A onetime pizza deliveryman now in prison for rape is suspected of being one of the most prolific serial killers in Los Angeles history after police used DNA to link him to the slayings of 12 women over more than a decade.
Los Angeles police allege that Chester Dwayne Turner, 37, preyed mostly on women he encountered along Figueroa Street in South-Central L.A., raping and strangling them, then dumping their bodies.
Some of the women were homeless, living on the streets where they were attacked. At least two had prostitution convictions. Others were passersby.
Until police identified Turner, a mentally disabled janitor spent nine years in prison, wrongly convicted of three of the murders.
Turner is expected to be charged next week with 10 of the killings, capping the first phase of a continuing investigation by the Los Angeles Police Department’s cold-case homicide unit. He is a suspect in at least a dozen other Los Angeles slayings, say detectives.
Sandi Gibbons, a spokeswoman for Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley, declined to comment on the case before it is filed.
The killings took place between 1987 and 1998, mostly in the 30-block stretch of motels and apartments that runs south from Slauson Avenue along Figueroa Street -- an area notorious for prostitution, drug crime and violence.
Many of the cases had languished unsolved for years, buried among hundreds of open homicide cases that have backed up in the area.
David Allen Jones was wrongly convicted in 1995 for three of the murders, according to police and court records. Jones, 44, served nearly nine years in prison before he was released in March after DNA tests exonerated him in two of the cases and implicated Turner. In the third, no DNA evidence had been preserved.
Turner, a Locke High School dropout born in Arkansas, has been in and out of prison for years on various convictions, including theft and drug possession. He is serving an eight-year sentence in the Sierra Conservation Center state prison in Jamestown, east of Stockton, for a 2002 rape.
During the span in which the killings occurred, Turner moved often, bouncing between prison, skid row missions, girlfriends’ apartments and the home of his mother and grandfather, a few blocks from Figueroa in South L.A.
His alleged victims ranged in age from their early 20s to late 40s, but most were around 30. Some were prostitutes, and several had struggled with drug addiction and lived on the streets.
Their deaths drew virtually no attention when they happened, and the paperwork on them might easily have remained filed in archives among hundreds of other old, unsolved homicides.
Then 41-year-old Paula Vance was killed Feb. 3, 1998.
A security guard found Vance’s partly naked body in the back of a downtown Los Angeles business. The Alexandria, Va., resident had been raped, then strangled, the killing recorded on a grainy surveillance videotape.
Det. Cliff Shepard of the LAPD’s Central Division played the tape on a big-screen television at the Paul’s TV-King of Big Screen store and at Paramount Studios. But the killer’s form remained indistinct -- a dark shadow and little more.
The images stayed with Shepard. When he transferred to the newly formed cold-case homicide unit in 2001, he took Vance’s case with him.
For a while, there were no new leads. But last year, he and his partner Det. Jose Ramirez finally got the department’s backlogged crime lab to test microscopic extractions from Vance’s body. The samples were entered into a state database of DNA from convicted violent felons.
Two matches eventually came back.
One was with samples taken in an unsolved 1996 homicide in South L.A. Mildred Beasley, a 45-year-old Michigan native, had been found dead on a chilly November morning in bushes in the 9000 block of South Broadway, just east of Figueroa. Partly nude, Beasley had been raped and strangled.
Another match was with evidence from a March 2002 rape behind a carnitas stand off 6th Street in downtown Los Angeles, about a block from where Vance died.
The victim was a petite 47-year-old woman who sold cigarettes outside the Los Angeles Mission. She was attacked by a man with a crack pipe who had asked her for a light, according to court records. He then dragged her to a parking lot, and assaulted her for two hours.
The woman escaped -- twice -- and later led police to her attacker. They found him hiding fully clothed in the showers at the Midnight Mission a few blocks away.
The man was Turner. He pleaded no contest to the charges in the case, was convicted and, as a condition of his sentencing, submitted a DNA sample to state and local databases.
It was a breakthrough for detectives, who then began investigating whether Turner might have been linked to other cases.
They pieced together his history -- his ramblings between prison and South L.A. -- and began reviewing unsolved cases that resembled the Vance and Beasley killings.
The sheer number of cases to choose from made their task daunting. So many had stacked up at one time in the LAPD’s 77th Street and Southeast divisions, covering South-Central L.A. and Watts, that detectives believe several serial killers might have been involved.
Over the last year, the detectives kept submitting DNA samples from various cases to the LAPD lab. Nearly once a month, Shepard said, they got hits.
“The number kept on growing,” he said. “We hit five, and thought, ‘Where are we going to end?’ ”
Eventually, DNA analysis connected Turner to 10 other killings.
The earliest of these murders was March 9, 1987. The partly nude body of Diane Johnson, 21, was spotted by two passing motorists at a construction area in the 1000 block of South Grand Avenue, near the Harbor Freeway. She had been strangled by hand, detectives said.
The alleged rampage continued over the next 11 years. Nude or partly nude bodies of women showed up again and again, one every few months or years. They had been dumped in alleys and vacant buildings, or on roadsides and stairwells. One body was found in a portable outhouse. All had been strangled with hands or a ligature.
The victims included Annette Ernest, 26, a Louisiana-born resident of Gardena; Anita Fishman, 31, a New York City-born resident of Pasadena; Regina Washington, 27, of Los Angeles; Andrea Tripplett, 29, of Los Angeles; Debra Williams, 32, born in Michigan; Mary Edwards, 41, an Oklahoma native; Desarae Jones, 29, a native of Ohio; Natalie Price, 31, a native of Michigan; and Beasley and Vance. The last victim to be found was Brenda Bries, 31, born in Los Angeles.
After DNA evidence implicated Turner in two of the murders for which Jones was serving time, the district attorney moved to overturn Jones’ conviction.
Police say there were three long halts to the killings that do not match Turner’s prison stays. One was from 1987 to early 1989, another from late 1989 to 1992, and the third from 1993 to 1995.
Investigators do not believe there are any more cases connected to Turner in the city of Los Angeles. But they are checking with other police jurisdictions on the theory that he may have killed elsewhere. One place they are interested in is Salt Lake City, where Turner’s mother moved in 1991 and where he visited her.
Police portrayed Turner as a troubled man whose life between prison terms was marked by instability.
He was born in Warren, Ark. He was 5 years old when his parents separated and his mother brought him to Los Angeles, where she worked two jobs, they said.
He attended 97th Street Elementary School and Gompers Middle School before leaving Locke High without a diploma. As a young man, he worked three years at a Domino’s Pizza outlet, delivering pizzas, cooking and briefly training to be a manager. He is believed to have lived mostly with his mother until she moved to Utah, then took up residence in motels, missions and the homes of those who would take him in.
He is described as a burly man, 6 feet 2 and 250 pounds. Until the 2002 rape conviction, his criminal record was not a violent one, consisting mostly of theft and drug-possession convictions and parole violations.
Turner returned to prison seven times after his first felony conviction for car theft in 1995, spending more than half of the last decade in prison, according to records from the state Department of Corrections.
Several of the murders in which he is suspected occurred within a few weeks of his being paroled after serving partial sentences.