On the Media: A reporter’s vigilance in the Grim Sleeper case
How deep did reporter Christine Pelisek get into the Grim Sleeper serial killer case?
So deep that the victims’ families demanded she sit in on one mass meeting with police. So deep that people she had never met delivered hunches and, in one case, a napkin smeared with a semen sample. So deep that the mystery figure killing young black women in South Los Angeles seemed to pop up everywhere, even in her dreams.
When police finally identified and arrested Lonnie David Franklin Jr. last week in connection with a string of 10 killings dating to the 1980s, the credit went largely to an innovation that allowed criminals to be tracked through their relatives’ DNA.
But that the terrible, slow-motion slaughter even became known to the public owes to the obsessive reporting of Pelisek, a star investigative reporter for the LA Weekly.
An inherently inquisitive Canadian with a knack for winning the trust of people unlike herself, Pelisek pushed to get authorities to tell her about their suspicion that the killings of seven young women in the 1980s might be connected to a skein of new deaths that began in 2002.
The reporter battled and succeeded in getting hesitant Los Angeles police investigators to drop the veil of secrecy around their work and acknowledge their hunt for a suspect Pelisek described as “a monstrous phoenix.” Her resulting story in summer 2008 spread the word to poor and working-class residents of South L.A. about the menace lingering in their community.
“From the day she called to say ‘I want to talk to you about your daughter’ until today, she has been there all the way,” said Laverne Peters, whose 25-year-old daughter, Janecia, was one of the last of those killed allegedly by Franklin, a backyard mechanic. “She made sure people knew. She made sure they stayed in the limelight.”
Pelisek grew up around Ottawa, the granddaughter of a reporter. “I think I was born being nosy,” she said. “I had to know everybody’s business.”
After college she covered hockey for a couple of small papers. She moved to Japan, where she freelanced and taught English. About a decade ago, a trip to L.A. got her interested in the city. She landed a job as a researcher at the Weekly.
At the alternative paper, her native curiosity, passion for foreign cultures and love of crime mysteries (she was a young fan of scattered, penetrating “Columbo” on TV) came together. One prototypical Pelisek story, in early 2007, explored the life of a party crew — young women who thrived on drinking, drugs, dance and occasional violence.
Her friend Deborah Vankin, once an LA Weekly colleague and now editor of The Times’ sister publication Brand X, said Pelisek was one to be sitting on a bar stool one minute, socializing, and running out to grab quotes for a story the next. So it was not entirely shocking when the pals went out one night in late 2006 and ended up at a raucous house party in El Sereno.
The party, hosted by the Vicious Ladies party crew, broke up when a rival group came by and fired shots into the air. “I just remember Christine flipping through her notes, the pages were blowing in the wind, like nothing happened,” Vankin recalled. “I can’t imagine anywhere she would not go for a story.”
Her fascination with the South L.A. killings began at about that same time, when a source in the L.A. County coroner’s office tipped her that police were looking at a possible connection between a series of bodies dumped around the city, many in alleys.
Over “months and months and months” Pelisek pestered the coroner’s official to give up a list of 38 victims. When she finally broke the source down, she began calling police in several cities and the L.A. County sheriff looking for possible connections.
She was coming to the last names on the list when she finally tracked down an Inglewood detective who offered, almost as an afterthought: “You know this case is connected, don’t you?” As in connected to a series of 1980s killings — tied by the common DNA left by the attacker.
The revelation that a serial killer had been on the loose for two decades sent Pelisek into overdrive — grinding detectives for more details, buttonholing relatives of the victims, demanding to know why the public hadn’t been told about a killer on the loose. Some relatives of the dead learned, for the first time, from the reporter that their loved one might be a victim in a serial crime.
Lead LAPD Det. Dennis Kilcoyne, who had determined the homicides should be investigated quietly so the suspect would not run, called the reporter who wanted to publicize the serial killer task force “a real pain in the butt” and a “bulldog.” Today, at least, he offers those assessments with equal admiration.
With Pelisek determined to go ahead with her story tying the old and new murders together, the LAPD finally relented and Kilcoyne helped fill in some of the missing details. The Weekly revealed the investigation in August 2008.
The story made her a principal repository for any new revelations in the case of the Grim Sleeper — whom she named with her editor to describe the 13-year gap between the earlier and later killings.
One woman who thought her friend might be the killer brought a fork he used for dinner to the Weekly offices, asking Pelisek to pass it to police as a DNA sample. Another woman suspected her husband. She arranged to meet the reporter in a park and brought the semen-laden napkin. Pelisek turned the items over to police.
Families of the victims talk today with admiration about her persistence and the rough neighborhoods she would visit, seemingly without a care. But mostly they kept recalling to the moment when Pelisek first entered their lives. Someone showed up. Someone cared about loved ones the world seemed to have forgotten.
Porter Alexander Jr. had been racked with guilt for two decades since the 1988 murder of his daughter Alicia “Monique” Alexander, 18. Then a reporter found the way to his doorstep to explain that police might believe this wasn’t an isolated crime.
“Here was someone who wanted to make a difference,” Alexander said, “to see things that were overlooked.”