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On The Trail Of L.A.'s Uncaught Serial Killer

Reporter, cop, killer: the eternal triangle of tabloid journalism, pulp fiction, and film noir. Turn them loose in Los Angeles, cue up the Coltrane, watch their taillights disappear down Sunset. The cop is LAPD homicide detective Dennis Kilcoyne, at 54 still rangy and vital, but burdened by decades of sifting the muck of human depravity in search of prosecutable felonies. In a dark suit and black sunglasses, at the wheel of his silver Lincoln, he could pass for a Hollywood player on the make, but in the bleary fluorescent glare of his office, his eyes—the weary, puffy eyes of someone not about to spend six grand on an eyelid tuck—give him away. The reporter, Christine Pelisek of LA Weekly, is "late 30ish or maybe a little past," as she puts it, a slender, stylishly dressed blonde, blue eyes still wide with amazement at the tragicomic panoply of folly and greed she is lucky enough to witness. As for the killer, we don't know. The last description of him dates from 1988, when he shot a woman in his car and dumped her on the street. Sometime soon the paths of these three will intersect, and here is how we see it ending: with the killer in jail, facing multiple counts of rape, assault, and murder; with Pelisek's reporting triumphantly vindicated and rewarded with a big book deal; and Kilcoyne cleaning out his desk at police headquarters, thinking about retirement.

On the trail of L.A.'s uncaught serial killer. The setting is a rundown neighborhood whose very name, South Central, was such a byword for social dysfunction that in 2003 the city council redesignated it South Los Angeles. It was here, in the mid-1980s, that the bodies of young women, most of them drug users and occasional prostitutes, began turning up on the streets. At one time some 50 unsolved murders were attributed to a spectral "Southside Slayer." In the late 1990s, the LAPD took another look at the old cases and, armed with improved DNA technology, began turning up the names of suspects. Eventually cops concluded that at least five separate serial killers had been working those crack-riddled streets in the 1980s, and that they had caught and convicted four of them. The one still at large was linked, by an intersecting web of DNA and ballistics evidence, to the killings of seven women (and one man, who has been described in newspaper accounts as a pimp) between 1985 and 1988, and the 1988 attack on the woman who was shot and dumped from a car but somehow survived. All the victims were black, as was the suspect. The killer was prone to particularly brutal beatings and sexual assaults—either before the women were dead, or after—and left his victims in degrading circumstances, wrapped in filthy rugs or under piles of junk or in garbage bins in squalid alleyways.

And then he, or at least his DNA signature, vanished. Murder victims still turned up in South Central, but after the botched killing in 1988, there were none linked to him for more than 13 years—until March 2002, when the naked body of a 14-year-old runaway named Princess Berthomieux was found behind a garage in the neighboring city of Inglewood. A year later 35-year-old Valerie McCorvey was found dead in an alley. DNA linked both of them to the earlier slayings; wherever he had been in the interim, he wasn't dead.

The gap is puzzling; serial killers don't often stop of their own accord. The simplest explanation is that the perpetrator was in prison in the 1990s. The other possibility is that he changed his pattern to escape detection. All the earlier victims were shot with the same .25-caliber handgun, but Berthomieux and McCorvey were strangled. Police admit that one or more victims could have slipped through the cracks, if for some reason DNA evidence wasn't present, or properly collected and preserved.

It was Pelisek—a former waitress whose only previous newspaper job was covering minor-league hockey in a suburb of her native Ottawa—who first brought the case to public attention in an article in 2006, linking the two new murders to the string of earlier ones. Then the killer struck again, on or just before New Year's Day 2007, when a homeless man looking for deposit cans discovered the body of Janecia Peters, 25, in a plastic garbage bag. Shortly afterward, LAPD Chief William Bratton created a task force for the murders and put Kilcoyne, a 33-year veteran of the LAPD, in charge.

