L.A. Police Work To Pick Up A Serial Killer's Trail Twenty-two years ago, the Los Angeles police received a phone call from a man who may have seen a serial killer — one who has been preying on south L.A. for more than two decades. This week, detectives released a recording of that call, hoping if they find the caller, he may help them find the killer.
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L.A. Police Work To Pick Up A Serial Killer's Trail

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L.A. Police Work To Pick Up A Serial Killer's Trail

L.A. Police Work To Pick Up A Serial Killer's Trail

L.A. Police Work To Pick Up A Serial Killer's Trail

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/101187360/101269204" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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In a tape that the Los Angeles Police Department released this week, an anonymous caller said he saw a man dump a woman's body into an alley from a blue-and-white van with the license plate No. 1PZP746. Detectives located the van (above) 4.5 miles from the body at what was then a church. Courtesy LAPD hide caption

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Courtesy LAPD

In a tape that the Los Angeles Police Department released this week, an anonymous caller said he saw a man dump a woman's body into an alley from a blue-and-white van with the license plate No. 1PZP746. Detectives located the van (above) 4.5 miles from the body at what was then a church.

Courtesy LAPD

Listen To The Call

Detectives in search of new leads released the recording of a phone call from a man who may have seen the serial killer.

The Recording Of The Phone Call

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Los Angeles Police Detective Dennis Kilcoyne is the lead investigator in the case of a serial killer who has been linked to 11 deaths since 1983. Carrie Kahn/NPR hide caption

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Carrie Kahn/NPR

Los Angeles Police Detective Dennis Kilcoyne is the lead investigator in the case of a serial killer who has been linked to 11 deaths since 1983.

Carrie Kahn/NPR

Twenty-two years ago, the Los Angeles police received a phone call from a man who may have seen a serial killer — one who has been preying on African-American women in South Los Angeles for more than two decades.

Detectives in search of new leads released the recording of that phone call this week. They hope if they find the caller, he may help them find the killer.

The call came into police on Jan. 10, 1987, at 19 minutes past midnight. "I'd like to report a murder, a dead body or something," the caller said.

A man had just thrown a woman's body into a dark alley in South Central Los Angeles, the caller continued. The voice on the phone described the crime scene, gave a full license plate number and provided a complete description of the van the man was driving. But he didn't describe the killer, saying, "I didn't see him."

Nor did the witness want to leave his name.

"I want to stay anonymous. I know too many people," he said, and hung up.

The Mystery Caller

After all these years, police have never been able to track down that caller. The LAPD says releasing the tape now is a huge longshot, but detectives have run into so many dead ends, they say it's their last best chance of generating some new leads.

"We have to realize this was prior to 911 and prior to caller ID. You put a dime in the pay phone and dial zero for operator to connect you to the police," says Detective Dennis Kilcoyne, who today heads a new LAPD task force searching for the killer.

Kilcoyne says the caller gave the police solid information and remains their best hope for solving the murders.

"He didn't make up that license plate," Kilcoyne says. "It did in fact belong to a blue-and-white van and it came over here."

Kilcoyne is referring to the parking lot of what used to be the Cosmopolitan Church. That's where detectives found the van that night, its hood still warm. But there was no sign of a killer. The church was full, but the women inside, supervising a teen sleepover, were no help.

The Scene, 22 Years Later

Today, the rundown building houses a day-care facility for poor, mentally handicapped adults. The facility's director looks startled when Kilcoyne tells him about the location's ties to the serial killer.

"Are you going to make a search in the building?" Placid Francois asks.

"No, but I would like to just peek in there if you don't mind," Kilcoyne answers.

The main room is full of people and activity. The TV is blaring in one corner. At the other end sits what's left of the old church's baptismal stage, covered over in green AstroTurf.

"This is a huge facility, and I'm hoping this was a very large congregation at the time," Kilcoyne says, "because this wasn't just a little neighborhood storefront — I mean, you can get a hundred people in here or more."

Kilcoyne says that church congregation must have had at least one little old lady who knew everyone's business. He's still hoping to find her.

Connecting To The Past

But making a connection with the South Central L.A. of two decades ago isn't easy. It's a very different, less violent place now. Back in the 1980s, when the serial killer was most active, the neighborhood was a hotbed for murders and crack cocaine. The riots tore at it even more. African-Americans moved out. Latinos moved in.

Jose Hernandez bought the old church building 10 years ago after the bank foreclosed on it.

"When I got here in 1999, it was real quiet like this," Hernandez says. "It's always been quiet."

So quiet now that it's easy to forget the woman dumped in that dark alley so long ago. Barbara Ware, 23, was like most of the other victims: She had a history of drug abuse and ties to prostitution.

Ware was among 11 known murder victims in the string of killings that started in 1983. The most recent was just two years ago. At one point, there was a 13-year hiatus in the murders, which many believe is the source of the killer's nickname in the media: the Grim Sleeper. But while police say the killer may have slowed down — they think he is probably in his late 50s now — they believe he is still out there.

Kilcoyne hopes the same is true for the man on the phone, who police hope will come forward again.

"He didn't make this information up, and he is 100 percent on the money about the way and manner that she [was] found and 100 percent the vehicle," Kilcoyne says. "Unfortunately, we are chasing that information 22 years late."

But better late than never, he says.