Galloway on Film: I Sat 20 Feet From a Serial Killer

Courtesy of South Central Films Ltd.
'Tales of the Grim Sleeper'

There are things the media got right, things they got wrong — but nothing about the Grim Sleeper trial was like the movies.

This is the debut of a new regular column about the industry and related matters by Stephen Galloway, THR's Executive Editor, Features.

It’s a Thursday morning in late May and I’m sitting in a claustrophobic courtroom in downtown Los Angeles, about 20 feet from one of the most notorious serial killers in recent history.

In just a few days on June 6, Lonnie David Franklin Jr. — better known as the Grim Sleeper — will be sentenced to death for the murder of 10 women, many of them black prostitutes, most addicted to crack cocaine. He is widely believed to be responsible for dozens more killings.

I’ve come to observe the trial after watching Nick Broomfield’s mesmerizing HBO documentary, Tales of the Grim Sleeper, and wondering why I didn’t know more about this man who terrorized South Central L.A. for 25 years, gaining his nickname after apparently taking a multi-year break between rampages.

Never having covered anything like this, I wasn’t sure how I’d even get into the courtroom. In fact, it’s astonishingly simple: You go to the Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center, pass through two layers of security (one on the ground floor, the other on the high-security ninth floor) and then wait on a hard bench in a hallway outside the courtroom until the doors open at 9 a.m. No special pass is necessary. They don’t even ask for your ID.

I arrive early, expecting a media circus, only to find a handful of stragglers in the hallway, most waiting for another trial. When the doors open, I enter alone and take a seat at the back. Other spectators trickle in — first a few reporters, and then some 15 or 20 of the victims’ friends and family members. Everyone starts chatting. The atmosphere is oddly convivial.

Being in a courtroom for a murder trial — and a big one, like this — is surreal, not so much because of the drama as the lack of it. It’s nothing like the movies. It’s not even like the acclaimed American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson, which centered on a trial that took place just a few doors down the hall from here. In real-life, almost everything is smaller, disconnected from the outside world, ordinary.

After about 20 minutes, Franklin, 63, is led in. The hubbub dips — but just a bit — then goes right back up to where it was before. After all, almost everyone here has seen him many times already, dressed in his plain dark pants and white shirt, his facial expression and body language revealing nothing. He barely registers.

The judge takes her seat. Then the back and forth begins as the prosecution bickers with the defense over whether a witness should be allowed to testify. They snap at each other and even interrupt one another. This isn’t Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan; it’s more like high school.

A reporter leans over and whispers to me.

“You picked a good day to come,” she says. “Most of the time, it’s tedious.”

***

Perhaps that explains why the media has done such a half-hearted job of covering the trial — or at least, did until Monday’s verdict drew a flurry of interest. With a few notable exceptions (The Los Angeles Times, People), the country’s largest newspapers and TV news shows have paid only grudging attention to the goings-on. Nor is Hollywood any different.

A day after my courtroom visit, I’m having lunch with a well-known TV-movie producer, who stares blankly when I mention the trial. She’s one of dozens of producers, executives, agents and other media-savvy people to whom I’ve mentioned the case, who at best vaguely recognize the name “Grim Sleeper,” at worst have never heard of him.

“Is there a movie there?” asks the producer.

I tell her the details.

“There’s no hook,” she says, and shrugs it off.

Hollywood did tackle the story in the 2014 Lifetime movie The Grim Sleeper, which told the tale through the eyes of Christine Pelisek, a reporter with People (and formerly with the L.A. Weekly). The first journalist to write an in-depth story about the number of poor, African-American women who had gone missing and the hunt to find their killer, Pelisek has done stellar work; but to center the film on a white woman and her quest for the truth was a sad indictment of Hollywood’s approach to diversity.

Other than that, the film and TV business has done its best to ignore this drama, just when the industry is coming off months of criticism related to #oscarssowhite.

None of the journalists that I talk to during a courtroom break — nor any of the victims’ families — have been contacted about selling their rights.

Broomfield, the documentary director, says he heard from two producers when his film aired, but nothing came of it. “One [inquiry] was for a sort of sci-fi movie, the other more of a Hollywood movie,” he says.

A sci-fi movie?

“I guess a sci-fi film, using elements of the South Central killer.”

***

Broomfield blames the lack of interest on the class divisions in Los Angeles.

“It’s like two different cities,” he says. “There’s a third-world city in the middle of Los Angeles, where there’s a different death rate, different kind of diseases, an enormous obesity problem, incredibly high diabetes. There’s an area where less than 60 percent graduate from high school, where there’s virtually no further education. There’s a massively high unemployment rate. There’s the incredibly depressed value of housing, which means if you own a house in South Central you really can’t move anywhere else in the city because you can’t sell it. So you’re stuck there, which is why a lot of people have been there for their lives and don’t move out. All those patterns of behavior are completely different in South Central than the rest of the city.”

