Two Los Angeles police detectives arrived one day in 1987 to inform Bill and Diana Ware that their daughter Barbara had been found fatally shot, her body dumped in a back alley in South Los Angeles.
The detectives carried hard presumptions about why she died, Diana Ware said, and so did her husband.
It was 1987, during the height of the crack epidemic. Barbara, 23, had battled drugs for years. Bill Ware assumed she was killed in some type of dispute over drugs.
It would be more than 20 years before the truth came out. Barbara Ware had been the third known victim of a serial killer now called the Grim Sleeper. By then her father was dead, and he never learned the true circumstances of her killing.
"Maybe it's a good thing he never found out the truth," Diana Ware said. "But I think that, in a way, maybe it would have been better."
Last week, Lonnie David Franklin Jr., 57, was arrested by LAPD investigators and charged with 10 counts of murder involving women killed over more than two decades. Detectives are examining at least 30 other unsolved slayings in South L.A. to see if they can link them to the Grim Sleeper.
The arrest was viewed as a triumph not only of detective work but also of the emerging DNA technology that had allegedly tied Franklin to the killings through a son who was incarcerated. But it was also a tribute to the victims' families, who exerted pressure on investigators and often collaborated to get the word out about the killer and his victims.
They took to the streets, passing out fliers, and showed up at City Hall to support rewards for the killer's capture. They pushed, successfully, for a composite sketch of the suspect to be released. They peppered detectives with questions, fretting about whether a task force set up to catch the killer would be disbanded before that happened.
And they reminded each other, in the calm of a church, or in phone conversations, that whatever problems their children and sisters and mothers had in life, their deaths had left a void — and mattered.
"It was a bond that we had," Diana Ware said. "There were things we did to keep this in front of the media. We'd meet and pass out fliers on Western Avenue. There were a lot of people in the neighborhood that never even heard of this serial killer."
When the Grim Sleeper first struck, he operated in a different city during a different era. In the late 1980s and early '90s, the number of homicides committed each year in Los Angeles was more than double what it is today. (There were 813 killings in L.A. in 1987, compared with 315 in 2009.)
Many of the cases involved drugs, gangs or sex. Overwhelmed by the number of killings, police detectives struggled to keep up. Difficult-to-solve cases were quickly moved to the back burner.
While the Grim Sleeper case eventually produced a flurry of police activity and media attention, none of the individual killings generated big headlines when they occurred, and many families came to believe police interest waned.
The families learned in 2008 that police thought a serial killer was at work. For Laverne Peters, 55, discovering that her daughter Janecia had been slain by a serial killer actually gave her hope that the case could get extra attention.
"I felt families have had their kids killed, and nothing came out of it," Peters said. "And that's how I felt about 'Necia. If it was just her, dumped in an alley, nothing would come of it. But now it was a lot of other girls killed by this one guy. I felt like something had to be done. They had to get this guy. It gave me hope."
The killings seem to stop
Most of the known killings — seven — happened between 1985 and 1988. Then the deaths tied through DNA to one killer seemed to stop.
Barbara Ware's body, with one gunshot to the chest, was found in an alley near 56th and Main streets Jan. 10, 1987. Someone had called 911 to say he had seen someone in a van drop off the body.
About a year after her killing, the Wares moved from South L.A. to West Covina, though Bill Ware kept his business in the old neighborhood. Detectives came by periodically to ask questions.
"I had a feeling they were making a lot of suppositions and assumptions. That this was just another young black lady involved in drugs," Diana Ware recalled.
The visits of the detectives stopped after two years. She said she would not hear from the LAPD again for 20 years.
Fifteen years after Ware's death, in March 2002, the nude body of Princess Berthomieux, 15, was found in an Inglewood alley. She had been beaten and strangled.
Princess had been raised by a retired nurse, Dolores Smart, and interior designer, David Smart, in a well-to-do Claremont neighborhood, said Samara Herard, 39, her foster sister. Her family had taken the girl in when she was only 3 years old, a victim of brutal physical and sexual abuse who still could not walk or talk, Herard said.