Criminals

03.21.13

The Grim Sleeper’s Trial Is Moving at Snail’s Pace, and Victims’ Families Are Furious

Notorious serial killer the Grim Sleeper was on the lam for decades. Now there’s a suspect, but his lawyers are dragging their feet. Christine Pelisek on the excruciatingly slow march to justice.

For the past three years, Diana Ware has often made the 30-mile bus trek from the middle-class suburb of West Covina, California, to the criminal-courts building in downtown Los Angeles. The bus drops her off a block from the courthouse, and she walks the rest of the way. “Lately it has been harder,” says the retiree. “It winds me, and I have a bad knee.”

The 74-year-old former office worker has made the journey to attend the pretrial hearings for “Grim Sleeper” serial killer suspect Lonnie Franklin Jr., the former sanitation worker accused of killing Ware’s 23-year-old stepdaughter, Barbara, and nine other women. Since Franklin was arrested on July 10, 2010, she has missed only two of over a dozen hearings, one because she had a doctor’s appointment.

Ware waited 25 years for Franklin to be tracked down, a delay in justice that many victims’ families attribute to the fact that the victims were young black women. Now, three years after his arrest, she has grown frustrated again with the slow pace of Franklin’s defense team, which hasn’t yet tested DNA and ballistic evidence essential to the case. Even the judge appears to have become exasperated. Will a verdict ever come?

“I hope to see this guy brought to justice, and the way it is going, I might not be able to make it,” says Ware.

Franklin faces the death penalty for an alleged 22-year murder spree that began August 10, 1985, when cocktail waitress Debra Jackson’s decomposed body was found covered with a dark red carpet in a South Los Angeles alley. His last known victim was 25-year-old Janecia Peters. A homeless man found her nude body in a Dumpster on January 1, 2007.

Most of Franklin’s alleged victims, who ranged in age from 14 to 35 years old, were shot with a .25-caliber pistol. Others were strangled. Their bodies were discovered under filthy rugs and mattresses in Dumpsters and alleyways along a sleazy stretch of Western Avenue in South Los Angeles known for cheap motels, liquor stores, and storefront churches. He was tied to the cases through ballistics and DNA evidence.

Police suspect that he may have killed at least six additional women in addition to the 10 whose deaths he's charged with.

The case of Ware’s stepdaughter’s death went cold in the ’80s despite some titillating clues. Shortly after midnight on the night of her murder, a man in a phone booth called a Los Angeles dispatcher and claimed he saw a man dump a woman’s body out of a blue and white van in an alleyway in South Los Angeles. The caller even gave the license-plate number. When the dispatcher asked the caller for his name, he laughed before responding: “I know too many people. OK then. Bye-bye.” (Detectives now believe the caller was Franklin.)

“It’s tiresome to go there and listen to nothing and come home empty.”

Ware, who was shot once in the chest, was found in a pile of trash with a plastic bag draped over her upper torso and head.

Despite living in the midst of the same black working-class neighborhoods as the women he preyed on, Franklin was apprehended only after his son, then 28, was imprisoned on a weapons charge in the summer of 2009 and had to give up a DNA swab. Through familial DNA testing, the elder Franklin was linked to the slayings.

Parents of the slain women believe the murders went unsolved for decades partly because “they were a bunch of poor, young black girls,” says Laverne Peters, the mother of Franklin’s last known alleged victim. “Black parents see it all the time,” says Peters. “It becomes important when it happens to white kids.”

Now it’s the defense that’s delaying justice, they believe.

“We are going back and forth to court listening to Franklin’s attorney make all these excuses,” says Porter Alexander, whose 18-year-old daughter, Monique, was found dead in an alley in September 1988. “It is about him trying to extend it as long as he can.”

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LaTanya Clark (left), Ola Marshall, and Frank Marshall, family members of missing women, react as police detectives show photos of women they believe may be linked to Lonnie Franklin Jr. in Los Angeles in 2011. (Damian Dovarganes/AP)

“It’s tiresome to go there and listen to nothing and come home empty,” he added. “He thinks that maybe it will die out and the family members won’t be around to see. I will be here till the end of time. Give the young ladies some peace and give them some closure.”

At a pretrial hearing for Franklin last week, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Kathleen Kennedy asked why defense attorney Seymour Amster, after 18 months on the case, had yet to hire experts to analyze the ballistics and DNA evidence at the heart of the prosecution’s case.

“We’re in this quagmire where there’s no progress being made,” said Kennedy.

Amster responded by challenging Kennedy to take him off the case. “If the court feels we are not doing something in good faith ... the court has remedies.”

If finding someone to examine the evidence “is a task that is beyond your capabilities, perhaps you are not the right attorneys,” said Kennedy.

Outside experts say that judges in death-penalty cases tend to not push lawyers as hard because of potential future appeal issues. “Judges are more lenient in terms of preparation,” says criminal-defense attorney Ezekiel Perlo. “But for the most part there is an awareness by judges that we will give the defense a little longer to prepare because of the mistakes that could happen, have happened, and probably will continue to happen. No judge wants to be reversed on any cases, and capital cases are so expensive, and no one wants to go back and do it again.”

Of course, technically, delays benefit the defense. “I know [for] some lawyers, the longer they delay the case, the better,” said Perlo. “For me it had to do with, if I delay this thing, maybe they will offer me a deal. What good would come out of trying the case?”

Meanwhile, as the battle plays out in the courtroom, the families struggle. Since her daughter was murdered, Laverne Peters has been raising her daughter’s young son, now 11. “He still misses his mother,” says Peters, who had to take time off from her teaching job to deal with her grief. “I can do what I can, but I am not his mother. I am still working on things myself.”

Despite the long wait, Samara Herard says she will not give up. Herald’s 15-year-old foster sister, Princess Berthomieux, was found dead in an Inglewood alley in 2002. Berthomieux was placed in foster care when she was 3 years old after she was beaten, hogtied, and forced to have sex with her father’s friends. “I am haunted,” she says. “I always feel like I could and should have done more. I have not been the same. I come to court because I want to know justice was served for a young lady who went through hell. She needs to have her murderer put away.”

“I am committed to see this guy prosecuted and convicted for what he did,” says Ware.

Franklin’s next hearing date is scheduled for March 25.