There will always be cops, but the outlook for journalists is not so certain; Pelisek is one of two full-time reporters still working at the Weekly—a free paper modeled on New York's Village Voice—down from a much larger staff in 1999, when she talked her way into a job as a researcher. So there is something to learn from the cordial, if complicated, relationship Pelisek has with Kilcoyne. It goes to one of the oldest debates in criminology: how much information should the police disclose about an ongoing investigation, especially one involving a killer who may kill again?

To Pelisek, it is self-evident that the public must be told, in the largest typeface available, about a "monstrous phoenix" come back to bloodthirsty life. This is less out of an abstract commitment to the First Amendment—Pelisek, self-taught as a reporter, must be one of the few in America who has never seen or even heard of All the President's Men—than a specific concern for the people of South Los Angeles. "I thought it was really important that family members should know their daughters had been killed by a serial killer," she says, "and for safety reasons, when there's a serial killer in your area, people should know about it." To Kilcoyne, this was a prescription for making his job more difficult. He urged Bratton not to publicize the task force, arguing: "Let's not chase the guy away before we even know what we're looking at." Law-enforcement experts come down on both sides of the question. "They're right," says Clinton Van Zandt, a retired FBI supervisor and consultant, of the LAPD's handling of the case. "They'd like to saturate that area with undercover officers, with decoys, and grab him while he has no idea that they're actively looking for him." But Jack Levin, a professor of criminology at Northeastern University and author of Serial Killers and Sadistic Murderers, calls the reflexive secrecy of the LAPD "a simple-minded response," adding that many such crimes are solved by tips from the public, who can help only if they are alerted in the first place. When the killer is found, the circumstances of his arrest—caught in the act by cops, identified by a DNA match, or fingered by a tip from the public—will tell us who was right. As will the timing: before or after he kills again.

The existence of the task force stayed a secret until last summer, when Pelisek scored another big scoop by disclosing it in a long, front-page story. Unlike the 2006 story, which sparked just a one-day follow-up in the Los Angeles Times, this one created a sensation. Pelisek took the side of the overlooked family members, some of whom, she says, had heard almost nothing from the police during the decades the cases lay dormant. "For 20-odd years they had no idea what had happened to their daughters," she says. "They want people to know that their daughters"—even if they were drug addicts, even if they sold themselves for money to buy crack—"weren't worth nothing." That approach ensured that the case would become caught up in the city's notoriously acrimonious racial politics. Margaret Prescod, a radio personality and activist who speaks for some of the family members, recently issued a series of demands on their behalf, including investigations by Congress and the Department of Justice and "compensation for the victims and their families." Kilcoyne is troubled by the anger some of the families feel toward the police. "I have thought deeply about dealing with the families," he says. "They're all black ... I'm trying to satisfy them and they're upset and they want answers. I spend a lot of time thinking about how to make them comfortable that we're doing everything we can and that in the 1980s, detectives did everything they could."

For her part, Pelisek regarded it as a civic disgrace that "local journalists haven't even awarded [the killer] a creepy nickname," so she and her editor, Jill Stewart, took it upon themselves. In view of his long disappearance, they considered "Ripper Van Winkle, except for the detail that he didn't use a knife. So they settled on "The Grim Sleeper." This is a phrase that has never crossed the lips of Kilcoyne, who has the cop's usual flair for the undramatic. "I guess we're stuck with it," he says with a shrug. "I just think it's a little goofy, is all ... When the task force was set up, our bureau chief, Gary Brennan, kept asking me, 'What are you going to name the task force, Dennis?' Finally, I told him, 'Chief, it's gonna be the 800 Task Force,' and he said, 'Well, why are we calling it that?' And I said, 'Because that's the number on our door.' "

Kilcoyne is unimpressed by Pelisek's concern for the well-being of the prostitutes, runaways, and drug users who still hang out on the South L.A. streets—not because they are undeserving of police protection, but because he considers them impervious to warnings. If they were paying attention to their safety, he reasons, they wouldn't be on the street in the first place. Van Zandt agrees. The police issue warnings, he says, "and the prostitutes will say, 'Gee, I understand, but this is my living and I can only stay in so long.' " "If [the suspect] was crawling into kitchen windows in the middle of the night, it would be different," Kilcoyne says. "But the people that are being victimized don't read the L.A. Times, they don't watch the news. So what are we accomplishing here? Are we gonna help the case or are we gonna hurt the case and chase our guy to another city?"

