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Prints may help close 1973 homicide

After a digital database match, an inmate is charged with killing a South L.A. widow, 86.

March 21, 2007|Richard Winton and Andrew Blankstein | Times Staff Writers

On a February night 34 years ago, two men broke down the door of Anna Lockner's small bungalow on 99th Street in South Los Angeles.

They beat the 86-year-old widow senseless and ransacked her house, leaving with $15 in cash.

Lockner died a few days later in a hospital, and her slaying remained a mystery for decades.

Then, on Tuesday, the Los Angeles County district attorney's office charged a 53-year-old man with the killing.

The charge capped a cold-case investigation that relied on fingerprints found at Lockner's home to identify the suspect.

The fingerprints had been sitting in the Los Angeles Police Department's case file since 1973.

But it wasn't until more recent years, with the development of digital databases and the increasing speed with which computers can search them, that police could quickly check those prints and the backlog of thousands of others against people arrested in connection with other crimes.

The suspect, convicted kidnapper Jessie Clifton Wimberly Jr., 53, was already serving a prison term of life with the possibility of parole at a state prison in San Luis Obispo. He was expected to be sent to Los Angeles for arraignment next week.

Lockner had moved to 99th Street after World War II, part of the GI migration to the cookie-cutter homes that spread out south of downtown Los Angeles, said Det. Corbin Rheault of the LAPD's cold case squad.

Despite the white flight that later occurred and the death of her husband, Lockner proudly stayed in the neighborhood and welcomed the new residents, Rheault said.

"Anna refused to leave," the detective said. "She loved the neighborhood. She loved the neighbors. The neighbors loved her. She was comfortable there."

Lockner was living alone when the assailants entered her house.

According to reports at the time, she suffered multiple injuries in the predawn attack, including a fractured skull.

A neighbor found her a few hours later. Before she died, she was able to tell detectives from her hospital bed what happened.

Rheault said police reports at the time noted the horror neighbors felt that someone they considered so kindhearted would die so violently.

Her great-nephew was the first family member to go to the scene.

"He was shocked. He said, 'How anyone could do this to such a little old lady,' " Rheault said. "She was tiny and frail, barely more than 5 feet tall."

The LAPD submitted the fingerprints from the crime scene along with about 75 other sets from unsolved murder cases to the state's fingerprint computer database, part of a new effort to close the cases.

There are 6,000 unsolved homicides in L.A., many with prints yet to be checked against a state or federal database. In November, the City Council voiced concern about the fingerprint-processing backlog.

Lockner's case was reopened in September 2005; the fingerprints yielded a match in June 2006. It was verified by an LAPD fingerprint technician.

Rheault said police found both direct and circumstantial evidence that placed Wimberly at the scene of the crime, though he refused to provide details.

Prosecutors said they believe that his accomplice -- who was not identified -- was killed during a robbery several years ago. They suspect that Lockner was picked at random and that the pair were simply looking for people to steal from.

"We are very confident we have the person who committed the crime, and we look forward to presenting our evidence in court," he said.

richard.winton@latimes.com

andrew.blankstein@latimes.com

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