Rape Kit Evidence Leads Police To L.A.'s Most Prolific Serial Killer

DNA evidence has led police to arrest a man - suspected of raping and killing at least 30 women in L.A. since the 1950s - who may be one of the nation's worst serial killers.

Yesterday, police arrested John Floyd Thomas, Jr., 72, after DNA evidence linked him to five murders, according to Reuters. Police say he is suspected of being the "Westside Rapist," who killed at least 30 older women in two waves of serial strangulations-rapes in Los Angeles in the 1970s and 1980s.

A routine phone call gave police in L.A.'s cold case unit a lead in the case. Thomas, a convicted felon, has served 12 years in prison for several burglaries involving sexual assault. In 1978 he was convicted of rape in went to prison until 1983. As a registered sex offender, Thomas is required to provide a DNA sample for the state's database, but due to the backlog of cases - more on that here - he was not asked to come in to have his cheek swabbed until October, CNN reports. After running Thomas' DNA through a database, law enforcement officials found that it matched rape kit evidence collected from Ethel Sokoloff, who was beaten and strangled in her home in 1972 when she was 68.

Thomas has been held without bail since his arrest on March 31 and will be arraigned on May 20 on two counts of murder, one for Sokoloff, and another for the 1976 rape and murder of Elizabeth McKeown, who was 67. California did not have the death penalty when the crimes were committed so he will face a maximum sentence of life in prison.

Police say the breaks between the waves of killings, as well as the areas where they were committed perfectly match the periods when Thomas was in jail, or when he moved. Twenty women survived rapes and assaults that fit the case, but their descriptions of their attacker were conflicting. Another factor that may have made Thomas more difficult to catch is that he does not fit the common profile of a serial killer, as he is African-American. Though the theory has been disputed, several serial killer profiles claim that most serial killers are white men in their thirties and forties, according to the book Contemporary Perspectives on Serial Murder.

Police believe Thomas may have begun killing as far back as 1955. According to The New York Times, investigators are currently reading through handwritten case files dating back to the 1950s. Charlie Beck, Los Angeles deputy chief of police, said that some of the earliest crimes on Thomas' record may have been sexual assaults that were prosecuted as burglaries. "It just goes to show how things have changed over the years," Chief Beck said. "Back then, a rapist might only get two years." Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton said the investigation may reveal that Thomas was one of the most prolific serial killers in the United States. "We have yet to reach the depths of what he has done," said Bratton

L.A. Police Arrest Man Linked to 30 Rape-Murders [Reuters]
DNA Leads to Suspect in 1970s Los Angeles Serial Killings [CNN]
DNA Links Los Angeles Man to Killings That Span Decades, Police Say [The New York Times]
Contemporary Perspectives on Serial Murder by Ronald M. Holmes [Google Books]

EArlier: One Year Later: Rape Kits Still Not Being Tested In L.A., Elsewhere