November 19, 2019

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Few heroes in story of L.A. serial killer

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 7/10/2017 (773 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 7/10/2017 (773 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

There is likely no Canadian reader of this book, a look at one of Los Angeles’ most notorious murder sprees, who won’t think of the bungled Robert Pickton investigation or the ongoing inquiries into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

No one will likely ever know how many South Central women of colour were murdered and abused by Lonnie Franklin Jr. during his decades-long criminal career, but if there are any heroes in the book, few came from the Los Angeles Police Department.

Author Christine Pelisek, a senior writer with People magazine, deserves credit for covering this case with passion, giving victims’ families and the crimes national attention.

Pelisek was the one who gave Franklin his nickname. "Jill Stewart, a brash intelligent no-nonsense editor (at L.A. Weekly), insisted we name him," she says. "Keeping the story in the public consciousness by giving him a name seemed the best way to do that. Everyone remembered BTK, Zodiac and Son of Sam. We wanted the serial killer to be remembered long after the initial shock and news coverage ran its pace."

The other killers mentioned in the quote named themselves. Part of their pathology was the cat-and-mouse game they played with police. This is why, despite the horrifying nature of their crimes, these heartless killers make compelling subjects for non-fiction books.

The "Grim Sleeper," now on death row for 10 murders, is a mystery. No reason is given for his heinous crimes; to his neighbours he was an affable, average person. His nickname comes not from what he did, but rather refers to the 14 years from 1988 to 2002 when he committed no murders.

With the absence of the killer as a main character, there are lesser villains to fill the void. With the victims being black, many of them sex workers and often addicts, the LAPD’s response to solving the crimes was underwhelming. When Franklin was finally identified by a familial DNA match and arrested in 2010, the back-patting and credit-taking by the LAPD, decades after the first crime was committed, is borderline nauseating.

Franklin’s crimes are framed within the wider context of the Night Stalker, a killer targeting white victims in suburban homes, as well as a serial killer operating at the time in South Central. Alongside these cases, which took up significant manpower and money, was the almost pathological corruption and racism that plagued the LAPD. Pelisek introduces some good detectives along the way, but as Nick Broomfield exposes in his documentary Tales of the Grim Sleeper, many of the murders were informally filed by LAPD beat cops as "NHI" — No Human Involved.

The author’s pedigree with People magazine shines through, both good and bad. Anyone who has read a true crime piece in the magazine will recognize the tone. The book is victim-focused and redemptive, with an eye towards finding heroes in the chaos.

One never really gets a sense of what it was like to live in South Central during those violent years, what conditions made Franklin the beast he became, or how a major city could get so dysfunctional as to allow perhaps dozens of women to die in the most terrifying way and have no one seem to care.

Were there answers, we might bring them to the table to help with the unanswered questions of Indigenous families on this side of the border.

Lara Rae is a comedian and longtime fan of the true crime genre.

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