TIFF: 'Tales of the Grim Sleeper' Director Nick Broomfield on L.A.'s Infamous Serial Killer (Q&A)

From ignored evidence to shady police tactics, the 30-year case of the Grim Sleeper murders made director Nick Broomfield's head spin in disbelief. Now he's brought his latest flick, 'Tales of the Grim Sleeper,' which was acquired by HBO, to the Toronto Film Festival and talked to us about his journey into L.A.'s crack epidemic, deep-seeded racism, and a legacy of fear-mongering.
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From ignored evidence to shady police tactics, the 30-year case of the Grim Sleeper murders made director Nick Broomfield's head spin in disbelief. Now he's brought his latest flick, 'Tales of the Grim Sleeper,' which was acquired by HBO, to the Toronto Film Festival and talked to us about his journey into L.A.'s crack epidemic, deep-seeded racism, and a legacy of fear-mongering.

Every bit of news surrounding the "Grim Sleeper” case left English documentarian Nick Broomfield gobsmacked. A series of LA Weekly articles enlightened him to the serial killer, who reportedly slayed 10 women between 1985 and 1988, with additional crimes linked to his murder weapon. It wasn't that Broomfield was faint of heart — in his lengthy filmmaking career, the director has examined youth detention camps (Tattooed Tears, 1978), New York S&M clubs (Fetishes, 1996), migrant workers (Ghosts, 2004), and two separate documentaries on serial killer Aileen Wuornos, the subject of the Oscar-winning film Monster — but this particular story felt logically impossible. On top of the established murders, the Grim Sleeper is suspected in a possible hundred more. How does a killer get away with it?

On July 7, 2010, police arrested Lonnie David Franklin Jr. over the Grim Sleeper murders. The circumstances made Broomfield's head hurt almost as much as 30 years of unsolved murders. After linking the Grim Sleeper's DNA to Franklin Jr.'s logged partial samples from previous misdemeanors, the LAPD set up a sting operation to collect better evidence. Posing as waiters at a pizzeria, detectives lifted a discarded slice from the suspect's finished meal, extracted fresh DNA samples, and concluded that the 57-year-old mechanic from South Central was indeed their man. It was all sort of an accident, the culmination of ignored evidence and shady police tactics. The botched investigation, compounded with the baffling crimes themselves, made it obvious to Broomfield that there was a movie to be made about the Grim Sleeper.

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“What was the sub-story?” Broomfield wonders, as enraged today, as he was when he was first clued in to the serial killer's legacy. “Somebody must have known something. Why weren’t the police investigating it more thoroughly? What were the circumstances that gave way to this being possible?”

Currently touring Tales of the Grim Sleeper around the festival circuit, Broomfield spoke to Bio about parsing through years of buried information on the infamous killer, drawing out oral history from Franklin's protective friends, and connecting the dots between horrific crimes, Los Angeles's crack epidemic, deep-seeded racism, and a legacy of fear-mongering.

How did you appeal to Lonnie’s close-knit neighborhood that has established trust issues with outsiders? To be objective: As a white guy from England, you stand out in South Central.

That’s absolutely true. We went in with somebody who was quite well known in the community. I always think with these stories one of the most important things is how you go in. We actually went in with a very well-known local comedian called Tiffany Haddish, who had grown up two blocks from Lonnie Franklin and had come from a very poverty-stricken background… seemed to be a fantastic way in.

A very positive ambassador for a wholly depressing situation.

A success story, and a funny one at that, even though we were looking at something that was, you know, tragic and grim. She was a great way in, and she’s very attractive and engaging socially. So we immediately got a fairly positive response. And I think we were able to develop real relationships with a number of the people. And that’s when we started to get proper stories.

At first, Lonnie's neighbors act defensively. They swear he didn't do that. Then they start coming to you with secrets and potential evidence. What pushed them to open up?

I think it was just by fact of being there quite a lot and bumping into them and constantly asking more questions. Also, it’s one of those communities that’s a private community. People tend not to say very much in a group, but when they’re on their own they’ll say a lot more. I think because the subject alienated part of Los Angeles, people don’t like to be seen to be cooperating with the authorities. To a certain extent, we being two white guys in a car, we’re seen as authorities. So when we talked to them in the privacy of their own homes or they came and talked to us at our office, things were very different. 

Tales of the Grim Sleeper Photo

'Tales of the Grim Sleeper' film still. (Photo: TIFF)

In fact, this is the only film I’ve ever done where we had to erect a kind of mock studio in our office, because people on the whole didn’t want to talk to us in their homes. They didn’t want people to see us going into their houses, because it raised too many questions. But they were very comfortable coming and talking to us, and we had an office in Leimert Park, which is very close to South Central, within a five minute bus ride. [People could] come over and hang out with us and have some tea or whatever. So slowly by slowly people would drift over and see us and tell us their stories.

There's a persistent fear in South Central. If it's not the gangs, it's the police. You interview one person who says you can't call 911 if you’re black and living in LA. What keeps that fear alive?

