‘It was a terrifying time’
On a Monday morning in the spring of 2007, a prosecutor named Truc Do stood to tell a jury about the world in which Chester Turner had killed — and to offer a requiem for a dark chapter in the heart of Los Angeles.
Turner lived with his mom on Century Boulevard, drank fortified wine and made a sporadic living delivering pizzas and selling crack. His murderous binge, which took the lives of 10 women, began in 1987, a perilous time in South Los Angeles.
FOR THE RECORD:
Serial killers: In Wednesday’s Section A, a map that accompanied an article about serial killers in South Los Angeles mislabeled the community of Walnut Park as Walnut. —
Jobs had vanished. Crack cocaine, a new drug so powerful and profitable it was worth dying over, ravaged the neighborhood. Gangs carved up the streets. The LAPD recorded a violent crime every eight minutes. It was a world, the prosecutor told the jury, in which “life itself is degraded.”
It was a world in which people could be killed with impunity.
The recent arrest of another man accused of being a serial killer active in that era, Lonnie David Franklin Jr. — allegedly the long-sought Grim Sleeper — prompted jubilation and noisy public pronouncements. The celebrations served to obscure, once again, a terrible truth about South Los Angeles: During a 10-year period beginning in 1984, multiple serial killers operated there, all of them targeting young, poor, African American women.
All told, between 1984 and 1993, LAPD detectives estimate that more than 100 women, almost all African American, were killed in South L.A. and the surrounding neighborhoods.
Some of the cases have been solved; others remain open. Detectives say many are tied to five serial killers operating in the area.
FOR THE RECORD:
An earlier version of this article and its headline stated that more than 100 women in South L.A. had been slain by serial killers; not all the deaths have been linked to serial killers.
Franklin, 57, has been charged with 10 counts of murder. Turner, 43, is on death row after raping and strangling 10 women, one of whom was six months pregnant. Louis Craine was convicted of strangling four women between 1984 and 1987; he later died in prison, at 31. Michael Hughes, 54, was accused of killing eight, four in South L.A. and nearby Inglewood. And Daniel Lee Seibert confessed to killing 13 across the United States, two of them in South L.A.; he died in prison, at 53, in 2008.
Police believe they killed several additional women as well.
Biological evidence suggests that at least two more men, who have not been apprehended, were each responsible for at least four more deaths, officials said. That would mean at least seven serial killers were preying on women in the same neighborhood at roughly the same time.
During the years in which they were active, the South Los Angeles killers never earned the noir nicknames of the region’s other infamous killers — the Night Stalker, the Hillside Strangler.
Those other crimes were notorious sagas that gained national attention and had parts of the metropolis in a state of panic. By contrast, few people in South L.A., including parents of victims, were even aware of a serial killer operating in their neighborhood — much less five or more. While the more publicized cases had distinctive hallmarks, in South L.A. there were so many people being killed, almost all of them from the margins of society, that it was difficult for neighbors or police to pinpoint any patterns.
The rapes and murders of dozens of young women were, effectively, lost in the crime wave.
“Could you imagine — more than 100 women killed and nobody notices?” said Margaret Prescod, who founded an organization 24 years ago to press for a more aggressive response to the killings and now hosts a radio show. “Could you imagine it in Beverly Hills? Palos Verdes?”
South Los Angeles was once a storied African American community. The nation’s first hotel financed by African American businessmen was built in 1928 on South Central Avenue. West Coast jazz was pretty much invented in the surrounding clubs, and a revolutionary notion — of middle-class African American families — was nurtured there.
But the neighborhood could never fully shake off its entrenched poverty and bouts of violence. At times, as in the riots of 1965, the area degenerated into civic collapse.
Over time, the factories and union jobs, which had drawn thousands of African American families from Louisiana, Texas and elsewhere, vanished. Public housing moved in, freeway projects divided communities, and residential segregation deepened. Membership in gangs skyrocketed.
By Nov. 18, 1984, when 30-year-old divorcee Sheila Rae Burton, who also used the name Burris, was found stabbed to death on Maie Avenue — making her the first victim linked positively to one of the serial killers, though authorities suspect the killings began before that — South L.A. was in crisis.
That year, Los Angeles police investigated 757 murders, 240% more than they investigated in 2009, and 51,247 violent crimes, 216% more than they investigated in 2009. And they did it with 2,000 fewer officers than they have today.
Veteran LAPD Det. Sal LaBarbera, who was assigned to the 77th Street Division in the mid-1980s, was once dispatched to five homicide scenes in one night.
“It was triage,” he said. “I took the first one. My partner took the second. We were leapfrogging each other.... We would process the crime scene and complete our reports in time to go to the next crime scene and do it all over again.”
“It was a terrifying time,” Det. Cliff Shepard said. “Homicide detectives were overwhelmed.”
It would take nearly 20 years, Police Chief Charlie Beck said, for the city to recover “our faith in our ability to affect the outcome.” At the time, he said, “it seemed like the situation was hopeless and we would never recover from the downward spiral.”
Three-strikes laws and civil injunctions against gangs — two effective law enforcement tools that target career criminals and curtail gang activity — hadn’t yet been adopted.
Technology that police take for granted now wouldn’t arrive for years. Forget DNA analysis, which would eventually break three of the serial killer cases — detectives are quick to say that they had to use pay phones to coordinate responses to shootings.
