Darts and Laurels

Reporters at two weeklies keep the memories of unknown murder victims alive

In 2008, L.A. Weekly reporter Christine Pelisek learned that the Los Angeles Police Department had recently dedicated a secret task force to investigate the connection between several unsolved murders in the city from 2002 and 2007 and a number of other cold cases from the 1980s. When she inquired about it, the police confirmed to her that a serial killer was responsible for all the murders, and that, after a thirteen-year gap, he had returned.

Pelisek had at that point been scratching around the fringes of the story of these unsolved murders for two years, but the fact that the killer was back at work was new and startling information. The LAPD was resistant to Pelisek making the task force public, thinking that it would scare the killer away. She disagreed. “I thought it was a public safety issue,” Pelisek said, “and I thought that the public should know.”

Pelisek and her editor, Jill Stewart, dubbed the suspected killer “The Grim Sleeper” because of the thirteen-year-long gap in his crime spree, and Pelisek wrote a long cover story about him in August 2008. She railed against the city politicians and police department for their lack of urgency, of resources, and of communication with the community. It was explosive, and the resulting publicity turned into public pressure. Within days, the Los Angeles City Council pledged a $500,000 reward for information that led to the killer’s capture. The LAPD finally reached out to the victims’ families, attended vigils, and met with church and community leaders. California Attorney General Jerry Brown gave the go-ahead for an unprecedented screening of the DNA database for California’s felons.

Pelisek followed up with several articles in the next two years, staying on the story with updates in the case and profiles of the killer’s victims. The DNA screenings eventually worked: a man arrested on a weapons charge was found to be a “familial match” to the alleged killer. The killer, the police would find, was his father. On July 7, 2010, Lonnie David Franklin Jr. was identified as The Grim Sleeper and arrested at his home in south Los Angeles.

A Los Angeles Times editorial following The Grim Sleeper’s arrest praised Pelisek’s work: “Christine Pelisek…forced the city to care about a group of victims who had been largely forgotten by all but their families and a few LAPD detectives.” For her dogged pursuit of The Grim Sleeper and her advocacy for his victims, we give her a LAUREL.

At another free weekly, the Long Island Press, staff writer Jaclyn Gallucci’s persistence and instincts turned a simple idea for a missing-persons story into a public service, one that similarly gave voice to long-forgotten murder victims.

Gallucci’s July 1 cover story, “Long Island’s Unidentified Murder Victims: Do You Know John Doe?” began with a stirring portrait of a scene at 6 a.m. on a pier on City Island in the Bronx. A ferry is taking a busload of New York state prisoners to bury the city’s unidentified dead in the potter’s field on tiny Hart Island:

Rikers Island inmates bury them in trenches, 150 per numbered concrete marker, two across, three deep. A handful of these victims were found on Long Island, and investigators say there is at least one person, somewhere, who knows who they are.

When she inquired about doing a story on a missing-persons case, the Nassau County coroner gave Gallucci his file of all of the unidentified bodies that he had come across since 1982. Because of improvements in forensic analysis, the list was small: eighteen remaining mysteries. Poring through the file, Gallucci’s notion of her story changed. She decided to focus on the murder victims, both as tribute to the nameless dead and an attempt to help identify them.

She profiled each of them, providing as much information as the authorities had been able to gather: age, gender, injuries, what they were wearing, where they were found, what they had in their pockets. There is “The Girl With the Peach Tattoo,” a woman who was found dismembered in a garbage bag in Hempstead Lake State Park thirteen years ago. And “The Man in the Median,” found on the Northern State Parkway at least twenty-six years after his death: only a skeleton, tattered clothes, and a gold watch remained.

Alongside the story of each cold case, the Long Island Press printed the photographs of the victims’ tattoos, their clothing, and their facial reconstruction illustrations—all in an effort to trigger a reader’s memory.

Gallucci didn’t stop when her story came out. She carried stacks of the issue with her and left them everywhere she went, even taking trips to Manhattan and upstate towns to distribute them there, hoping the Long Island cases she described could be connected to missing-persons cases elsewhere. She said she was haunted by the thought that these victims would remain nameless, and that their killers would get away with murder.

She’ll never know how many tips to police hotlines came in as a result of her story. But as Tony Evelina, an area director for the a volunteer advocacy group The Doe Network, told Gallucci for her article, publicity is the key to identifying unnamed victims. “You’ve got to keep them in the spotlight constantly,” he said. “You can’t let people forget.” Gallucci earns her LAUREL for shining that light.

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Lauren Kirchner is a freelance writer covering digital security for CJR. Find her on Twitter at @lkirchner