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'Everybody knew Lonnie'

Neighbors describe the suspect in the Grim Sleeper killings as someone who was always willing to help. He was friendly — but showed a dark side toward some women, neighbors say.

July 09, 2010|By Hector Becerra and Scott Gold, Los Angeles Times

Lonnie David Franklin Jr. was a smalltime crook, but his neighbors didn't worry about a guy who could get you a nice price on a flat-screen TV and who kept a "don't ask, don't tell" supply of car parts stashed behind his spearmint green house.

Even if his narrow street in South L.A. was lined with well-kept homes and pruned hedges, the neighborhood was beset with generational poverty and a parade of addicts, dealers and gang-bangers. Franklin had his issues; his encounters with women, in particular, could veer from overtly promiscuous to downright hostile, friends and neighbors said. Still, he was seen as something of a gem — a good neighbor, quick with a helping hand.

He had the gift of gab, too, about the Lakers and the Dodgers, "CSI" and "48 Hours." Inevitably, conversation turned to the Grim Sleeper, a serial killer who had taken the lives of at least 10 women. The subject was hard to avoid; sketches of the suspect were plastered on the walls of liquor stores, and Franklin lived down the street from a billboard seeking leads in the case that showed the faces of the young victims.

This week, officials identified Franklin, 57, as the Grim Sleeper — not just a smalltime crook, but an elusive and prolific serial killer.

Franklin was ordered held without bail Thursday after being charged with 10 counts of murder and one count of attempted murder. He has conceded nothing to investigators, police said.

The first victim attributed to him was Debra Jackson, 29, a waitress who was shot in the chest in 1985 and whose body was discarded in an alley; the most recent was Janecia Peters, 25, whose body was found in a dumpster on New Year's Day 2007.

All of the victims Franklin has been charged with killing were young African American women who lived on the margins of society, and some of them worked as prostitutes. Most had been sexually assaulted and then shot with the same small-caliber handgun, and almost all were killed along one corridor straddling Western Avenue — which passed 200 feet west of Franklin's home on West 81st Street.

To say that Franklin had been hiding in plain sight would be vast understatement.

Effusive and outgoing, Franklin attended the graduation ceremonies of neighbors' children and brought gifts to elderly neighbors on their birthdays.

The window box outside his kitchen was full of leafy plants and after supper, when the lights were on, you could see him washing dishes over the sink. He had an on-again, off-again relationship with his wife of 30 years, but he doted on his two children, now grown, teaching them how to drive and fixing their cars. When his mother-in-law got sick, he was the one who took her to the doctor.

"His family didn't want for nothing," said neighbor Yvette Williams, 45. "No one in the world is an angel. But I could admire someone for taking care of his family and his home."

So what if the guy was running a chop shop? "Just Lonnie," one neighbor shrugged. He was just trying to make a buck like everybody else. Several neighbors recalled thinking: It's not like he's killing people.

He had lived here for decades, and was a neighborhood character with a neighborhood business — one that was, depending on the day, aboveboard, off-the-books and a charity service.

He ran a retail shop of sorts — some electronics, such as speakers and computers still in sealed boxes, but also bicycles he rebuilt, according to those who knew him.

"I got two flat-screen TVs and put one in my son's room and the other in my daughter's room," said Tomia Bowden, 42, who has lived in the neighborhood since 2001. Franklin had been convicted twice of felony possession of stolen property. "Stolen? Oh, hell yeah," Bowden said. "But that don't make him no killer."

Franklin was an automobile aficionado and a wizard under the hood; he also had an astonishing array of parts stacked to the rafters of the two-car garage behind his home, which was painted the same shade of green as his house.

One neighbor, who agreed to be identified only by her first name, Jackie, said the side mirror of her truck was recently knocked off by a passing car on Western Avenue. She went to her neighbor, who sent her to Franklin.

"He said, 'Oh, yeah, I got one of them for a GMC. What year is yours?' " Jackie recalled. "That man went into his backyard and came out with that damn thing. I couldn't believe it.… He worked through this whole neighborhood. Everybody knew Lonnie."

Franklin had worked for the city of Los Angeles throughout the 1980s, first as a maintenance assistant, then as a sanitation truck operator. For a short time, he was a garage attendant at the LAPD's 77th Street Division station. According to state employment records, he was injured in the job in 1987, and law enforcement officials said he had received disability checks.

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