It wasn't a witness or informant that tipped off law enforcement to the identity of the "Grim Sleeper" serial killer, who had eluded police for more than two decades, but DNA from the suspect's own son.
A new technique called familial DNA led police to 57-year-old Lonnie David Franklin Jr., who was charged with 10 counts of murder and one count of attempted murder Wednesday in the infamous "Grim Sleeper" slayings in Los Angeles.
Police said that the technique could prove more revolutionary than fingerprinting in solving crime.
"This is a landmark case. This will change the way policing is done in the United States," Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck said at a news conference today.
The technique may also be controversial, and likely faces legal challenges.
"This arrest provides proof positive that familial DNA searches must be a part of law enforcement's crime-fighting arsenal. Although the adoption of this new state policy was unprecedented and controversial, in certain cases, it is the only way to bring a dangerous killer to justice," said Attorney General Jerry Brown in a statement.
The familial DNA program was enacted by Brown in April 2008 as a way to fight violent crimes when there is "serious risk to public safety," according to the attorney general's office. California is the first state to use familial searches.
The high-profile case had languished unsolved, and had haunted the files of the LAPD cold-case unit for years. According to the attorney general's office, the suspect's son was arrested and convicted in a felony weapons charge and swabbed for DNA last year. When his DNA was entered into the database of convicted felons, detectives were alerted to a partial match to evidence found at the "Grim Sleeper" crime scenes.
Police began investigating Franklin's son's relatives, and found a match in Lonnie Franklin. Police said he had never been a suspect until now.
The data bank, which contains more than 1.5 million samples, is the third largest criminal database in the world. Only data from convicted felons is collected, according to Brown, and a number of safeguards are taken before the Department of Justice releases the information to police.
Los Angeles police Det. Dennis Kilcoyne, who headed the investigation, said it was the second time a query was run for familial connections in the "Grim Sleeper" case. From the DNA matches, a tight-circle of law enforcement officers zeroed in on Franklin based on the suspect's residence, location of the victims, his race and age.
Familial DNA database searches have come under fire from privacy and civil liberty advocates, who argue, among other things, that they put more minorities, who are disproportionally represented in the database, in an at-risk group.
The Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of familial DNA sample collection and searches. Brown said the office of the attorney general will be in court again next week defending the technique, and raised the possibility of more legal challenges.
The killings of 10 young black women and one man, beginning in 1985, have all been blamed on the "Grim Sleeper."
The cluster of killings stopped in 1988, but 14 years later police said they linked new murders to the same man, nicknamed the "Grim Sleeper" for the long lull between slayings. The most recent murder happened in January 2007.