The suspect, Lonnie David Franklin, came to the attention of police when his son Christopher’s genetic profile – taken when Christopher was convicted on gun charges – partially matched saliva found on the bodies of dead prostitutes.
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Detectives kept Franklin under surveillance for a week, eventually collecting a sample of his DNA from a discarded pizza crust. When the laboratory results came back, he was picked up and charged with 10 counts of murder.
Police believe Franklin is the “Grim Sleeper”, a serial killer given the name because of the decade-long gap between his two killing sprees, the first of which began in the late 1980s.
Los Angeles police chief Charlie Beck described it as “a landmark case … that will change the way policing is done in the United States”. However, the computer software that can detect possible father-son and sibling matches is currently used only in California and Colorado, and a court case challenging its application is due to be heard
Jerry Brown, California’s Attorney General, attributed the arrest to the DNA-search programme he introduced two years ago. While he recognises that it remains a controversial technique, he believes it is an important one. “We’re in the midst of very powerful new technology and legal battles to make sure we can use it,” he said. “We’re protecting people’s privacy and we’re going to fight to protect this technology.”
Civil-liberties groups are concerned that the extensive use of family DNA testing will lead to even greater racial disparities in the criminal justice system, which imprisons vastly more African-American men than any other group.
In Scotland, the DNA of anyone convicted of even a minor offence can be kept on file for life. In England and Wales, the database is even more extensive, as police have the right to take swabs from everyone they arrest. Under the 2010 Crime And Security Act, the DNA records and fingerprints of innocent people can be retained for six years.
On top of the DNA-testing controversy, the Los Angeles police department faces questions about how the killer was able to remain active for so long. The Grim Sleeper’s victims were mostly women living on the margins of society, working as prostitutes or addicted to drugs. Their bodies were all found in alleys and rubbish tips along the same stretch of Western Avenue in South Los Angeles. Ballistics tests showed they were shot with the same .25 calibre pistol – but police never informed the community that a serial killer was at large.
Inner-city Los Angeles was a brutal place in the late 1980s, plagued by widespread crack cocaine use. Violent confrontations between police officers and gangs were commonplace, and so many bodies were being dumped by the roadside that police speculated several serial killers were at work simultaneously.
A group called the Black Coalition Fighting Back Serial Murders protested that the killing of African-American women scarcely received any attention or police resources. “The low-profile media coverage and problems with the investigation are all examples of women’s lives not counting, and black prostitute women counting least of all,” said founder Margaret Prescod.
Detectives in the Grim Sleeper case had one survivor’s testimony to go on. The woman described a well-groomed black man driving an orange Ford Pinto with a racing stripe on the bonnet. After offering her a lift, he shot her in the chest, sexually assaulted her, took her picture and left her for dead.
By this point – November 1988 – the serial killer was believed to have murdered at least seven women, but something apparently persuaded him to stop for more than a decade.
In 2001, Los Angeles detectives began to apply new forensic-science techniques to unsolved murders. They were surprised to find DNA linking the killer of a teenage runaway, Princess Berthomieux, to the old crime scenes on Western Avenue. However, they kept this knowledge to themselves, even when another corpse, that of Valerie McCorvey, was discovered a year later. A dedicated task force to catch the Grim Sleeper was set up only in 2007.
Following his arrest, Franklin was described by neighbours as a courteous man who looked out for the poorest people in his neighbourhood. He occasionally sold stolen electrical goods, and would mend cars using spare parts of uncertain provenance. His marriage was an on-off relationship but he was said to be a devoted father to his two children.
His house on West 81st Street was less than 200 metres from Western Avenue, and for years he drove an orange Ford Pinto with a racing stripe. He was known to regularly visit prostitutes.
“He was a nice guy, but he was a freaky old man,” his neighbour Francis Williams told the LA Times. “He said he’d get women to do strange things in strange places with him.”
A search of Franklin’s home turned up several firearms.
The Grim Sleeper may yet turn out to be an inaccurate nickname, if more crimes are attributed to the same killer during the years he was presumed dormant. Police are investigating 30 unsolved murders in which no usable DNA samples were collected, and are looking for similarities.
“I believe we will find additional victims,” said Chief Beck.