Lonnie Franklin Jr. sat silent and emotionless in a Los Angeles courtroom for over six years, never uttering a word in his own defense, save for briefly mouthing, “I’ve never seen you before in my life,” to Vivian Williams, the sister of victim Georgia Mae Thomas.
Franklin is better known as his serial-murdering alias, the Grim Sleeper – a name coined by L.A. Weekly in 2008 after a victim was linked to a string of murders that occurred in the 1980s. It’s possible he’s murdered as many as 25 women – which would make him one of the most prolific American killers – and this year was finally convicted for the deaths of nine women and a teenage girl. After six years of waiting, three and a half months on trial, and one day of jury deliberation, he was sentenced to death on August 10th, 2016 – exactly 31 years after the death of his first confirmed victim, Debra Jackson, in 1985. After shooting Jackson three times in the chest, Franklin went on to use the same .25 caliber gun in nine attacks – assaulting and strangling more, while keeping photos of his victims as trophies in his home.
Despite his conviction, some details remain unclear – like the question of whether he was truly “sleeping” during the alleged downtime, or why it took the LAPD nearly 25 years to arrest the person responsible for the deaths of at least 10 victims. Members of the South Central communities plagued by his crimes suggest this was due to the fact that his victims were black women, mostly addicts and prostitutes, while a 2008 report in L.A. Weekly noted the more recent delays are the result of politicking, as new murders were discovered during an election year. Here, everything you need to know about the man who terrorized L.A. for decades – and what we’re still trying to figure out.
He Doesn’t Fit The Profile of a Serial Killer
Upon arrest, Franklin was described by neighbors as “friendly and quiet.” He often worked on cars in his front yard while chatting with passersby – not something that a person who fit the profile of a serial killer would do. More specifically, over 80 percent of serial killers are white, between the ages of 20 and 30. Franklin was a black male who committed his first known murder at the age of 32.
He Chose Victims the Authorities Wouldn’t Care About
His victims strayed from the standard profile, too: while serial murders most commonly target white women, the victims of the Grim Sleeper were all black – though he did choose prostitutes, often targets for a serial killer. Moreover, the murders began in the mid-1980s in parts of Los Angeles where the use of crack cocaine was rampant. Several other killers were known to comb the area as well, looking for prostitutes and drug addicts who were later found murdered in alleys, parks, or trash bins and dumpsters. The killings were so rampant that the Black Coalition Fighting Back Serial Murders was formed in 1989 in protest of the LAPD’s lack of policing in areas where the murders occurred. The coalition felt it was irresponsible – and racially motivated – that information about the murders and the profile were not released in order to better protect black women in South Central L.A.
Similar frustrations were aired during Bill Bratton’s early 2000s reign as Police Commissioner in L.A., when he and elected officials paid no public mind to the resurgence of murder in black neighborhoods. “The killings weren’t going down in Silver Lake or Westwood,” wrote Christine Pelisek in her breakthrough 2008 L.A. Weekly profile of the murders. “There has been no big press conference by Bratton, who recently weighed in on Lindsay Lohan’s love life. The camera-loving [Mayor Antonio] Villaraigosa recently beseeched the public to eat more nutritiously.” Even with the identity of the killer ravaging poor, black neighborhoods still unknown, the LAPD did not alert communities of possible danger, or assemble a special task force to solve the Grim Sleeper murders after two new bodies were discovered in 2002 and 2003. Although the LAPD saw a pattern in the murders of the late 1980s and early 2000s, they did not share this new discovery with the families of those killed.
An Imperfect Crime Left New Evidence and a Survivor
Enietra Washington is the only known survivor of Franklin’s crimes, and the woman whose bullet wounds were matched with those in cold cases, finally adding a description of the attacker to the LAPD’s little existing evidence. In taking the stand to testify against the man who shot and raped her in 1988, Washington noted how Franklin pulled up alongside her in an orange Ford Pinto, offering her a ride. After she initially declined the offer, Franklin fired back “That’s what wrong with you black women. People can’t be nice to you,” according to Washington. She “felt sorry for him” and ultimately accepted the ride. After a while in the car, Washington suddenly felt blood coming from her chest. She realized she’d been shot and asked Franklin why, to which he responded that she’d disrespected him. He soon pushed her from the vehicle and left her for dead, but not before raping her and taking her photo. Yet she lived, finding help and telling a story that would contribute to the capture of Franklin.
A Controversial Use of DNA Brought Him Down
Eventually, in 2007, Bratton assembled a task force to solve the murders. Ballistics evidence from the .25 caliber gun used, DNA from the crimes and Washington’s description of her assailant all played a key roles in the capture of the Grim Sleeper, considered the “longest-operating serial killer west of the Mississippi.” Yet despite these clues, what clinched the investigation was when Attorney General Jerry Brown allowed the controversial use of a DNA probe into California’s felon database.
In early 2010, using DNA collected from the scenes of the murders, detectives linked the crimes to a relative of Franklin’s whose DNA was in the system – his son Christopher, who had been arrested for felony weapons possession in 2009. District Attorney Steve Cooley has said he believes this is “the first time a familial DNA search has been used successfully” in the state.
Armed with this evidence, undercover officers finally obtained DNA samples of Franklin. Following him to a birthday party in an L.A. restaurant, an officer acting as a bus boy collected Franklin’s plate, cup, and pizza crust which have enough DNA to finally convict him of murder. In court, Franklin’s lawyers cited “reasonable expectation of privacy” as the reason the DNA should be thrown out, but the claim of discarded food being private was overruled.
There Might Be a Lot More Victims
Upon his arrest in 2010, Franklin’s home was searched, and detectives took nearly 1,000 photos of women and teenage girls – some nude, unconscious, bleeding, some presumably dead – into evidence. After identifying the known victims, police began to wonder if there were more murders tied to the Grim Sleeper. At a press conference last spring, Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck told reporters, “We certainly don’t believe we are so lucky or so good as to know all of his victims. We need the public’s help.”
It’s common for serial killers to take breaks in between killings, but at least in his case, a 14 year gap does not seem likely. Though not charged for his murder, police believe Franklin is responsible for the death of Thomas Steele, who was assumed to be the friend of one of Franklin’s victims, as well as anywhere from 14 to 100 unsolved murders of Jane Does. Franklin maintains his innocence in all charges brought against him, so DNA and witnesses may be the only means to solve these crimes.
Investigations are ongoing, and detectives speculate as to whether Franklin was truly hiding after the botched murder of Washington in 1988. And if anyone could cover up a dead body, it was Franklin – as a sanitation worker for the city he had access to landfills, leading officials to speculate that he could have disposed of any number of bodies, undetected.
Regardless of what is to follow with the other investigations, Franklin is the last in a line of nearly 750 inmates on death row at San Quentin State Prison, where no one has been put to death since 2006. His conviction will automatically be appealed, a right afforded to anyone sentenced to death, but it’s safe to assume that Franklin will live out his life in jail, and not go on to kill again.