So many celebrities have passed through the Los Angeles County Department of Medical Examiner-Coroner, you’d think the city of stars would have located it in a better part of town. Instead the next to final resting place for the likes of John Belushi, Whitney Houston, and Michael Jackson is at the end of a rundown row of auto-body shops and cheap taco joints, two miles east of downtown.
On a cold morning in January 2006, I parked Maude Jr., my beat-up red ’94 Toyota Tercel, in the office lot and headed into the coroner’s investigative division hoping for my next big headline, but already resigned to leaving empty-handed. Once inside the wood-paneled lobby, I buzzed the reception desk.
“I’m here to see Assistant Chief Winter,” I told the receptionist. Five minutes later, she let me in. I didn’t need directions to the office of Ed Winter. As a crime reporter for the L.A. Weekly, an alternative paper modeled on New York’s Village Voice, I had been there many times, following up on gang murders, robberies gone awry, organized crime hits, and the like. The unluckiest victims always wound up here. So did the bodies of departed Hollywood celebrities and has-beens. With more than fifty dead people a day passing through the busiest coroner’s office in the U.S., there was usually a story to be told, if Winter was in the mood to tell it.
Winter, a former cop who served in a Los Angeles suburb as a SWAT team member and undercover narcotics officer, was the coroner’s media liaison.
I started pestering him shortly after he was hired in 2003. He was brought in to help rehabilitate the coroner’s office, which had been shaken by a series of scandals, including a rat infestation at the long-term storage crypt in which rodents had chewed into some of the body bags and gnawed on some of the corpses. Winter’s experience and laid-back personality won him the position of official spokesman whenever a celebrity died. By the time I walked into his life with my chicken-scratch-filled reporter’s notebook, he was a seasoned pro who had handled the hanging suicide of onetime child actor Jonathan Brandis, the strange death of Robert Pastorelli, who played portly painter Eldin Bernecky on Murphy Brown, and the death of “Super Freak” singer Rick James.
Winter’s first day on the job saw him catapulted into one of the city’s biggest murder mysteries: the death of 40-year-old Lana Clarkson, the B-list actress and House of Blues nightclub hostess found fatally shot in the Alhambra mansion of much-heralded but nonetheless oddball music producer Phil Spector. Winter learned quickly how important it was to choose his words carefully because they would appear the next day in print and could define a celebrity’s life after death.
On this January day, he sat behind his scarred wooden desk and stared intently at his computer screen. His eyes shifted briefly to a mini replica of the Harley-Davidson he rode on the weekends. Then he waved me to a seat.
“What brings you here today?” he asked. There was a hint of a smirk on his face as he rubbed his fingers over his salt-and-pepper goatee. It seemed something was up.
“Just checking in. Anything interesting going on?” I asked casually, gesturing to an autopsy report on his desk.
“No,” he said flatly, and he slid the report into the top drawer. I smiled and reached across his desk to retrieve a butterscotch candy from a glass bowl. It was going to be one of those cat-and-mouse days.
As a crime reporter, I regularly popped by to see Winter. When I was on the hunt for an autopsy report or digging up information about a cause of death, he was the first person I called. Not only did Winter provide the information I was looking for, when he was in the mood he gave me valuable investigative tips that only a veteran cop could know and understand as vital to doing a thorough job. And when he was in a really forthcoming mood, he would offer me a Starbucks iced coffee from his mini fridge.
It didn’t appear that this day would be a Starbucks day.“Did you have many deaths over the weekend?” I began, slowly. Winter plucked a sheet of paper from his top desk drawer and gave me a quick rundown of the latest fatalities. He read them off like a high-school teacher calling out names on an attendance sheet. Two Hispanic families were killed in separate car accidents on the Interstate 5 Freeway near Norwalk, a suburban city seventeen miles southeast of downtown. An elderly black man had been found rotting on his couch in Northridge, an affluent neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley. His death went unnoticed for a month, until the sickening sweet smell of decomposition reached the next-door neighbor who called police.
There were six African-American and Hispanic men, all under the age of 25, on the list. All shot in drive-bys, car-to-car gun battles, or street confrontations. In some of those cases, the last question the victim heard before being shot was, “Where are you from?” It wasn’t a question about geography but about gang affiliation, and in Los Angeles in 2006 that simple question was synonymous with death. Although the murder rate in Los Angeles County was much lower than in the ‘80s and ’90s, gang-related homicides were an ever-present danger.
