Release of photos in Grim Sleeper case brings major response
The Los Angeles Police Department was inundated with hundreds of phone calls, e-mails and other tips a day after detectives released photographs of unidentified women found in a trailer belonging to alleged serial killer Lonnie Franklin Jr.
“The information coming in is voluminous,” said Det. Dennis Kilcoyne, who headed the task force that searched for Franklin. Officers, he said, have fielded “hundreds upon hundreds” of phone calls, as well as e-mails and text messages that flooded in through various hotlines and online accounts the department uses.
When Franklin, who is accused of sexually assaulting and murdering 10 African American women in South L.A., was arrested in July, authorities found a disturbing trove of about 1,000 photographs and hundreds of hours of video of women. Some of the images appeared to be innocent snapshots, but most showed the women in various states of undress and striking sexual poses.
Fearing that some of the women could be additional victims, detectives set out to identify them. Some of the material dated back to the 1980s and included video and digital camera images, Polaroids, conventional prints and even undeveloped film. The LAPD estimates that it is trying to identify about 160 people.
Attempts to find the women in missing persons databases and coroner’s photographs went nowhere. With no other options, detectives began considering releasing the images to the public in hopes that the women themselves, family members or acquaintances would recognize them and contact investigators.
The decision to do so was not made lightly. Detectives said they were concerned about how the images should be presented to the public given the explicit nature of the material, and understood that the photo release could force the women to revisit encounters with Franklin from periods in their lives they would rather forget.
In the end, the LAPD opted to release closely cropped versions of the images that show the women’s faces. Detectives also wanted to be sensitive to the families of the 10 women Franklin is alleged to have killed. Before the announcement, they invited members of the victims’ families to LAPD headquarters to view the images that would be released.
Kilcoyne acknowledged that some might be offended by the decision to go public with the pictures and video stills. In the end, though, the need to know the fate of the women and how Franklin had come to collect the images outweighed the potential embarrassment to the women. For similar reasons, The Times has published the images.
“We are just trying to do what is right and decent,” Kilcoyne said. “We are very cognizant of not causing embarrassment or anguish to the people depicted in the photographs.”
Franklin has pleaded not guilty and is in custody awaiting trial.
The release of the images appeared to pay off. LAPD Chief Charlie Beck said at a news conference Friday that information gathered from callers had led to tentative identifications of five of the women.
“We are working to verify that. I cannot give you any update on their well-being or status, but we have names to connect to some faces,” Beck said. “I encourage the public to continue to bring us names.”
Franklin is charged with killing seven women from 1985 to 1988 and three more between 2002 and 2007. He is linked to the killings through a combination of ballistics and DNA evidence, police and prosecutors have said.
It is the 14 years of apparent dormancy between the two sets of killings that has most confounded police and that led the LA Weekly to dub Franklin the Grim Sleeper. Before identifying Franklin as the alleged Grim Sleeper, Kilcoyne and others said it was unlikely the killer stopped preying on women during this period. More likely, they said, is that police did not find any evidence to link him to the bodies. So the discovery of the photos and videos was all the more unsettling, as detectives wondered whether they were looking at an eerie montage of women Franklin encountered during the period.
Beck said the photos may address the apparent gap in the killings. “One of the things Dennis [Kilcoyne] is hoping to determine from the public’s response to these photos is what he was doing during the 14 years. Obviously we have a hole in his history, and we are trying to fill that hole,” the chief said.
Times staff writer Richard Winton contributed to this report.