“The Grim Sleeper,” Christine Pelisek’s painfully relevant new book about the notorious South Central serial killer of perhaps 25 or more women, comes at a time when true crime has been made great again. The agents of that greatness have not been books but, rather, podcasts and television series, of the kind frequently appended with the “prestige” label, lest anyone mistake them for unserious entertainment on par with slasher flicks or the kinds of lurid quasi-documentaries that play on cable late at night.
Given that recent trend, it is my duty to warn you that “The Grim Sleeper” is not preceded by a quirky MailChimp ad, à la the first season of the “Serial” podcast. Nor is it a hothouse of Reddit investigative fervor (Netflix series “Making a Murderer”) or a foray into the politics of Providence so involved that it will have you talking in a Rhode Island accent (the podcast “Crimetown”).
Instead, “The Grim Sleeper” is the frill-free work of a veteran LA Weekly journalist who gave the subject of this book, Lonnie D. Franklin Jr., his name in a 2008 cover story for that alternative weekly, just as he seemed to be concluding his second killing spree. Pelisek doesn’t tout the fact that she and her editor came up with that morbidly catchy moniker, which is a sign of her broader approach to the business of journalism, a welcome departure from the look-at-me school of reportage that the discipline “narrative nonfiction” too eagerly encourages. This isn’t her story, and Pelisek knows it. Paradoxically, that’s what makes her story so good.
Franklin, a local sanitation worker and mechanic who’d once held a job in an LAPD shop, started preying on prostitutes in South Central in the mid-1980s. Even longtime Angelenos who remember the crack years will be surprised to learn, I suspect, that there were six separate serial killers prowling that “fifty-one-square-mile area,” according to Pelisek. “They were all hunting the same game. Poor black women desperate to score a next hit of the highly addictive crack cocaine that was ravaging the working-class neighborhood.”
The high body count in South Central is partly why Franklin was so difficult to find, for it made it the work of parsing who’d killed whom near impossible, especially in that age before DNA analysis. It was also the age of Daryl Gates, the LAPD chief who seemed to have had a barely concealed disdain for black Angelenos (as the recent 25th anniversary of the Rodney King verdict reminded). Gates doesn’t come across well here; he doesn’t deserve to. After a local activist lambasted the efforts of police, Gates lashed out, calling her “asinine” and saying of those who criticized his department’s efforts, “Those dummies should be applauding.”
The heart of this book — which is indeed grim, but also necessary — is in its subtitle, “The Lost Women of South Central.” Pelisek’s purview isn’t just the women Franklin lured into his car, shot with his .25mm handgun and dumped in back alleys off South Central’s main thoroughfares. She makes the case, without belaboring it, that these women were lost long before they were dead, “collateral damage, easy pickings for a serial killer.” Pelisek writes of church groups reluctant to aid the investigation because even though “they abhorred the murders, they saw the prostitutes as sinners and didn’t want to be viewed as supporting that lifestyle.”
And before these women were lost, they were largely forgotten, estranged from their families, beyond the reach of whatever meager municipal services could have helped them. Their deaths therefore lacked the weight of tragedy. As a poignant converse to their collective plight, Pelisek recounts the 1988 killing of Karen Toshima, a 27-year-old bystander felled in a Westwood Village gang shootout. The killing was the source of a citywide outcry, but the outrage seemed glaringly selective. “Nobody cares about blacks and browns,” an activist said at the time. ”California is the land of opportunity only in Westwood and Sherman Oaks. In South Central, it is the land of crime.”
At its best, “The Grim Sleeper” is an informal ethnography that describes how African American families came to Los Angeles from the South and Midwest, what they found there, what they didn’t. It is a group portrait of families clawing their way into the middle class, only to often slip back into poverty, drugs and alcohol. Pelisek is masterful in teasing out the stories of Franklin’s victims. For the first time, you will know their names, and their names will stay with you.
I keep returning to Alicia “Monique” Alexander, who loved to ride horses. She went astray, as teenagers do, but there was little room for youthful error in South Central in the 1980s. One evening, she vanished after heading out to a convenience store on Normandie Avenue. Six days later, she was found in an alley, naked, under a blue mattress.
The Grim Sleeper returned in 2002, but this time around, his “work” was cut short. That’s in large part because in 2008, then-state Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown expanded the state’s familial DNA testing capabilities, to which civil libertarians had objected (Pelisek also gives credit to a newly reformed LAPD, led by William Bratton).
It was a familial DNA match — to Franklin’s son Christopher, who’d been convicted of felony gun charges — that led LAPD detectives to the mint-green house on West 81st Street where Lonnie lived. Franklin was arrested in 2010, charged with 10 counts of murder, and convicted and sentenced to death in 2016.
In what may be the book’s most powerful moment, Franklin is confronted in the courtroom by Enietra Washington, the only woman known to have survived an attack by the Grim Sleeper: “You go back to Satan where you belong,” she tells him. Every indication is that he’s headed there, sooner or later.
The Grim Sleeper is presently having something of a moment, even as he continues to languish on death row in San Quentin State Prison. In addition to Pelisek’s book, there was the recent exhibit of Kenyatta A.C. Hinkle’s paintings and drawings at the California African American Museum, just up the road from where Franklin prowled. The show, called “The Evanesced,” pays tribute not only to the black women claimed by Franklin but also to the thousands who go missing each year and have nothing written about them. They are victims of crimes in which apathy is an accomplice.
That’s why, uncomfortable as it may be, attention to the Grim Sleeper is necessary. It is also attention to his victims, who might otherwise be forgotten. Pelisek admits that she never penetrates his psyche, and that can rightly be judged as one of the book’s failings. Then again, what was he going to tell her? In the end, what may be most disturbing about killers like Franklin is how dull they are, how little they resemble the bloodily baroque Hannibal Lecter figure we’ve come to expect. Their demons are lurid but also boring, and so are the lives these killers lead. Maybe that is why they are difficult to spot in the common thrum of humanity.
I visited the Hinkle exhibition on a Saturday afternoon, while my 4-year-old daughter made drawings of her own at a table set up for children in the museum’s airy atrium. Then I left her and the rest of my family and headed south, toward the streets and avenues Pelisek described. I’d been there last to write about King. Now, about a serial killer. Next, there will be a happy story. We know such stories exist in South L.A., we simply do not tell them often enough.
The neighborhood is much more Latino than it was in the 1980s. Many of South L.A.’s black residents have moved to Palmdale, so you are more likely to see an empanada stand than a Carolina-style smokehouse, an iglesia evangelica than an African Methodist Episcopal church. But demographic changes aside, the air is still full of dust. There are too many cars and not enough trees, a problem perhaps endemic to Los Angeles but acute here. Overhead, jets make their final approaches to LAX, showing their undersides to South L.A., taunting with possibilities of somewhere else.
The streets that surrounded Franklin’s lair on 81st remain suburban in their meticulous calm, interrupted only by the yapping of small dogs or the crying of children. The lawns are green and neat; old folks sit on porches.
The house is in the 1700 block of 81st. It was a sickly green then, it is a tidy white now, but otherwise it is the same house. Nothing indicates, of course, that a serial killer once lived here. “Everything turns away,” W.H. Auden once wrote, “Quite leisurely from the disaster.” People need a place to live, and with prices being what they are…. There is an Amazon box and some other paper trash on the edge of the lawn, which has been yellowed by the sun. You can tell the people here have a child. Do they know who lived here before them? Does it matter? Death won’t have the last word here.
Nazaryan is a senior writer at Newsweek.
Counterpoint Press: 325 pp., $26