“It’s just another typical weekend in Los Angeles,” Winter said sardonically as he tucked the list back inside his desk drawer. “As you can tell, we’ve been very, very busy.”
“Anything else?” I asked, knowing full well gang related deaths wouldn’t electrify my editor, not in a city like Los Angeles where gang crime is as common as massage parlors and palm trees.
Winter put down his coffee cup and sent me a stern look. I wondered if I should make my way out.
“Actually, we’ve been looking at some body-dump cases,” he said. He went on to tell me that all the cases were women found, for the most part, in South Central. Other body dumps were scattered around Los Angeles County, including the suburbs of Inglewood, Lynwood and Long Beach, and Hollywood, he said.
The coroner’s investigators had told Winter six months earlier they’d noticed an alarming number of body-dump cases at routine death-scene locations. Winter’s staff compiled a list of thirty-eight victims who had died under suspicious circumstances in Los Angeles County since 2002. Winter launched a serial-killer task force of sorts a few weeks after his conversation with the coroner’s investigators, suspecting that some of the cases might be linked. He didn’t have the manpower to pull his crime-scene investigators from their day jobs so when they had free time they were encouraged to look into the thirty-eight cases for similarities.
“Are any of the cases connected?” I asked.
“We don’t know yet,” he said testily. “They’re suspicious. Some of them are similar. Some aren’t. That’s why we are looking at them.”
“Have you made any progress?” I asked. “No,” he admitted. “We’re always sidelined by new cases.”
“Are the cops looking at the cases?” I asked.
With more than a hint of resentment in his voice, Winter said he reached out to the agencies handling the bulk of the cases, the LAPD and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, but was ignored. Homicide investigators do not like coroner officials—or journalists for that matter—poking around their cases.
“Let me have the list,” I blurted out, not realizing the journey I was about to embark on. “I’ll look into the cases.”
“We are handling this,”’ he said. “I don’t need you poking your nose into this. I’ll keep you posted. Keep this under wraps. Now leave. I have work to do.”
I le Winter’s office wondering if there could be a serial killer responsible for the deaths of some of the women on the list. It seemed unlikely, but stranger things have occurred in Los Angeles County, which has a long history of producing and attracting twisted mad men.
Skid Row Slasher Vaughn Greenwood, who terrorized transients in the Skid Row area of downtown Los Angeles in the ’60s and ’70s, cutting their throats as they slept.
Dating Game Killer Rodney Alcala, a Los Angeles Times typesetter, amateur photographer, and film student of Roman Polanski’s who photographed his victims before sexually assaulting, killing, and grotesquely posing them. Alcala’s reign of terror began in 1968, one year before Charles Manson and his followers committed the terrifying and sensational Tate-LaBianca murders of seven people, including Polanski’s wife, the pregnant actress Sharon Tate.
Hillside Strangler killers Angelo Buono and Kenneth Bianchi, who raped, tortured, and murdered girls and women between 1977 and 1978 and le their bodies on hillsides near downtown Los Angeles.
Freeway Killer William Bonin, an unemployed truck driver who confessed to raping, torturing, and killing twenty-one boys and men in Orange and Los Angeles counties in 1979 and 1980.
And, Night Stalker Richard Ramirez, who in 1989 was convicted of thirteen horrific torture-murders during a 1985 killing spree.
Winter’s list of dead women intrigued me. I had been fascinated with serial killers since I was a child growing up in the sleepy Canadian capital city of Ottawa. I devoured books about Ted Bundy and Killer Clown John Wayne Gacy and was fixated on shows like Columbo and Murder, She Wrote. I also read a lot of true-crime books, including Helter Skelter, which detailed the Manson murders.
