Yet something like that happened in Los Angeles over an astonishing 25-year period.
When South Central resident Lonnie Franklin Jr. was arrested in 2010 for the deaths of 10 women, the first occurring in 1985, with the strong belief the actual numbers of his victims might be as many as 100 or more, this came as a shock to most residents of the city.
The reason? Newspapers never covered the discovery of the often mutilated bodies and the police never said a word about a serial killer prowling a “hunting ground” all within close proximity of Franklin’s home.
If it had not been for an L.A. Weekly expose about the Grim Sleeper — so named because of the length of time between his attacks — no citizen would have been aware of his existence at the time of his arrest.
British documentarian Nick Broomfield (“Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer,” “Kurt & Courtney”) roamed the killer’s hunting grounds for several months following the arrest. The result, “Tales of the Grim Sleeper,” is an unsettling, maddening eye-opener not only for L.A. residents but anyone concerned about the stigma and horror of poverty, drugs and political indifference to the poor in American society.
The HBO documentary played at AFI Fest, is playing in L.A. in early December and will air on HBO sometime next year. I would like to think many in the LAPD, Sheriffs Department and City Hall will hang their heads in shame. Instead I suspect they’ll do what they proved so good at doing until media attention forced them to act — ignore the issues.
Franklin targeted African-American women in one of the poorest districts not only in L.A. but in the U.S. A crack cocaine epidemic had taken hold just as the last jobs fled the area. So City Hall could care less about the area and cops, the movie reveals, have a code for deaths involving junkies or prostitutes in South L.A. — NHI.
That stands for “No Humans Involved.”
That sums up the official attitude toward the murders of possibly dozens of black women, most of whom were either addicts or hookers and usually both.
As Broomfield starts to investigate — eventually he will literally know more about the “Grim Sleeper” than the LAPD does even today — disturbing patterns emerge.
Franklin, known throughout the neighborhood as a dealer in stolen goods, did little to hide his peculiar proclivities. These included sharing nude photos of crackhead hookers with his buddies or paying someone to get rid of a blood-soaked vehicle.
As the white documentarian begins to roam around a part of town where “peckerwoods” are not appreciated, he acquires a sidekick and guide in the form of Pam Brooks, herself a former crackhead prostitute who knows the streets and its denizens all too well.
Together they — and we — get to know these mean streets better than the cops who patrol them. Franklin’s buddies begin to open up about their pal, whom they staunchly defend at first and then seem to recollect a few odd things about the dude. Very odd, the more they think about it.
Gradually, the investigation sheds light on larger socioeconomic issues that stalk South L.A. even more than the Grim Sleeper. The doc becomes not only a primer on a crime investigation gone wrong but a devastating look at the lives of people in one of the poorest communities in America.
The LAPD eventually did release photos of unknown women found in the alleged killer’s house. Toward the end of the movie, Broomfield sets up a studio so that surviving women can come forward to be identified and tell their stories.
This is the most powerful section of the film, one that leaves you nearly speechless as these poor, troubled souls make the case for their humanity against the inhumanity visited on them by not only the Grim Sleeper but the police and politicians of L.A.
This is a sobering reminder that despite their addictions and poverty, these women are human beings and their lives do matter.
Opens: December 11, 2014 Los Angeles (HBO Documentary Films)
Production companies: HBO Documentary Films
Director: Nick Broomfield
Producer: Marc Hoeferlin
Executive producers: Celia Taylor, Eleanor Bailey, Charles Finch, Shani Hinton
Director of photography: Barney Broomfield
Music: H. Scott Salinas
Editor: Joe Bini, Marc Hoeferlin
South Central Guide: Pam Brooks
No rating, 109 minutes