He was just a good guy,” Robinson said. But as the case heads to trial, Robinson said, “all the evidence points toward him.”
“DNA don’t lie,” he added.
Silverman, the prosecutor, said multiple postponements of the long-awaited trial have taken a toll on the victims’ loved ones.
The mothers of two of the victims died during the more than five years since Franklin’s arrest, she said.
“That means they won’t get to see justice for their daughters or be there for victim impact statements,” if he’s convicted, she said. “It’s beyond frustrating.”