She was found in the mud by children looking for discarded spray cans among the unfinished concrete pillars and dirt mounds of a Century Freeway construction site. They stumbled upon the crumpled body of Renatha Yvette Simpson not far from the Figueroa Street corners where she had sold herself, $10 at a time, to buy cocaine.
A week after Simpson’s 24th birthday last November, she became a Los Angeles homicide statistic, fitting a familiar category of victim--women involved to at least some degree in prostitution. An average of more than one prostitute a month is killed in the city, 69 all told in the four years from 1985 through 1988, according to the Los Angeles Police Department.
“I think that’s the highest-risk occupation there is,” Cmdr. William Booth said. “Mercenaries are way behind prostitutes. . . . There is just nothing that carries the risk with it, in peacetime, as streetwalking prostitution.”
Death on the Streets
Recent reports that a serial killer has been preying on Southside prostitutes and last month’s arrest of a Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy accused of killing three streetwalkers last year are but a part of the story of death on the city’s dingy prostitution strips.
Ready-made victims almost by definition, streetwalkers have become even more vulnerable since crack cocaine laid claim to the inner city. Crack has dramatically altered the streetwalking scene as women forsake caution and the protection of pimps to hustle for the next high, police and people who work with prostitutes say.
At times they are so drug-dazed that they fail to recognize undercover vice officers who have repeatedly arrested them, much less the subtle danger signals of a potential killer. Rather than taking their customers to the relative security of a motel room, they often drive down the block to park in the dark, down a dead end street or next to a vacant lot. It’s cheaper and quicker.
When they turn up dead, dumped into an alley or parking lot, their lives on the streets offer few clues as to who ended them. They arrive at the morgue as Jane Does, their past frequently an unreliable web of aliases, temporary addresses and false birth dates.
“We’re all out here doing it for drugs. Cocaine is our pimp,” said Mary, a husky-voiced hooker eating a pink Popsicle on Figueroa Street, a bleakly monotonous strip of commerce, salvation and escape. Motels, liquor stores, storefront churches and auto salvage yards abound. Day or night, streetwalkers saunter up and down the dirty sidewalks, alone or in twos and threes, hopefully scanning passing cars for a “date.”
Certainly, “Renee” Simpson’s fall to Figueroa was precipitated by cocaine.
“The girl was on it very bad,” said Winnett Price, who shared a crowded South Broadway apartment with her family and Simpson in the weeks before Simpson’s death. “I used to sit and talk to her about it and say all this is not necessary. . . . I tried to tell her to slow down. She’d sit there and listen and cry for a while.”
Simpson worked with Price’s mother and sister on a crew that cleaned office buildings. When she was finished, she would go home, eat a big meal and wait until midnight.
“It’s like she had a job. . . . She’d be in and out the door from 12 to 5 in the morning,” Price said. Simpson would work the streets, get some cocaine, go back to her room, and when she needed more crack, return to the dimly lit street corners to smile at cruising men. In that part of Los Angeles, drug dealers are never far away.
If Price warned her of the risks she was taking, Simpson would laugh: “I can handle it.”
She lived, after all, in a world where 2-year-olds are slaughtered in their front yards in drive-by gang shootings, where the next customer may have AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome), where an argument can quickly flare into a brutal knifing.
To a 37-year-old woman arrested for prostitution one night last week, the danger of what she was doing isn’t much greater “than waking up every morning and stepping out the door. You don’t know what’s going to happen. You walk down the street and every day somebody’s getting killed.”
She was an out-of-work, licensed vocational nurse who has been on cocaine for nine years. Now and then, she says, she would take a ride with a stranger to a motel room for a quick $10. It will buy enough rock cocaine to keep her high for an hour.
She was arrested in the parking lot of a motel, chilled bottle of peach wine cooler in hand, by a Southeast Division vice detail.
The same detail picked up Simpson last Nov. 11, three weeks before she was killed. It was around midnight. Simpson stood at the intersection of 99th Street and Figueroa, surrounded by a weedy vacant lot, a fenced-in auto transmission shop and two stucco houses.
“You want a date?” she asked the undercover vice officer when he pulled up. To his “yes” she replied, “Take me down the street.” She wanted $10 in exchange for a quick sex act, according to the police report.
Called a Standout
In the vice office, they remember Simpson. “She stood out,” Sgt. Steve Grenier said. “She was not the regular prostitute.” She had some class and seemed to come from a pretty good family. She smiled for her mug shot and thanked the undercover officers who arrested her. She was going to beat her cocaine habit. The arrest would help turn her life around.
“She was living in a dream world where she thought she was going to get out of this,” Grenier said.
Every night the sergeant sees women who haven’t gotten out, women whose drug-ravaged faces line the pages of the vice mug book. Antoinette’s decline is documented in color. She’s a 22-year-old coke freak who has been arrested 10 times for prostitution. In her first booking photo, taken in 1984, her gaze is soft and attractive. Four years later, she stares into the camera with washed-out eyes. Her face is scarred and haggard.
“A lot of these girls are just like zombies,” Grenier said. “The men are able to pick them up time and time again.”
When they’re arrested, “They normally don’t have any ID, or jewelry. They don’t have anything. A lot of them don’t have a place to stay that night. . . . They’re just going from rock to rock.”
The greater their appetite for cocaine, the more easily victimized they are.
“It seems to me, and I have no statistics, like more prostitutes are being killed now than before,” said Los Angeles Homicide Detective Pat Marshall, who works in South-Central Los Angeles, where 41 of the 69 prostitutes slain in the last four years were killed. “When cocaine became very, very prevalent . . . then we started seeing more and more being injured or killed.”
