July 8, 2010— -- 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.
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa praised law enforcement officials for their "exhaustive detective work" in the past 25 years that led to nabbing the suspect. More than two dozen investigators worked to find the "Grim Sleeper."
"I'm proud to announce that this terror has finally come to an end," Villaraigosa said at today's news conference.
Relatives of the victims who were in attendance said they were elated and thankful that the police finally brought the alleged killer to justice.
Neighbors Shocked by Franklin's Arrest
Police closed off the block on 81st Street in South Los Angeles where Franklin lived Wednesday and the arrest was made. Residents were shocked.
Neighbor Donna Harris, who's known Franklin for nearly 20 years ago, said the retired mechanic was supposed to fix her car this morning.
"Everybody on the block, we all knew if anything was happening with anybody's cars, he was always there for us. Especially the ladies," Harris said. "Even if we weren't at home, instead of calling Triple AAA, he would help."
Franklin was reportedly a mechanic for a Los Angeles Police Department station near the epicenter of the murder spree in the 1980s.
Though Harris counted Franklin as a friend, she said the news was frightening.
"It frightens me to know that somebody like that was that close," Harris said. "I don't want to believe it's true, [but] if he did what he's been accused of, God judged him for that."
Franklin has a criminal history dating back to 1989, according to records. His four previous convictions include charges of a misdemeanor battery and assault, as well as two charges for stolen property -- one of which he served jail time for.
With these latest charges, he could face the death penalty or life in prison without possibility of parole. He's expected to be arraigned today.
A handful of detectives, headed by Detective Dennis Kilcoyne, have been working full-time on the case for years, determined to find the "Grim Sleeper."
Eleven people have died so far, and there was one confirmed attempt and near killing, in the same South Los Angeles neighborhood.
"We have 12 individuals, starting in 1985. Our third victim, Thomas Steele, was the only male involved in this," said Kilcoyne.
All the slayings have been connected to the same 25-caliber handgun, and matched to the same DNA, usually saliva taken from the victims' breasts.
"The commonality is that they're all from the same general area of the city in south Los Angeles," Kilcoyne said. "I don't think I would label them all as prostitutes per se, but they certainly have troubled lifestyles. They're broken people and easy targets."
In February, LAPD offered a $500,000 reward -- the city's biggest ever -- advertised on billboards near where the victims were found. Investigators also released a 20-year-old 911 call in which a witness says he saw a van pull up in a dark alley and dump a body, which was identified as Barbara Ware.
The caller tells the dispatcher several details, everything from the license plate number of the van -- which was a dead-end lead -- to the way the body was discarded. But he refused to tell the 911 operator his name, saying he didn't see the killer.
Police say they wouldn't have known there was a serial killer on the loose if he hadn't starting killing again.
"We became aware of it right around April of 2007," LAPD Detective Bill Fallon told "Nightline" in March 2009. "And we realized there was a serial killer because of DNA hits we started getting. So when we get those hits, we're like, 'whoa.' That's when we started digging it."
But the police didn't notify the community until Christine Pelisek, a reporter from LA Weekly, began investigating.
"I was the one who told some of the family members that their daughters were victims of a serial killer," Pelisek said. "I mean, they didn't even know. The public safety committee, they had no idea. I mean, the police commission, I spoke to the police commission [to whom the police chief reports]. They didn't even know. So there were a lot of people very upset that the police didn't let the community know."
Fallon says investigators didn't want to alert the killer that they were searching for him.
"We wanted to get a a step ahead of the killer himself," he said. "I don't want you to know I'm coming for you until I find out who you are, where you are and what you are doing."