Grim Sleeper

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This is Kevin Roderick with LA Observed for KCRW.

Nothing gets a city's attention quite like a serial killer on the loose. Or so you'd think.

In Los Angeles, that proposition is shaped by geography and culture. Just like so much else in this city of enclaves.

Since the middle of the 1980's, women have been disappearing and turning up murdered. You certainly didn't hear about it at the time.

You might not know of it now.

That's because the women were black and some of them, but not all, were prostitutes. The streets where they disappeared are in South LA.

Now, chances are you don't get much news from South LA. Even when the story is something as extreme as more than a dozen women found in dumpsters and alleys, strangled or shot.

To be fair, it took police years to connect the murders and begin seeking a single vicious killer.

DNA testing made the connection - and also smacked detectives with a disturbing truth.

The murderer had stopped killing in the 1980's – and resumed 13 years later.

Women were again turning up dead in South LA alleys.

Even with fresh cases, you still didn't hear much about the murderer terrorizing the south side. Then he got a name – the Grim Sleeper.

The name didn't come from the cops or the community, but from the LA Weekly. Crime stories pack more drama when they have a memorable name.

The Grim Sleeper came from the Weekly's Christine Pelisek and Jill Stewart. They wanted to reflect both the horror of the story, and the unexplained gap in the killings.

Pelisek had learned that the LA County coroner's office was actually looking into…38 possible cases… of women who might have been victims.

Not until her story unveiled the Grim Sleeper in 2008 did the authorities acknowledge publicly that a serial killer was out there.

It stayed a secret because, as Pelisek put it, nobody with any pull demanded answers.

No newspaper was crusading about the murdered women of South LA.

Local churches and community leaders found out there was a serial killer…from… the Weekly's reporter.

After her story ran, a $500,000 reward for information came into being.

Police work and more DNA testing finally led to Lonnie Franklin Jr. He lives with wife near the Western Avenue corridor where most of the victims were found.

He's been a little in trouble with the law all his adult life. He also worked for the LAPD as a car mechanic.

No clear signs that he was a serial killer. But prosecutors have charged him with ten of the murders, and are hoping to pin more on him.

The arrest pushed Lindsey Lohan's date with jail out of the top spot in the local news. And that's a good thing.

The media's eating up the Grim Sleeper story – finally.

We even got the spectacle of the mayor, police chief and sheriff together at a press conference praising the bust. DA Steve Cooley and Attorney General came too.

In South LA, people were surprised to learn that the city's biggest serial killer may have walked among them.

I guess you could say we were all surprised.

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For KCRW, this has been Kevin Roderick with LA Observed.