By Emily Duren
On February 16, 2016, Lonnie David Franklin Jr. walked into a Los Angeles County courtroom to hear the opening statements in the case of the Grim Sleeper. Franklin Jr. wasn’t entering the courtroom as the presiding judge, a witness, prosecutor, or grieving family member, though. The Grim Sleeper was what the state had dubbed the serial killer who terrorized South Los Angeles County from 1985-2007, but took what they called a 14 year “sleep”–a period where he didn’t kill any victims–after one victim got away and was able to get a good look at him. Franklin Jr. currently finds himself on trial for the gruesome murders.
In the 1980s, after several black women in South Los Angeles, an area known for drug and gang violence, turned up dead, citizens formed the Black Coalition Fighting Back Serial Murders. They believed the murders had been committed by a single person, and they set out to prove it, trying to gather media attention and offering a reward. Eventually, in September of 1985, the LAPD agreed and named the killer the “Southside Slayer.” Evidence eventually proved this to be false, and four different men were arrested. However, in August of 1985, a serial killer, the Grim Sleeper, really had started terrorizing South Los Angeles. At this time the slayings were nicknamed the “strawberry murders.” Initially, due to an error with ballistics, and a stroke of terrible luck, Detective Ricky Ross was arrested. It would be several decades before another man was brought before the courts…
His first eight victims were shot, most were left in alleys. Debra Jackson was found first, on August 10, 1985. Thomas Steele, suspected to be the Grim Sleeper’s only male victim, was found lying dead in the street.
Bernita Sparks was found on April 16, 1987, in a garbage bin underneath a pile of trash. She differed from the other victims in that she wasn’t merely shot, but strangled and suffered blunt forced trauma. On November 18, 1988 was Enietra Margette Washington, the only victim to escape, but not before he shot her in the chest and raped her. Washington got a good look at her attacker, so police went on the hunt for the Grim Sleeper. For a while… a long while. 14 years to be exact. And then, on March 19, 2002, 14-year-old Princess Berthomieux, his youngest victim, was found strangled in an alley. And with his sick finale, the Grim Sleeper executed Janecia Peters. She was found by a homeless man on New Year’s Day 2007, shot in the back and stuffed into a garbage bag. The man who murdered these 11 people wouldn’t be captured for three years after his final slaughter. Due to the amount of evidence, pre-trial discovery–the process where both the defense and prosecution can obtain information about the evidence and witnesses they’ll introduce over the course of the trial (this is supposed to keep a level playing field)–would take six more.
With the other cases I’ve wrote about for this column, I generally had an extensive amount of prior knowledge. But that wasn’t the case here. The first time I heard about the Grim Sleeper was last month when I was perusing Facebook and saw the words “Grim Sleeper” trending on the side. As I read what happened, I thought, What in the world? How have I never heard of this? But after a quick Google search, I had a picture of the man who murdered women, mostly, but not strictly, drug addicts and prostitutes, as a hobby. A man, who, by the end of my search, I had lumped in with the likes of Ted Bundy, Oscar Ray Bolin, and Richard Ramirez A.K.A. the L.A. Night Stalker.
Also unlike many of the other cases, there is an overwhelming amount of evidence against Franklin Jr., which, as I said previously, is why pre-trial discovery took six years. If you follow true crime (nonfiction events as opposed to Law & Order) at all, you know that this is pretty much unheard of. For comparison, from time of arrest to trial: Casey Anthony (Oct. ’08-May ’11), O.J. Simpson (June ’94-Jan. ’95), and Scott Peterson (April ’03-June ’04). Here’s just a look into some of it:
Saliva had been found on the bodies of the victims, but police had never been able to find an exact match to a perpetrator. So they decided to search for a familial match. Meaning that if anyone in Franklin Jr.’s family had committed a crime that warranted their DNA being swabbed and put into the database, it would come up as a partial match to the murder, and the LAPD would at least know which family had a killer secret. As it turns out, Franklin Jr.’s son, Christopher, had been arrested on a felony weapons charge, and, as luck would have it, his DNA was in the system. So, detectives just had to figure out who the killer was now, and their ploy was literally like something out of Hollywood…
So this LAPD detective goes undercover, pretending to work in a pizza place, waits for the guy he’s trying to nab to leave a partially eaten slice of pizza behind so he can prove he’s a serial killer… and it works. No, this isn’t a movie, this is really how they caught him. HOW AWESOME IS THIS?!