When we look at other things, like Ferguson... I don’t think South Central is different from many other places. I think there’s this institutional racism. Until that goes, the situation isn’t really gonna change. It’s not one or two police officers who are at fault with not finding the Grim Sleeper. It’s a whole political outlook, which is '[poor black] people do not have high-powered, pressured lawyers working for them.' It’s just an attitude that they don’t matter. And it’s not just to do with the attitude of the police, it’s the attitude in the schools, it’s the attitude with job opportunities, it’s the attitude that there is a crack epidemic in South Central, Los Angeles, but it’s not treated like an epidemic. It’s treated like each person has an individual problem. And until that kind of attitude changes, nothing really is going to change that much in South Central or lots of other places. I think it is an apartheid story. It’s a story about apartheid in the United States, and it has a long way to go.

After sifting through historical details, would you call the Grim Sleeper a product of the LAPD?

I think there is an attitude within the police force — not just the LAPD — that people like drug addicts, prostitutes, gang members, are time wasters, basically. They’re constantly dealing with them. I’m speaking from a police mentality. And as Lonnie Franklin’s son Christopher said, Lonnie Franklin had a lot of friends in law enforcement, because they were almost grateful to him for sort of cleaning up the streets. If it's an odd prostitute that’s been killed, certainly they don’t care. And I think that that term, NHI, 'No Human Involved,' which they would phone in when they got a dead gang member or a drug addict or whatever, is very symptomatic of what they feel. In a way he was enabled. I don’t think it was just negligence. I think it was really turning a blind eye, and a lot of the people in South Central still believe that a number of the murders might have been committed by police officers. I don’t think it’s any accident that a police officer was originally arrested for the murders.

How did that happen? It's briefly mentioned in the film.

He was a police officer called Ricky Ross. He was an undercover police officer who was dealing a lot with drugs and prostitutes. And he was found with a prostitute, obviously availing himself of her services, with an enormous amount of cocaine, well, crack cocaine in the back of his car. The police in South Central were extremely corrupt and a number of their officers were found to be a major part of the crack cocaine industry. They were enabling it to continue, they were making a great deal of money from it. 

One of the people who was involved in doing that was Ricky Ross. He was one of the officers. And they arrested him for some of the murders. He was charged, but they couldn’t get the charge to stick, that basically the ballistics of his gun didn’t match the ballistics of some of the murders that they were charging him for. He then sued the city for a vast amount of money, but died. So the case never came to trial. And I think that there was another police officer who was arrested — different period in time. The thing is, the people of South Central Los Angeles see the police as the enemy. They absolutely believe that the police are capable of committing murders in their area, so that’s kind of the starting point of the relationship.

Would there have been a Grim Sleeper without crack abuse and pornography?

I think, more than anything else, South Central has been torn apart by crack cocaine. Crack cocaine has kind of divided the sexes in a weird way. So many women have ended up on the streets to support their habits, and at the same time then the men kind of denigrate them and relate to them in a sort of pornographic way. I think that’s one of the byproducts of the crack epidemic, which has gone on for an awfully long time. It’s gone on from the early 80’s, and it’s still going on now. There hasn’t really been a proper program to deal with that.

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At one point, you pull up alongside a woman smoking crack on the side of the road. In 2014.

It’s very out there still. In some ways Los Angeles reminds me very much of Johannesburg, which is such an apartheid city as well, where people from one part of the city just don’t go into another. People from the area where I live, which is the Santa Monica, Venice, Beverly Hills area — people would never go into South Central unless they took the wrong turn. When I told people I was going to be making a film down there, they imagine most terrible things are gonna happen to you. Because there’s really no communication between different parts of the city. One of the things I very much hope comes out of the film is that people see that the people down in South Central are wonderful people, you know, super articulate and shouldn’t be forgotten in this way.

Do you see Tales of the Grim Sleeper playing a part in Lonnie's eventual trial? You've built a case with this film.

I feel in many ways that the film had some of the interviews, the research, that the police should have done. It seems incredible to me that we were able to, as a film crew, talk to the guy who Lonnie went out with and picked up women virtually every night for several years, who knew over half the women that the police are looking for, and the police still haven’t talked to him! Still haven’t! The police still haven’t seen the film. But it seems to me if you work out whether these women are murdered or missing, he’s a pretty good starting point.

Pam, a former prostitute that helped you track down Grim Sleeper survivors, has incredible insight into what plagued South Central in the '80s and what continues to do so today. It's heartbreaking: She thinks a Grim Sleeper could still emerge today.

I think one of the incredible things about this story that most surprised me was finding heroes like Pam. Unexpected heroes, like Pam or the women from the black coalition, Margaret Prescod and Nana Gyamfi. Women who aren't getting any money for [what they do but] have a belief and an optimism and a dynamism that I’ve certainly rarely seen. Lonnie’s friends, they have a humanity about them because they’re so — they’re all so conflicted, you can see that they’re not happy with things or themselves in it. 

I think it’s a very compassionate story. I hope when people see the film that they’ll feel that there’s a way forward, and that these things are changeable and doable and there are heroes in these communities. And we have to find a way of working with these communities and helping them, other than helping the prison-industrial complex. The current situation really isn’t doing anything except causing a lot of heartache and enormous human waste.