Many Just Happen
While Booth said some of the 69 prostitute slayings are likely related, police say the killings are often just a product of drugs, temper or a soured business deal. A customer will demand his money back after he has had sex, a streetwalker will try to rob the john, an argument will erupt and turn violent.
“These girls are at the whim of any psycho who wants to do something to them,” observed Capt. Jim Docherty, commanding officer of the LAPD’s administrative vice section.
There are no official estimates of the number of prostitutes in Los Angeles. The number of citywide prostitution arrests has more than doubled in the last decade, from 3,644 in 1978 to 7,975 in 1988, but LAPD officials say that may simply reflect increased police activity, rather than increased prostitution.
Police sweeps have greatly reduced streetwalking in Hollywood, police say, leaving the gritty main drags of South-Central the city’s streetwalking center. Elsewhere in Los Angeles, prostitution tends to take more sophisticated, expensive and less hazardous forms, such as escort services.
The Friday before Simpson was killed, she phoned her mother, Josann Davidson, and told her, “Mama, I love you.”
“She would not let a month go by without being in touch,” recalled Davidson, sitting in her Inglewood apartment a few feet from a large color photograph of Renee, looking sunny and cheerful.
Simpson’s mother and stepfather, Joe Davidson, never knew for a fact that she was using drugs, but they had suspected it ever since she was in her early teens. “She never did want me to see that side of her. She always hid that from me,” Davidson said. Her daughter left the Davidsons’ well-kept home more than two years ago, when they voiced their suspicions and told her they would not tolerate drug use. She stayed with relatives, including a favorite aunt, but they too eventually asked her to leave. Then Price’s family took her in.
Kept in the Dark
The Davidsons did not know that Simpson had been arrested for prostitution. “If I’d known that (she was streetwalking), I would have stepped in,” said Joe Davidson. “She would have known we knew about it.”
Simpson grew up in a solid working-class household in Compton. Her stepfather, who had taken care of her since she was a toddler, is a master aircraft mechanic. Her mother is a beautician. A half-brother attended college.
Simpson’s street life, Joe Davidson said, was something “she chose. She had all the opportunities of any young lady around.”
She dropped out of high school in the 11th grade, later obtained an equivalency degree and enrolled in the Job Corps. But she never managed to hold more than a string of menial jobs. “She wanted to be better, but I don’t think she was willing to take the step to be better,” Josann Davidson said.
“Renee was a very sensitive person. She felt rejected a lot, she felt unloved, no matter what we did,” Davidson continued. Her daughter wanted the fast life and “I wasn’t a fast-life-type person.”
“Renee always viewed me as a strict, stern mother.”
Detective Marshall started working homicide 13 years ago. Then, he said, a girl “had a pimp. She hung out with other girls.” If she was found dead, “We had avenues of investigation. . . . You don’t have that with a prostitute who’s a strawberry (the street name for a woman who exchanges sex for drugs). They’re not hanging out with anybody.
“No one knows what they’re doing,” he said. Detectives encounter a litany of “I don’t knows” when they question relatives.
Of the 69 prostitute slayings recorded since 1985, police say only 22 have been solved. “I would not say we as investigators have a great deal of success in solving prostitute-related murders,” said Detective Paul Mize of the LAPD’s South Bureau.
It is not, they insist, that they are not trying. Rather, they say that in many prostitute killings they are confronted with a dearth of leads and a surplus of frustrations.
“The obvious difficulty in working these cases is nobody cares,” Mize commented. The woman’s family cares, but the street community is hardly scribbling down the license plate numbers of suspicious looking drivers. “There are rarely any eyewitnesses, and if there are, they make themselves invisible.”
The Police Department did not computerize homicide records until 1985, and officials say they thus have no way of knowing whether prostitute-related slayings are on the rise.
Lt. John Zorn, a member of the “Southside Slayer” task force formed a number of years ago, when it appeared that a serial killer was preying on Southside prostitutes, says he doesn’t think there has been an increase in the killing of street women. But he concedes, “The situation has not changed a great deal over the period of time (since the task force was formed). The problem still exists that there are murders of these women.”
The task force compiled a list of 17 women, most of them prostitutes, strangled or stabbed on the Southside between 1983 and 1986. Then “we established there was not a serial killer, that we were looking for a number of suspects,” and they stopped keeping a list.
Arrests were made in four of the 17 cases. There was one conviction, an Alabama prisoner is accused of killing one woman, and Louis Craine, an unemployed construction worker, is going on trial this month in the strangulation murders of five Southside prostitutes between 1984 and 1987, including two on the Southside Slayer list.
Last month reports surfaced that Los Angeles police were investigating another possible serial killer who may have shot as many as 12 Southside prostitutes during the last three years. Police have refused to comment, but they recently arrested Rickey Ross, a veteran sheriff’s deputy, on charges that he fatally shot three prostitutes late last year and dumped their bodies in South Los Angeles.
Still, Zorn said, “I don’t have evidence to indicate there are a large number of serial killers preying on prostitutes.”
Renee Simpson was strangled and left in the dirt at a freeway construction site that has obliterated part of the graffiti-smeared neighborhood where she last lived and bought drugs. Toxicological tests revealed there was cocaine in her blood when she was killed. No arrests have been made in her case.
On the back of the program for her Dec. 5 funeral service is a tribute from her aunt La Verne: “Renee, you have gone home to rest and you have no more worries. . . . Your sweet smile, your dancing eyes, I will miss, and my beloved niece, Renee, I will always love you.”