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Grim Sleeper Verdict Renews Push To Investigate Murders In South Los Angeles

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

There is at least some closure now for families of those murdered by the Grim Sleeper. A jury in Los Angeles convicted Lonnie Franklin Jr. of killing 10 women and girls over more than two decades. But it's been long thought that there were more victims. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports that there's pressure on the police to continue their investigation.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Outside the courtroom, the hallway was flooded with emotion. Family members of the victims hugged and wiped back tears. Irene Ephriam whose aunt Henrietta Wright was murdered in 1986 said she was relieved when the clerk read the guilty verdict.

IRENE EPHRIAM: It's closure. It's been 30 years, and we needed this. And it hurt our family to lose her. It kind of destroyed us. She had five kids.

SIEGLER: The moment was bittersweet. Margaret Prescod was next at the mic. She first brought what would later be known as the Grim Sleeper murders to the public's attention and has long accused the LAPD of neglect and racism in this case. Prescod promised to keep pressuring the cops to look for at least 35 other missing women. Photos of them were found in Lonnie Franklin Jr.'s home.

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MARGARET PRESCOD: When we look at a community, we see the very conditions existing today that existed where so many of our beloved sisters became victims of these horrible murders.

SIEGLER: Indeed parts of south-central LA are as deeply entrenched in poverty today as they were during the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s when the Grim Sleeper first started killing poor, black women in the neighborhood.

And for community activists like Susan Burton in Watts, the months-long trial re-opened old wounds. She remembers how the victims were portrayed back then and still are to some extent today.

SUSAN BURTON: Some of them were young girls. Some of them were prostitutes. But it doesn't matter what they did. They were people who were being murdered.

SIEGLER: Burton knows she could've easily crossed paths with the Grim Sleeper. Back in the '80s, she, too, was vulnerable, addicted to drugs after her 5-year-old son was killed. He was hit by a police car in an intersection. She eventually got clean and now runs shelters for women just out of prison. Burton says her clients get harassed by police. She says some cops here are just trying to put people back in jail, instead of giving them the treatment they need.

BURTON: There are still a lot of problems and concerns with how the police react, interact or don't respond to this community's needs and especially the needs of black women.

PHIL TINGIRIDES: So in 1986, '87 I was assigned to Metropolitan Division which is...

SIEGLER: The LAPD's Southeast Division commander, Phil Tingirides, worked on the original task force that tried to solve the cold cases. He spent his entire career in South LA. And watching the Grim Sleeper trial has caused a good deal of reflection.

TINGIRIDES: There were some things that went on because of the history. There were some things that went on because of the ignorance. But there was also some systematic things that caused this community to believe that we didn't care.

SIEGLER: Today, cops like Tingirides are held up as reformers, and there's been progress. Community relations in some of the toughest housing projects are getting better, and consequently, he says, homicides are getting solved quicker. Tingirides says it's a perception that cops here are still seen as outside aggressors by a everyone.

TINGIRIDES: Somebody from one of the more active activist groups right now who are going around and espousing and yelling and screaming that over and over and over again, that's what gets the cameras.

SIEGLER: One thing hasn't changed since the Grim Sleeper days - coverage of the day-to-day violence that occurs on these streets still get scant attention compared with other neighborhoods. Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kirk Siegler
As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.
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