When I moved to Los Angeles, I must admit I was hoping, however naïve I was or how dim my prospects were, to report on elusive criminal deviants. And, somehow, through my job at the L.A. Weekly, which I all but stumbled into, I was able to do just that. I spoke to a lot of retired detectives who had worked serial-killer cases, including the Night Stalker and Hillside Strangler. I was mesmerized by their investigative skills and intrigued by how they finally were able to catch the predators. I asked a lot of questions. And, for whatever reasons, maybe they liked the attention, maybe they saw my interest was serious, maybe both, they told me about their methods and all sorts of details about hours of leg work. I absorbed all that I could and learned much from their advice. All of which, I knew, would come into play and serve me well if I could get Winter to confirm, as my budding gut instinct told me, that a serial killer was on the loose.
Like the detectives, I wanted to dig further. I liked doing the legwork, the research, all the fact checking and cross checking information. I needed to get a look at Winter’s list.
It took two months of constant badgering and pestering before Winter finally handed it over. The day I got it, I rushed out of his office as fast as a burglar fleeing a tripped home-alarm system and hopped into Maude Jr., praying she’d start. She did, first try, and I sped out of the parking lot. I had visions of Winter having a change of heart and chasing me to the parking lot with his team of investigators in hot pursuit.
About two blocks from the coroner’s office, I pulled over at one of the many auto-repair shops on Mission Road and looked at the list of thirty-eight suspicious deaths. It was divided into two sections.
The first section, titled “Current Coroner Cases Under Inquiry / Serial Homicide Team, Female Non-African American Supplement 2002-Present,” listed the names and ages of twenty white, Asian, and Hispanic victims and the law-enforcement agency and detective handling the cases. The second section, “Current Coroner Cases Under Inquiry / Serial Homicide Team, Female African American Profile 2002-Present,” had the same information about eighteen black women.
I was struck by the sheer number of dead women and pictured the tear-stained faces of those who grieved for them, and imagined their anger, fear, loss, want for justice and revenge. I tried to put myself in their place and imagine how they felt knowing they would never see their loved ones again. I also thought about the detectives handling the deaths and wondered if they were making more headway tracking down their killers than the coroner’s office was.
I put the pages down and my car in gear, and was back at the L.A. Weekly office in fifteen minutes. The newspaper was in Hollywood on a sleazy stretch of Sunset Boulevard known for its cheap motels, fast-food joints, and crack-addicted prostitutes. During my first week on the job I was accosted by a john at 10 a.m. who asked if I wanted to party. He offered a six-pack of Budweiser as an incentive. The locale was shabby, but it was the perfect spot for the motley crew at the L.A. Weekly, the number one source for music, arts, film, theater, culture, and concerts in Los Angeles. Plenty of well-known writers had graced its pages, including Pulitzer Prize-winning food writer Jonathan Gold, Los Angeles Times reporter Gale Holland who writes about the homeless, Los Angeles Times arts and culture writer Deborah Vankin, writer Joe Donnelly, and Associated Press entertainment reporter and critic Sandy Cohen. It was also the one-time home of extreme performance artist Ron Athey and gender queen Dr. Vaginal Davis.
I made my way to news editor Alan Mittelstaedt’s office waving the list I’d been given by Winter. Mittelstaedt was on his way out.
He knew of my obsession with the list and my dogged pursuit of getting a copy.
“What’s your game plan?” he asked.
To get hold of the autopsy reports, which were vital to my investigation, I told him. These reports would give me the dates and circumstances of the deaths, including the locations. I was hoping the reports would provide me with some much-needed clues so I could find out if the cases were linked and whether or not a serial killer was on the loose. And if there was a serial killer, that the detectives handling the cases would confirm as much, if they even knew.
By the end of the month, I had, courtesy of Winter, a stack of autopsy reports as thick as a three-tiered birthday cake. I started calling the detectives in the reports and setting up appointments so I could learn more about the murders and find out if any had been solved. It took a few days for the detectives to start calling back, and when they did, I soon discovered that many of the cases on the list were not homicides at all. There were suicides, drug overdoses, and even natural deaths.
In one case, a prostitute was found dead in a car that had been set on fire. Police determined she died from a drug overdose. The car was set ablaze by a john after she overdosed because he didn’t want his DNA evidence left behind. Another young woman on the list was found bloody and slumped in her bed. There were no signs of foul play or a break-in and police eventually determined she had died of natural causes.
Still, there were plenty of homicide cases that hadn’t yet been solved. Some of the cases involved random shootings, but the bulk of them were murdered prostitutes, the most invisible and vulnerable class of people. One truism I absorbed from my informal homicide schooling: Killers know it’s easier to get away with murdering someone living on the fringes of society than a so-called mainstream citizen.
