From the outside, the home of suspected serial killer Lonnie Franklin Jr. looked like something out of a fairytale; the place where the elf or the leprechaun lives. Mint-green with a pointy rooftop and surrounded by a wrought-iron fence, the low-slung house stood out among the neighborhood's crème-colored bungalows.
Franklin, who police believe killed at least 10 women and maybe many more, shared this house with his wife of 32 years. Inside, framed family photos covered living room tables and bookshelves. Nearby, in the cluttered office, stood a cot where Franklin's mother-in-law sometimes slept. His grandchildren, who often came by, had their own room, filled with plush toys.
But this respectable-looking home in south Los Angeles, detectives say, was really a house of horrors—the place where the so-called Grim Sleeper kept all his morbid trophies.
During a three-day search of the house, investigators found handguns, pieces of jewelry and, most disturbingly, more than 500 photographs—many sexually explicit—as well as hundreds of hours of x-rated video, depicting women who police suspect may have been murdered. In 180 still photographs taken from the Franklin home and released by the Los Angeles Police Department last week, some women looked unconscious, asleep, or dead.
On some of the video, a man, possibly Franklin, can be heard coaxing a woman to pose. At least one video shows the hand of a man touching a woman who appears to be unconscious. The man remains in the shadows.
Investigators believe that the jewelry—necklaces, rings, earrings, and watches—found at the house may have belonged to the victims, and that Franklin kept them as morbid mementos.
"He was clearly proud of his accomplishments," says former LAPD chief Bernard Parks. "He obviously was documenting his work." Parks, who is now a city councilman, with a district that encompasses the Franklin house and the kill zone, says it is not uncommon for criminals to keep grisly souvenirs "to amuse themselves or to relive the circumstance…of what they did."
Investigators say that Franklin, who had been collecting $1,658 a month in disability pension checks from the city after working as a garbage collector for nine years, led a double life. He was a neighborhood fixture, known for lending a hand to those in need, helping out with car repairs and tune-ups.
He was "the fix-it man," Parks says. "If you needed an auto part, or if you needed a woman's negligee, he was like the neighborhood cinch—the guy you went to." In the neighborhood, people probably knew he had a criminal record; that some of the goods he got weren't quite clean. But people believed he was relatively harmless, and no one seemed to fear him, Parks says.
• Christine Pelisek: New Clue in Grim Sleeper Case "Most people thought of him as happy-go-lucky; an easygoing guy, who was willing to help you…if you needed help," agrees cold case detective Cliff Shepard of the LAPD. "He had this other side" that "friends and family weren't aware of; or, if they were, they won't admit it."
Authorities believe that Franklin had a darker side; that he trawled the streets at night in one of his beat-up cars, looking to pick up women, some of whom he sexually assaulted and murdered, discarding their bodies like trash in dumpsters and alleyways.
"He was obsessed but he also viewed them as throwaways," says Parks. "They served a purpose, and when he was through with them, they had no purpose."
But this respectable-looking home, detectives say, was really a house of horrors—the place where the so-called Grim Sleeper kept all his morbid trophies.
Initially, investigators thought that the Grim Sleeper stopped killing after the 1980s. But eventually, detectives connected the killer to victims found in 2002, 2003 and 2007. Most of the victims had been sexually assaulted and shot with a .25 caliber pistol. Many were last seen in Franklin's neighborhood or found within walking distance of his house in South Los Angeles.
Take Mary Lowe, a 26-year-old receptionist, last seen on Oct. 31, 1987, at a Halloween party at the Love Trap Bar 10 blocks from Franklin's home. She was discovered dead in a nearby alleyway, shot in the chest, the following day.
Or Enietra Washington, who survived her encounter with the Grim Sleeper. One night in November 1988, a man, driving an orange-colored Pinto, picked her up outside a rundown liquor store in South Los Angeles. After driving for a while, the man shot her in the chest, then sexually assaulted her. After the attack, he took a photo of her using a Polaroid camera, before pushing her out of his car. "That is what woke me up," Washington told The Daily Beast last week. "I remember the flash."
When Washington recovered from her injuries, she lead police to a Spanish bungalow just three doors down from Franklin's home. For a month, detectives staked out the house—and the neighborhood—without arresting any suspects. In fact, it would take another 20 years plus before police arrested the man, who they think is responsible for all the killings.
Franklin was tracked down through familial DNA testing after his 28-year-old son was arrested on a weapons charge in the summer of 2009, and had to give up a DNA swab. Detectives quickly set their sights on his father who lived in the epicenter of the killings. After following Franklin around for three days, investigators recovered DNA taken from a slice of pizza Franklin had been eating. The DNA found on the pizza positively matched DNA taken from semen and saliva found on the victims.
On July 8, police arrested Franklin himself outside his mint-green home. Shortly after, they got a warrant to search the house and discovered what they believe is a treasure trove of evidence.
Although it is unclear if any of the guns found in his house were used in the slayings or if the pieces of jewelry discovered have been positively matched to any of the known victims, already the relatives of at least one known murder victim have identified their loved one in one of Franklin's pictures.
As first reported by The Daily Beast last week, family members of Janecia Peters positively identified her as photo number 119 among the 180 shown to the public. The photograph depicts a young African-American woman with her head tilted upward. She is wearing gold necklace.
A homeless man collecting cans from a dumpster discovered the nude body of Peters near a discarded Christmas tree on January 1, 2007. She'd been stuffed in a black garbage bag, wrapped tightly with a twist tie. She was wearing a gold necklace.
"Peters is the first one that has been identified," says veteran LAPD detective Dennis Kilcoyne. "She is the first one we are confident" about. Franklin's attorney, Louisa Pensanti, who is working the case pro bono, declined to comment on the photo of Peters. However, in a statement to ABC News, she criticized the police department for, in the batch of photos, also releasing photos of Franklin's family and friends. Kilcoyne told The Daily Beast that his department left messages for Franklin's family to comb through the photos but they never returned their calls.
He also said that the release of the photos will help identify other potential victims. In the week since the 180 photos were released, the LAPD has received hundreds of calls from anxious tipsters from around the country, according to Kilcoyne. One caller said a women in one of the photos showed his wife who disappeared in 1985; a woman called in to say that she recognized herself in a photo but that she didn't remember posing for the picture or knowing Franklin. Another caller said one of the women in the photos had been killed some time during the 1980s.
Shepard has a theory about the pictures found at Franklin's house.
"I think he just charmed his victims, and probably told them how beautiful they" were, and that he wanted "to keep the photos for his memories."
A preliminary hearing is scheduled for Franklin on January 31.
Christine Pelisek is staff reporter for The Daily Beast, covering crime. She previously was a reporter at the LA Weekly, where she covered crime for the last five years. In 2008, she won three Los Angeles Press Club awards, one for her investigative story on the Grim Sleeper.