The detective is frustrated. Twenty-two poor African Americans have been murdered and dumped in abandoned houses. Police officials don't seem to care. Reporters don't either. In order to obtain funding so he can properly investigate the homicides and pique the media's interest, the detective invents a serial killer and provides him with a catchy name — the Homeless Killer — knowing this will galvanize concern.
This scenario from David Simon's television show “The Wire” may sound improbable, but it gets at the basic reality that the police are willing to dedicate resources to catching serial killers that they withhold from most inner city homicide investigations. Simon could easily have been thinking of South Los Angeles during the murderous 1980s, when the police first began hunting Lonnie David Franklin Jr., a.k.a. the Grim Sleeper.
Franklin was convicted of 10 counts of first degree murder this month and prosecutors are seeking the death penalty in the ongoing sentencing phase. His victims were mostly young African-American women, some of whom were prostitutes or drug addicts. The story we usually hear about the Grim Sleeper case is that everyone ignored it — which is an oversimplication. The police certainly paid less attention to the Grim Sleeper than they would have if he'd targeted white women in a well-to-do part of town; but more attention than they did to thousands of other crimes in South Los Angeles.
In the mid 1980s, the number of murders in Los Angeles was more than triple what it is today, partly because of the scourge of crack cocaine, the proliferation of street gangs and easy access to high-powered weaponry. In 1988, for example, there were 874 murders in the city, compared with 280 in 2015. The majority of those cases were in South Los Angeles and received no press coverage whatsoever; many were never prosecuted either.
Homicide detectives in South Los Angeles were over-burdened and overwhelmed in comparison with detectives in more affluent neighborhoods. When a young Asian woman, Karen Toshima, was caught in the cross-fire of a gang shooting in Westwood in 1988, residents in South Los Angeles were outraged by the massive media and police attention. The disparity between the response to the Toshima murder and the multitude of anonymous homicides in South Los Angeles was striking. Thirty detectives were assigned to investigate the Toshima case and police patrols in Westwood were tripled. A $10,000 reward was offered by a neighborhood merchants association.
If the police did not devote adequate resources to South Los Angeles, they did take heed when they began to suspect that a serial killer was at work in the area. The LAPD created a task force and by 1986, about 50 members of the LAPD were assigned to it full-time. During the two years that the LAPD and Sheriff's Department joined forces to investigate the murder of numerous young black women, the task force logged almost 5,000 tips. City officials offered a $25,000 reward for information leading to the killer and the Los Angeles County Supervisors offered $10,000.
As leads dried up in 1987, law enforcement reduced the size of the task force drastically. The Grim Sleeper's murder spree seemed to end in 1988, but when he “woke up” in 2002, the LAPD was dilatory in responding, waiting until 2007 to set up another task force. Still, the victims' families and community activists were able to use the sensational nature of the case to their advantage, successfully pressuring city and police officials to inform South Los Angeles residents about the killer and his victims. The Los Angeles City Council in 2008 offered a record $500,000 reward for information leading to the conviction of the killer.
Although serial killers are exceedingly rare, they are a staple of mystery novels, television crime shows and cop movies. Perhaps for this reason they preoccupy the public — especially if they have a catchy name. (It was a reporter who dubbed Franklin “The Grim Sleeper.”) Media coverage leads to police action. When reporters publicize a murder, law enforcement officials may assign more detectives to the investigation. Conversely, when reporters ignore murders, police department brass often will shift detectives to higher-profile crimes.
Today there's still a huge backlog of unsolved cases from the homicide epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s. In 2001, the LAPD finally created a cold-case unit, which consisted of seven detectives who operated out of a cramped, windowless 250-square-foot office. The unit initially focused on unsolved homicides from 1960 to 1998. There were about 10,000.
After decades at large, we know the Grim Sleeper's identity and his victims' families can take some solace in the fact that he stood trial and was convicted. The same can't be said for many thousands of killers who were never given a catchy name.
Miles Corwin, who teaches literary journalism at UC Irvine, is a former Los Angeles Times reporter and the author of five books, including "Homicide Special: A Year with the LAPD's Elite Detective Unit."