The Los Angeles County detectives were surprised by my interest in prostitute killings. They rarely got calls from reporters asking about dead, drug-addicted streetwalkers. It wasn’t something the media usually focused on.
But where I grew up, in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, murder was never an everyday occurrence. In fact, my life had never been touched by murder. When I first moved to L.A. in the ‘90s, I was stunned by the level of gun violence. The daily blood baths in Los Angeles and the culture of guns and gangs was alien to me. I was particularly shocked at the sheer number of black prostitutes and drug-addicted women killed. These women, whose bodies appeared to litter the streets, seemed to be invisible in their own city. I wanted people to do something. I wanted grieving family members to get some acknowledgment of their loss, some salve for their pain. As a reporter at a local paper, I felt it was my job to write about them, to tell their stories to the people in their city. I wanted to make them visible so the community had to face this sick and twisted problem and, somehow, do better at dealing with it.
In L.A., the death of a prostitute rarely made the nightly news, unless it involved a serial killer. The media tends to focus on mass killings or the disappearance of beautiful young students.
Murdered prostitutes made up nearly half of the thirty-eight women on Winter’s list. Most of them were strangled, shot, or stabbed. Some were beaten so badly they were barely recognizable. Almost all of them were disposed of like trash in the dark alleyways of South Central or tossed on the streets or in parks across Los Angeles County.
Each case was heart wrenching. Ashley Veater was a 19-year-old from Idaho who told her family she moved to Los Angeles to start a career in the fashion industry. She was found dead in a Hollywood alley on June 28, 2005. For the three days before she was killed, Ashley, who was thirteen weeks pregnant, strolled near the gas station on Sunset Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue. It was a good place to meet johns looking for a quickie in the middle of the afternoon. She was discrete, hanging out in alleyways next to the coffee shops and liquor stores a few blocks from the fabled Sunset Strip. It didn’t take long for the striking blonde with a lovely smile to get a client. She worked from noon to 4 p.m., servicing men taking lunch breaks or on their way home from work. She was living at a sleazy Sunset Boulevard motel with her pimp boyfriend since arriving in Los Angeles from Las Vegas. This was not her first foray into street-walking; she had been arrested for prostitution in Hollywood the year before.
Ashley’s feet and hands were bound with duct tape and a black plastic trash bag covered her head. She had been strangled with a black-sock ligature and part of her ear had been ripped off. The following day, an anonymous person placed candles where her body was found and painted a large heart around a patch of her dried blood. A message in red spray paint read: “I Love ... with all MY HEART BYE BYE.”
Police rarely get calls from loved ones when it comes to prostitutes, but Ashley’s boyfriend alerted the police immediately when she didn’t answer his calls or return to the motel. Police ruled him out as a suspect after checking his motel room code key and determining that he had not left their room all day. He told police he spoke to her minutes before she picked up her last client, and she seemed upbeat. The couple had arranged to meet at the gas station at 4 p.m.
The killer had left his human detritus behind, but the DNA didn’t match any names in police databases, so there was little detectives could do with the information.
Another vicious murder on Winter’s list was that of 38-year-old Leah Benjamin, a promising California State University Stanislaus accounting student before she became a drug addict. Leah went in and out of drug treatment programs and sober-living homes, but couldn’t escape her addiction. She ended up among the black prostitutes with drug problems turning tricks on Figueroa Street, the infamous stretch in South Central known for its prostitution, liquor stores, used-car lots, and cheap motels. Her father, John Benjamin, had plans to meet his daughter at his insurance business the day she went missing. He wanted her to spend time with her daughter, the grandchild he and his wife were raising. But Leah never showed up.
Leah’s body was discovered wrapped in a blanket in an alley in South Central on April 10, 2004. Her feet were bound with duct tape and her head was wrapped in a black plastic trash bag. She had numerous stab wounds to her head and face. Her dress was lifted to expose her genitals and her nylons were pulled down around her ankles.
(In June 2015, Hawthorne resident Jaqwun Turner was charged with the rape and murder of Leah Benjamin. He is awaiting trial. No one has been charged yet in Ashley Veater’s killing.)
