An elusive serial killer, linked to 10 slayings in South Los Angeles and Inglewood over nearly two decades, resurfaced early last year to kill again, Los Angeles police officials said.
Long stretches of time between known killings and a disjointed, often dormant investigation that spanned different generations of detectives left police unclear for years that a single man was behind the slayings. The latest slaying was tied conclusively to the others by DNA analysis in May 2007.
"The day those tests came in, we realized we had a serial killer on our hands who has been active for 23 years," said LAPD Det. Dennis Kilcoyne, who heads a task force of seven detectives charged with solving the killings.
Except for one black man, the killer has targeted young black women. He sexually abused the women, detectives said, and left almost all of their bodies in a corridor along Western Avenue in South Los Angeles, often in alleys. Detectives suspect that most of the women were working as prostitutes at the time they were killed.
Kilcoyne and his team have been working quietly, trying to breathe life into the investigation without tipping off the killer. They have retraced cold leads and are collaborating with state officials on an exhaustive search of prison records. Detectives have begun examining nearly three dozen other cases that bear similarities to serial killers' slayings. The latest killing was reported this week by the LA Weekly.
For more than two decades before that, however, the killer slipped on and off the LAPD's radar.
The first known slaying occurred in the summer of 1985, when 29-year-old Debra Jackson was shot three times in the chest, police said. Her body was left in an alley near West Gage Avenue. It was a particularly dark period for the city, when widespread cocaine use, rampant crime and vicious killings were rife in South L.A. Three years passed before police realized that something larger was occurring, when ballistics tests showed that the same handgun used to kill Jackson had been used in seven other killings.
Detectives handling the investigation were stymied. In late 1988, the killer shot a woman in the chest with the same gun, sexually assaulted her and "left her for dead," Kilcoyne said. She survived, giving police their first, albeit vague, description of the man as an African American in his mid-30s. She also described his car -- an orange Ford Pinto. The new information led detectives to pull registration records on every Pinto in Los Angeles County, Kilcoyne said, but the search led nowhere.
Then the trail went cold. For about 13 years, no new deaths were linked to the killer.
"Everything dried up. They ran out of clues, they got on to other things," Kilcoyne said of the detectives working the case. The cases "got moved further and further back on the shelf."
The killer had been all but forgotten until a few years ago, when recently developed DNA analysis technology made it clear he was still at large and still killing. In 2001, LAPD detectives under the direction of Police Chief Bernard C. Parks began delving into the thousands of unsolved cases that had built up over the years.
In 2004, Det. Cliff Shepard was poring over old murder cases from South L.A. and found a preserved DNA sample that was taken from the body of one of the killer's earlier victims. Analysis of the DNA showed that it showed conclusive similarities to samples found on the body of a 35-year-old woman killed in 2003 and on 14-year-old Princess Berthomieux, who was found strangled and beaten in an Inglewood alley in March 2002.
"All of a sudden we had two more," Kilcoyne said.
But, again, the case faded with detectives no closer to finding the killer. And again he seemed to disappear with no more killings tied to him.
In 2006, an Inglewood detective made headlines when he traveled to a Fresno prison to get a DNA sample from a 65-year-old white inmate who had made incriminating statements about killing prostitutes in L.A. to law enforcement officials. But tests showed he was not the killer.
Then, on the first day of 2007, a homeless man found the body of Janecia Peters, 25, on South Western Avenue. She had been shot and covered with a garbage bag. When DNA tests linked her killer to the earlier slayings, Police Chief William J. Bratton ordered Kilcoyne to launch the task force.
Investigator checked the killer's DNA against a federal DNA database of known criminals but found no matches.
One popular theory among detectives, Kilcoyne said, was that the killer was in prison during the two distinct periods when no killings were connected to him. Following that lead, investigators at the California Department of Corrections have been working with the LAPD task force to sort through a list of about 50,000 inmates from Los Angeles County who were convicted of violent crimes during one of those periods and do not have DNA samples on record. The two agencies are filtering the lists in search of men who were in prison during both periods of the killer's apparent inactivity.
But Kilcoyne said the killer may have just avoided detection and committed crimes that have not been connected to him. "We cannot be so arrogant to think that everything this guy has ever done came with an LAPD crime report attached to it," he said.
The task force has identified 33 old LAPD cases that have similarities to the killings and have begun the painstaking process of reviewing them. Task force members also automatically receive alerts when other LAPD detectives or uniformed cops report a homicide involving females found outdoors. They have visited more than 15 crime scenes, but none have had the marks of the suspect they are looking for.
One promising route the LAPD has not yet been able to try is comparing the serial killer's DNA with samples in the criminal database in search of one of his close relatives. The "familial searches" can be done, but only with the permission of Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown.
The technique is controversial, with critics calling it an invasion of privacy. A spokesperson for Brown declined to comment on whether, or when, Brown would approve a familial search on this case. LAPD Deputy Chief Charlie Beck, meanwhile, said the department "would love to pursue it if it becomes available."
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Detectives say 11 killings that occurred mostly in South Los Angeles are tied to the same assailant:
Aug. 10, 1985
Debra Jackson, 29
Aug. 12, 1986
Henrietta Wright, 35
Aug. 14, 1986
Thomas Steele, 36
Jan. 10, 1987
Barbara Ware, 23
April 15, 1987
Nov. 1, 1987
Mary Lowe, 26
Jan. 30, 1988
Lachrica Jefferson, 22
Sept. 11, 1988
Alicia "Monique" Alexander, 18
March 19, 2002
Princess Berthomieux, 14
July 11, 2003
Valerie McCorvey, 35
Jan. 1, 2007
Janecia Peters, 25