Okay, I know I’ve focused a lot on science. And science isn’t always king. And as we know, I love tangible evidence that you can rub in people’s faces. And sure enough, when Franklin Jr.’s house was searched, what did they find? Tangible, face rubbing evidence. 1,000 photographs and hundreds of hours of video of women. Most were either naked or topless. Some were sleeping, unconscious, or believed to be dead. Some were smiling. The photographs were believed to be taken by Franklin Jr. himself, 20 to 30 years prior to his arrest. The LAPD eventually released 180 of the images to the public after failing to identify all of the women, to find them. But let’s be realistic here, there was no reason to have those photos. It’s not like they could’ve been misconstrued as vacation photos or even as those of an old girlfriend. Passed out women always equals sinister. Oh, and one of those photos is of Enietra Washington, right after she was shot…
Then there’s Enietra Washington’s eyewitness testimony. I know there’s some debate about how reliable eyewitness testimony is, because of memory loss and PTSD, especially when the eyewitness has been raped and shot in the chest, and the suspect doesn’t get captured for decades, but I still strongly believe in the power of witnesses, especially in this case.. The description she gave police was that of a “30-ish smart, preppy, black man.” It also doesn’t hurt that Washington was able to identify the car she was attacked in: an orange Ford Pinto with white stripes. Investigators believe Franklin Jr. owned a Pinto at one time, though it was never found. But what really helped was the fact that Washington was able to identify Franklin Jr. in open court. And how she was able to do that… well, that’s just flat out bizarre. When Washington was attacked, she lost her purse, which had her ID. A year later, a man came up to her outside her house, asking if she knew him. Understandably confused, she asked if she was supposed to. He left, and it wasn’t until later that Washington recognized him as her attacker. In court, Washington was shown a photo taken of Franklin Jr. in 1989 and asked if she knew him. She said it was the person who shot her. When asked how sure she was, Washington answered, “One hundred percent.”
Do I think he did it? I wasn’t even alive during the time the Grim Sleeper did the vast majority of his slaughtering, but I couldn’t be any more sure of Franklin Jr.’s guilt had I seen him kill them with my own eyes. Had there not been any other evidence, there are three things that match him in every case—except in that of Thomas Steele—D, N and A. That alone is enough to convince me. No matter what case we’re talking about, and what kind of DNA we’re talking about, DNA doesn’t lie. Blood doesn’t lie. Saliva doesn’t lie. Hair doesn’t lie. Skin cells don’t lie. Semen doesn’t lie. Fingerprints don’t lie. Unless there is reason to believe that he was framed and his DNA was placed at the crime scene—like I said, devil’s advocate, stranger things have happened—the evidence doesn’t lie. He was also later linked to at least six other homicides, but has never been formally charged.
Let’s bring this full circle… if not only for the DNA, I expect a guilty verdict for the sheer amount of evidence alone. You can explain some evidence away, but only so much. Let’s build a hypothetical defense quickly. Let’s just say he’s accused of killing these 10 women, but they only have DNA linking him to one, and let’s just say, instead of 1,000 photos there are 50, and there’s no video. Well, nobody saw him with those other women, nobody can place him at the crime scene, there are no receipts or security cameras placing him near the crime scene, there wouldn’t have been any cell tower pings. Maybe he was with one of those women, but she was a hooker. He’d only paid her for sex, and she was alive when he left. And those pictures, well there were only a few dozen. Those are from his ex-girlfriends. He likes to dabble in photography, and keep them as, uh… memories. Do you see how easily you can explain things away? Boom, open and shut case. But when there’s saliva linking you to several dead hookers, and photo and video, in your home, of women in compromising positions, who certainly look dead… that’s pretty much impossible to explain away. I will be absolutely beyond shocked, and so deeply disappointed, if the verdict is not guilty.