As the months passed, I realized the detectives suspected some of the cases on Winter’s list could be linked but without DNA confirmation they had no proof. By May 2006, I had reviewed thirty-six cases on the coroner’s list and was down to the last two: the March 9, 2002, murder of 15-year-old Princess Berthomieux, a foster-care runaway turned prostitute, and the July 11, 2003, murder of Valerie McCorvey, a 35-year-old black prostitute who had been working the streets on and off for years.
After numerous failed attempts to reach him, Inglewood Police Department detective Jeffrey Steinhoff, the lead investigator in the Princess Berthomieux case, finally agreed to meet me. Standofish at first, he wanted to know my interest in the case. When I told him about the list Winter had given me, he loosened up and became more forthcoming. He wanted to talk about Princess Berthomieux. He wanted her killer caught.
What he said next shocked me.
Princess was linked through DNA evidence to Valerie McCorvey, the last victim on Winter’s list. And there was more. These two cases were linked through DNA to a series of murders that began in August 1985, when the crack epidemic in South Central was in a full-bore rage. All were tied by ballistic evidence to the same killer. These victims: Debra Jackson, Henrietta Wright, Barbara Ware, Bernita Sparks, Mary Lowe, Lachrica Jefferson, and Alicia (Monique) Alexander, were all young black women who lived in South Central and struggled with drug addiction. Their partially clothed bodies were all dumped in dirty neighborhood alleyways, left to rot under garbage and debris. The seven women were shot at close range with a .25-caliber pistol. None were found with identication, but the killer left his mark—saliva on many of the victims’ breasts. I later learned that there was one survivor, Enietra Washington, who was shot, sexually assaulted, and left for dead on the same mean streets.
I also discovered that back in the ’80s, a task force of detectives with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and the LAPD was set up to investigate serial murders plaguing the South Central neighborhood, including the murders Steinhoff had alerted me to.
Neither the police nor its Southside Slayer Task Force solved these murders, and the detectives moved on to other cases. But Steinhoff seemed to be focused on a man whom he thought might have escaped justice for more than two decades.
His name was Roger Hausmann. He was a white repo man and former pimp who went by the nickname Super Honky.
On Tuesday, August 3, 2005, Steinhoff received a phone call from J.J. Smith, a Fresno County District Attorney’s Office investigator who was assisting the Fresno Police Department in a kidnapping case involving Hausmann and two black teenaged girls.
Smith told Steinhoff that when he interviewed the girls, they both mentioned that Hausmann admitted to murders in Los Angeles. And said that he had rolled up the victim’s bodies in rugs and blankets and tossed them in the river.
Hausmann, 65, had been the subject of a task force investigation in the early ‘90s involving the death of twenty-five mostly young black female prostitutes between 18 and 30 years old, who were murdered between May 1977 and November 1990. They were shot, strangled, stabbed, or pummeled with a blunt object. Some of them had been bound and gagged. Their bodies were found in irrigation canals, vacant lots, fields, and abandoned houses in Fresno, about 200 miles north of Los Angeles.
The Fresno Police Department considered Hausmann a suspect in the murders of the prostitutes after he was arrested in 1991 for allegedly beating a prostitute with a steam iron. According to a November 4, 1993, Fresno Bee article, the woman told police that Hausmann said, “You’re harder to kill than the other ones.” A man who allegedly witnessed the beating also heard Hausmann say, “This one is hard to kill.”
Hausmann denied the allegations, pleaded no contest to assault with a deadly weapon and false imprisonment for the steam iron beating, and spent twenty-nine months in jail, and got out in November 1993.
In May 2006, Steinhoff filed a search warrant affidavit seeking a judge’s permission to take Hausmann’s DNA sample to see if he was responsible for the murders of Princess Berthomieux, Valerie McCorvey, and the seven related murders from the ’80s. At the time, Hausmann was in jail in Fresno awaiting his trial for the kidnapping of the two teenagers.
“Based on my training and experience, I believe that Hausmann is a suspect in these homicides,” Steinhoff wrote in the affidavit. “Hausmann admitted that he has killed people and wrapped them in carpets in the Los Angeles area. One victim was covered with a carpet, one covered with a blanket, one covered with a trash bag, and three were covered with debris.”
