When the first DNA hits began rolling in on a string of South Los Angeles strangulation murders, investigators imagined their killer as a Jack the Ripper type with a rap sheet to match.
But as detectives pursued the suspect, now believed to be one of the most prolific serial killers in the city’s history, they were surprised to find evidence pointing to Chester D. Turner, a quiet man with a criminal record primarily of minor drug offenses and a single rape.
Had it not been for genetic links to the rape and killing of a dozen women between 1987 and 1998, Los Angeles Police Det. Cliff Shepard said, the former pizza delivery man and father of four would not have made it “onto our radar screen.”
Turner, 38, was in state prison for a 2002 rape conviction when he pleaded not guilty to charges in 10 of the 12 strangulation killings. Turner faces a preliminary hearing in Los Angles Superior Court today on the charges. Prosecutors say they have not decided whether to seek the death penalty.
He is accused of killing Annette Ernest, 26; Anita Fishman, 31; Regina Washington, 27; Paula Vance, 31; Mildred Beasley, 45; Andrea Tripplett, 29; Desarae Jones, 29; Natalie Price, 31; Brenda Bries, 31; and one unidentified woman who appeared to be in her 20s.
Police said he may have been involved in as many as 20 homicides, but there is no specific DNA evidence to link him to that many.
“Skid Row Slayer” Michael Player was convicted of killing 10 transients in downtown Los Angeles in 1986. Douglas Clark, called the “Sunset Strip Killer,” is suspected of killing 25; he was convicted of six 1980 killings.
Although science is expected to take center stage at the hearing, detectives have said that reconstructing Turner’s life -- in search of a clear motive -- has been perhaps the hardest part of their investigation.
Irwindale-based defense attorney John D. Tyre said Friday he continues to delve into Turner’s psychological and family history. But whatever he finds, Tyre said, he believes the case rises and falls on the DNA evidence.
“There also are no witnesses to tie him to the murders,” Tyre said. “Their case is based on 20-year-old DNA, and there’s going to be issues about whether it’s been properly stored and analyzed.”
The defense also could be aided by the case of David Allen Jones, wrongly convicted in 1995 of three murders, according to police and court records.
Jones, 45, who has the mental capacity of an 8-year-old, served nearly nine years in prison before he was released in March 2004 after DNA tests run in 2003 by Shepard’s cold-case unit exonerated him in two of the cases and appeared to implicate Turner. Prosecutors, however, declined to charge Turner with those deaths.
Jones was convicted largely because he confessed, but his lawyers and a psychologist said he was easily led in questioning; they disputed the truth of his confession.
Born in Arkansas, Turner moved with his mother to a small home in the 600 block of Century Boulevard during the 1970s, police said.
She worked two jobs, and Turner was described as a latch-key kid who stuck close to home.
“He didn’t have a regular childhood. He didn’t go nowhere,” said a relative who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “He didn’t go to the park, the gym. He couldn’t, because his mother would not let him. He was always at home helping her.”
Turner eventually dropped out of high school and began hanging out with neighborhood kids, portraying himself as a gang member, police said.
Around 1992, Turner began a rocky relationship with a woman named Felicia Collier, police said. The couple had a child but fought constantly.
During one violent confrontation, a relative of Collier intervened and shot Turner.
Shepard said he believes that Turner’s anger and frustration at home were channeled into the outbursts of violence that claimed his victims.
“I think he wasn’t targeting any particular person,” Shepard said. “But if someone crossed his path at the wrong time, he would vent on them.”
Turner worked odd jobs as a cook and pizza delivery man. But police say the pull of drugs and the street was never far away.
During the 11 years when the slayings occurred, Turner moved often, bouncing between prison, skid row missions, girlfriends’ apartments and the home of his mother and grandfather. During that time, he fathered three more children, police said.
He was in and out of prison for years on various convictions, including theft and drug possession.
For more than a decade, Turner escaped notice amid the largest crime wave in city history, when killings, concentrated primarily in South Los Angeles, sometimes topped 1,000 a year.
The crimes Turner is accused of took place mostly in a 30-block stretch of motels and apartments along the Figueroa corridor next to the Harbor Freeway, an area still notorious for prostitution, drug crime and violence. Police have said they believe there were several other serial killers operating in the South L.A. area frequented by Turner.
Despite a task force of Los Angeles police, county sheriff’s deputies and suburban police officers set up in January 1986 to find the Southside Serial Killer, police had no description to work with and no eyewitnesses. Blood-typing technology, a precursor to DNA sampling, was evolving but not precise enough to narrow a large field of potential suspects.
Because victims in the strangulation cases included homeless women, drug users and prostitutes, their deaths did not always get much attention. But in some of the cases, rape kits and other evidence proved useful later. That, police say, is what ultimately led them to Turner.