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Grim Sleeper: How LAPD followed the DNA to an arrest

July 8, 2010 | 11:11 am

The call to Los Angeles Police Department headquarters from the state Department of Justice came on June 30th. The message was cryptic -- only that there was an urgent need to talk and that it had something to do with a "familial DNA" search. No mention of the specific case. No names were given.  But LAPD officials knew it had something to do with the killer they'd dubbed the "Grim Sleeper."

The LAPD had been hunting the man who had stalked South Los Angeles since 1985, killing at least 10 women.

An official with close knowledge of the case said state justice officials made the initial DNA hit two weeks prior to the June 30th call, but they were concerned about privacy violations and getting it right. So they spent two weeks retesting results and going through the legal checks and balances. When they believed they had the results firmly in hand, they picked up the phone to the LAPD, the official said.

As LAPD officials realized the gravity of the news, Chief Charlie Beck kept the circle tight. No one was to know about the DNA hit until police had a game plan for how to proceed. No information would leak out, not even deputy chiefs were in the loop.

La-mew-grim-sleeper-dna Two days later, on July 2, officials from the Department of Justice flew down to personally hand over the results. They started with a lengthy preamble, covering legal aspects and privacy requirements.

Only then did they get to the test results: the DNA from crime scenes in the Grim Sleeper case had been linked to a young man who had been arrested in recent months.

The man was too young to be the killer.  But authorities were confident he was related to the Grim Sleeper.

The DOJ already had done a lot of familial DNA legwork. When they gave the LAPD the results, they also came armed with research -- the names of family members of the young man identified through a database search. But the logical suspect became clear: the man's father, Lonnie David Franklin, Jr.

Sources said the partial DNA match clearly showed a parental relationship, which was confirmed by another test that examined a chromosome passed from father to son. Other indicators pointed to Franklin. The age was right. And his address in South Los Angeles "was right in the heart of it all," one law enforcement official said.

As the LAPD officials left the meeting, they described a rush of emotion.

"Excitement for the first minute or so -- and then, every other emotion kicks in," one source said. " There's the worry and the nervousness that everything that has to happen will happen. Our heads were spinning."

Their thoughts also immediately turned to the relatives of the victims, some whom had been waiting for an arrest for more than two decades.

"I thought, 'God, it will be so good if we can tell them we caught the guy,' " the LAPD official said.

Within hours of Friday's meeting, undercover surveillance officers began watching Franklin. These were round-the-clock teams – 14- to 16-member teams from the Special Investigations Section and Narcotics Surveillance – monitoring every move.

"The chief's direction to me was: You are to stay on him until you either confirm it's him or you eliminate it as a possibility," said Capt. Kevin McClure, head of LAPD's robbery-homicide unit.

Franklin was the department's top priority, and McClure was given the go-ahead to devote whatever resources were necessary to the operation, even during the busy Fourth of July weekend.

But the surveillance became a frustrating endeavor.

Franklin spent most of his daylight hours indoors, sources said. He left his house on 81st Street only to run a few mundane errands -- to an auto parts store, nothing that would allow detectives to retrieve any DNA samples.

At night, Franklin became more active. But even those evenings proved fruitless. He would take long, seemingly pointless drives through the city. On some occasions, he drove along Western Avenue, an area known for prostitution. If Franklin picked up a prostitute, police planned to arrest him immediately, fearing that he could potentially strike again.

But he never did.

Their big break came Monday.

Franklin traveled to northern Orange County, near Buena Park, where he stopped for pizza. At the end of his meal, he discarded a pizza crust, a fork, napkins and a drinking glass. Detectives moved in quickly, collecting eight items.

Authorities felt a surge of excitement – and apprehension. Was there enough saliva to extract usable DNA? What if this was another dead end?

"It was, 'OK, everybody slow down and take a deep breath,' " one law enforcement official said. " 'This is going to take a little bit of time, so let's just let the process work.' "

The items were immediately taken to the LAPD's DNA lab, where analysts were put to work. The analysts were not told what case they were working on. But they were given explicit direction to rush the job without cutting any corners.

Then, authorities could only wait.

On Tuesday night, the analysts delivered their first news. They had extracted enough DNA to run a test.

At 7 a.m., the results were in. DNA matched evidence found at the crime scenes.

At 9:20 a.m., Franklin walked out of his house to move one of his cars. Two detectives approached him, identified themselves and quickly whisked Franklin away in an awaiting vehicle.

At 1:47 p.m., Franklin was booked at the downtown Los Angeles jail. He was charged with 10 counts of murder and one count of attempted murder.

-- Joel Rubin

Photo: (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times / July 7, 2010) Diana Ware, the stepmother of Grim Sleeper victim Barbara Ware, stands near the home of Lonnie David Franklin Jr.

Click to learn more about the Grim Sleeper's victims
Learn more about the Grim Sleeper's victims on The Times interactive Homicide Report map

Photo: (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times / July 7, 2010) Neighbor Donna Harris stands across the street from the home of Lonnie David Franklin Jr.