How racism and neglect left the Grim Sleeper free to kill again and again
We’re used to serial killers being presented in a certain way. Their faces staring out at us from front pages and primetime news, accompanied by sensationalist headlines about their grisly crimes. At a certain point during Nick Broomfield’s most recent documentary, 2014’s Tales of the Grim Sleeper, we realise that we’re not exactly watching a film about the man who prowled South Los Angeles for victims. We’re watching a filmmaker and a community ask how this could have happened. How more than a hundred women could go missing in a Los Angeles neighbourhood over 20 years, with no one doing anything about it?
“I read a series of articles in the LA Weekly by a journalist called Christine Pelisek,” remembers Broomfield. “She let the community know that there was a serial killer in the area, which the police had known about since 1985 but only officially announced it after her article came out in 2008.”
Pelisek’s article ‘GRIM SLEEPER RETURNS: HE’S MURDERING ANGELENOS, AS COPS HUNT HIS DNA’ is a damning indictment of the lack of interest shown by the LAPD in finding the man responsible for the murders of women in South Central.
Lonnie Franklin Jr is currently awaiting trial; accused of ten counts of murder and one count of attempted murder (Enietra Washington survived after being shot and assaulted). He was christened “The Grim Sleeper” by the LA Weekly due to the long gap between his eighth (known) murder in 1988 and his ninth in 2002, but police found photos of hundreds of women at Franklin’s house. Broomfield saw the story as illustrative of the essential divide in the city of Los Angeles.
“There really are two very different worlds in LA,” he tells us. “One of which is the part that all us whiteys live in, Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, then there’s this very big other part which is South Central and other parts of the city that are completely and utterly different. They have a different life expectancy, different obesity rates, everything is just completely different.
“I was aware of it because the mother of my partner, May Churchill, had set up a medical clinic down there in the Seventies and there was quite a lot happening in the Seventies. And then Ronald Reagan came along and cut off all the federal funding, and it had the effect of really creating two cities, which were completely different and became even more different. Then the crack cocaine came into that part of the city under the whole Oliver North time [during which the then-National Security Council member supported the Contras’ drug trafficking as part of the Iran-Contra Affair], which had a devastating effect on that part of the city, which it’s never recovered from. And then the drug laws, which the Reagan administration brought in as well, carried on and decimated the community.
“What you’re seeing is the disenfranchisement of a whole lot of areas across the country, which is what I think the big crisis in America is really about,” he continues.
“These communities are completely disenfranchised, they are completely marginalised, they really have no political power, they are ignored by the police force, they are picked on by the judicial system and I think what you’re seeing in Ferguson and Baltimore and all these places is people saying, ‘This is not a democratic country, this is an extension of Jim Crow, this is an extension of the inherent racism that came out of slavery that we still haven’t really addressed or recovered from.’
“I think in a way, although I didn’t know it going in, Tales of the Grim Sleeper is part of that zeitgeist. It’s really about a community that has been completely ignored, where the police were really quite happy to see basically 200 women disappear in that period of time. Asking very few questions, making very little effort to sort it out, deliberately withholding information from the community about the serial killer and the number of murders. Which I guess the film very much brings to the forefront.”
Tales of the Grim Sleeper starts with Broomfield arriving at 81st Street in South LA. After meeting with some resistance, he finds that more and more people are willing to talk about Franklin Jr and the murders, from his friends to community leader Margaret Prescod, who founded the Black Coalition Fighting Back Serial Murders in the 1980s, and who needed to be convinced of Broomfield’s intentions.
“Margaret Prescod is very politically involved and she has been the person who has championed that coalition for 25 years,” he explains. “I think in that time she became quite disillusioned with the media. Very little was being published in the main networks, and what there has been has always been very sensational. And not really constructive in terms of painting the true picture in that city, which is that these areas are completely neglected and no one gives a shit and the police are inherently racist and they are not doing anything because to them it’s black people killing black people. They do not care.
“I think when I approached her it was like ‘Oh no, another sensationalist journalist wanting to do a film about a serial killer.’ So it took a long time winning her round, convincing her that I was interested in other things.”
Prescod’s arguments are compelling and resonant, but possibly the most compelling figure in the film is a woman called Pam Brooks, who knew Lonnie Franklin Jr and became heavily involved in helping Broomfield secure interviews. A former drug addict and prostitute, Brooks is proud of the way she’s turned her life around but still finds her life choices extremely limited. She becomes Broomfield’s guide to the area, driving him around and asking working girls if they knew Franklin through her rolled down window, reminding them to be safe.
“I had obviously done whatever reading I could do,” Broomfield tells us. “But I’m reluctant to go in with a thesis because I think the power of documentary is to reveal spontaneous things that occur from the relationships you build up while you’re making the film. I think what I like about documentaries is the spontaneous medium. I think the best documentaries grow organically, that use the form to its best potential. Some of those chance encounters that we had in the streets, of people opening up and saying amazing things were very revealing. I think it’s those moments when you actually go out in the streets and you meet the people that are the most amazing.”
Many of the women that Broomfield talks to in the film describe their total lack of faith in the police. One interviewee says that she has given her children numbers to call in case of emergency, none of which are 911. The film shows that there is a fundamental distrust that is well founded. The acronym NHI is an example of the LAPD’s shockingly racist attitude during the Los Angeles riots in 1992. It stands for “No Human Involved.” When the film, and the viewer, wonders why Franklin Jr wasn’t reported for his behaviour years before, issues like these go some way towards answering it.
