Los Angeles has seen its fair share of serial killers throughout the years: Richard Ramirez, the Hillside Stranglers, and the Sunset Strip Killers are just a few examples. More recently, a case gripped Southern California–that of the elusive Grim Sleeper.
The killer earned his nickname because of his alleged long lapse of 14 years between murders. Despite the long reprieve, the Grim Sleeper still claimed the lives of at least 10 victims in LA from 1985 until 2007. The moniker “Grim Sleeper” may be misleading, however, as authorities now believe that the serial killer might actually be responsible for as many as 25 deaths, and that the years between his known killings may have been filled not with inactivity, but with unidentified murders.
The first murder attributed to the Grim Sleeper occurred on August 10, 1985. Debra Jackson, 29, was found shot to death in an alley. A year later, in August 1986, 35-year-old Henrietta Wright was also found dead in an alley with multiple gunshot wounds. Five months later, 23-year-old Barbara Ware was also shot dead.
Like many large cities during the mid 80s, Los Angeles was in the midst of a violent crime wave fueled by the crack cocaine epidemic. These three murders were not immediately connected, or even considered particularly out of the ordinary.
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There were also several other serial killers preying the streets of Los Angeles at the time, allowing the Grim Sleeper to remain at large. The fact that the Grim Sleeper’s victims were usually sex workers and drug addicts helped him remain below the radar. There have been countless cases of serial killers preying on sex workers, who are perceived to be without family or resources. Often, authorities don’t giving those cases adequate attention until the community demands action.
The killings continued in 1987 and 1988, and then, as far as authorities know, stopped abruptly. The next confirmed Grim Sleeper murder did not occur until March 2002.
In the meantime, Lonnie David Franklin lived a seemingly normal existence in LA. Franklin was born in 1952, served in the Army, and worked as a mechanic. He had even worked for the city of Los Angeles from 1981-1988. Franklin’s neighbors described him as friendly and quiet. But Lonnie Franklin had a dark side. A dark side that included the rape and execution of at least 10 women.
Between 2002 and 2007, Lonnie “Grim Sleeper” Franklin murdered at least three women in Los Angeles–and potentially many more. A task force was formed in 2007 to try to solve the killings, and a 2008 article in LA Weekly brought widespread attention to the crimes for the first time. Police found that a .25 caliber gun had been used in all the murders. They also had DNA from the crime scenes and a description of the suspect by a woman who survived an attack back in 1984.
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It was the DNA that would play the most vital role in linking Lonnie Franklin to the Grim Sleeper crimes. In 2010, police matched the DNA found at the Grim Sleeper crime scenes to someone in their database: Lonnie Franklin’s son Christopher, who was arrested for weapons possession in 2009.
Based on the description of the suspect, police were determined to get a sample of Lonnie Franklin’s DNA. Although Franklin had previously been in the criminal justice system, his DNA had never been collected by authorities.
Detectives began following Lonnie Franklin’s every move. They trailed Franklin to a pizza joint on July 7, 2010, where one detective, masquerading as a bus boy, took his pizza crust, utensils, and drinking glass when he was finished eating. Lab results were conclusive: Lonnie Franklin was the Grim Sleeper. Franklin was arrested soon after. A 25-year reign of terror in Los Angeles was over.
After his arrest, a search of Franklin’s home turned up over 1,000 photos, many of which featured nude women, some of whom were unconscious and bleeding. The police released nearly 200 of these photos to the public to help identify the unknown women.
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Though police took Franklin into custody on July 7, 2010, going to trial took several years more, as mountains of evidence dating back 25 years had to be sorted through. Six years later, in February 2016, Lonnie Franklin’s trial finally began. It was a painful trial that included testimony from friends and family of Franklin’s victims and even from the woman who survived his attack in 1984. Jurors deliberated for two days after the trial concluded. Franklin was then found guilty; the jury recommended the death penalty. On August 10, 2016, the Grim Sleeper was sentenced to death by the state of California.
Today, Lonnie Franklin is 64 years old and sits on Death Row at San Quentin, awaiting his execution for the crimes he committed over two and a half decades.
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