Images of dead women flash across the screen in front of me, their brutalized bodies tossed like rag dolls into dumpsters and alleyways. At the front of the darkened classroom, Los Angeles County deputy D.A. Marguerite Rizzo scrolls through each photo in turn, highlighting relevant details with a red laser pointer.
“As you can tell from this photo, just even looking at this, you see how much distention there is there,” Rizzo says, referring to swelling in one of the bodies. “So she’d been there for quite some time.”
It’s a balmy Sunday afternoon, and I’m attending Esotouric’s latest Forensic Science Seminar, a quarterly series that delves into some of the city’s most infamous crimes with the help of veteran prosecutors and criminalists. The body described above is that of Debra Jackson, the first known victim of convicted South L.A. serial killer Lonnie David Franklin Jr., dubbed “the Grim Sleeper” in the press. Jackson was one of at least ten women he murdered between 1985 and 2007. Franklin was finally captured in 2010 after a decades-long search by law enforcement, a manhunt documented by crime reporter Christine Pelisek in a bombshell series for LA Weekly.
Rizzo, who helped convict Franklin in 2016, narrates the investigation for a rapt audience of 80-plus attendees, many of whom have become regulars at these events. Pelisek is also present (she’s there to sign copies of her book The Grim Sleeper: The Lost Women of South Central), as is Cal State L.A. criminalistics professor Donald Johnson, who hosts each seminar at the university’s gleaming Hertzberg-Davis Forensic Science Center. The center receives a portion of the proceeds to fund graduate student research. So what brings people to a forensics lab to spend the waning hours of a gorgeous weekend learning about a murder case in granular detail?
“Some may have, I would say, a morbid fascination; others are interested in forensic science,” says Johnson, a soft-spoken 60-year-old with piercing blue eyes who previously worked as a criminalist with the L.A. County Sheriff’s Office. “We have part of our regular attendees from JPL [NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory] will come and have an interest more in the technological aspects of it. So it’s an interesting mix of people.”
One of the JPL employees in attendance today is Long Beach resident Jerry Martinez, 54, who frequents the seminars with his wife Patty and who finds the parallels between criminal forensics and his chosen field of aerospace engineering illuminating. “When they’re talking about some of the equipment and techniques that are used in forensics, I know what they’re talking about and I’ve done a lot of the same things,” he says. On a more fundamental level, the couple admits they’re simply drawn to the macabre.“We like to go to cemeteries,” says Patty, “and walk around and read the headstones.”
Presiding over the day are Esotouric co-founders Kim Cooper and Richard Schave, a husband-wife team whose company hosts regular themed bus tours around the city with names like “The Real Black Dahlia,” “Weird West Adams,” and “Wilshire Boulevard Death Trip.” Though Schave is the more outwardly enthusiastic of the two, he’s quick to note that none of it would have happened if it weren’t Cooper’s passion for the morbid and unusual. “My wife, entirely,” he answers without hesitation when asked where his interest in true crime began. “My wife is a ghoul.”
Cooper, a compact woman whose head of thick gray hair frames a disarmingly youthful face, speaks softly but authoritatively as she discusses her early fascination with abnormal psychology.
“I was a gifted child, which means I was incredibly bright in terms of being able to read and comprehend information, but I didn’t understand people at all,” she tells me during a coffee-and-doughnut break midway through the presentation. “So I actually started understanding human motivation by reading just these absolutely ghastly case studies of aberrant criminal behavior.”
Cooper and Schave’s enterprise couldn’t have come at a better time. The true-crime genre is experiencing something of a Golden Age currently, with podcasts (Serial, Criminal, My Favorite Murder) and TV documentaries (Making a Murderer, The Jinx, Wormwood) alike occupying a prominent place in the pop-cultural consciousness.
Still, the experience of going to these seminars isn’t exactly like watching an episode of Forensic Files. In addition to shelling out money for a ticket (attendees at this most recent event paid $36.50 for the privilege), it requires a real investment of energy, physical and emotional—viewing the unedited crime scene photos is almost unbearably sad.
For those without an interest in the specifics of forensic science (among other things, we learn the difference between “sooting” and “stippling” and the ins and outs of the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System), the classroom setting and four-hour runtime could easily evoke weekend detention. Which is good in a sense; as Cooper suggests, it’s a way of deterring those who might attend only to indulge in the seminar’s more gruesome aspects.
“I think they’d be pretty disappointed,” she says. “The [crime scene photos] go by pretty quickly. There’s too much else to talk about.”
Still, one wouldn’t forgo a boozy Sunday brunch in order to come here without harboring at least some semblance of fascination with death. As Johnson sees it, that’s not morbid—it’s human. “There’s a quote I read long ago from I think Thomas Mann,” he says. “To paraphrase: ‘All interest in diseases and death is just another expression of an interest in life.’”
Esotouric’s next crime lab, the Southside Slayer Unmasked: DNA, Exoneration & the Chester Turner Cold Case, will be held Sunday, September 23 at the Hertzberg-Davis Forensic Science Center at California State University, Los Angeles.
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