Detective Cliff Shepard has served with the Los Angeles Police Department for 37 years and 13 days. He retires today, bringing to a close a career spent tracking and catching some of the most notorious serial killers in L.A.'s history.
There was Rodney Acala, the handsome and charismatic UCLA graduate who appeared on ABC's The Dating Game--and won--in the middle of a bicoastal murder spree that claimed at least seven lives. There was Chester Turner, the Dominos deliveryman who blended so seamlessly into his South L.A. neighborhood that he was able to murder eleven women in as many years without attracting suspicion. Finally, there was Lonnie Franklin Jr., the Grim Sleeper, who eluded capture for 35 years, staking claim to the title of most enduring serial killer this side of the Mississippi.
Shepard first tracked the Grim Sleeper as part of LAPD's secret "800 Task Force" assembled in 2007 to catch the serial killer whose first victim was discovered in 1985. Between '85 and '88, the killer had left seven victims scattered up and down Western Avenue in South Los Angeles; after that, he seemed to disappear.
In 2004, LAPD learned the killer was back at work; he'd struck in 2002 and again in 2003, after a 13-year hiatus. In 2007, another body, that of 25-year-old Janecia Peters, was found in a dumpster off Western Avenue. "You knew he was there," Shepard says of Franklin. "You knew he was in the area--it's just where? Where?"
Police finally identified Franklin, a mechanic who lived on West 81st Street, in 2010. "Once he was identified, everything becomes explained. Or almost everything--there are things that only he knows, but now you understand him a little better."
Sixteen victims have been conclusively tied to Franklin, but the detective suspects many others may exist. Shepard said it wouldn't surprise him if another twenty victims were out there.
"The problem is the missings. There are so many missings that were never investigated as they really should have been," Shephard says. Photographs of hundreds of women--nearly a hundred that still haven't been identified--were recovered from Franklin's home.
"Did he kill all of them? Probably not," Shepard says of the women in the photographs. "But are some of them dead? Some very well could be dead. He's the only one who knows."
Cliff Shepard came out to California from St. Louis in the '60s; his brother got him a job working for Standard Oil. He was drafted into the Army in '72, and did a two-year tour of Vietnam. In '74, he came back to the states. He was at an army base in North Carolina that year when he saw TV coverage of the Symbionese Liberation Army shoot-out on 54th and Compton Avenue.
"Wow, Look at that--an actual shootout," he thought. "That's a war going on right in Los Angeles." Lucky for Shepard, when he got back to Southern California the department was just starting to accept officers again after a hiring freeze.
On the eve of his retirement, Shepard has mixed feelings about leaving the force. He says he liked tracking and catching killers. "It's a challenge, it's exciting. To suddenly stop..." the soft-spoken detective trails off for a moment. "You know, it's a void. I'm not sure what I'm going to do after this."
In 2001, Shepard became one of six detectives assigned to a newly formed cold case unit tasked with re-examining some 9,000 unsolved murders that had taken place since 1960. He and his partners scoured old case files looking for biological evidence they could test using new DNA technology.
Shepard sifted through the files and submitted samples, including evidence from a case he'd handled downtown in 1998. His partner submitted evidence from a case that took place in South L.A. in 1996. To their surprise, both samples got a match. Perhaps even more surprising though, was the fact they matched each other.
"That struck a chord with me because I'd worked patrol in South Los Angeles and I was familiar with a number of unsolved murders that occurred down there--usually women that were just dumped in the streets."
DNA led them to Chester Turner, who was in custody for a rape committed a year before. Shepard and his partner decided to take another look at cases that had occured within a few miles of his home. They turned up an astonishing seventeen killings; Turner was convicted of eleven.
It all came together from flipping through old case files. "You read the synopsis of what happened and it interests you," Shepard says. "Some of them are horribly tragic and they almost start tearing at your heart right there. Those cases your make notes on and say 'I've got to get back to this one.'"
One such case was Victoria Brown, an eight-year-old girl who disappeared off a street in Watts in 1983. Her body was found in the trunk of a stolen car at a junkyard in Wilmington a few days later.
"I kept thinking about that one because that was horrible, and I'd met the little girl's mom a couple of times and her sisters," Shepard says. "I'd try to keep them up to date, and tell them that we hadn't given up, that we were still looking."
DNA evidence produced a match to a case in El Paso, Texas. "Turns out El Paso, Texas helped out Juarez, Mexico. Juarez, Mexico had a man in custody who has molested three girls and murdered another one and encased her body in concrete." An extradition effort is currently underway for the man, who lived near the victim at the time of the murder.
Out-numbering those cases though, the ones with whose conclusions Shepard is satisfied, are the others--a woman found dead in Chinatown, a nurse killed in 1979, a USC grad student murdered outside her new apartment--that still nag at him, and probably always will.
"You know, there is a time to go and although I would like to continue some--especially working on some of the cases that really bothered me--at some point have to give it up and pass it on to others," he says, with just a hint of uncertainty in his voice.