Lonnie Franklin, a well-liked man from South Los Angeles was arrested on suspicions of being a serial killer. He was believed to have killed more than 100 women over a span of 25 years. The documentary Tales of the Grim Sleeper attempts to shed light on the murders, police investigations, community response, and Lonnie Franklin.
Usually, around Halloween, people dress themselves, children, and pets in costumes. TV is overrun with horror movies and scary themed shows intended to frighten viewers. Your pulse might race a bit as characters run from masked villains, oversized predators, or monsters. I find those things entertaining but not particularly scary because I know that for the most part, they’re not real. I can change the channel or turn off the TV to make it all go away.
What I find terrifying is the reality that real monsters walk among us. People who think so little of themselves and the lives of others that they have no qualms about assaulting or murdering others. The monsters in movies may have a claw instead of a hand, have mutated skin, and wear a mask to cover their hideous appearance so you know to run away. But, at least on the surface, the monsters in real life look like regular human beings.
For the most part, I believe that most people are decent and just going about their lives minding their business and trying to survive. Most people do not have the urge and will not randomly take it upon themselves to murder another person without provocation or their lives being in danger. Yet, there is this small subset of people who feel compelled or more accurately, empowered to take the lives of others to satisfy their egos and desires to control and dominate.
During the 1980s, the crack epidemic tore through America and made its presence and effects particularly known within urban communities. The evening news was filled with reports of people dying from drug use and HIV as well as murders related to the drug trade. But, even with their severity, these were merely symptoms of the larger social, health, and economic problems that plagued the communities and wore down their inhabitants.
Arguably, arising from or taking advantage of these conditions an inhumane person or persons began murdering women in the neighborhood of South LA. Decades would pass and the bodies of women would continue to be found in the alleys and streets. These women were overlooked by society while they were alive. The murderer would continue to take their lives and dump their bodies knowing that their deaths would also be ignored by most in society. Their very existence, treated as though they did not matter.
Tales of the Grim Sleeper was made not that long after Franklin had been arrested so there isn’t a lot of courtroom footage. And instead of experts offering insights and analysis, the interview subjects are just regular people from the community who either knew Franklin or victims. The drawback to this is that there’s no research-based analysis of Franklin and his motivations. But having people from the community speak offers a non-clinical look into Franklin as a person as well as what it was and is like to live in that environment.
Early in Tales of the Grim Sleeper, the crew visits South LA to establish a feel for the place and to meet and interview people who knew Lonnie. While speaking with a group of women, one lady states that she used to date Lonnie but was put off by his jittery demeanor. The crew moves on to speak with some other women when a group of men starts yelling at them from across the street accusing them of assassinating Franklin’s character. Amid the tense situation and hostile language, the women become afraid and stop talking bringing an abrupt end to what was an insightful conversation.
Fortunately, instead of just heeding the men’s threats and retreating, the crew approaches and engages them in conversation. Here we meet Steve, Gary, and Richard, three of Lonnie’s friends who feel an obligation to defend his honor. That’s understandable to a degree as most people would try to defend a loved one if they’re accused of a crime that they believe the person didn’t commit.
But it’s important to note that they effectively spoke over the women who also had relationships and interactions with Franklin and thus had as much of a right to express their opinions. It’s hypocritical and also quite sexist that they then turned around and were more than willing to give their perspectives on Franklin and the accusations against him. Especially because they would all basically end up repeating what the women were saying. They weren’t unbiased with their insights but attempted to bogart their way into being the only voices for the community.
Everyone in the neighborhood describes Lonnie as being a great guy or at least they do initially. So many of the people describe Lonnie as being a nice guy but then go on to describe questionable behavior and what should have been disturbing events. For example, they talk about him being great at fixing cars and willing to help people out by getting them the things they need. But, then it’s revealed that the way he went about helping people out was by stealing things for them. Someone offers the compliment that he was a great car thief which results in a ridiculous commotion over the technicalities of whether or not he stole cars.
The first time that I watched Tales of the Grim Sleeper I found it interesting that the men presented a front about Franklin’s innocence when they were all together as a group. But when each man eventually spoke to the crew on his own, their certainty about Franklin’s innocence wavered and in some cases broke completely. Seeing him physically attack a woman on the street, dragging her to the car, and having the altercation end there only because the police arrive and arrest Franklin. Him paying drug users who were acquaintances to get rid of bloody items or to clean up what appeared to possibly be blood. Showing off a gun of the same caliber that was reported to have been used to kill the women.
What I found especially troubling was that some of his problematic behavior was excused as him just being a man. Franklin’s house is described as being full of pornographic magazines and stacks of polaroids of women. He and several of his friends had an old man pervert club where they would pick up women and take naked photos of them which they would then show off to each other. His friends tell stories of them bringing him or helping him pick up prostitutes who they never saw again. In what world do you see a friend drive off with multiple people only for those people to then come up missing and it doesn’t give you pause but you also continue to hang out with this person?
I have a deep interest in psychology and the justice system so I consume a lot of content about true crime. Something that I always find interesting is that in the case of serial killers and rapists when acquaintances are interviewed they almost always say the person was a nice regular guy. But give it some time and let the interviewer keep asking questions and then they say, “Well there was that one time when…”
They describe abnormal behavior that they as an observer explained away for their comfort or ridiculous excuses that they accepted from the accused. I think Franklin’s friends were in denial because they saw how actively involved he was in his children’s and grandchildren’s lives. His friend states that he doesn’t see how someone can be so dedicated to their family while showing no regard for the lives of the women who were murdered. But I think some of their discomfort comes from guilt. If Lonnie Franklin abused, tortured, and murdered women then that would make him a serial killer. But what does their knowledge and acceptance of his habits and behaviors say about them as people?
