In a refreshing change of pace for books written about serial killers, The Grim Sleeper, released June 13, doesn’t focus on the mental state or family history of murderer Lonnie Franklin Jr., but on the trauma inflicted on his victims and their families. Franklin roamed free in South Los Angeles from 1985, when it’s said he committed his first murder, until 2010 when he was arrested. Franklin was found guilty of ten counts of murder and one count of attempted murder in a courtroom trial last year, and was then sentenced to death.
The Grim Sleeper - written by journalist Christine Pelisek, who broke the story on Franklin when working at Los Angeles alt-newspaper the L.A. Weekly - is more a procedural play-by-play than an indulgent foray into the gory details of Franklin’s reign of terror. In her nearly 350-page book, Pelisek outlines the Los Angeles Police Department’s investigation alongside her own coverage of the case. It was Pelisek who dubbed Franklin the Grim Sleeper (with the help of her editor), informed the public there was a serial killer at large and cultivated intimate relationships with the families of his victims. As she writes in the book, the case and her reporting on it dominated her life for an entire decade.
It is these relationships that take center stage in her book. With chapters named after each of the victims, Pelisek includes personal details about each woman (and girl) to paint a vivid picture of who they were as individuals. While most news reports simply glossed their surface - describing the victims as African-American women, some of whom were sex workers and many who had drug problems - Pelisek shares nuances of their personalities or intricacies of their personal lives.
In the case of 18-year-old victim Alicia “Monique” Alexander, it was that she was such a chubby baby that her family “affectionately called her Moo or Moo Cow”; for 15-year-old Princess Berthomieux, it was details of her abusive childhood, in which she ended up with burns all over her body, especially her buttocks.
The book follows a loosely chronological structure that begins with Pelisek’s own introduction to the Grim Sleeper case as a reporter in 2006. It then backtracks through the individual cases of Franklin’s victims; the many hurdles, criticisms and occasional triumph of the LAPD’s investigation; community reaction and the culmination, Franklin’s trial and ultimate sentencing.
The book also contains details about each murder not widely released in prior news coverage, and while many of these specifics are gruesome, they also serve to further humanize Franklin’s victims. There’s Barbara Ware, who was found in a black Kangol halter top, jeans and a cardigan and had “four plastic hair curlers, one yellow, two pink, and one green, hanging loosely in her curly black hair.” Then there’s Bernita Sparks, found in a dumpster with blood smeared across her face and “some still oozed from her nose and mouth.” She was also wearing “a small yellow metal heart-shaped earring” in her right ear lobe.
While a softness and sensitivity is shown toward the victims and their families, the book maintains a journalistic quality with its straight-forward tone and unembellished writing style. Pelisek puts the victims center stage, but a spattering of LAPD detectives also become central characters as they struggle to solve a slew of unsolved murders amidst a chaotic time in South L.A.
An exploding crack epidemic, a spike in violent crime and the activity of multiple serial killers at one time made it hard for detectives to separate and link particular cases, investigators say. The LAPD came under fire for failing to solve the Grim Sleeper case sooner and for their delay in alerting the South L.A. community that there was a serial killer in their midst - criticisms that are addressed in Pelisek’s book, but not excused.
She presents a pointedly balanced account of the murders and their investigation, detailing and substantiating the outrage of the victims’ families while also showing the breadth of the LAPD investigation, which at one point included a 50-person task force. After Franklin’s arrest, police conducted “the largest [search] in LAPD history” as they combed his house and three-car garage and confiscated more than 800 pieces of evidence, Pelisek writes.
Intertwined with this narrative is her own, giving her investigative work credit where credit is due. Such as when the Los Angeles City Council offered a $500,000 reward for tips leading to the Grim Sleeper’s arrest - the largest reward in the City’s history – one week after one of Pelisek’s L.A. Weekly in-depth stories on the case.
Her book ends much like the saga of the Grim Sleeper did; with him being sentenced to death in front of the mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters and other loved ones of his ten known murder victims. Franklin was admitted to San Quentin prison’s death row last year at the age of 64.