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Prisoner charged in 4 more murders

With DNA evidence, detectives link unsolved homicides of local women to a convicted serial killer.

June 28, 2008|Jack Leonard and Richard Winton | Times Staff Writers

Los Angeles County prosecutors filed murder charges Friday against a 51-year-old prison inmate, alleging that he raped and killed four area women between 1986 and 1993.

The charges mark the latest effort by police to close dozens of cases of women slain in South Los Angeles and the vicinity during the 1980s and 1990s, killings that went unsolved for years.

A team of Los Angeles Police Department detectives have scoured hundreds of cold cases in the last few years, comparing old evidence against advanced DNA databases to identify suspects.

Michael Hughes, convicted of four similar slayings in 1998, is accused of strangling the four women who ranged in age from 15 to 36, said Los Angeles County Deputy Dist. Atty. Robert Grace.

Hughes is serving life in prison without the possibility of parole, he said.

Hughes was identified through a cold-hit DNA link, , Grace said.

The slayings, he added, bore a close resemblance to those committed by other killers who were in Los Angeles at the time. In the last two years, prosecutors have convicted two other men -- Chester Turner and Ivan J. Hill -- in similar killing sprees.

"It has similarities to many recent serial murder cases," said Grace, who successfully prosecuted Turner.

In the latest case, most of the victims' bodies were dumped outside and found by passersby, he said. One woman's body was discovered near a trash container in Los Angeles. Another was found in a playground at a South Los Angeles school.

A third was discovered hidden behind a large brick barbecue pit in an Inglewood park. The fourth was found by a friend at a South Los Angeles home.

Hughes, a former security guard, targeted vulnerable women on the streets, some of whom had drug problems, authorities said.

Three of the women he is already convicted of killing were found dumped in alleys in a commercial area of Culver City. They had been choked to death.

"He meets them on the street," said LAPD Det. Cliff Shepard, who investigated the case with Det. Paul Coulter. "We just want to bring some closure to the families of these victims."

Hughes is in prison for the deaths of Teresa Ballard, 26, whose partly clothed body was found in Jesse Owens County Park near Western Avenue and Century Boulevard in Los Angeles on Sept. 23, 1992; Brenda Bradley, 38, whose partly clothed body was found in an alley near the eastern tip of Culver City 12 days later; Terri Myles, 33, whose nude body was found two blocks away on Nov. 8, 1993; and Jamie Harrington, 29, whose clothed body was found nearby on Nov. 14, 1993.

The eight killings hardly stood out during a time of unprecedented violence in L.A., beginning with the crack epidemic of the 1980s that gave rise to gang activity and peaking around the time of the L.A. riots in 1992 -- a year when the city recorded more than 1,000 homicides.

When Hughes was arrested in 1993, his case got little attention in post-riot L.A.

Among the latest victims linked to Hughes was Yvonne Coleman, 15, a student at Morningside High School in Inglewood who left her home in January 1986 and headed for the San Fernando Valley. Her body was found in one of the city's parks.

"The young girl in Inglewood was an innocent kid on her way home," Shepard said.

Four months later, the body of Verna Patricia Williams, 36, was discovered at 68th Street School in South L.A. by students. Police at the time believed Williams was one of many victims of a serial killer dubbed the Southside Slayer.

A law enforcement task force was set up to catch the killer but didn't succeed in solving most of the homicides.

But as genetic evidence has become accessible, police have dusted off many of those cases, comparing DNA and other stored information from the killings against the state's vast database of convicted felons.

In doing so, detectives learned that the homicides linked to the Southside Slayer were in fact the work of several serial killers, including Hughes.

A four-year lull in killings linked to Hughes ended in August 1990 when the body of Deanna Marie Wilson, 30, was discovered at a home on West 55th Street. The pace of the killings grew again from 1992. A year later, the body of Deborah Jackson, 32, was found near a trash container outside a paint store in the Mid-City area of Los Angeles.

In their quest to close the case files, Shepard and Coulter spent years poring over old evidence and trying to retrace Hughes' footsteps.

The detectives submitted DNA samples from Williams' 1986 case to compare with the state's database of convicted felons. They got a link to Hughes in 2004, Shepard said. The database also linked the DNA with forensic evidence from Wilson's killing.

Coulter recognized similarities between the two killings and a case he had unsuccessfully investigated in 1993 -- the slaying of Jackson. DNA from Jackson's case also implicated Hughes, Shepard said.

The detectives needed to build on the forensic evidence. Shepard said they painstakingly reconstructed events surrounding each killing, interviewing relatives of the victims, witnesses who found the bodies and the original investigators. "We weren't in a rush," Shepard said. "We wanted to get all the killings he was responsible for in this case."

During the investigation, the detectives visited Hughes twice in Kern Valley State Prison. But the inmate was of limited help, he said.

" 'I didn't kill anyone,' he told us," Shepard said.

Detectives believe that Hughes moved frequently throughout his life, living in Long Beach, San Diego and Michigan. They said they are warning police departments around the country of Hughes' movements, concerned he may be linked to killings beyond Los Angeles.

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jack.leonard@latimes.com

richard.winton@latimes.com

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