In the more than two decades since Los Angeles police detectives began the search for a serial killer stalking young prostitutes in South L.A., they have had few breaks. One night in 1987, however, offered a tantalizing, agonizing clue.
Shortly after midnight on Jan. 10, a man called police from a pay phone to report that he had seen someone dump a woman's body out of the back of a van and leave it in an alley. He gave the address, a description of the van and its license plate number: 1PZP746.
"Is that T like Tom?" the dispatcher asked, according to several Los Angeles Police Department detectives who have heard a recording of the call.
"No, P like puppy," the man said, speaking in a raspy, deep voice.
The call lasted no more than 30 seconds. At the end, the dispatcher asked for the man's name.
He chuckled nervously at the question. "I know too many people. OK, then, bye-bye," he said, hanging up the phone.
Twenty years later, with little else to go on, detectives are hopeful that the call may still hold the key to identifying the elusive killer who has claimed at least 11 victims. Today, police plan to release a recording of the call to the public, along with details of the van and the church that owned it on the chance that someone will come forward with information.
"There has got to be something to this. There is just too much information here for there not to be something of value for us," said Det. Dennis Kilcoyne, who heads a task force charged with catching the killer. "We're hoping somebody out there will be able to help us make the connection between this body, the van and the caller."
The search for the serial killer has been a frustrating, uneven one. Long stretches of time between known killings and a disjointed, often dormant investigation that spanned different generations of detectives left police unclear for years that one man was behind the slayings.
Last summer, police acknowledged that they had linked the same man to the 11 killings through ballistic and DNA evidence. His last known victim was killed in May 2007.
Formed after the most recent killing, the LAPD task force has struggled to make progress. The killer's genetic profile, known from DNA evidence left on several of his victims, failed to match any of the millions stored in state felon databases. Efforts to find and tease information from relatives or others have been hamstrung by faltering memories and the dramatic demographic shifts South Los Angeles has experienced since the killings began.
The detectives pored over old case files, trying to resurrect cold leads and catch worthwhile clues overlooked by earlier detectives. The call to police on a January night two decades ago seemed to hold promise.
Records show that police found the body of 23-year-old Barbara Ware in the alley off 56th Street near Central Avenue, as the caller had described. She was covered with debris and trash, shot once in the chest. Registration records showed that the van was owned by the nearby Cosmopolitan Church. Within about an hour of the call, detectives found the blue and white van in the church's parking lot on Normandie Avenue. A detective put his hand on the hood, Kilcoyne said. Its engine was still warm.
The trail, however, went cold almost immediately. The church did not keep close tabs on who drove the van, which was used to pick up elderly members from home. Detectives failed to identify a suspect and to Kilcoyne's dismay, moved on relatively quickly.
After that night, the killer went on to claim eight more victims. One woman in 1988 survived the attack after being shot three times and gave police their only description of the man, who she said was an African American in his mid-30s.
Since taking over in 2007, task force members have tried to breathe life back into the investigation of the van. There was reason for hope at first, when a search of federal databases matched fingerprints lifted from the van in 1987 to a man incarcerated in a Florida prison. Detectives flew to Florida, but to no avail. The man, the son of a church member, recalled being in the van, but denied any knowledge of the killing, Kilcoyne said.
Detectives dismissed him as a suspect when his DNA did not match the killer's.
In all, detectives have tracked down about 10 men associated with the now-defunct church, including one who worked as a driver, and taken DNA samples to test against the suspected killer's. A visit to the retired deacon at his home outside of Macon, Ga., turned up nothing.
A search of DMV records indicated that the van was sold and sent to Belize, but it has never been found, Kilcoyne said.
With no blood or other physical evidence found in the van that proves it was actually used to dump Ware's body, detectives are not dismissing the possibility that the caller that night was lying in an effort to mislead police. And Kilcoyne is the first to acknowledge that releasing the tape is a long shot, but with little else to go on, he's hoping former church parishioners will hear the tape and come forward with clues.
"I find myself sitting in traffic just banging my head wondering, 'What else can we do?' " he said.