‘Everybody knew Lonnie’
Lonnie David Franklin Jr. was a smalltime crook, but his neighbors didn’t worry about a guy who could get you a nice price on a flat-screen TV and who kept a “don’t ask, don’t tell” supply of car parts stashed behind his spearmint green house.
Even if his narrow street in South L.A. was lined with well-kept homes and pruned hedges, the neighborhood was beset with generational poverty and a parade of addicts, dealers and gang-bangers. Franklin had his issues; his encounters with women, in particular, could veer from overtly promiscuous to downright hostile, friends and neighbors said. Still, he was seen as something of a gem — a good neighbor, quick with a helping hand.
He had the gift of gab, too, about the Lakers and the Dodgers, “CSI” and “48 Hours.” Inevitably, conversation turned to the Grim Sleeper, a serial killer who had taken the lives of at least 10 women. The subject was hard to avoid; sketches of the suspect were plastered on the walls of liquor stores, and Franklin lived down the street from a billboard seeking leads in the case that showed the faces of the young victims.
This week, officials identified Franklin, 57, as the Grim Sleeper — not just a smalltime crook, but an elusive and prolific serial killer.
Franklin was ordered held without bail Thursday after being charged with 10 counts of murder and one count of attempted murder. He has conceded nothing to investigators, police said.
The first victim attributed to him was Debra Jackson, 29, a waitress who was shot in the chest in 1985 and whose body was discarded in an alley; the most recent was Janecia Peters, 25, whose body was found in a dumpster on New Year’s Day 2007.
All of the victims Franklin has been charged with killing were young African American women who lived on the margins of society, and some of them worked as prostitutes. Most had been sexually assaulted and then shot with the same small-caliber handgun, and almost all were killed along one corridor straddling Western Avenue — which passed 200 feet west of Franklin’s home on West 81st Street.
To say that Franklin had been hiding in plain sight would be vast understatement.
Effusive and outgoing, Franklin attended the graduation ceremonies of neighbors’ children and brought gifts to elderly neighbors on their birthdays.
The window box outside his kitchen was full of leafy plants and after supper, when the lights were on, you could see him washing dishes over the sink. He had an on-again, off-again relationship with his wife of 30 years, but he doted on his two children, now grown, teaching them how to drive and fixing their cars. When his mother-in-law got sick, he was the one who took her to the doctor.
“His family didn’t want for nothing,” said neighbor Yvette Williams, 45. “No one in the world is an angel. But I could admire someone for taking care of his family and his home.”
So what if the guy was running a chop shop? “Just Lonnie,” one neighbor shrugged. He was just trying to make a buck like everybody else. Several neighbors recalled thinking: It’s not like he’s killing people.
He had lived here for decades, and was a neighborhood character with a neighborhood business — one that was, depending on the day, aboveboard, off-the-books and a charity service.
He ran a retail shop of sorts — some electronics, such as speakers and computers still in sealed boxes, but also bicycles he rebuilt, according to those who knew him.
“I got two flat-screen TVs and put one in my son’s room and the other in my daughter’s room,” said Tomia Bowden, 42, who has lived in the neighborhood since 2001. Franklin had been convicted twice of felony possession of stolen property. “Stolen? Oh, hell yeah,” Bowden said. “But that don’t make him no killer.”
Franklin was an automobile aficionado and a wizard under the hood; he also had an astonishing array of parts stacked to the rafters of the two-car garage behind his home, which was painted the same shade of green as his house.
One neighbor, who agreed to be identified only by her first name, Jackie, said the side mirror of her truck was recently knocked off by a passing car on Western Avenue. She went to her neighbor, who sent her to Franklin.
“He said, ‘Oh, yeah, I got one of them for a GMC. What year is yours?’ ” Jackie recalled. “That man went into his backyard and came out with that damn thing. I couldn’t believe it.… He worked through this whole neighborhood. Everybody knew Lonnie.”
Franklin had worked for the city of Los Angeles throughout the 1980s, first as a maintenance assistant, then as a sanitation truck operator. For a short time, he was a garage attendant at the LAPD’s 77th Street Division station. According to state employment records, he was injured in the job in 1987, and law enforcement officials said he had received disability checks.
Friends said his wife, Sylvia, worked in a legal office and may have owned some rental property elsewhere in South Los Angeles. Combined with his side businesses, friends said, it added up to a nice little life.