So Kilcoyne was not happy to get a phone call from Pelisek last year saying she knew about his task force and intended to do a story. Big-city cops generally think reporters are fine in their place, which is at a press conference writing down what they are told. Still, they recognize that hero cops are made, not born, and it's reporters who make them, so they have incentives to cooperate. Kilcoyne agreed to meet Pelisek for an interview at a Starbucks near his office, and acceded to her request not to call a press conference that would preempt her scoop. She was grateful, perhaps because she didn't realize he was following orders. "Once she made the department aware that she was going with the story," he explains, "we chose to be cooperative rather than adversarial, and I was instructed to have a chat with her." They still talk every few weeks, circumspectly sharing information and tips. Their efforts sometimes conflict, but often complement each other. Kilcoyne has a team of seven detectives working full time on the case and can call on resources from all over the state; one project involves identifying state prison inmates locked up during the two long gaps in the killer's career, an effort that has yielded between 10,000 and 15,000 names. ("It's a lot of data to sort through," he says laconically.) Pelisek, for her part, has better sources in the community. Many tips come to her instead of to the police, although it's the city, not the newspaper, that has posted a $500,000 reward for information. Once, a woman walked into the LA Weekly with a fork in a plastic bag, explaining that it had been used by her male friend, who she thought had the makings of a serial killer. Pelisek turned it over to the task force, which found no trace of the killer's DNA on it—which was just as well because the woman left the office without giving her name. Kilcoyne evinces a grudging respect for Pelisek's persistence. "She's very dogged at what she does and she's good at it," he says. "I wish she was working for me."

"Dogged" is high praise from Kilcoyne, but "obsessed" might be more accurate. From an early age, growing up in a sleepy suburb of Ottawa, Pelisek was fascinated by horror films, mystery novels, and true-crime stories, the more lurid, the better; at the Weekly, she can't believe her colleagues would rather cover politics or the arts than a good murder. Single, childless, with few pastimes besides travel, she works long hours, gunning her jalopy up and down freeway ramps in blithe disregard for the one car at a time signs.

She was originally tipped to the possibility of a serial killer in 2006 by a source in the coroner's office who had noticed an unusual cluster of "body dumps" since 2002. She hounded him for details until he came up with a list of 38 cases, almost all of which turned out to be unrelated to the earlier killings or to each other. But she worked her way down the list methodically until coming to Princess Berthomieux, the 14-year-old killed in 2002. A detective had discovered that the DNA found on her body matched that recovered from the cases in the 1980s and was seeking a warrant to test a prisoner he suspected (wrongly) of being the killer. This formed the basis of Pelisek's first story. Of the 38 names she'd been given by her source, Berthomieux was No. 37.

In her obsession, she dreams about the Grim Sleeper; in one nightmare she chased him up and down the glass-walled elevators of a downtown hotel. She fantasizes about him contacting her, the way David Berkowitz wrote to Jimmy Breslin. "God, that would be amazing," she says. "I would really like to find out who—I mean, I would like this guy to get caught." Still, she admits to occasional doubts he will be found. She is even philosophical about the possibility that her own story last year scared him away. "At least another woman won't die," she says.

