LOS ANGELES — After three years chasing down a serial killer, Dennis Kilcoyne spends his retirement growing lilacs.
As a detective with the Los Angeles Police Department, Kilcoyne led the “800 Task Force” (named after the same room at headquarters) tasked with finding a serial killer. After a stretch of murders in the 1980s, the trail went cold until 2008 when bodies of young black women were being found again in South Central L.A.
The serial killer was back; the “Grim Sleeper” was awake.
In 2010, Kilcoyne’s team arrested Lonnie Franklin Jr. for the murder of 10 women and attempted murder of another. He now stands trial, although he has pleaded not guilty. If convicted, Franklin could be sentenced to death.
Taking no chances that he’ll dodge death row, prosecutors plan to present five more alleged victims during the sentencing phase of Franklin’s trial, Kilcoyne and Det. Daryn Dupree of the LAPD told The Daily Beast.
“We know he wasn’t sleeping,” Kilcoyne told The Daily Beast on his lilac farm about an hour north of L.A. “You’ll hear about other cases soon.”
In fact, the death toll is much higher than even that 15.
“I think he’s good for probably 30 murders,” Kilcoyne said.
That would make Franklin the most prolific serial killer in California history and place him in the ranks of notorious serial killers like John Wayne Gacy and Ted Bundy.
Franklin is a married father of two who in 1981 worked on cop cars at the LAPD’s 77th Division and then collected garbage for the city’s Sanitation Department before retiring in 1989. Both jobs granted him unfettered access to city vehicles, landfills, and countless dumpsters—all helpful for hiding human bodies.
The “Seven Seven” and neighboring police precincts cover South Central L.A., which was ground zero in the crack and murder epidemic during the 1980s.
Franklin’s first alleged victim was 29-year-old Debra Jackson, who was killed and dumped in an alley on Aug. 10, 1985. He would allegedly kill six more women up until Nov. 20, 1988 when he shot but did not kill Enietra Washington.
She has been long believed to be the serial killer’s “sole survivor.”
According to prosecutors, the human predator hibernated until March 9, 2002, when 15-year-old Princess Berthomieux was discovered beaten and strangled to death in an Inglewood alley.
When two more women were found dead matching the same M.O., Valerie McCorvey in 2003 and Janecia Peters in 2007, police realized the killer was back.
The 800 Task Force was soon created in secret (and uncovered by Christine Pelisek of L.A. Weekly) and it had something the LAPD didn’t in the ’80s: a huge DNA database of convicted felons and parolees. DNA from Christopher Franklin, Lonnie’s son, obtained on a 2009 weapons charge was a close match with DNA found on several victims.
Christopher, 28, was obviously too young to have been the killer, but police went to work on his father.
With some Hollywood magic, an undercover officer played a busboy at a pizza parlor where the Franklins were having a family party and collected Lonnie’s unfinished pizza crust.
DNA from it matched DNA from saliva recovered from some of the victims’ breasts.
When cops raided Franklin’s home, they found a cache of photos including Enietra Washington’s picture.
“I’ll tell you what, when we found that Polaroid [of Washington] 25 years later that was gold, man,” Kilcoyne said. “And if a jury doesn’t buy that I don’t know what to tell you.”
“I’m the one with a pink dress and asleep with natty hair. That was me,” LaWana Wilson told The Daily Beast of photo 125.
LaWana wanders back in time from behind bulletproof glass of a bodega she co-owns with her brother Ed located in the Vermont Square section of L.A., sharing for the first time publicly her story of being attacked twice by Franklin during the time when he was said to be sleeping.
In 1999, LaWana was working as a prostitute, and Franklin was working on cars in the same neighborhood, tricking out many of them for gangbangers.
“We called him The Mechanic,” she said.“But nobody knew his first or last name. Back then, it was ‘the homeboy’ or ‘the homegirl’ and we just called him The Mechanic.”