“Oh yeah, absolutely,” agrees Broomfield. “It’s obviously not just in Los Angeles, it’s all over. It really goes back to the politics of the area. Because there aren’t any high-powered politicians pressuring the police force and demanding the kind of protection and investigation that other parts of the city would have. The police don’t do anything because they know they can get away with it. The two main political parties in the US, like everywhere else, are white middle class men who don’t give a shit about these neighbourhoods. And the few black politicians there are who come from those neighbourhoods very quickly forget about serving the interests of their own background.”
The politics of the criminal justice system has provided Broomfield with a lot of his most compelling stories. In Tales of the Grim Sleeper, we see how an entire area of Los Angeles was ignored and abandoned. In Aileen: the Life and Death of a Serial Killer, we see how the execution of a woman who certainly doesn’t seem to be in her right mind becomes a political platform for Governor Jeb Bush. Even Broomfield’s Heidi Fleiss documentary Hollywood Madam shows the disparity between the treatment of women arrested for prostitution and the male johns who use their services. When we ask Broomfield if it’s these sorts of stories that he’s drawn to, he quickly agrees.
“Well I think so. Of course it exists everywhere but I think it’s very apparent in the politics of the USA. Nana Gyamfi, who’s in the film, who was part of the Black Coalition, does a university course where she shows how, before the end of slavery, most of the people in prison were white people, then from the end of slavery it was all black people.
“They sort of criminalised everything and did massive arrests of black people from being vagrants to whatever, who all ended up in chain gangs which was just another form of slavery. She follows that all the way through the present day with things like the drug laws. Crack cocaine is a felony offence, whereas cocaine is a white person’s drug and that’s a misdemeanour. It’s transparent what’s happened, and few people in the States are aware. But yes, it is the surrounding politics to these stories that’s always the most interesting thing, and of course the stories are juicy, strong entertaining stories that people are fascinated by, but for me personally the background issues are what turn me on.”
One such example of this is his first Aileen Wuornos documentary, The Selling of a Serial Killer. As the title suggests, the film is as much, if not more, about her attorney Steve Glazer and her adoptive mother Arlene Pralle, who are clearly hoping to profit financially association with Aileen.
“When I called Steve Glazer on the phone before I started on the film, he asked me if I’d pay him $30,000 to do an interview with Aileen,” he remembers.
“I thought ‘Wow, this is outrageous.’ It was because of that that I decided to do the film. I think a lot of the characters sort of define themselves. Steve obviously loved being a character in the film, he might have regretted it when the film came out but he was just such a strong performer and entertainer that he loved that stuff. Arlene Pralle was just a greedy person I think, an opportunist, a rather lost, confused person but wanted money. I don’t think she admitted to herself that she was someone who was exploiting and using Aileen.”
For the second film, Life and Death of a Serial Killer, Broomfield found himself pulled back in by a strong external force: a court summons to appear as a witness. Both films include another frequent element of Broomfield’s work: reporting on a case that is currently ongoing, and filming inside prisons. In the latter case, he talks to Wuornos on Death Row.
“It wasn’t so hard at that point because she had the right to choose who was going to be there for her last interview,” he tells us. “A couple of other interviews we got with her were kind of just luck, she was in a small holding prison. The earlier interviews when she was down in Florida were very difficult and took ages and we got them by the skin of our teeth really. Filming in prisons is pretty difficult; you have to go through a lot of protocol. It’s difficult and requires enormous patience and brilliant researchers.”
As for interviewing people who are accused of crimes, Broomfield tells us that there is no hard and fast rule to getting them to open up.
“It varies a great deal. Sometimes people have a story they want to tell. Other times you have to get their counsel involved and the counsel has to persuade them that it’s in their interest. With Aileen I think we ended up giving Steve and Aileen $10,000, and then of course she was suspicious of them. The second time we went back it was really because we were basically her friends and on her side.”
When dealing with such contentious issues, a filmmaker will inevitably face some opposition, which is certainly something that Broomfield experienced while making Kurt and Courtney, which Courtney Love went to great lengths to shut down.
“I think that was probably the most overt case [of censorship],” he remembers. “With her calling up the BBC, actually getting MTV to pull out, contacting lawyers and getting a private detective to go around all Kurt’s friends and sign forms that they weren’t going to talk. She was intimidating and very controlling and of course people resented it and to a certain extent I think it backfired against her. Because it was more an illustration of who she was than anything else; it was outrageous.
“I guess as a filmmaker what you have to do is use these things to tell a stronger story, not be intimidated by them but to make them part of the story. Someone like Courtney Love defines herself more with that behaviour than by sitting herself down and doing an interview.”
On the question of defining people by their actions, Tales of the Grim Sleeper paints a grim portrait of the Los Angeles Police Department and the city’s authorities.
“I think people were really surprised, including myself,” Broomfield tells us. “Both in the police and the number of victims who had survived and were keeping it secret because they didn’t think that they could talk to the police. Just what it revealed about the whole community in that area. And also just the humanity of the people and what a lousy deal they’ve got. How they’re completely neglected.”
As for the authorities’ response to the film, Broomfield tells us that nobody has been in touch with him. But despite the recent and horrific tragedies that have brought institutionalised racism back into the frame, Broomfield ends on an optimistic note.
“Not really, no, they’ve been very quiet. There’s been no enquiry into what they did. I think things are going to change in the States. I think the officers who were responsible for killing Freddie Gray in Baltimore are on charges and it looks like they’re not going to get off which would be a first. All the cases [of police slayings of civilians] that have gone to the Supreme Court, the police have always been exonerated and no one’s ever gone down for what they’ve done. I think when police officers start being sentenced for misconduct, it’s all going to change.”