LAPD Cracks Cold Cases With Science, Grit
Since the LAPD’s cold case unit began 10 years ago, detectives have used science to arrest serial killers and dozens of others who thought they had gotten away with murder.
His list of victims could read like a yearbook: Debra Jackson, 1985; Henrietta Wright, 1986; Barbara Ware, Bernita Sparks, and Mary Lowe, 1987; Alicia Alexander and Lachrica Jefferson, 1988. Then, after a break of more than a dozen years — the “sleeper” period that inspired his nickname — Valerie McCorvey, 2003. Four years after that — Jenica Peters, 2007.
All of the victims were black women. They were as young as 18 and as old as 36 when he ended their lives. Most were sexually assaulted and then shot, their bodies left in alleys or trash bins along a stretch of Western Avenue in South Los Angeles. It is a poor, predominately black neighborhood hemmed in on all sides by freeways. Prostitution and drug activity are common. Murders committed there typically receive little media attention. The South L.A. cases did not become a priority for the LAPD until 2007, when DNA analysis revealed the women had a common killer — one who had gone undetected for at least 22 years and was presumably still active. A task force of six detectives was assembled to hunt for the suspect, who the media dubbed “The Grim Sleeper.” Countless leads were pursued but, frustratingly, none panned out. Detectives hoped his DNA profile might already be on record for some other offense, but it wasn’t. The investigation seemed to have reached a dead end — save for a new and controversial data-mining technique called “familial searching.”
In violent cases when conventional DNA searches fail to produce a match, and all other investigative leads have proved fruitless, there is a last-ditch option: searching the database for near-matches who are likely to be close relatives of the suspect. In the Grim Sleeper case, the familial search turned up the DNA profile of a felon who shared multiple genetic markers. The man was too young to have committed the earliest murders, but detectives quickly honed in on his father, a resident of South Los Angeles named Lonnie Franklin Jr. A surreptitious DNA sample was collected — from a discarded piece of pizza — and Franklin’s genetic profile was compared to the Grim Sleeper’s: they matched. In arresting Franklin, the LAPD wrote a new page in the history of DNA forensics: never before in American history had an active familial search been used to solve a homicide. California is one of only four states where familial searching is legal, but the LAPD’s success in the Grim Sleeper investigation has become a prime argument for expanding its use.
Today, a quarter-century after DNA analysis was used in a murder investigation for the first time, the LAPD has become renowned worldwide for its skill in using DNA to solve homicides. It wasn’t always this way.
Ten years ago this fall, the LAPD’s Cold Case Homicide Unit was born. When it opened its doors, the brand-new unit had seven detectives, and a staggering caseload: more than 9,000 unsolved murders committed in Los Angeles since 1960. The officer in charge of the new unit was a veteran LAPD homicide detective named David Lambkin. Lambkin retired in 2007. He and his wife, Jane, a former LAPD civilian employee, live in a small town on the Olympic Peninsula, northwest of Seattle. Violent crime of the type Lambkin routinely handled as a detective is nearly nonexistent there. The living room of the Lambkins’ modern home looks out on a slate-colored bay. In concert with an overcast sky, the view from the picture windows appears a study in grays. Los Angeles feels very far away.
Asked to recount the first days of the cold case unit, Lambkin speaks with the frankness of someone who’s proud of his association with the LAPD, an institution he served for nearly three decades but no longer feels beholden to — if he ever did. He does not whitewash the monumental task faced by the new unit when it went operational.
Not only was each team of detectives responsible for more than 3,000 cold cases, but nothing had been allocated in the LAPD’s budget for basic investigative necessities — like cars and computers that actually worked. “We weren’t given any fleet cars, only old cars that had been taken out of service because they were deemed not usable anymore,” Lambkin recalls…