One day, The Mechanic parked his hatchback across from the 74th Street Elementary School.
“I thought he would be a good trick,” she said. “I got some dope from my homeboy and I said to him, ‘Let me get in your car and smoke.’”
Franklin let her in.
“I’m sitting there in the front seat hitting my stuff and my mouth started twitching,” she said.
Franklin allegedly snapped.
“The back of his fist came across my face ‘Bow’ and I was out. That was it. He socked me in the middle of my two eyes and I went out.”
LaWana says she was beaten and raped while she was unconscious. It’s during this time when Franklin must have photographed her, she surmises.
Franklin allegedly left her for dead in the the front seat of a U-Haul truck parked on 83rd Street and Western Avenue.
“The woman watering her grass called the cops to complain about the truck in front of her house, but when she peeked in the window she sees me laying across the seat panting for air,” she said.
Paramedics spirited LaWana to the now-defunct Martin Luther King Hospital where she lay in a coma.
“The first words I heard was ‘Is she dead? I don’t want to see her if she is dead.”
It was her mother.
The next time LaWana awoke to a person’s voice, it was a police officer asking her about the incident. LaWana says the questions were more like accusations.
“Why would you get into a car with someone you barely knew? This guy that assaulted you, you was over with him and your friends? So how many times had you seen this guy over there with you and your friends?” she said the officer, whom she could not name, asked her.
LaWana says the interrogation was her only interview by police.
The brush with death didn’t scare LaWana straight though.
“I told myself ‘Just be careful next time.’”
By April 1999 LaWana started attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. One took place inside a private home off Hoover and 50th Streets. Her mother dropped her off and handed her $2 for bus fare home.
“I had my AA book, my ID, and my mama’s keys to her house and my birth certificate inside the purse.”
When the meeting was over, LaWana couldn’t find a bus stop. That’s when “this guy pulls up.”
The man appeared lost—until he pointed a gun in her face.
“Bitch, get in the car. If you run I’m going to shoot you in your back.”
“I kept saying to myself: ‘If I just do what the man say. You know how the streets go. It’s best I play the role and keep quiet. Do what he wants—all he’s gonna do is rape you and let you go.’”
He pulled into an almost empty field across the street from Manchester Avenue Elementary School off West 87th Street.
“By this time the sun is going down and it’s dark as shit in this damn field,” she said. “There’s a duplex behind me and I can see someone’s TV flaring.”
Franklin allegedly unzipped his pants.
“With his gun pointed at me he said, ‘Bitch, you’re going to hook me up.’”
But the car posed a problem.
“It was too small and my head kept getting stuck trying to go up and down on him,” she remembered.
Franklin reclined his seat to make room and then set the pistol down.
“I opened up the car door and jumped out,” but not before Franklin punched her in the face, LaWana said.
She ran as fast as she could as Franklin spit more venom.
“Bitch, I’m going to get my gun!”
“When I heard that sound it clicked. It’s the same motherfucker from before,” she said.
LaWana ran toward the light of the television in that apartment she saw.
“Bam-bam-bam-bam I knocked on his door and he said, ‘Get the fuck away from my door. I’m not getting involved in that shit, bitch.’”
Frantic and gushing blood from her nose, LaWana dashed across the courtyard.
“There was a young man and an older lady and he said, ‘Come in here.’”
LaWana lay on the floor and told them a man was trying to kill her.
Moments after the woman called 911, the pitch black night became day with the spotlight from a LAPD helicopter. Squad cars and an ambulance rushed in.
After she was discharged from the hospital, LaWana was back at her mother’s house when she received a manilla envelope in the mail. Inside was the ID and birth certificate she said she left in Franklin’s car.
It would be another decade until LaWana realized the man who she says almost killed her was a suspected serial killer.
Det. Dupree, who has taken over as lead investigator in the Franklin case, told The Daily Beast what the LAPD told LaWana: there’s no rape kit, no police report, and therefore, no case.
