Murder Was the Case
Lonnie Franklin Jr. may have killed over 100 women during a 25-year killing spree. The press dubbed him the “Grim Sleeper,” but it was the LAPD who kept hitting the snooze button.
Words by Joy Dietrich
Suspension of disbelief is a viewer’s willing refrain from judging the implausibility of fantastical elements in a fictional story. Accepting the unreal parts of a narrative premise alongside some sense of truth is a key part of most powerful, imaginative works. It’s not supposed to be required for documentary films.
One notable exception is Tales of the Grim Sleeper, the latest production by veteran documentary maker Nick Broomfield, which tells the story of Lonnie Franklin Jr., a married father of two who worked as a trash collector and an LAPD garage attendant. The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office charges that he was also a serial killer who raped, strangled, or shot an alarming number of mostly black women in South Los Angeles over a period of 25 years.
The exact number of victims is still to be determined, but the final tally may total more than 100 women, which would make Franklin one of the deadliest serial killers in history. For reasons that remain unclear, the LAPD homicide division took its time getting him off the street. Five years after his arrest, he’s still awaiting trial, which is scheduled to begin in June of 2015.
Tales of the Grim Sleeper, which airs on HBO throughout May, tells a story so extreme it makes suspension of disbelief almost impossible. But as the adage goes, sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.
South Central Los Angeles didn’t need another nightmare. The crack epidemic, gang warfare, steep economic decline, and institutional neglect ravaged the community throughout the 1980s and ’90s. These despairing conditions, documented in countless rap songs and ’hood flicks, led the community to adopt a new name, South Los Angeles, in a 2003 re-branding effort. They also laid the foundation for Grim Sleeper (and other killers as well) to hunt prostitutes and drug-addicted women without hinderance.
“The Lonnie Franklin story is really a story really about a dispossessed, disenfranchised people who are not represented by the police or the city for that matter,” says Broomfield, whose documentary leaves very little doubt that Franklin is the Grim Sleeper. “It’s a bit like the story of Dracula,” the director says last fall after a screening at the New York Film Festival. “He’s almost a mythic character.”
That character does not look like a “typical” serial killer. For one thing, he’s black. (Although, contrary to popular belief, black serial killers are not unheard of.) He isn’t handsome and charismatic like Ted Bundy or creepy like Jeffrey Dahmer. Nor does he resemble Satanic-looking Richard Ramirez, also known as the Night Stalker, who terrorized women in the greater Los Angeles and San Francisco region in the mid 1980s—around the same time the Grim Sleeper began killing.
Franklin is instead a stocky, sociable fellow. A family man who would help neighbors hang their Christmas lights. A reader of Nora Roberts romance novels who would drive around his neighborhood in an orange Ford Pinto.
Some of his habits did raise eyebrows, however. He carried around three cell phones — one for his business, one for his family, and one (according to his son’s high school girlfriend) for his “whores and crackheads.”
His prey were mostly what locals call “strawberries,” women who exchange sex for small rocks of crack. Franklin despised the drug, partly due to his failed first marriage to a female addict, but reports indicate he kept crack on hand to lure women to his lair.
Once he got them to the mobile home he kept parked behind his primary residence, his sexual proclivities tended toward animalistic domination. “He would put a doggie leash around my neck and have sex with me,” says Franklin’s son’s nanny, who was also an addict. “He wanted me to bark and do all this weird shit,” says former sex worker Pamela Brooks, who quickly left the scene, likely saving her own life.
Courtesy of Tales of The Grim Sleeper
A sparkplug of a woman with irresistible freckles, Brooks emerges as the unlikely hero in Broomfield’s documentary. Serving as the British director’s de-facto tour guide through South Central, she opens numerous doors to startling revelations from those who knew Franklin well, many of whom at first wanted to protect him.
When the “strawberry murders” first began occurring in the mid ’80s, law enforcement did not know what to make of them. Most of the women’s bodies were found dumped along alleyways and in trash bins off L.A.’s Western Avenue. They thought it might be the work of one killer, whom they initially called the Southside Slayer. L.A. Weekly journalist Christine Pelisek, who broke the story about the serial murders in 2008, christened him the “Grim Sleeper.” This name derived from the assumption that he first killed in 1985 and then suddenly stopped in 1988 before resuming again in 2002. No more bodies that looked like the killer’s work were found during that 14-year interim.
The moniker is now considered a misnomer. The Grim Sleeper may not have slept at all.
One of the most haunting images in Broomfield’s film is the row-upon-row of photographs of 180 unidentified women ages 14 to 46. The photographs are composites of the nearly 1,000 such photographs found at Franklin’s home. Some were found dead, some are still alive, and many dozens more remain unidentified and missing. Police also discovered hundreds of hours of sexually graphic home video and cell phone footage.
When Franklin was arrested in 2010 by the Los Angeles Police Department, it was on ten counts of murder. But the presence of these photographs, apparent trophies of his sexual encounters, suggest that he might have killed more than a hundred women during his 25-year killing spree.
Why were so many of these women never found? One possible explanation is that Franklin’s victims may have ended up in the city’s landfill. As a former trash collector, he may have used his access to the facility to dispose of the evidence of his crimes.
