Nearly two years after it was formed, a police-sheriff task force created to catch the killers of South Los Angeles prostitutes has been drastically reduced in strength as leads in the baffling case have all but dried up.
At its peak last year, 50 members of the Los Angeles Police Department were assigned full-time to the so-called Southside Slayer Task Force.
On Wednesday, task force leader Lt. John L. Zorn said there are now 17 officers investigating the string of at least 15 killings that date back to 1983. The last victim was discovered more than a year ago.
The dwindling number of fresh clues in the Southside case did not justify the number of investigators once assigned to it, so the task force was scaled back about a month ago, a Los Angeles police official said.
Shortage of Clues
"The flow of clues is almost non-existent at this point," Zorn said. "The investigation continues . . . but it's like a three-dimensional puzzle. We keep moving and turning the pieces to see if something fits together."
The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department also has cut back its involvement in the two-agency task force. The sheriff's unit of 16 detectives once assigned to the investigation has been cut by more than half, the sheriff's chief homicide investigator said Wednesday.
"We still have adequate manpower assigned to the cases we're still looking at, and if we need more at any time, we can get it," Capt. Robert Grimm said. He would not say specifically how many of his investigators are working on the Southside slayings.
Authorities began to suspect that a serial killer was preying on prostitutes in South-Central Los Angeles in April, 1985, by which time seven women had been murdered. Eventually, the toll would rise to 17 women--13 of them black, two Latino and two white.
All had been strangled and nearly all had been stabbed. All but a few of the victims had records of arrest for prostitution.
Decision to Join Forces
By January, 1986, the Police Department and the Sheriff's Department joined forces to investigate the murders. In the nearly two years that followed, the task force has logged more than 4,800 tips and solved dozens of non-related felony investigations, including two of the 17 deaths once linked to the string of still-unsolved slayings.
Along the way, Zorn and his detectives have reviewed evidence from each killing and have concluded that more than one suspect--perhaps as many as four--are responsible for the murders once attributed to a lone slayer dubbed the "Southside Serial Killer" by the news media.
That suspect has been described as a dark-complexioned black man with muscular arms and chest, 30 to 35 years of age, between 5 feet 10 inches and 6 feet tall, with black hair, brown eyes, a small mustache and straight white teeth.
The survivor of one attack said her assailant wore a baseball cap with a patch bearing the name FILA, a clothing manufacturer. Some have said the suspect was driving a 1984 or 1985 dark-colored Buick Regal with a baby seat in the back. Others have reported seeing a 1960 to 1969 Ford pickup truck with gray primer paint.
However, the wide dissemination of that information via billboards, leaflets and news coverage, as well as the promise of $35,000 in reward money, has done little to help detectives' efforts to find those responsible for the killings, authorities said. Clues from the public, which once poured in, have dried up, particularly in the months following the last homicide attributed to the unknown killers, which occurred in June, 1986.
Amid rumors that the task force was being disbanded, Police Chief Daryl F. Gates in January pledged that there would be no reduction in manpower.
But after Pope John Paul II's visit to Los Angeles in September, in which task force members and hundreds of other police officers were diverted from their normal assignments to protect the pontiff, Police Department officials decided to reduce the number of detectives assigned to the Southside case, according to Cmdr. William Booth, a department spokesman.
"This is a better way to use our resources," Booth said.
But Margaret Prescod, a community organizer and leader of the Black Coalition Fighting Back Serial Murders, criticized the department's decision.
Prescod, who has repeatedly charged that police have been less than aggressive in the case because most of the victims have been black prostitutes, reiterated her contention Wednesday when told that the task force had been reduced.
"If this was another community in which these murders had happened, you wouldn't have the lackadaisical attitude that you see on the part of the police," Prescod said. "We're not convinced that they've covered everything."
She said her organization may file a formal complaint with the Los Angeles Police Commission.