'Familial DNA' Helps Cops Nail 'Grim Sleeper'

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A garage mechanic in Los Angeles has been arraigned on murder charges. Detectives have been investigating a murder spree between 1985 and 2007 in which the serial killer largely targeted young black women. The killer was called the "Grim Sleeper" because he apparently took a 14-year break from his murders, re-emerging in 2002. The break in the case came through the use of a controversial technique known as "familial DNA."

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Police here in Los Angeles say a rarely used DNA searching technique led them to the arrest, this week, of a suspected serial killer. Detectives say Lonnie David Franklin Jr. murdered at least 10 people over the last quarter century, almost all of them African-American women.

He had been dubbed the Grim Sleeper after apparently taking more than a decade off from his killing spree. Frank Stoltze, of member station KPCC, reports.

FRANK STOLTZE: Outside police headquarters in downtown Los Angeles, Porter Alexander remembered the September afternoon in 1988 when his 18-year-old daughter Alicia went missing.

Mr. PORTER ALEXANDER: My daughter left my home saying she was going to the store and asked me did I want something from the store. And I told her, no, I just want you to go to the store and come back home. And so she said, OK, dad.

STOLTZE: Alexander, a 70-year-old retired postal worker, is amazed that all along, his daughter's alleged killer lived nearby.

Mr. ALEXANDER: I'm on 69th and he's on 81st. So we only talking about 20 blocks.

STOLTZE: Neighbors say 57-year-old Lonnie David Franklin Jr. was a local mechanic who helped fix their cars. They described the former police garage attendant and city garbage collector as a friendly, even sweet, man. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said his arrest ends one of the city's worst killing sprees.

Mayor ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA (Los Angeles): Today, I'm proud to announce that this terror has finally come to an end.

(Soundbite of applause)

STOLTZE: For years, detectives were stumped as shot or strangled bodies turned up in seedy alleys south of downtown. Police say a controversial form of DNA testing changed everything. State forensic scientists used a partial match of genetic evidence to connect the murders, first to Franklin's son, then to Franklin.

Los Angeles district attorney Steve Cooley called it the first successful use of familial testing from California's DNA database.

Mr. STEVE COOLEY (District attorney): The rest of the nation will now be thinking, what about partial match, familial DNA testing. They did it out in Los Angeles County so they can bring justice to cases that still lack justice.

STOLTZE: Civil libertarians worry that police will use the method to harass or intrude on the privacy of criminals' family members. Franklin's son, for example, had nothing to do with his father's alleged crimes. His DNA was in the database because he had been convicted of a separate felony.

California Attorney General Jerry Brown, whose office oversees the state's DNA database, said his forensic scientists used DNA samples collected from the murders and tried to match them only against those of convicted felons. When they found a close match with Franklin's son, they then closely reviewed the father's profile before handing his name over to L.A.P.D. detectives.

Attorney General JERRY BROWN (California): There's a lot of questions about whether it's constitutional, but we concluded that it was.

STOLTZE: Los Angeles police detectives said, once they had Franklin's name, they positively identified him as the killer by surreptitiously grabbing a partially eaten piece of pizza from a restaurant he ate at and matching his DNA with the genetic evidence.

Dozens of relatives and friends of victims who had once criticized the slow pace of the investigation now praised Police Chief Charlie Beck.

Unidentified Man: All right, Chief Beck.

(Soundbite of applause)

Chief CHARLIE BECK (Los Angeles Police Department): This is a case that is very, very personal to me and to the detectives of the Los Angeles Police Department.

STOLTZE: Beck said that detectives expect to discover more victims. They're investigating as many as 30 more unsolved murders.

For NPR News, I'm Frank Stoltze in Los Angeles.

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