Gang members were setting aside revolvers for semiautomatic handguns — so instead of manually reloading, they could swap out magazines of bullets, giving rise to the drive-by shooting.
The LAPD, too, was a different organization than it is today. Officers in South L.A. had adopted paramilitary tactics, crashing through the walls of suspects’ homes and wearing balaclava hoods during raids.
Racial animosity and two-way distrust between residents and the police, which would boil over in the 1992 riots, was palpable and meant little cooperation from the community during law enforcement investigations. “It was us against them,” said Carol Sobel, a prominent attorney who has fought in court to diversify the department.
Crack, meanwhile, was creating important cultural changes on the streets — particularly for women who were addicts, prostitutes or mentally ill, as were many of the serial killer victims.
Hundreds of addicts became “strawberries"— trading casual sex for small rocks of crack. In previous years, prostitutes had been offered some modicum of protection by their pimps or at least by working in the area’s many cheap hotels. Now, driven by addiction and expediency, many forsook any notion of safety, taking clients to abandoned houses, vacant lots and dead-end alleys, which is where their bodies began turning up.
Regina Washington, 27, six months pregnant, was found in a garage off South Figueroa Street. Myrtle Collier, 37, in an alley in Lawndale. Verna Williams, 36, in a stairwell of 68th Street Elementary School.
Barbara Ware grew up in a stable household; her father owned a furniture store on West Florence Avenue. She was a high school graduate. She was raising a daughter. She roller-skated Saturdays and went to church Sundays.
But she too succumbed to crack. On Jan. 10, 1987, her body was found in an alley off East 56th Street, a plastic bag draped over her head, trash covering her body. She was 23.
Ware was the fourth of Lonnie Franklin’s victims, according to investigators — but 21 years went by before her parents learned her death was tied to a serial killer.
“At that time, it was just another young African American lady,” said her stepmother, Diana Ware. “It didn’t get a lot of attention.”
She took a breath, then noted that Barbara Ware’s daughter is now 30 and has a daughter of her own. “Barbara would be a grandmother,” Diana Ware said.
Whether the city could have done more to combat the serial killers at the time remains a touchy issue.
Police bristle at the suggestion. LaBarbera, the LAPD detective, said all of the cases were investigated with “vigor.” Police officials say they first formed a task force in 1986 to tackle the killings, assigning 49 detectives who logged 4,800 tips and solved dozens of felonies, including two murders — even if they didn’t solve the serial killings right away.
That task force disbanded in 1988, but in 2001, the LAPD created its cold-case unit, charged with examining 9,000 unsolved murders dating to 1960. In 2007, a homeless man found the body of 25-year-old Janecia Peters in a dumpster off Western Avenue. DNA analysis linked that killing to two others that had already been connected to a 1987 slaying, which had, in turn, been linked to seven other deaths through ballistics evidence.
An investigation team dubbed the 800 Task Force, named after the room number in the LAPD’s former headquarters where the detectives worked, was formed to examine the connections. That work, and an experimental DNA dragnet, eventually led to the arrest of Lonnie Franklin, the alleged Grim Sleeper — an arrest, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said, which demanded “two decades of exhaustive detective work.”
But for Prescod, a founder in 1986 of the Black Coalition Fighting Back Serial Murders, the relief that came with the latest arrest was tempered by decades of frustration — and the sense that more could have been done.
Prescod’s organization had to lobby and cajole to get a reward established in the killings, to get the LAPD to coordinate its efforts with other law enforcement agencies, to get authorities to release to the public a composite sketch of one killer.
For several years, the city insisted on using the label “Prostitution Murders” to refer to the killings. That was not accurate — many, but by no means all, of the victims were prostitutes, and some were also mothers or nursing students — but it wasn’t just an issue of semantics, Prescod argued. By portraying the victims of the killers for so many years as the “dregs of society,” she said, “it gave a false sense of security to women who were not doing those kinds of things.”
Truc Do, the former prosecutor, said the victims of the South L.A. killers weren’t always the most sympathetic cases — and, she agreed, that shouldn’t matter. Do has since gone into private practice; she is a litigator with the L.A. firm Munger, Tolles & Olson.
“You’ve got victims that some people may not feel sympathy for, because they had a drug addiction, or prostituted their bodies to feed that addiction,” Do said. “It’s human nature. But these victims were prey. And they were so vulnerable.”
Prescod also cited incidents in which the investigation fell short. Police have acknowledged that they failed to aggressively follow through after a man called 911 to report seeing Barbara Ware’s body being hauled out of a van in 1987. Police did eventually release a tape of the call — 22 years later. Authorities also missed an opportunity to catch the alleged Grim Sleeper because his DNA was not collected as required under a 2004 law.
The only woman known to have escaped an attack by the Grim Sleeper gave police a detailed description of his unusual orange Ford Pinto with white racing stripes. Police appear to have canvassed Franklin’s street after that, but failed to see he had an orange Pinto. Franklin continued to drive the car for years; neighbors never reported it, though the Pinto was cited in posters at laundromats and markets.
Perhaps the holes in the investigation, Prescod argued, could help explain how most of the killers were so brazen and lived such public lives. Franklin showed one acquaintance a box of women’s underwear he kept behind his house. In one case, Chester Turner walked no further to kill than around the corner from his cheap hotel. He also reportedly attended a post-funeral dinner at the family of one victim.
“Lessons can be learned from this,” Prescod said. “There is no excuse to have a hierarchy of value in human life.”