Friends of mechanic accused of LA serial slayings wonder if they missed warning signs

In hindsight, the investigation into the Grim Sleeper serial killings could have led to suspect Lonnie Franklin Jr.'s doorstep much sooner.

He lived in the same neighborhood where the serial killer stalked prostitutes and drug addicts over 22 years. He spoke openly about his contempt for prostitutes and said they deserved to die. He displayed photographs he'd taken of women in sexually explicit poses. He had a lengthy criminal record that included 15 arrests.

Now that police have identified Franklin as the man suspected of killing 10 young black women in the case, residents in this working-class Los Angeles neighborhood worry they missed warning signs and wonder if they should have alerted authorities.

"I'm a little shook up by the experience," said Franklin's longtime friend, Lydia Kam, as she stood in disbelief outside Franklin's shuttered house. "I'm wondering if we are too lenient. ... I should have made a better choice."

Franklin would often regale Kam with stories of his sexual exploits and was even more graphic with her husband, Mark Tribble.

"He would have violent fantasies," Tribble said. "He was putting the girls down ... saying someone is going to kill these girls, saying they were going to end up dead."

Despite a lack of community help, police used DNA evidence to arrest Franklin on July 7 at his home in the Manchester Square neighborhood nine miles south of downtown, an area dotted with Spanish-style and stucco homes.

To most neighbors, the place is still known as South Central, the name that was changed to South Los Angeles in 2003 by a City Council trying to re-brand an area notorious for gang crime, killings and urban strife.

The serial slayings occurred between 1985 and 2007, with the killer apparently taking a pause between 1988 and 2002, prompting the Grim Sleeper nickname.

Cold case detectives announced in September 2008 that a serial killer was on the loose and, partly in response to pressure from victims' families and activists, launched a publicity blitz to generate leads.

No one suspected Franklin, despite billboards being put up across the area where the killer struck, advertising a $500,000 reward.

In a neighborhood where helping police is often frowned upon, it was easy for people to dismiss his stories as the fantasies of an unhappily married man who could get them cheap used car parts.

"This man was an A-1 mechanic," said Kam, who has known Franklin for about a decade. "He didn't make mistakes on how he fixed cars. He was a good man to know."

Franklin, 57, was arrested after his son was arrested and swabbed for DNA. Using a controversial technique known as a familial DNA search, the sample came back as similar to evidence in the serial killings, ultimately leading police to Franklin.

Aside from the 10 murder charges, police suspect Franklin killed a man who may have discovered he was a killer. They are also reviewing whether Franklin was involved in about 30 other homicide cases. He has not been charged in those cases.

Franklin was arrested at least 15 times for investigation of burglary, assaults and other crimes but avoided state prison. He is alleged to have killed one of his victims in July 2003, a time when he should have been in county jail but was released early because of overcrowding.

His attorney, Regina Laughney, said she expected Franklin to enter a not guilty plea at his Aug. 9 arraignment. She declined to comment further. His wife and sons have not spoken publicly about his arrest.

The family's mint-green house on 81st Street has become a tourist attraction of sorts, with a steady flow of traffic moving slowly past the single-story home where a Doberman and German Shepherd circle the front yard.

Some drivers stop to talk to each other and share recollections on the man they knew as Lonnie; others just snap a cell phone picture and drive on.

Tribble is reconstructing conversations they had. Looking back, he sees plenty to be alarmed about.

"You would have a normal conversation, but he'd end up saying something gruesome," Tribble said.

Asked why they weren't more concerned about Franklin's stories, Tribble and other residents said it never occurred to them he might be the killer because he looked nothing like a series of composite sketches drawn from descriptions provided after a woman survived an attack.

The sketches show a slender man with gray hair. Franklin has a more spherical head and a thin mustache.

"It didn't look like him," said resident Carmella Coleman.

After hitting a wall in their investigation, detectives released the sketches in hopes of generating publicity. They also released a recording of a 1987 call to police in which a man describes seeing a body in an alley.

Though it jogged no one's memory when it was released in February, several residents are now convinced the voice is Franklin's. Cold case Detective Dennis Kilcoyne isn't so sure but is looking into it.

Family members of some of the victims faulted police for their initial investigations, saying the cases didn't carry the same importance they would have if the victims had been from a wealthier part of town.

Alice Brown, an aunt of Henrietta Wright, who was found shot to death in an alleyway in 1986, said police at the time could have been trying harder.

"I don't think the police did too much investigating," Brown said. "I wasn't questioned until recently."

A search warrant released Thursday shows police came tantalizingly close to catching the killer in 1988, after a woman he is accused of shooting and leaving for dead survived and provided investigators with an address where she thought her attacker had gone to fetch something.

Detectives searched the home but found nothing. It turned out the survivor identified a house three doors down from Franklin.

Kilcoyne said detectives did thorough investigations but lacked the technology available today.

"I have always known that sooner or later, we would catch the guy and it would be someone we have had multiple contacts with," Kilcoyne said.