Steinhoff also wrote that Hausmann was cited for a traffic offense in Inglewood three months before Princess’s murder.
According to Steinhoff’s affidavit, Hausmann had an extensive criminal history that dated back to 1959, with arrests in Los Angeles, Fresno, and Bakersfield for suspicion of lewd acts against a child, unlawful sexual intercourse, enticing a minor female for prostitution and pimping, carrying a loaded firearm, exhibiting a deadly weapon, and assault with a deadly weapon.
Steinhoff went to Hausmann’s jail cell to obtain a saliva sample for a DNA test. While Steinhoff was waiting for Hausmann’s DNA results, I drove to Fresno in Maude Jr. and met Hausmann’s former boss at his repo job and asked him to arrange a jailhouse interview for me. I was surprised Hausmann was willing to talk. During our interview, the 5-foot-7 convict with thinning blond hair and intense blue eyes told me he was innocent of the recent kidnapping charges.
“I was set up by the Fresno police,” he said. “Why would they set you up?” I asked. “Because I’m a Christian Jew who loves black women,” he told me. His last girlfriend, he said, was nicknamed peanut butter because she “spread so easy.”
Hausmann stared at me intently during our thirty-minute conversation. This was my first prison interview, and I found that slightly unnerving. I was reassured by the fact I was speaking to him over the phone from behind a glass partition.
He also denied having committed any murders in L.A. and Fresno, and he seemed to take his predicament in stride. His stories about police misconduct seemed far-fetched, exaggerated, and at times comical. He claimed he was a regular target of the Fresno police.
Police were after him, he said, because he refused to provide them with drugs.
“They called me a nigger lover and Jew boy slave,” he told me, which I later detailed in an L.A. Weekly cover story.
“Were you ever a pimp or a drug dealer?” I asked.
“Yes,” Hausmann replied with a slight grin, regaling me with tales of prostitution out of bars in Beverly Hills. He also sold cocaine in Fresno and Los Angeles. But all that changed, he said, when he became a Christian in 1995.
“I flushed down the toilet two kilos of cocaine, still in the Medellin Cartel wrappers,” he said proudly.
When I asked him if he attacked the prostitute with a steam iron, Hausmann said he would never hit a lady unless she hit him first—then added that she smacked him over the head with a bronze ashtray. “The prostitute said that when you were attacking her, you told her, ‘You’re harder to kill than the other ones,’” I said.
“I never said that,” he told me.
The real culprit, he said, was a buddy who he claimed whacked the woman he was referring to and had plans to roll her up in a carpet and toss her in a nearby lake. Hausmann said he attempted to save the woman’s life.
I drove back to L.A. three days later. Hausmann, who was representing himself in the kidnapping case and therefore had access to the jail library and the phone, called me regularly. He assured me it was only a matter of time before he was found innocent of the L.A. murders.
He was right.
Two weeks after Steinhoff took his DNA, Hausmann was cleared of the killings. Steinhoff hit a dead end, just like the ’80s detectives before him. So the killer was still at large. He had eluded detectives for more than two decades and was still preying on young black women. He had defiled and degraded at least nine women, stripped them of their identification, and dumped their bodies in back alleys.
The LAPD had tried to home in, but false leads, unreliable witnesses, and unsubstantiated suspects hampered the investigation. Racial politics, fueled by a history of mistrust between police and black residents of South Central, also played its part.
Compounding the police investigation even further was the unfathomable: An unprecedented six serial killers were at work in the fifty-one-square mile area. They were all hunting the same game: poor black women desperate to score a next hit of the highly addictive crack cocaine that was ravaging the working-class neighborhood, turning it into a gang-infested war zone. Police were focusing their resources on gang warfare and drug dealers in a part of the city that often felt like a battlefield. And although the story I uncovered is one of grief and loss and justice and poverty and race and the plight of poor neighborhoods, at the heart of it are the lost women of South Central.
These women, society’s most vulnerable, were the collateral damage, easy pickings for a serial killer.
© 2017 by Christine Pelisek. Courtesy of Counterpoint Press.
CHRISTINE PELISEK is an award-winning journalist who's a senior writer with People Magazine. She received a Certificate of Appreciation from the City of Los Angeles for her work on the Grim Sleeper case. She lives in Los Angeles.