Kilcoyne has no dreams of the killer, who might not even be the worst person he has had to deal with in his career. The Grim Sleeper would be in a close race with the two elderly women Kilcoyne nabbed in 2006, whose modus operandi involved "taking out millions of dollars in life insurance on homeless guys and running them over." He was one of about 20 detectives assigned to O.J. (mention Mark Fuhrman to him at your peril). Kilcoyne—born in Massachusetts but raised in L.A.—is the great-grandson of a Boston police sergeant and was drawn to the cop novels of Joseph Wambaugh, but claims he fell into police work because "I needed a job. I was young, married, with a house, and I needed to pay the rent." His work, he says, "can be frustrating," but "you're out meeting different people every day." That's true even if with some of the ones you meet, you have to wonder what God was thinking when he made them.

Kilcoyne is certain the killer will be caught someday—a leap of faith, since the LAPD managed to avoid catching him 20 years ago, when the clues were fresh. Police were tipped to the killing of one 1987 victim, Barbara Ware, by a caller who said he'd seen someone dump a woman's body from a blue van; he gave a precise street address and the van's complete plate number. Police found the van soon afterward in the parking lot of the storefront church to which it was registered, but somehow that rather large clue failed to lead to a suspect. Now Kilcoyne's detectives are pain-stakingly trying to track down members of the now shuttered church and residents of the buildings that overlook the alley where Ware was found. Kilcoyne is protective of his department, but even so, it baffles him that detectives never interviewed a pastor at the church back then. By the time Kilcoyne began looking for him, the man was dead, but he had the body exhumed for DNA testing. "He's not our guy," says Kilcoyne, but he still thinks he could have shed light on the case. "No one ever talked to him, which is one of the flaws of the 1987 investigation."

Then there was the survivor of the 1988 attack, who was shot by the same handgun used in the earlier killings. Her name is Enietra, a brassy, rawboned woman, now 50, who was minding her own business on the street one evening when a man drove by in a car and offered her a ride. She remembers the car, an orange Pinto, "pimped out" with white leather seats and fancy hubcaps. She remembers how he looked, "nerdy, clean-cut, polo shirt, khaki pants ... in the 'hood, you're coming from work if you're dressed like that." She recalls the house he stopped at along the way, and the conversation they had when he shot her in the chest, which began when he called her by the name of another woman in the neighborhood, a prostitute who strongly resembled Enietra. "I turned around and said, 'What did you say?' and as soon as I turned to face him, that's when he shot me ... I said, 'Why did you shoot me?' He said, 'You dogged [insulted] me.' I told him, 'You don't know me. You've got the wrong person.' " She passed out but revived hours later on the street, and recovered in the hospital. In summary, the police had a description of the killer himself, the street name of a prostitute with whom he had quarreled, a house where he either lived or knew someone, and a description of his distinctive Pinto. All of these leads, Kilcoyne avers, were dutifully tracked down by detectives at the time. And they couldn't find him.

But back then, there was no DNA database of known criminals. Now, all it will take is for his suspect to stick up a gas station, and the computers will go to work and Kilcoyne will get the call with the magic phrase: "We've got a match." The Grim Sleeper is a throwback, a relic of the crack epidemic of the 1980s, which drove thousands of men and women to the streets to hustle for their next hit. We think of serial killing as a crime of compulsion, but it is also one of opportunity. Desperate, reckless, and naive—many of the women were from good families with little experience of living on the street—they were easy prey for psychopaths. But serial killers tend to leave their DNA at the scene; the very point of the crime is often a rape, or the violent intimacy of a strangulation. "Cases like this will become a thing of the past," Kilcoyne predicts, "because science won't allow this 20-year series of multiple murders to go unsolved." So Pelisek listens to the psychics and crackpots and the busybodies carrying a 20-year-old grudge, and Kilcoyne sifts through decades-old phone books and car registrations. And the killer (we assume) drives up and down Western Avenue in the dark, watching the women in the spill of light from the store windows. When he is caught, says Kilcoyne, "we'll have all the answers and what-ifs. We'll know."

Suzanne Smalley and Jerry Adler. Eleven and Counting. Newsweek. August 17, 2009.


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