In the late 1980s, detectives began frantically looking for a killer in the South Central Los Angeles area, after the bodies of seven women were found, killed with the same gun. In 1989, the killings stopped, only to start up again decades later. The serial killer, coined “the Grim Sleeper” due to this long break, managed to remain elusive longer than any other murderer in the history of California.
The First Known Victims
On August 10, 1985, Deborah Jackson, 29, was found in the Vermont Slauson area, close to West Gage Avenue, with three bullet holes in her head. She lay lifeless in an alley when police found her. Six other similar deaths followed, including:
August 1986: Henrietta Wright, 35
January 1987: Barbara Ware, 23
April 1987: Bernita Sparks (age unknown)
November 1987: Mary Lowe, 26
January 1988: Lachrica Jefferson, 22
September 1988: Alicia Alexander, 18
In August 1986, the body of Thomas Steele, 36, was found in Harvard Park. The Grim Sleeper was never charged with his death, though detectives believe that he indeed killed Steele as well.
On November 20, 1988, Enietra Washington, 30, battered and bloodied to a pulp, somehow made her way to her friend’s house, barely able to remain conscious. Earlier that evening, she was on her way to a party when a man driving an orange Ford Pinto offered her a ride. Although she hesitated at first and declined, she eventually accepted the offer, which proved to be the worst day of her life.
The suspect shot Washington, raped her, then took pictures of her. He then beat her within inches of her life, before he pushed her out of the car and sped off. She’s the only known survivor of the Grim Sleeper, a suspect she described as a “preppy black man” in his 20s, anywhere from five foot eight to five foot ten, and weighing around 160 pounds.
A Hunt for the Killer
With drugs and violence running rampant in South Central Los Angeles during the 1980s, detectives found themselves in a difficult situation when trying to pin down the killer. Not only was reliable DNA testing still far in the future, but murders were so frequent in the area that case files were growing by the day. Furthermore, authorities were accused of not policing the area as they should, which made killing people a lot easier, and finding the true culprit a lot harder.
However, with Washington’s information, authorities began searching for an orange Pinto and a suspect that matched the given description. Yet, even while using a great deal of manpower, they still couldn’t break the case.
It was during this time that detectives realized that they were dealing with a serial killer, after ballistics showed that the same gun used to shoot Washington was also used on the other victims. As the information became public, the killings took an abrupt stop.
In February 1989, officers caught a lead when they found a driver weaving in and out of traffic. When police pulled him over after a high-speed chase, they found a prostitute, drugs, and the same type of gun used to kill the victims in the car.
The driver, a narcotics deputy named Ricky Ross, became the primary suspect. Yet, several months later, new ballistics results surfaced, which inferred that the gun found in Ross’s car was not the gun used to kill the victims. The case against Ross was dropped, although some detectives still believe that Ross played a part in the murders.
With no new leads, 13 years passed with no arrests for the killings. The Grim Sleeper, apparently under the impression he was in the clear, struck again. In March 2002, the body of 15-year-old teen Princess Berthomieux was found in Inglewood. In 2003, yet another victim, 25-year-old Janecia Peters, was found dead. In 2007, another victim was found, killed in the same fashion as the others and again, with the same gun.
Familial DNA Testing Leads Detectives to a Serial Killer
Modern technology provided detectives with a new, much-needed lead. One of more recent forms of DNA testing, familial DNA, allows investigators a way of finding “a partial match, indicating a sibling, child, parent, or other blood relative.” Since the suspect’s DNA wasn’t found in the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), authorities turned to familial DNA, hoping that a relative of the Grim Sleeper was in the system.
In July 2010, detectives found a partial match to the Grim Sleeper’s DNA from a man who’d been arrested previously on a felony weapons charge: 28-year-old Christopher Franklin. Christopher’s father, Lonnie Franklin, Jr., who owned an orange Ford Pinto, was considered a respected family man in his South Central L.A. neighborhood. He frequently helped women with car repairs for little money, and was married with two kids. Yet, as with many serial killers in the past, the most sane, normal, and seemingly law-abiding citizens turn out to be the ones who perform the most shocking acts.
Before they could definitely match Lonnie to the killings, detectives had to figure out a way to obtain his DNA. They followed him for three days, hoping he’d throw something away in public, giving them the opportunity to grab the trash and test it. The opportunity came when Lonnie attended a child’s birthday party. Dressed as an employee, an undercover officer removed Lonnie’s plate from the table where he sat eating pizza. The cheese left on the crust of the pizza was tested for DNA. After more than a decade, authorities finally had a match to the killings. Shortly after, the Grim Sleeper was detained and charged with the murders of 10 women.
Trial and More Possible Victims
In March 2016, Lonnie Franklin was found guilty of 10 murders and sentenced to death. Prior to the trial, while searching his home, investigators uncovered photos of over 500 women. After running a public bulletin, some of the women came forward and claimed they had encountered Lonnie but were unharmed, while other photos matched the deceased victims.
There are still many photos, however, of unidentified women who’ve never came forward. It’s possible that these women may have met the same tragic fate as the victims. In an attempt to help identify the unknown women, the LAPD placed the photos on their site. To view the unidentified women, visit the LAPD’s official Grim Sleeper website. Anyone with any information regarding the women in the photos could play a crucial part in helping solve the mystery surrounding their identities.
Tune in for more episodes of the 10-part true-crime series, People Magazine Investigates, on Mondays at 10/9c on Investigation Discovery. And watch full episodes with ID Go.
Main photo: Lonnie Franklin mug shot for a 1993 arrest for receipt of stolen property [Los Angeles Police Department]