Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department/AP
John Floyd Thomas Jr.

DNA Leads Police to Capture Suspected Los Angeles Serial Killer

May 01, 2009 05:30 PM
by Liz Colville
John Floyd Thomas Jr., 72, has been arrested after his DNA sample matched him to evidence from two killings in the 1970s. He is suspected of raping and murdering dozens of women.

Thomas May Have Killed as Far Back as 1955

Los Angeles cold case investigators arrested John Floyd Thomas Jr., who had been working as an insurance adjuster, on April 2, CNN reports. The Los Angeles Police Department says they have “yet to reach the depths of what he has done,” but supect that he is responsible for dozens of murders, mostly of elderly women, that were committed over a period of 20 years or more.

Nicknamed the “Southland Strangler” by the LAPD after the area of Los Angeles County where the murders took place, Thomas is suspected of about 30 murders and many more rapes. He is a registered sex offender, but was not arrested for any of the murders or rapes blamed on the “Westside Rapist” in the 1970s because “detectives did not have the technology to identify him as a suspect,” CNN writes.
Thomas served a six-year jail sentence for a 1957 burglary and attempted rape in Los Angeles and was jailed again in 1978 for a rape in Pasadena, according to The Wall Street Journal. He was released in 1983.

Deputy Chief Charlie Beck said that the case owes its leads to “tenacity and science.” According to LAPD Detective Richard Bengstan, until recently, Thomas “had never come up on the radar at all.”

A 2004 California law “calls for officials to collect DNA samples from convicted sex offenders.” Thomas reported to a patrol station in October 2008 to have the inside of his cheek swabbed. His DNA was found to match evidence from the 1972 murder of 68-year-old Ethel Sokoloff and the 1976 murder of 67-year-old Elizabeth McKeown. Both were killed by the same person, according to DNA analysis, and since then, other victims have also been linked to the same killer.

Profiles of the victims (mostly white elderly women), the proximity of Thomas’ homes to those of the murder victims and Thomas’ criminal record are all helping make the case that he fits the profile of the “Westside Rapist.”

“The pattern is perfect,” Bengtsan told The New York Times. “He moves, and there are murders and rapes there. Then he moves again, and they stop there and start where he moved to. When he’s in prison, they stop.”

View a map from The New York Times showing the sites of Thomas’ home and workplace, and the cases in which he is the suspect.

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Background: The Westside rapes

In a 1975 article in the Los Angeles Times, the case of one of the victims of the alleged Westside Rapes is described. Cora Perry, 79, was a longtime tenant and friend of Albert Lockyer and was found dead by Lockyer after he and his wife came to her porch one morning to see why her newspaper was still lying outside. She was found in bed with a shower cap pulled over her face. The article highlights what little press coverage murder and rape were getting at the time, even in the Times itself, and the fact that most of the victims were widows, especially prone to be victims because they lived alone.

“We think he probably looks around the neighborhood in the daytime for elderly women who are outside—taking care of their garden or emptying the trash—because he has consistently hit on women who live alone,” said police Cmdr. Pete Hagen in a 1975 article in The Evening Independent, after five murders and 23 rapes had occurred.

Related Topic: Using DNA in criminal cases

Although DNA has recently been used to both exonerate and convict rape suspects, including recent convictions of two inmates in Kansas and Texas, a study released earlier this year by the National Academy of Sciences suggests that most crime-lab evidence is not dependable enough to allow in court.

The findings showed a lack of uniform standards across crime labs as the underlying cause of their apparent inaccuracies, coupled with the fact that they are often administered by police departments or prosecutors rather than forensic scientists.

Reference: The most lethal serial killers in U.S. history

John Floyd Thomas Jr. could be among the most deadly serial killers in U.S. history. That title is typically given to several people, including Ted Bundy, who killed young women across several states in the 1970s, and Gary Ridgeway, the so-called Green River Killer who murdered in Seattle in the early 1980s.

The Bay Area Zodiac killer is also considered one of the most lethal, though the actual identity of the murderer remains unknown, making it one of the greatest unsolved murder cases in history. The case reopened on April 29 when a new suspect was proposed.

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