LAPD goes undercover to find a killer

Late one afternoon last week, a prostitute sauntered out of the dismal City Motel and put herself on display at the corner of Figueroa and 48th streets. Hands on hips and dressed in a pink tank top, tight shorts and clear plastic heels, she cast smiles at men as they slowed their cars. The sun hung low in the sky behind her, bathing South Los Angeles in a soft yellow glow.

A white van passed by and pulled over to the curb. A short, middle-aged man with glasses and a thin mustache got out, stuck his hands in his pockets and walked back to the hooker. He paid no attention to a man sweeping the sidewalk across the street or another leaning against the motel wall.

The john and hooker struck a price -- $70 for sex. As the john returned to his van to retrieve something, the two men he had ignored earlier closed in. One flashed his Los Angeles Police Department badge, told the stunned-looking john to turn around and pulled out a pair of handcuffs. The hooker, also an undercover officer, disappeared into the motel.

It was the kind of arrest the members of the LAPD vice squad had made hundreds of times. That afternoon, however, the stakes were higher. With the LAPD hunting for an elusive serial killer who has claimed 11 victims in South L.A. since the mid-1980s, the squad was hoping for the equivalent of a lightning strike.

Det. Doug Winger, the operation's supervisor, waited in Room 102 of the motel, which had been turned into a makeshift holding cell. Three other johns -- all in their 20s -- sat handcuffed on the edge of the bed. One glanced up at a large mirror affixed to the ceiling. All of them, Winger knew, would have been just kids when the killer first struck.

The new john was led in and Winger scanned his license for the birth date. "1959," Winger said to another officer. "He's old enough. Let's swab him."

Little is known about the serial killer. The seven detectives on the task force created to hunt him know that he targets young black women in the sordid world of prostitution and drug addiction. They know he typically shoots them with a small-caliber handgun, sexually abuses them and dumps their bodies in alleys along a corridor of Western Avenue.

And, from bodily fluids he has left at crime scenes, they know his DNA. Exhaustive comparisons to genetic profiles stored in felon databases, however, have produced no matches. "We have a beautiful picture of what this guy looks like -- it's a dot, a dash and a line on a screen," said Det. Dennis Kilcoyne, who heads the task force, referring to the computer rendering of the killer's DNA profile. "We just don't have a name to go with it."

And, so, as Kilcoyne's detectives chase old leads, undercover vice squads have been ordered to focus their attention on the killer's grounds and gather DNA samples from johns on the off chance they'll get lucky.

"It's a needle in the haystack, but there is a needle out there somewhere and someone is going to find it," said Lt. Dennis Ballas of the LAPD's Detective Support and Vice Division.

In early October, Kilcoyne met with vice squad officers to brief them on the serial killer. He told them how the man struck repeatedly in the 1980s and then seemed to stop killing for 13 years, only to resurface in 2002. His last known victim was found covered in a garbage bag early last year. The only description of the killer, Kilcoyne said, came 20 years ago from his lone surviving victim, who told police he was black and in his 30s.

But Kilcoyne told the group not to assume anything. On the chance that the surviving woman had been too traumatized to recall accurately, he told them to swab any john of any race possibly old enough. (Standard forensic DNA analysis cannot determine the race of a person.)

He reviewed the protocols for swabbing, emphasizing that the law requires them to get a man's consent. And forget the normal pressure to impress supervisors with raw arrest totals, he told them.

"Sticks, not booking numbers," he said, referring to cotton swab sticks.

"That comes straight from the chief. That's what's going to catch this guy."

DNA dragnets, as the strategy is called, were first employed in Europe, where authorities have swabbed thousands of people and solved dozens of crimes. German authorities undertook one of the largest dragnets, collecting samples from 16,400 people in the search for a man who had raped and killed an 11-year-old girl. They found him.

So far, however, only 12 of the johns arrested by vice officers have been old enough to warrant collecting DNA samples. Nearly all of those arrested have been young Latinos, a sign of the sharp shift in the area that was once predominantly black.

The one man old enough who was nabbed at the City Motel was taken to the 77th Street Area police station. As the younger men were led into cells, he was pulled aside.

In the harshly lighted hallway, an officer told him to open his mouth and rubbed a cotton swab along the inside of his cheek for several seconds.

Later, the swab was dropped into an evidence envelope marked "To Be Frozen."

Kilcoyne is leaning on other units to help as well. A $500,000 reward for information garnered three tips that sounded credible enough that surveillance crews trailed the suspects to collect saliva samples surreptitiously. One threw away chicken bones he had gnawed on, another discarded a straw and the third left behind a cigar.

The vice officers are under no illusions about their chances. Despite heavy demands on the unit, they have kept up a grueling schedule, running undercover operations on various prostitution corners along Figueroa Street and Western Avenue.

They go out sometimes in daylight hours and other times in the middle of the night.

"Yeah, it's a long shot, but I'm not going to tell [the task force detectives] to bug off," Winger said. "They need what we can do, so we're going to do it. It's not like we're looking for a robber. This guy has killed a lot of people."

Rubin is a Times staff writer.