The first body was found in a patch of weeds in L.A.'s industrial wastelands. The victim, a woman, was naked; her feet and wrists had been bound.
The second body was discovered in a vacant field near a school sixty 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 murders were 20 years apart yet police believe they were committed by the same person—a serial killer still on the loose.
"This could be the only three, or there are more out there and they are undiscovered and the police haven't done a good job with it," says Sgt Scott Brown of the Riverside County Sheriff's department. "I have to stay open to all of the possibilities."
Investigators have kept quiet about the cases but confirm in exclusive interviews with The Daily Beast that the killings of the women are linked, and that detectives are reviewing other cold cases for DNA evidence to see if the unknown killer may have killed others.
"We got one DNA sample off of Fields, and one on Pomona, and a partial sample in Los Angeles," says Brown.
According to authorities, all three women had histories of prostitution. The victims otherwise seemed to have little in common.
Sonia Smith, the first victim who was found in 1980, was a 25-year-old, black woman from South Los Angeles. The second victim, Vanessa Williams, found in 2000, was also black but, at 45, significantly older. She lived in Pomona, a city 60 miles east of L.A. Christy Fields, also found in 2000, was 27-year-old, and white. Like Williams, she lived in Pomona but her body was discovered in Riverside County.
"Someone may definitely still be out there."
"It looks like [Fields] was killed somewhere else and left on the side of the road," says Brown, who is in charge of his department's cold case unit, which is currently investigating 82 unsolved cold case murder cases in the county. "There wasn't a lot of evidence at the scene. There were no signs of a struggle. It had all the earmarks of a body dump."
By digging through old records and looking at forensic evidence and DNA, investigators discovered that the three victims were linked to the same murderer. What they haven't found yet, though, is a suspect to match that DNA. Or a motive.
"Some of these serial killers will kill because they are disgusted by the women and others because it is an opportunity," says Brown.
One puzzling question to investigators is the large gap in time between the murders. Smith was killed in 1980, the two others in 2000.
"Why the 20 year gap?" asks Cliff Shepard, a veteran homicide LAPD detective who has worked on numerous serial killer cases, including Rodney Alcala, Michael Hughes and Chester Turner. "We are back to the questions: Are we missing other murder victims? Was he locked up? Did he take a break for a while? We don't know."
"Who knows why he has laid low?" adds LAPD's Lou Rivera, who is handling the Smith investigation. "We won't know until we catch up with the dude and say 'where have you been?'…He could have been locked up, or found Jesus."
The original investigation into the Smith killing was kept alive by investigators such as Shepard, who during the 1980s worked the patrol beat but, many years and murders later, still remembered her, and other forgotten victims.
"This was the beginning of rock cocaine," says Shepard of 1980s L.A., a time when murders in the city topped more than 1,000 every year. "The crack epidemic raging, gangs were shooting people in the streets, and the unemployment rate was skyrocketing…Some of the victims became entangled in drugs and may have been exchanging sex for the drugs and going into areas where there was a lot of criminal activity. The murder rate was going up. People were afraid to go out at night. It was really insane."
Initially, homicide investigators believed that Smith had been killed by the Southside Slayer, a mythical serial killer who police thought responsible for the murders of at least 50 women in South L.A. during the 1980s. But through improved forensic technology—and dogged detective work—detectives discovered that wasn't the case. Instead, many of the killings attributed to the Southside Slayer were actually the grim work of several killers stalking the same area during the same period.
And, eventually, detectives began cracking the cases.
One of their biggest arrests was that of 31-year-old Louis Craine, an unemployed construction worker from Watts with an IQ of 69. Craine was convicted of the strangulation murders of four prostitutes between 1984 and 1987, including two attributed to the Southside Slayer cases. Craine was picked up by police in the late 80's.
Over the years, with advances in DNA technology and deeper databases of suspects and cases, investigators solved a number of other high profile cases.
In 2003, cold case investigators caught up with Chester Turner, who is considered to be one of the city's most prolific serial killers. Turner, a former pizza deliveryman and crack dealer, strangled 10 women with his bare hands in South Los Angeles and Downtown Los Angeles between 1987 and 1998. He received the death penalty in 2007. He is currently sitting on San Quentin's death row.
In 2008, Michael Hughes, who was already in prison for the sexual assault and strangling deaths of four women between 1992 and 1993, was linked through DNA evidence to four other slayings in Los Angeles going as far back as 1986.
And this summer, Grim Sleeper suspect Lonnie Franklin was charged with the murders of 10 women and the attempted murder of another after a reign of terror that began in 1985. Most of his victims were shot or strangled. The 57-year-old mechanic with a history of car theft was nabbed through "familial" DNA testing after his son was arrested in the summer of 2009 and had to give up a DNA swab. His last known victim was 25-year-old Janecia Peters. Her body was found in a Dumpster by a homeless man looking for cans on January 1, 2007.
Like the current killer, the Grim Sleeper appeared to stop killing for an extended period of time—his last known victim was a woman killed in 1988—until he resumed his murderous business again in 2001.
Laverne Peters, whose daughter was allegedly killed by the Grim Sleeper says she is not surprised to hear that another serial killer may be at large. Neither is Margaret Prescod, a local radio host, who, as part of a civic coalition, kept vigil outside the downtown police headquarters during the 1980s to demand that more be done by the police.
"If there are three [victims in this case], there very well may be more," she says. "Someone may definitely still be out there."
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.