Tales of the Grim Sleeper: 25 Years of Killings and Looking the Other Way

Director Nick Broomfield and Pam Brooks ride the streets of South Los Angeles. Photo: Barney Broomfield/Courtesy of HBO.

When a serial killer eludes capture for the better part of three decades, it’s usually because of careful preparation, elusive tactics, and near-perfect execution, but that is not the case when it comes to Lonnie Franklin Jr., the subject of HBO’s newest documentary Tales of the Grim Sleeper (premieres tomorrow, April 27, at 9 p.m. EST). In order to fully comprehend how Lonnie’s sexual crimes and murders (which include at least ten women and could be as many as 100) would go uncaught for 25 years, a better understanding of the surrounding factors is needed – something wonderfully flushed out by the documentary’s director Nick Broomfield.

Lonnie lived in South Los Angeles – an area where less than 50% of its population graduates high school, and drug use is so rampant, that the industry employs more people than Xerox, AT&T, and IBM combined. Like many other drug-ridden areas, South L.A is saturated with prostitution, with women of all ages loitering on street corners looking to make a quick buck. For Lonnie, these women's dependence on drugs made them easy targets. He capitalized on their desparation by throwing around the money he acquired from dealing stolen goods. If you ever needed anything – a television, electronics, even a car – all you had to do was ask Lonnie, and he’d have it for you in a few days. Theft is one thing, but murder is a completely different beast, and when Lonnie was finally arrested in 2010, his friends assumed he’d been caught stealing cars. When news came out that he was a serial killer, dubbed “The Grim Sleeper,” Lonnie’s friends simply refused to believe that it was possible, going as far as to harass and insult Broomfield while he was gleaning the neighborhood for bits of information.

Director Nick Broomfield. Courtesy of HBO.
Denial is a theme that runs throughout the documentary, and everyone seems to be in it: Lonnie’s wife, Lonnie’s son, Lonnie’s friends, residents of South L.A., and most importantly, the police. When Barbara Wehr was killed in 1987 from a gunshot wound to the chest, it was discovered that the bullet was fired from the same gun used in at least three other homicides. The LAPD officially had a serial killer on their hands. Normally, this results in an uptick of investigative work, as well as an announcement to the community so that everyone’s aware of the situation and can keep an eye out for more information. This announcement wasn’t made in 1987. Police waited 22 years to release confirmation that there was a serial killer loose in South L.A. who was targeting black prostitutes. Prostitution, especially the type going on at the time in South L.A., will never be a safe industry, but imagine how many people might have survived had they known that there was a man out there hunting them?

As the documentary progresses, you’ll grow more and more infuriated at everyone. When Lonnie’s friends blatantly confess to knowing about his sexual perversions, his violent tendencies, his abuse of prostitutes, and were even shown the chilling photographs that Lonnie gleefully collected, your blood will boil. When a glimpse inside the Franklin household turns up weapons, stolen goods, more perverted photographs, and wads of hidden cash, you’ll shake your head in disbelief that Lonnie’s wife and son never knew what he was up to. When you learn of the ludicrous, bizarre, and immensely lucky way in which the police were finally able to link Lonnie to the murders, you’ll laugh at its absurdity. When you’re patrolling the streets with Broomfield and Pam (a local woman who helps guide Broomfield around the neighborhood) and it seems like most of the women they meet had encountered Lonnie and his violent rage and tendencies, you’ll wonder how the hell someone so idiotically careless could evade capture for so long. When you learn that the police thought so lowly of black women from South L.A. that they would label these murders as NHI – No Humans Involved – you’ll learn of a new level of disgust. And when you get to the end and you meet a group of women, each of whom Lonnie attempted to rape and kill but were able to get away, you’ll be so sick that it won't be until halfway through the end credits that you'll even think about snapping back to reality. And then you’ll be the one contemplating denial, because there should be no possible way that something this absurd and horrible should ever be allowed to occur, let alone occur for 25 years.

Joe Brosnan is an editor and writer for Criminal Element. He’s a New York Giants fan, a Petyr Baelish supporter, and is only now realizing how weird it is to write in the third person. You can follow him on Twitter @joebro33.

Read all of Joe Brosnan’s posts for Criminal Element.

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