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Grim Sleeper serial killer suspect known as nice, funny 'fix-it' man

By Mallory Simon, CNN
Lonnie David Franklin Jr. appears to have lived for 20 years in the neighborhood where the Grim Sleeper murders occurred.
Lonnie David Franklin Jr. appears to have lived for 20 years in the neighborhood where the Grim Sleeper murders occurred.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Lonnie David Franklin Jr., 57, arrested in relation to 11 Grim Sleeper serial killings
  • Franklin is former city trash collector, one-time garage attendant at an LAPD station
  • Neighbors describe him as a nice, talkative "fix-it" mechanic of the local area

(CNN) -- For more than 20 years an elusive killer dubbed the Grim Sleeper walked the streets of south Los Angeles, California.

The killer targeted black women, some of them working as prostitutes, shooting most of them with the same small-caliber gun.

Police combed the neighborhood where the killings occurred -- a low-income area.

But some have said that because of the low-income profile of the area and the victims, the slayings were pushed aside as unrelated incidents.

Police eventually got the killer's DNA and ballistics evidence, which allowed them to link at least 10 murders. But for years they could not match the DNA.

Then on Wednesday, police announced they believed they finally had their man, Lonnie David Franklin Jr.

Franklin, 57, is a former city trash collector who at one time worked as a garage attendant at an LAPD station and used his mechanical skills to help out around the neighborhood.

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The same neighborhood was littered with composite sketches of the suspect. But police say nobody said anything about noticing the resemblance to Franklin who lived just eight blocks from one the sketches.

His arrest came as a shock to neighbors who said they knew him as a guy who helped fix their cars -- on the same street near where police say he allegedly dumped his victims' bodies.

Vehicles were a focus for detectives during their investigation. His only surviving victim told police after her escape that the suspect was driving an orange Ford Pinto when he picked her up.

One of Franklin's neighbors said he was seen driving an orange Pinto once or twice. But the neighbor thought nothing of it, not knowing about the vehicle's relationship to the case and not suspecting anything because Franklin was known as a "fix-it" man who always drove different cars he was working on.

Examine CNN's interactive evidence case file on the Grim Sleeper

Franklin was well-known in the neighborhood where he's alleged to have committed the crimes.

He lived close to where his victims' bodies were found -- something police and criminal profilers had expected.

"I believe that he is from that same general area," LAPD Detective Dennis Kilcoyne, who headed up the task force investigating the case, told CNN last year.

Former FBI criminal profiler Pat Brown painted a similar picture before Franklin was arrested.

"He's probably a local guy -- he's very familiar with that area and probably with those women, and sometimes that can make things very difficult because he won't stand out in the community," Brown said.

"He'll be someone that everyone knows -- even if it's just casually. Someone who lives in that area that can wait for that one particular opportunity -- when he realizes nobody is around -- and then he becomes the serial killer.

"And he does her in and nobody sees him and nobody will think of him because they've never seen him as a threat."

Many of those who knew Franklin agree that he was not viewed as a threat.

Neighbor Eric Robinson talked to CNN on Wednesday and said he is shocked about Franklin's arrest.

"He was a nice guy," said Robinson. "Everyone thought he was nice. He was a real genuine grease monkey for sure -- loved them cars."

Margaret Prescod, who founded the Black Coalition Fighting Back Serial Murders and worked with the families of victims in the case, said she wasn't shocked at the news of where Franklin lived.

Prescod said much of her organization's efforts focused on the area near Franklin's home, hoping to make people aware of the Grim Sleeper's presence and see if they could help identify any suspects.

But the area's fast turnover made it difficult for Prescod and police to find people who lived there during the entire 20-year span of the murders. This might be why not much is known about Franklin's earlier life: Those who could have known him when the murders began are unlikely to still be in the area.

"We went around there, going door-to-door to make sure people knew about the murders," she said.

"People were concerned because they felt, 'This is happening and we frankly don't know anything about it.' "
One person who appears to have stayed in the area is Franklin. Although there was a span of time when the killings stopped, records indicate Franklin lived in several houses during the course of the murders, never moving far from the area of the crimes.

Cynthia Banks, who lives in the neighborhood, said she was "blown away" when she heard Franklin was arrested. She said she has known Franklin about two years and socialized with him on several occasions.

"The Lonnie that I knew of was a nice guy. He worked on my car maybe three or four times. Every time I'd see him he'd wave," she said. "I knew he worked at one point at LAPD, so I am just amazed that something like this -- you never know who you can be among."

"I thank God today that that man never made a pass at me," she said. "He was a good-looking brother, I would have given the dude a shot. I could have been one of those women, you know, I might not be here today."

Barbara Huggins, 21, said she was talking with Franklin about car issues just hours before his arrest.

"I was supposed to meet up with him this morning. I talked to him last night," she said. "I've been with him. He's fixed my car three times."

Huggins described Franklin as a nice guy who is talkative, sweet and funny.

She said she only knew Franklin for the past couple of weeks, but had been alone with him two or three times. She said he never touched her.

"He didn't threaten me or anything," she said. "He was nice, he gave me good deals on my car. I've been to his house, I've met his grandkids. This is crazy."

Franklin does not yet have a lawyer. He is expected to be arraigned in August.

CNN's Ashley Fantz and Sara Weisfeldt contributed to this report.

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