The Case of the Grim Sleeper

Are familial DNA searches a brilliant tool for solving crimes or a dangerous abuse of privacy?

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Matt Slaby for TIME

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Barbara's autopsy revealed that she had been killed by a single .25-caliber bullet that entered the front of her body, passed through her sternum and the right side of her heart and lodged behind her posterior 10th rib. Soot on her clothing indicated she had been shot at close range, the coroner said in grand jury testimony, "consistent with the victim sitting in the passenger seat of a car and being shot by the driver." But soon enough, Barbara was just another case number--DR 87-1302331--on the unsolved-murder list. "The detectives said they were overwhelmed by what was happening," says Diana.

From 1985 to 1988, seven women were shot from the left side by what police ballistics experts determined to be the same .25-caliber gun, their bodies all dumped in trash heaps or dumpsters in the dark alleys leading off Western Avenue. While most of the victims had saliva residue on their breasts, only Ware had semen traces in her mouth. DNA matching was not done then; the FBI's Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) database wasn't operational until 1998. But the evidence samples were dried, frozen and stored.

On the evening of Nov. 19, 1988, a man driving an orange Pinto pulled up alongside 30-year-old Enietra Washington on Normandie Avenue, four blocks from Western, as she was walking to a friend's house. He offered her a lift. She refused at first but eventually got into the car. Now 53 and still living in the same area, Washington remembers hearing loud music playing in the car but doesn't recall the gunshot: "It all went quiet, and I just knew I had to get out, and he told me to shut up or he would shoot me again. I didn't even know he had shot me once." When she saw the blood on her blouse, she passed out. She came to as he was taking pictures of her with a flash camera and managed to tumble out of the car. Despite having lost a quart of blood, Washington survived. Surgeons took a bullet from her that matched the .25-caliber gun that had been used to kill seven other women in the neighborhood. Washington gave police their first description of the suspect--a neatly dressed black man with a pockmarked face. The cops never found the Pinto, and there were no more killings associated with that .25. As the crack epidemic waned and detectives were reassigned, the cases went unsolved.

The Sleeper Awakes

Fourteen years after Washington survived the attack, the bodies of several young black women were again dumped along Western Avenue--one in 2002, one in 2003 and one on New Year's Day 2007, when the body of Janecia Peters was found shot and strangled inside a trash bag in a dumpster. The gun was different, but DNA testing on saliva from the new victims' bodies matched the preserved samples of saliva and semen from the 1980s, and detectives realized the old killer was back. The count of his known victims had risen to 10. And his DNA still wasn't registered in any database. His return, though, earned him a nickname from the L.A. Weekly: the Grim Sleeper, because of the way he had disappeared and then returned.

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