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A brutal but vital approach

There were a million other things I should have been doing on the computer last Thursday night — working on my weekend column, wrapping up my online holiday shopping....

But instead, I sat clicking one by one through 180 photos of women linked to a man accused of being a serial killer.

I studied the smiles, the eyes, the state of dress, or undress, of women whose images were found by police among the effects of the South Los Angeles man charged with 10 murders blamed on the “ Grim Sleeper.”

The Los Angeles Police Department wants to know the identity and fate of the women and to account for a 14-year gap in the string of serial killings. The Times posted the gallery online and published it on the front page after it was publicly released by the LAPD.

I can’t say what bothered me most as I went from photo to photo — images like the first, a tight-lipped close-up of what appears to be a dead woman, or the last, a young lady with a radiant smile and a missing front tooth.

It would be putting it mildly to say the photo tour unsettled me. It was horribly, chillingly mesmerizing. And I was far from the only one both fascinated and troubled by the images.

The Times’ online gallery has drawn more than 18 million page views from more than 300,000 individuals — a level of interest that shocked many in the newsroom. The number of clicks beat the single-day record for latimes.com, set the day Michael Jackson died. These couldn’t all be people looking for missing family members and friends. I wasn’t.

From the viewer comments it’s clear the photos drew plenty of amateur sleuths, analyzing tinfoil-covered windows and tattoos. We heard from the curious and the concerned, the voyeuristic and the judgmental, the prayerful and the perverted.

Hundreds of thousands of people trolled through decades-old images of women, now publicly and permanently linked to a string of local sex killings.

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Number 47 looks like my second-grade teacher. Number 83 resembles one of my daughters. Number 66 calls to mind my children’s grandmother. And although some faces were cropped from near-naked bodies, others were shot outdoors, wearing boots and jackets.

The lawyer for Grim Sleeper suspect Lonnie Franklin Jr. blasted police, calling the photo gallery “a tactic … to taint the jury pool and excite the public.” More than a dozen photos are of Franklin’s friends and family, attorney Louisa Pensanti told me.

“There’s no reason for them to be under this scrutiny,” she said. “I think the police are cruel … to put everything out there like that.”

I could see her point. Not all the photos were sexually explicit. Yet their inclusion in the gallery suggests something illicit.

Do officers really believe all these women may have been victims? I put the question to Det. Dennis Kilcoyne, head of the LAPD task force investigating the Grim Sleeper killings. His answer surprised me.

“I’m hoping there’s a large percentage of these photos that are friends, neighbors, family members, people who have no trauma in their life other than … what I’m doing to them here,” he said.

“But just because somebody has their clothes on doesn’t mean they didn’t have some strange contact with Mr. Franklin.” He reminded me that some of the Grim Sleeper’s victims were found clothed and that the youngest was 14.

Kilcoyne understood the question that nagged me as I moved among the images — from bedraggled women with drug-glazed eyes to stern-faced matrons to teenagers wearing bright clothes and big smiles:

How do you weigh the potential damage publicity does to individual lives against the opportunities it provides to uncover crimes and bring closure to worried families?

I think of the stories I heard when I visited Franklin’s block after his arrest last summer. Neighbors told me they had seen his films and photos; that he bribed drug addicts to perform for the camera by plying them with crack cocaine.

I imagine that many of these women deem that chapter closed. I think of a student, a mother, a grocery store checker, sober now but forced to relive her worst moments. Women running as fast as they can from a past as drug addicts, captured staring suggestively into a camera.

Attorney Nancy Conroy put it quite dramatically in an e-mail to The Times protesting our front-page publicity: “These cases are cold, and the alleged killer is already in custody. These rape victims are now seen all over the world, receiving the same level of publicity as Osama bin Laden or Public Enemy No. 1.”

Hers was the only letter the newspaper received expressing concern over the women’s privacy.

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I suppose we all see this, like so many things, through the lens of a group, a gender, a set of life experiences. For me, that translated to pain at the thought of so many women’s secrets unmasked.

Is the public attention trained on these private lives a sign of disrespect, a reflection of the lack of dignity accorded poor black women? Or it is a make-up call, an overdue acknowledgement of the horrible toll of a murderous rampage ignored too long?

It’s both to me. Det. Kilcoyne sees something else. This is less law enforcement tactic than moral mission, he told me.

“Quite honestly, I don’t believe if we found another handful of victims in there we would even pursue prosecution of those cases,” he told me. “But the families of these people would like to know an answer.

“I don’t want to upset people, but weigh that against: that’s your daughter, your sister, and you’ve been looking for her for 10 years.” Kilcoyne admits that police have not always handled this case with sensitivity. “I’ve made some stupid mistakes along the way in the last couple of years,” he said. And he’d worried about how the gallery would be perceived.

Hundreds of phone calls have come in, and police have heard from at least 20 families who have identified someone from the photos.

Kilcoyne told me, “One woman called and said ‘I’m picture such-and-such. I let him take pictures and I’m so thankful and so lucky that I’m alive.’ ”

“She said ‘It was a stupid thing I did. No one knew. I just want you to know I’m OK now.’ ”

Was she ashamed of her inclusion, of having to confront a low point from her past? I asked.

“I’m sure she was embarrassed,” the detective said. “But she thanked us.”

And he thanked her, for giving him one more name that won’t wind up on what may be a growing victim list.

sandy.banks@latimes.com


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