08.03.12

Los Angeles Police Pin Old Murders of Three Women on Dead Serial Killer

Three decades after a serial killer began murdering women in Southern California, police have used DNA and forensic evidence to identify him as Larry D. Hubbard, who died in a Florida jail in 2007.

The first body was found in a patch of weeds in Los Angeles’s industrial wastelands. The victim, a woman, was naked; her feet and wrists had been bound. A second body was discovered in a vacant field near a school 60 miles east of the city. The woman, also naked, lay facedown, in a semi-fetal position. The third body was found, partially clothed, in a dirt gulley of a desolate area, miles away in the county of Riverside. She, like the others, had been strangled.

The cases were 20 years apart but detectives, after digging through old records and looking at forensic evidence and DNA, believed it was the work of a serial killer. But they didn’t have a suspect to match the DNA.

Now, nearly three decades after the original crime, detectives say they have found their man: a wanted fugitive from Miami who has been dead since 2007. In late June, blood tests confirmed that Larry D. Hubbard, who went on the lam in 1977 after he escaped from a Florida prison, is the killer, detectives say.

Los Angeles Police Department cold case detective Lou Rivera and his partner, Peter Lee, began piecing together the clues shortly after Rivera was assigned the case in 2010. “It was like finding a needle in a haystack,” said Rivera. “But if you stick with it long enough it will unravel.”

Sonia Smith’s nude body was found dumped along a roadway in South Los Angeles on August 19, 1980. The 25-year-old prostitute had been bound and strangled. Her feet were tied together at the ankles. After combing through Smith’s murder book, Rivera noted that the detectives in the 1980s found some similarities with another murder that happened on November 4, almost three months later. The body of Phyllis McClinton was found in a nearby field in South Los Angeles. The MO was eerily similar, said Rivera. Like Smith, McClinton had been bound and strangled.

Tucked inside McClinton’s murder book, Rivera found a similar case on November 19—15 days after McClinton was killed—involving a young prostitute who had been almost choked to death with a shoelace, but survived. The woman told detectives a man approached her around 2 p.m. along the Figueroa Corridor— an infamous stretch in Los Angeles known for prostitution and seedy hourly motels—looking for a date. They drove to his home in South Los Angeles and had sex but shortly thereafter, he attempted to strangle her with a shoelace. “He tied her hands and feet and put tape over her mouth and locked her inside his house,” said Rivera. “She managed to free herself and call the police.”

Police arrested 28-year-old Larry D. Hubbard, a self-employed, married janitor from the Virgin Islands, and charged him with false imprisonment. He was sentenced to six months in prison and four years' probation.

Initially, homicide investigators in the 1980s said they believed Smith and McClinton were killed by the Southside Slayer, a mythical serial killer whom police thought was responsible for the murders of at least 50 women in South L.A. during the 1980s. The victims had been dumped in parks, alleys, roadsides, and school yards. They ranged in age from 22 to 41. Most were black prostitutes working in South Los Angeles. Some had been strangled. Others were stabbed. Many had been sexually assaulted.

But through improved forensic technology—and dogged detective work—detectives discovered they were not Southside Slayer victims. Instead, many of the killings attributed to the Southside Slayer actually were the grim work of several killers stalking the same area during the same period.

In 1986, detectives from the Southside Slayer task force—made up of close to 50 detectives looking into the slayer cases—interviewed Hubbard after his name popped up in the survivor’s case, but he was never arrested. “They looked at him but couldn’t connect him to any of the murders,” said Rivera. “He was definitely a person of interest. But there was no physical evidence linking him to anything.”

Rivera said Smith’s case sat on a shelf until 2004, when a Los Angeles Police Department detective began sifting through the old sexual assaults and murders and found that DNA evidence still existed on her case. He was surprised to learn that in 2007 Smith’s case was linked to two other murders.

The nude body of 45-year-old Vanessa Williams, found in August of 2000, was discovered by an employee of a nearby school in Pomona, a city 60 miles east of L.A. The body of Christy Fields, 27, also was found in 2000. Like Williams, she lived in Pomona, but her body was discovered in Riverside County. “It looked like [Fields] was killed somewhere else and left on the side of the road,” said Sgt. Scott Brown of the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department. “There wasn’t a lot of evidence at the scene. No signs of the struggle. It had all the earmarks of a body dump.”

“I spoke to Christine the day before she was murdered,” said Fields’ father, Eddie. “She was informing she was doing fine and everything was going good. I always kept the communications open with her as a father.”

“Feels good that they have him and we have closure.”—father of one victim.

Now, armed with the name of Hubbard as a possible suspect, Rivera began looking into the janitor’s background and discovered that he had police contact twice in Pomona, and that Hubbard had relocated to the area in 1999 after he and his wife divorced.

In 2003, Hubbard had a brush with the law but wasn’t arrested. “He tried to get a credit card in someone else’s name,” said Pomona Police Department cold case detective Jennifer Turpin, who was investigating the murder of Williams. In 2006, Hubbard was issued a traffic ticket.

“There weren’t huge contacts over the years,” said Turpin. “You would think he would be getting into more trouble than he did. I think he was probably under the radar. Sounds like his last little scare kept him down.”

Turpin did some record-checking and tracked Hubbard down in Florida. “We found out he was in custody and shortly after that there was evidence he died in Florida,” said Turpin. “We had this connection with the LAPD and Riverside police since 2007. We had been working it diligently for the last five years, but the suspect’s DNA was not in the national DNA databank. We didn’t have his DNA anywhere. It was not in the databank; had it been we would have connected him.”

Hubbard, who went under the aliases Larry David Barnes and Larry Lamar Ratcliff, moved to Florida in the early 1970s. He was arrested for robbery with a deadly weapon in Miami on August 21, 1974, and sentenced to six years in prison the following year. He escaped prison on December 2, 1977, according to authorities, and landed in South Los Angeles. He got married in 1979. His first known killing occurred one year later, police say.

Hubbard finally was caught on June 21, 2007, when officers from the Florida Department of Corrections contacted the Ontario Police Department to alert them that a fugitive named Larry Barnes was on the lam and living in their community. Officers from the Ontario PD tracked down Hubbard at his warehouse job in the city of San Bernardino. Hubbard, then 54, was taken into custody and extradited back to Florida. Police said he attempted to hang himself in his cell, but survived—and that he died on November 1, 2007, of his self-inflicted injuries.

Rivera contacted the coroner’s office in late 2011 looking for a blood sample to compare with forensic evidence found on Smith. Two weeks ago, a Los Angeles crime lab notified Rivera that the DNA found on Smith matched the blood sample from Hubbard.

“I think there are probably more victims out there,” said Turpin.

For Eddie Fields, he is just happy his daughter’s killer has been identified. “Feels good that they have him and we have closure,” he said.

An earlier version of this story misstated the length of Hubbard's jail sentence and time served.