In Los Angeles, Unsolved Killings Reflected Era

LOS ANGELES — It was the most painful sort of ordinary.

At Mary Alexander’s home is a picture of her daughter, Alicia, who was 18 in 1988 when she was found dead in an alley.
One summer day in 1985, a woman turned up dead in a South Los Angeles alleyway. Almost exactly a year later, another woman with fatal bullet wounds was found, in another alley nearby. And so it went, for nearly 25 years — with a 13-year lull in which the killings seemed to stop — black women, many of whose struggles with drugs had worried or alienated their families, were found dead and discarded around the streets and alleyways of South Los Angeles.

Their killings went unsolved in part because of a lack of witnesses and evidence, but also because Los Angeles County — and particularly the beleaguered corridors south of the 10 Freeway — endured so many murders, some at the hands of other serial killers, it took a long time to confirm that 10 women and one man were killed by the “Grim Sleeper,” so called for his supposed killing hiatus.

“Bodies accumulated,” said Detective Clifford Shepard, who has worked for the Los Angeles Police Department for more than 25 years. “You just didn’t have any information back then. It was an insane time.”

Lonnie David Franklin Jr., a mechanic and auto thief who lived among the victims for all those years, was arrested this month after almost a quarter-century of brutality, linked to the killings through a sophisticated use of DNA analysis.

Most of the victims’ bodies were found within two miles of Mr. Franklin’s home in a fairly circumscribed section of South Los Angeles near the 110 and 105 Freeways. Some were dumped along quiet stretches of south Western Avenue, where single-story homes sit next to ramshackle motels, auto body shops and a park. Others lay in the alleys that cut through residential blocks on either side of Western’s commercial strip, an area dotted with fast food restaurants, liquor stores, and churches big and small.

In many ways, the case sums up the long and painful history of a neighborhood where drug crimes, gang violence and an uneasy relationship with the police combined to hinder the arrest of Mr. Franklin, and contributed to the demise of women whose footing in their community was so unsure, there were few left behind to rage for justice. Most were unaware until recently then that their loved one’s killer had taken other lives.

“I didn’t know about other murders,” said Betty Lowe, the mother of Mary Lowe, the sixth victim. “When the detective was assigned to the case I called practically every day and every day they told me, ‘Nothing yet,’ so I thought it was never going to happen for us.”

While South Los Angeles remains one of the more troubled areas of the city, the arrest of Mr. Franklin also illuminates in many ways how far it has come, both through the vast reduction in violence and the evolution of law enforcement technology and tactics.

“The Grim Sleeper case spans all of that history of South L.A.,” said Joe Hicks, vice president of Community Advocates Inc., who grew up in South Los Angeles. “His activity began in a period of Los Angeles when things were dramatically different, and particularly in the neighborhoods where he operated, and it wasn’t unusual to find bodies in the alleys.

“But the way things have changed over the course of years, the ways the later victims were dealt with, the interaction between the police and community, the way that people in the neighborhood decided we are not going to tolerate” crime and violence among young people, he added. “You superimpose the Grim Sleeper on that, and it is very interesting.”

The 1980s and 1990s, when crack use was widespread, marked a time of intense violence in urban America. There were more than 800 people killed in Los Angeles every year but two from 1985 to 1995. By comparison, 314 people were killed here in 2009.

When the first victim, Debra Jackson, 29, turned up dead, the police were already trying to grapple with other killers who preyed on women, largely women who traded sex for drugs — known as strawberries — in South Los Angeles. A South Side Slayer task force, named for another suspected killer or killers of women, was assigned to unravel the murders.

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