“This is a DNA case and a ballistics case,” he said. “Miss LaWana Wilson’s case, or lack thereof a case, has been vetted and investigated.”
And with LaWana’s case he said “we have no DNA and we have no ballistics.”
Dupree says he’s been in touch with Wilson on multiple occasions and remains unconvinced she was attacked by Franklin because he says her facts changed.
“I’ve known Miss Wilson for five years and dealing with her and her family,” he said. “She never once until recently said she was attacked by him.”
Kilcoyne, without knowing all the particulars, was open to the possibility of women like LaWana out there.
“There are other surviving women,” he said. “One in particular we’ve been helping her with therapy and money and everything for years now but she’s just—there’s no way in hell you could bring her into the courtroom.”
And while he can’t place LaWana’s case Kilcoyne tried to endorse her as truthful.
“We did have other women that came to us after this happened,” Kilcoyne said after the cops caught Franklin. “They were women with crazy stories about him. I have no reason to doubt this lady. She probably did run across him more than once.”
With other survivors Kilcoyne recalls one who “jumped out of a moving truck window” to get away from Franklin and another who he regrets has had a rough time battling “drugs all her life.”
Not every accusation turns out to be right, though.
“There’s been a number of women saying ‘He’s the guy!’ And we tell them ‘We checked it out and no he isn’t and we hate to tell you that.’”
Contrary to LaWana’s feeling that she’s being ignored, Kilcoyne said the LAPD continued looking for victims even after it had enough evidence to charge Franklin with 10 murders and one attempted murder.
“We didn’t stop,” he said. “I was amazed at the police department, because it has to be run like a business and there’s new business every day.”
After the 800 Task Force was disbanded, Kilcoyne remained on the LAPD payroll for more than a year after he retired in order to follow through on leads.
With Franklin’s DNA in the system, Kilcoyne and company set off to follow up on an estimated 400 cases and some 50 women who claimed they either dated or were attacked by Lonnie Franklin Jr.
Still, the force is a massive machine that can move fast but often crawls. “You have a police department of 10,000 people telling the lab, ‘Well, do my DNA,’” he said.
And the forensic work is often more of a lottery ticket than a coin toss. “Franklin is in all of the data banks and we thought it would go off like a slot machine once his profile entered.”
In fact, many of the cases came through calls fielded by Kilcoyne’s team. “There was one or two where the DNA was good for on its own but most of them were from people calling and saying, ‘Well, hey would you look at my daughter’s case?’ And when we did, sure as shit it was him.”
What’s more, Kilcoyne is adamant the case “is not closed out.”
“Once we got him we started looking at things,” Kilcoyne said.
That meant vetting hundreds of leads and cases, fresh and cold.
And while LaWana believes she is more than entitled to be part of the case or at least a witness, Kilcoyne said that would only “restart the clock” in what has been an insufferable delay for all the victims.
A Los Angeles District Attorney spokeswoman told The Daily Beast that they are “aware” of LaWana but were unable to divulge any information about the credibility of her claims, stating, “because this case is in the middle of trial, we decline to provide further comment.”
Kilcoyne testified as a witness for the prosecution and said he told people at the courthouse, “Your sisters or your daughters—they’re gone. He got them. We haven’t found them. We can’t prove it—but he’s got their pictures and their identification in his stuff.”
Indeed, there are missing women whose Torrance High School identification or Nevada driver’s license were in Franklin’s stash of human memorabilia. One has been gone 20 years, another 30.
“We know exactly where she is,” Kilcoyne said. “She’s in a landfill somewhere.”
LaWana might have ended up dead anyway thanks to drugs, but she’s been clean and sober for years, though it’s been hard since she learned about what Franklin has been accused of doing to women other than her.
“I go to sleep at night and lay my head on my pillow—that’s when it haunts me. I can’t stand the sleepless nights.”
For LaWana, the Grim Sleeper never sleeps.