To the poorest residents in the area, particularly the elderly, he was exceptionally kind — routinely replacing their tires or tinkering with their engines at no cost. He shared his beer with neighbors and was hardly, as the cliche goes, a quiet man who kept to himself; one neighbor said she shied away from him on the street — not because he was a creep, but because she would never be able to pull away from the conversation.
The visibility may have acted as a shield of sorts.
No one appears to have noticed, for instance, that for years he drove a dated, bright orange Pinto with red racing stripes — the same type of vehicle that was once described as the killer’s car by the one victim who was known to have escaped from the Grim Sleeper.
The victim who survived also told police that the killer had taken a photograph of her after he sexually assaulted her. One friend, Albert Shelby, 63, recalled Thursday that he was riding with Franklin one day when Franklin popped open the glove compartment and pulled out a stack of photographs of naked women.
It all added up to a terrifying, silent stasis — and it lasted for nearly 25 years. It also may have allowed numerous neighbors, acquaintances and clients looked past Franklin’s unusual relationships with women.
Toward women he regarded as upstanding citizens, he was a charmer, several acquaintances said.
“His personality was kind of flirtatious,” said neighbor Rosie Hunter, 37. “For 57, he looked really good.”
Yvette Williams, 45, said she was getting her car fixed by Franklin one day when he told her he wanted to show her something. He opened a brown box in his garage; inside was a pile of women’s underwear.
“That was just Lonnie,” she said.
But Franklin’s relationship with prostitutes appears to have been far darker. Several neighbors said he was known to visit with them with some regularity. One 46-year-old friend named Courtney said he spoke about them openly and vividly and sometimes in bitter terms. Neighbor Donna Harris, 43, said he called them “crack heads” and other names.
“He was a nice guy, but he was a freaky old man. He just talked nasty,” said longtime neighbor Francis Williams, 39. “He said he’d get women to do strange things in strange places with him.”
“He was always talking about prostitutes,” Yvette Williams said. “He said they were no good.”
About five years ago, a young woman who lived next door to Franklin accused him of training an outdoor camera into her bedroom. One of the woman’s cousins got into a physical confrontation with Franklin and the woman’s mother, 51-year-old Theresa Shelby, said she confronted Franklin, who denied the accusation.
“We got beyond that,” Shelby said.
Meanwhile, time and again, detectives were stymied in the case.
In 2008, officials collected data from the DNA of state prisoners and came up with nothing. But last year, Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown approved the use of a new DNA technique — a “familial search” that would reveal if any of those prisoners had close relatives whose DNA might match the killer’s.
Records show that Franklin’s 31-year-old son, Christopher Franklin, was arrested in 2008 and charged with firearm and drug offenses. The son was required to submit his DNA — the break in the case, officials said.
Police officials zeroed in immediately on Franklin. They began surveillance while they were assembling the case, officials said. Wanting to ensure that he was a DNA match, detectives picked up a piece of pizza he discarded, cutlery he used and even the door handle of his car.
Neighbors began to notice undercover police cars cruising the area. Franklin noticed too.
“We were talking about the cops all around,” neighbor Harris said. “He said something like: ‘You see the two down the street?’ We were wondering who they were here for. Was he wondering if they were here for him? I don’t know.”
Early this week, the LAPD firmed up the DNA match; Police Chief Charlie Beck authorized the arrest. Neighbor Yvette Williams said she was at her godson’s house on 81st Street on Wednesday morning when she saw Franklin walk to the curb to retrieve a stray ball that children had been playing with.
“That’s when the police swooped in,” she said. “I was shocked.”
He did not resist.
Franklin’s was a small enough world that Manfred Manson, 46, who lived nearby and drank beer on occasion with Franklin, also knew one of Franklin’s alleged victims, Alicia Alexander, 18, who was killed in the fall of 1988 after she left home to walk to a convenience store.
“I knew the victim and I knew the killer,” Manson said. “Ain’t that something?”
Many in the neighborhood are still struggling to come to grips with the two images they have now of Franklin — of a good neighbor, a good father, and of a man Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa described Thursday as a “vicious murderer.”
Dante Combs, 27, had Franklin install a timing belt on his car last week.
Maybe, Combs said, “you never really know a man.”
Times staff writers Jack Leonard, Richard Winton, Andrew Blankstein, Joel Rubin, Corina Knoll and Victoria Kim contributed to this report.