His friends staunchly defend him but then turn around and laugh and joke about his hatred for addicts. They attempt to excuse his behavior by explaining that Franklin’s first wife was a drug addict. Instead of holding Franklin accountable for his actions, they blame his ex-wife for causing him to develop the hatred he had towards female drug addicts. They pretty much admit that women didn’t know that Franklin was using drugs to lure addicts into his car and they might never be seen again.
Violent crime and prostitution in the area were very high during the 80s and 90s but continued to be a problem even at the time Tales of the Grim Sleeper was being made. Unfortunately, the media is very particular about the types of people whose murders or disappearances should be front-page news. It’s troubling that the people around Franklin had some suspicions that all was not right with him but turned a blind eye. But, it’s also disturbing that many people in the neighborhood were unaware that about 100 women had been murdered or were believed to be missing.
The “Grim Sleeper” moniker comes from the fact that there was a string of murders of women leading similar lives in this particular part of town. Similarities between the victims, their manner of death, and disposal of their bodies led many to believe it was the work of a serial killer or serial killers. But then without any arrests being made, the murders seemed to stop for several years but then started again. This gave the appearance that the murderer took a break or went to sleep before resuming.
The LAPD has shared photo arrays featuring women of interest based on photos of the murder victims, missing person reports, and those found in Franklin’s possession. Excluding the bodies that were found, the police don’t exactly know how many women went missing, were murdered, or are alive but simply unaccounted for. Complicating the issue is that Franklin worked in sanitation for several years and could have possibly used his access to garbage dumps to dispose of bodies. This could mean that murders continued during that “rest period” but the bodies just weren’t found.
I appreciated that Tales of the Grim Sleeper also provided some history about South LA which helped to explain its decline and current state. As with many other Black neighborhoods in the North and Midwest, South LA was one of the havens for Black people during the Great Migration. Fleeing the racism of the South, regular people could earn a living in relatively well-paying manufacturing and factory jobs. But, the loss of job options combined with the proliferation of crack wreaked havoc on the community.
Having grown up in Brooklyn during the tail end of the crack epidemic it seemed from my perspective as though the urban drug problem had died down. Often there’s a sense that things have gotten better since the early 90s. But Black communities are still struggling so that should tell you that drugs and violence were symptoms but not the cause of the problems. In the case of South LA people are still struggling to support themselves and looking for ways to escape if not physically, then through drugs, Thus women are still selling their bodies and men are still risking their freedom by committing crimes to make money.
I understand the police needing to keep some aspects of their investigation private to aid with trying to solve the murders. But the community was kept in the dark about there possibly being a serial killer or serial killers in the area. There was no need to release the details of the crimes but some information should have been provided to at least let people know to be on their guard. This is the kind of thing that should be heavily promoted so that people are aware of what’s going on. Both to protect themselves and also to be on the lookout so they can help to provide information hopefully leading to an arrest.
Understandably, as with many Black communities, there is unease and distrust with regards to the police. Some members of the community felt that the police didn’t care about these women because they were Black, from a poor neighborhood, and many were prostitutes. Residents don’t view the police as a resource for safety as a result of personally experiencing, witnessing, or hearing about negative interactions with the police.
The community and police should have been communicating and working together to solve these murders. But it’s obvious from these murders stretching on for so long that there’s work that needs to be done on that relationship. One of the community advocates shares her belief that even in situations where you witness a crime or are a victim that she has taught her son to call someone he knows and trusts rather than the police. With that in mind, how likely would one of Franklin’s friends have been to go to the police if they’d admitted to themselves that he had committed the murders?
Pam, a woman from the neighborhood helps the crew find and speak with prostitutes in the area who had contact with Lonnie. She was previously addicted to drugs and supported her habit through prostitution. I was inspired that within just a few years of getting clean she’s been able to get her life back on track. She’s a very positive jovial person who I think would be great as a counselor or doing community outreach in the neighborhood. Her journey shows that as long as you’re alive, it’s not too late to make changes in your life and turn things around.
The most powerful part of Tales of the Grim Sleeper takes place towards the end. A group of women who are or were prostitutes and came into contact with Franklin but survived gather to tell their stories. The women describe their experiences with Franklin and while all of their testimonies are powerful, there was one woman in particular who I will always remember. She explains that Franklin picked her up, became angry when he was unable to perform, and then tried to kill her. Her words about fighting for her life and her life having value regardless of her being a prostitute or drug addict was incredibly powerful.
Her story helped to drive home the point that these women who were murdered had value. We hear all about Franklin and his life as his friends defend his honor. But for so long, the families and advocates of these women struggled to get them justice. For so long and even now, their stories haven’t been told and if left up to some people would never be told.
We don’t know the details of what happened in their lives to set them on this path. It would add context but overall, it wouldn’t and shouldn’t matter. The fact is that they were living creatures. They were human beings. And that’s all that matters. Regardless of how they might have been living their lives or how other people viewed them, they had value.
While Tales of the Grim Sleeper is an enlightening documentary, it’s not without its flaws. So often it seems like serial killers are glorified and their victims just become bodies and numbers. In reporting about these cases sometimes true crime books and documentaries completely miss the point that these were people.
They were born, they were children, they grew up, and regardless of whatever path their life might have taken they lived and their life stories consisted of more than their murders. I appreciated that the crew was able to speak with the families of some of the victims and even some survivors. But I wish that it delved more deeply into telling the stories of the women and spent a bit less time focused on Franklin’s friends making excuses for him.
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