TV movie dramatizes 'Grim Sleeper' killings

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  • Grim Sleeper
    American serial killer

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Journalist Christine Pelisek was taken aback when a producer contacted her about making a TV movie about a relentless serial killer dubbed the Grim Sleeper and her pursuit of the story.

Television feasts on true crime, of course, and in Pelisek it had a worthy hero: An aggressive young reporter who stood up for the dead, their families and transparency in the face of what she considered to be a misguided police approach.

But the victims that the then-LA Weekly reporter Pelisek documented were different than ones such as Chandra Levy, Laci Peterson and Natalee Holloway that typically fascinate the media.

They were white. The casualties that Pelisek brought to public attention were black teenagers and young women who lived in modest South Los Angeles. A handful of them were prostitutes.

So Pelisek never expected to hear from Hollywood. Then Joe Pichirallo, a producer and former studio executive who had been a reporter for The Washington Post, came calling.

"I was very, very surprised," Pelisek said. "I was actually shocked, because they don't make movies about young black girls that get murdered. ... You never see that on TV, not at all."

If it's not unique, Lifetime's "The Grim Sleeper" certainly stands as a rarity. The movie, debuting 8 p.m. EDT Saturday, stars Dreama Walker ("Don't Trust the B--- in Apartment 23") as Pelisek and features Macy Gray, Ernie Hudson and Michael O'Neill.

It follows the fledgling reporter who, with the help of a coroner's office source and her own sheer doggedness, begins to connect a series of killings that began in the 1980s and extended into the 2000s.

The apparent lull in slayings led to the Grim Sleeper tag that Pelisek and the newspaper used for the killer, although police came to believe there was never a break in the violence.

Pichirallo's quest to make a movie about the case began in 2010, fed by his appreciation for fact-based films.

"I also always had a special affinity for stories about reporters who have a real impact on the world and events," he said, with Pelisek bringing the case to light when authorities wouldn't.

Los Angeles Police Department detectives determined that a single killer was responsible for the strangulation or shooting deaths of women whose bodies were mostly dumped in alleys in South Los Angeles, Pelisek said. But the public was kept in the dark.

"They knew by 2004 or '05 the serial killer had struck again. They knew. They should have alerted the community. ... It's unforgivable, in my opinion," she said.

An LAPD task force thought the killer would flee if he knew police were on to him, Pelisek said, adding, "I thought that was a very poor reason, especially when the guy had been killing for more than 20 years."

The LAPD didn't immediately respond Friday to a request for comment.

"The Grim Sleeper" fits with Lifetime's tradition of crime films that show "the best and worst in the human condition," said Arturo Interian, vice president for original movies at A&E Networks-Lifetime.

"Christine Pelisek's exposé of how the Grim Sleeper case went unnoticed and deeply scarred the Los Angeles community is a perfect example of this, and one we felt deserved to be told," Interian said.

There is no conclusion yet in the case: The man arrested in July 2010 and charged with 10 murders between 1985 and 2007 has yet to stand trial. He has pleaded not guilty.

The movie pivots around Pelisek, a white woman, which could open it up to the same criticism directed at other films about the black experience that use a white protagonist as its filter. Pichirallo makes no apologies for the approach taken in "The Grim Sleeper."

Given the lengthy time period addressed in the film, he said, from flashbacks of the early killings to its concluding arrest, the drama had to be ordered by a central figure with links to many of the others depicted.

African-American characters are undeniably key in the movie, said Pichirallo, whose credits as a producer and studio executive include the black-oriented films "The Secret Life of Bees," ''Something New" and "Antwone Fisher."

"A sign of that is that we wouldn't have gotten Macy Gray, fairly well established as an actress as well as a singer, if she didn't think the material was authentic," said Pichirallo, chair of the undergraduate film and TV program at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts.

The Canadian-born Pelisek, now a freelance journalist, said the film takes some dramatic license but is a solid account of events. She has continued her focus on crime reporting.

"I have a good rapport with cops. Only in this particular instance with the Grim Sleeper case did we end up being at odds," she said.