Faulting politics and law enforcement, Broomfield posits that it was due to the purposeful lack of action by the LAPD that Franklin eluded capture for so long. “He wasn’t caught by the police,” says Broomfield. “He was caught by a computer.”
The LAPD and the California Department of Justice carried out a DNA “familial search” after Attorney General Jerry Brown approved its use in 2008. This relatively new tool matches DNA profiles of a suspect’s possible relatives. This is a controversial evidence-gathering procedure—only California, Colorado, New York, and Florida currently permit familial searches, while Maryland has banned it for unfairly targeting minorities.
Despite Franklin’s many prior felony convictions for stolen property and assault and battery, the LAPD never got around to taking his DNA, Broomfield asserts in the documentary. It was only through Franklin’s son Christopher’s arrest on a weapons charge that Franklin’s family DNA got into the police databases. When they finally came to suspect the elder Franklin, they planted an undercover cop at a local pizzeria and collected traces of saliva from the leftover slice and utensils Franklin discarded at the restaurant.
It is estimated that one in three men in South Central will be incarcerated, Broomfield narrates in the documentary. With a felony conviction, you lose the right to vote. “There’s a widespread feeling in the police force that they are there to serve the law-abiding, tax-paying citizens of the city and they resent the amount of time they have to spend dealing with people on drugs, prostitutes and gang members. And it’s much easier for them to let them kill each other,” Broomfield says.
The director further suggests that Franklin, who is now 62 years old, had fans in the LAPD. When the police would find the bodies of prostitutes, he explains, they would designate these cases as “N.H.I.”–meaning “No Human Involved.” This chilling police slang term suggests that some LAPD officers might have thanked Franklin for cleaning up the streets as the bodies piled up.
“They knew in 1987 that there were at least 7 or 8 people murdered by the same guy,” says Broomfield. “They were taken to Franklin’s street by Enietra Washington [the only survivor of the Grim Sleeper attacks]. They still did not do a house-to-house search on that street.”
“The victims were not all prostitutes or drug addicts,” says Margaret Prescod, a founder of the Black Coalition Fighting Back Serial Murders, who also appears in Broomfield’s documentary. “Some were just women running a quick errand or going to work.” What enrages Prescod is that at no point did the police warn the community about the killings taking place at that time so that women could take lifesaving precautions. “They sure weren’t doing their jobs,” she says. “If it were a killer of white women, it would be all over the news.”
She and a few others in the community felt compelled to form this organization back in 1985 when seemingly nothing was being done on behalf of the victims and their families. Although the homicide rates have dropped in South Los Angeles since the 1980s, the Black Coalition does not plan to shut down.
Courtesy of Margaret Prescod
Another possible explanation for police inaction is that the wave of rapes and murders of the women were lost amidst a larger uptick in crime during that era. In 1984, when the body of the first victim was found, the LAPD investigated 757 homicides, which represents 292 percent more cases than 2014’s 259. Needless to say, the cops were inundated with violent crime.
South Los Angeles in the 1980s was imploding from its storied political activist past. Once the stomping ground for the Black Panthers and the Black Power movement in the ‘60s and ‘70s, the community paid a heavy price when industrial restructuring made businesses and the middle class take flight, leaving no viable economic options for the area’s population.
The neighborhood has a 50 percent high school dropout rate and in the 1980s, crack dealers were hiring more than AT&T, IBM and Xerox combined, says Broomfield in the documentary. South Central was in fact crack’s first entry point into the U.S.—some have argued that the CIA played a role in introducing the drug there—before spreading like wildfire to the rest of the country. It has yet to lessen its grip on the community.
“There’s still a crack epidemic,” says Brooks, who has since become sober and left the streets. “South Central’s going to be South Central.”
Though Tales of the Grim Sleeper focuses on the story of Franklin and the social conditions that allowed him to kill for such a long time, the wider situation is even harder to comprehend. Law enforcement sources now believe that as many as five serial killers were active in South L.A. from 1984 to 1993.
Besides Franklin, South Los Angeles also had: former pizza delivery man, Chester Turner, 48, who has been on death row for raping and strangling at least a dozen women; unemployed construction worker, Louis Craine, incarcerated for strangling four to five women between 1984 and 1987 (Craine died in prison in 1989); Michael Hughes, 59, a security guard, who allegedly killed four women; and Daniel Lee Siebert, an art teacher, who confessed to murdering two in South Central out of about a dozen he killed in total.
According to the Los Angeles Times, DNA evidence suggests that at least two more men, who have not been caught, were responsible for at least four more deaths. This increases the count to seven possible serial killers in South Los Angeles during the same period.
“It was like a feeding frenzy,” Broomfield concludes. “They thought they could get away with it, because it was basically unpoliced. No one cared about these people. So anyone could go down there and do what he wanted to and probably get away with it.”
From killers to cops, the lack of regard for human life was startling. “For us addicts, it was nothing but prostitution, drama,” recalls Brooks. “Policemen didn’t care enough about us, because we were addicts and so if a mother-fucker did snatch you, who gave a fuck? You shouldn’t be out here anyway.”