The Grim Sleeper
A serial killer known as the Grim Sleeper has killed at least 11 people over two decades in south Los Angeles. He targets black women, some working as prostitutes, and uses the same small-caliber gun. He shot one woman, a lone survivor, before pushing her out of his car. Nick-named for taking a long break between attacks, the killer has left DNA and fingerprints, but police cannot find a name to match either. As detectives struggle to crack this haunting cold case, they say it's only a matter of time before he kills again.
Victims Debra Jackson Heniretta Wright Thomas Steele Barbara Ware Bernita Sparks Mary Lowe Lachrica Jefferson Alicia Alexander Princess Berthomieux Valerie McCorvey Janecia Peters
Bullets removed from eight of the victims were fired from the same small-caliber handgun. Police will not provide the specific caliber. Most of the victims were sexually assaulted, investigators say, and identical DNA - primarily from sexual activity - was found on the bodies of most of the victims. Det. Dennis Kilcoyne talks about what all the victims have in common.
LAPD lab workers matched DNA found at 2002 and 2003 slayings with evidence kept from killings in the 1980s. Det. Dennis Kilcoyne called the discovery "an awakening" for the LAPD. Each inmate in the California penal system was swabbed. No match was found in that search or the 100,000 other DNA samples on file. Also no match was found against 100 million fingerprints nationwide. Ballistics testing showed bullets removed from nine victims came from the same gun.
"Yes ... I'd like to report a murder," an anonymous caller told the LAPD in 1987. "The guy that dropped her off was driving a white and blue Dodge van ... He threw a gas tank on top of her. Only thing you can see out is her feet." The call led police to the van -- still warm to the touch -- a church and the body of Barbara Ware (pictured). The call was the closest police ever got to the killer. From there the trail went cold.
The 911 call led police to a van (license plate 1PZP746) parked at 60th Street and North Normandie Avenue. Barbara Ware's body was found nearby. Church members told police the van had been used for a church activity. Police took photos and got prints from the van, but made a poor decision not to press church members further, or get a roster of congregants, Det. Dennis Kilcoyne said.
There are no suspects in the 24-year-old case.
Police have a vague idea of who the Grim Sleeper is: An African-American man in his late 40s or older who started killing in his late teens or early 20s. The Grim Sleeper's sole survivor said he was driving a rust-colored Pinto. It's likely the killer intimately knows the neighborhood where all the bodies have been found, and he had some affiliation in the 1980s with the now-closed Cosmopolitan Church on South Normandie Avenue.
The most notable suspect was former Los Angeles County Sheriff's Deputy Rickey Ross. Arrested in 1988, he was charged with killing three prostitutes. The charges were dropped when independent ballistics experts concluded that the LAPD mishandled testing the deputy's weapon. Still under a cloud of suspicion, Ross died in 2003. When the killings continued, it was clear that he was not the Grim Sleeper.
Criminal profiler Pat Brown, who is not a part of the investigation, says the Grim Sleeper may be a john who frequented South L.A. "The women who go with him come back alive most of the time, so they won't think of him when someone turns up dead." It's unusual for a serial killer to stop killing and then start again. But like the BTK killer, who stopped killing for eight years, it's possible that the Grim Sleeper's 13-year break in killing means he had something else going on in his life -- a job, for instance -- that satisfied his desire for control over others.
Det. Dennis Kilcoyne believes the killer lived in the neighborhood where the bodies were discovered, and that the killer may have been involved somehow with the now-shuttered Cosmopolitan Church near where the blue and white van and Barbara Ware's body were found in 1987. The only description Kilcoyne has is maddeningly vague. It comes from the killer's only surviving victim, who said her attacker was a black man driving a rust-colored Pinto.
In 2001, former LAPD Chief Bernard Parks ordered investigators to examine unsolved cases spanning 20 years. Parks was shocked when lab workers discovered DNA and ballistics connected the murders and the attack on the survivor. He fought for permission to run the DNA against samples from every inmate in California's prisons. Parks' tenure as chief ended in 2002. Testing was done years later, but no match was found.
LAPD Det. Dennis Kilcoyne has hunted the Grim Sleeper for years -- combing decades-old evidence with seven detectives. He has listened hundreds of times to an anonymous 911 call about Barbara Ware's killing that police rereleased in February. Police erred by not conducting a thorough investigation from that hot tip, Kilcoyne says. Now he's mapping out the neighborhood as it was in the 1980s and trying to interview retired detectives.
Margaret Prescod founded the Black Coalition for Black Serial Murders in January 1986 after police announced there had been several prostitutes slain in the neighborhood. The group pushed to create a police task force, conducted neighborhood watches, handed out fliers and protested to get police to give the community more information.
Got information? Tell the LAPD. Police are providing a reward for information leading to the capture of the killer. There is a $50,000 reward for information on each victim, up to a total of $500,000 in reward money. If information is given to solve all Grim Sleeper crimes, a person could receive up to $200,000. Tipsters may remain anonymous.
Call: During regular business hours: Call Robbery-Homicide Det. Dennis Kilcoyne at 213-473-0346.
Off hours: Call the 24-hour toll free number at 1-877-LAPD-24-7
Text: Callers may text "CRIMES" (274637) with a cell phone. All messages should begin with "LAPD" in the text. Callers should then type their tip.
Online: Email the Grim Sleeper Task Force at email@example.com
Tipsters can also log on to www.lapdonline.org and click on Web Tips.
Reporting by Ashley Fantz, Mallory Simon and Sara Weisfeldt
Design and programming by Sophia Dengo and Bryan Perry
Creative and design direction by Brian Martin and Jennifer Louis
Multimedia production by Sean O'Key and Curt Merrill