That third-world L.A., he says, is largely ignored by the media and under-served by an entertainment industry that’s making African-American period pieces such as 12 Years a Slave and Roots. Broomfield believes there’d be massively more interest if the killings had taken place on the west side.

“Imagine that there were just three murders in Beverly Hills, let alone well over 100,” he says. (Many experts believe Franklin killed far more women than the number attributed to him.) “By the time the second murder had happened, you could be sure the whole of Beverly Hills would be closed down and they’d be doing house-to-house searches. They’d be flying in special [operations] teams from outside California. What the trial represented was people that no one really cares about.”

Despite the extensive coverage given to the story by The Los Angeles Times, the editor mainly responsible for that coverage, and one of its chief reporters, both acknowledge coverage in most other media was light.

“Nick could be right,” says Jack Leonard, an assistant city editor at The Los Angeles Times, in charge of its “cops and courts” coverage. “The race and social status of the victims may well be playing a role today in the amount of coverage the trial has received.”

Stephen Ceasar, who reported on the trial before leaving The Times for a job in public relations, says it’s “sad” how few people know about the case.

But there may be more to it than simple racism.

First, says Leonard, cutbacks in journalism have left few outlets with the resources necessary to devote a full-time reporter to a case that was expected to last three months and ended up continuing for much longer.

Second, he argues, Judge Kathleen Kennedy’s refusal to allow video cameras in the courtroom hampered television coverage. “The judge would only allow cameras in for opening statements and closing statements,” he says. “It really limits what you’re able to do.”

By contrast, he says, there’s been a shift for the better in media awareness, which he notes in his own publication.

“For years, the news media, including The Los Angeles Times, paid scant attention to the deaths of the victims,” he says. “I checked The Times’ archives, and only one of the women merited any mention in the newspaper at the time of her death, and that was a two-inch brief. These victims were poor. They were black. And they were ignored. It would be very difficult to conclude that their race and economic status — as well as the fact that some were addicted to drugs or making money as prostitutes — didn’t play a role in that.”

That started to change, he says, with the death of Franklin’s final victim, Janecia Peters, who “had her own entry in the newspaper’s Homicide Report when she was killed in 2007. The newspaper continues to publish the Homicide Report, cataloging every killing in the county, regardless of race, ethnicity or the economic and social status of the victim. And The Times has given a lot of attention to the Grim Sleeper case since it became known nearly a decade ago that detectives were searching for a serial killer.”

***

The day before Franklin receives his death sentence — this past Sunday — I’m sitting in a coffee shop in South Central, just off Western Avenue and Slauson, half a mile up the street from where the Grim Sleeper lived and committed his murders.

Pam Brooks, 49, sits across the table. She’s a big, bold personality, who figured prominently in Broomfield’s documentary as a modern-day Virgil leading his Dante through a contemporary hell. Like many people in this neighborhood, she knew Franklin; unlike many, she also had a date with him back in the days when she was walking the streets and addicted to cocaine.

“He picked me up and we went to the room [a motel room],” she says. “It was only one time. This had to be around 2006 — I got sober in 2008. We heard about a man was killing girls. That didn’t stop nobody. Here on the streets, you take a chance. He wanted me to act like a dog and dress up and all that handcuff shit — you know, bark. He’s like, ‘When I see you, you don’t never do what I want you to do.’ I said, ‘No, I’m not a dog and I ain’t going to bark.’ He said. ‘Well, let me drop you off.’ I said, ‘You ain’t got to drop me off. I know how to get to where I got to go.’ And I walked on about my business. That was my lucky night.”

Brooks says she was never scared, even though she was aware a killer was stalking the neighborhood.

“I was smoking drugs,” she says. “I was getting high. I was on crack, so I just kept going out there. Sometimes you’d get high and get paranoid. But I can’t say I was scared because I really go with my gut. I got an angel that watches over me. On drugs, I’m not scared of nothing. You know what the fear is? Of what I might do to you.”

Brooks has been happy with the media coverage since Franklin’s arrest. Before that, however, for decades she never heard from anyone — not a reporter, not a screenwriter, nobody until Broomfield came calling. Not CNN, PBS, The New York Times, I ask? “No! No! No!” she says. “Nobody gives a shit about a crack head.”

 She blames the police for not having given the case more prominence: “They didn’t care about us ’cause we were drug addicts. That’s my belief. We wasn’t white, we wasn’t rich, we wasn’t nothing but crack heads. But that’s wrong, also. It’s a dirty game when you’re on the streets. And it’s still the same way out here.”

Brooks is the kind of character any actress would love to play. Just don’t look for it to happen soon.

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