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'It was a terrifying time'

More than 100 women died during a 10-year period that serial killers roamed South L.A.

August 04, 2010|By Scott Gold and Andrew Blankstein, Los Angeles Times

On a Monday morning in the spring of 2007, a prosecutor named Truc Do stood to tell a jury about the world in which Chester Turner had killed — and to offer a requiem for a dark chapter in the heart of Los Angeles.

Turner lived with his mom on Century Boulevard, drank fortified wine and made a sporadic living delivering pizzas and selling crack. His murderous binge, which took the lives of 10 women, began in 1987, a perilous time in South Los Angeles.

Serial killers: In Wednesday's Section A, a map that accompanied an article about serial killers in South Los Angeles mislabeled the community of Walnut Park as Walnut. —

Jobs had vanished. Crack cocaine, a new drug so powerful and profitable it was worth dying over, ravaged the neighborhood. Gangs carved up the streets. The LAPD recorded a violent crime every eight minutes. It was a world, the prosecutor told the jury, in which "life itself is degraded."

It was a world in which people could be killed with impunity.

The recent arrest of another man accused of being a serial killer active in that era, Lonnie David Franklin Jr. — allegedly the long-sought Grim Sleeper — prompted jubilation and noisy public pronouncements. The celebrations served to obscure, once again, a terrible truth about South Los Angeles: During a 10-year period beginning in 1984, multiple serial killers operated there, all of them targeting young, poor, African American women.

All told, between 1984 and 1993, LAPD detectives estimate that more than 100 women, almost all African American, were killed in South L.A. and the surrounding neighborhoods.

Some of the cases have been solved; others remain open. Detectives say many are tied to five serial killers operating in the area.

An earlier version of this article and its headline stated that more than 100 women in South L.A. had been slain by serial killers; not all the deaths have been linked to serial killers.

Franklin, 57, has been charged with 10 counts of murder. Turner, 43, is on death row after raping and strangling 10 women, one of whom was six months pregnant. Louis Craine was convicted of strangling four women between 1984 and 1987; he later died in prison, at 31. Michael Hughes, 54, was accused of killing eight, four in South L.A. and nearby Inglewood. And Daniel Lee Seibert confessed to killing 13 across the United States, two of them in South L.A.; he died in prison, at 53, in 2008.

Police believe they killed several additional women as well.

Biological evidence suggests that at least two more men, who have not been apprehended, were each responsible for at least four more deaths, officials said. That would mean at least seven serial killers were preying on women in the same neighborhood at roughly the same time.

During the years in which they were active, the South Los Angeles killers never earned the noir nicknames of the region's other infamous killers — the Night Stalker, the Hillside Strangler.

Those other crimes were notorious sagas that gained national attention and had parts of the metropolis in a state of panic. By contrast, few people in South L.A., including parents of victims, were even aware of a serial killer operating in their neighborhood — much less five or more. While the more publicized cases had distinctive hallmarks, in South L.A. there were so many people being killed, almost all of them from the margins of society, that it was difficult for neighbors or police to pinpoint any patterns.

The rapes and murders of dozens of young women were, effectively, lost in the crime wave.

"Could you imagine — more than 100 women killed and nobody notices?" said Margaret Prescod, who founded an organization 24 years ago to press for a more aggressive response to the killings and now hosts a radio show. "Could you imagine it in Beverly Hills? Palos Verdes?"

South Los Angeles was once a storied African American community. The nation's first hotel financed by African American businessmen was built in 1928 on South Central Avenue. West Coast jazz was pretty much invented in the surrounding clubs, and a revolutionary notion — of middle-class African American families — was nurtured there.

But the neighborhood could never fully shake off its entrenched poverty and bouts of violence. At times, as in the riots of 1965, the area degenerated into civic collapse.

Over time, the factories and union jobs, which had drawn thousands of African American families from Louisiana, Texas and elsewhere, vanished. Public housing moved in, freeway projects divided communities, and residential segregation deepened. Membership in gangs skyrocketed.

By Nov. 18, 1984, when 30-year-old divorcee Sheila Rae Burton, who also used the name Burris, was found stabbed to death on Maie Avenue — making her the first victim linked positively to one of the serial killers, though authorities suspect the killings began before that — South L.A. was in crisis.

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