In 1947, the brutal slaying of twenty-two-year-old Elizabeth Short resulted in the largest manhunt in Los Angeles history. And yet the killer’s identity remained a mystery. Decades later, private investigator Steve Hodel launched his own investigation into the case—one that led to a shocking conclusion: The perpetrator was Hodel’s own father. And worse: The Black Dahlia was not a standalone crime. Between 1943 and 1949, the cold-case “Lone Woman” murders had haunted Southern California. All of them, Hodel believes, were committed by a real-life Jekyll and Hyde: Dr. George Hill Hodel.
In Black Dahlia Avenger, Steve Hodel “paints a chilling, detailed, week-by-week, year-by-year portrait of his father as an intellectual giant driven to serial killing by his arrested emotional development, his hatred of women and his obsessions with money, power and sex” (Los Angeles Times). Including never-before-published forensic evidence, photographs, previously unreleased documents, and the author’s own intimate perspective on this terrifying family psychodrama, Hodel “has written one of the most compelling true-crime books of all time” (Seattle Weekly).
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January 9, 1947
It was mid-week, Thursday evening at 6:30 P.M. There were only a handful of people milling around the Biltmore Hotel lobby scanning for the bellhops to take them up in the elevators. Few noticed when the strikingly beautiful young woman with swirling jet-black hair was escorted into the lobby by a nervous young red-haired man, who stayed for a while, then said goodbye and left her there. Maybe one or two guests observed the woman as she went up to the front desk, where she begged for attention from an officious young man who avoided her stare until she spoke up. She stood there, shifting her weight from one foot to the other, watching the clerk rifle through a stack of messages below the counter. He shook his head, and the young woman made her way silently across the deep red carpet to the phone booth, as if she'd been through the place a hundred times before. A couple of people turned to look at her when she hung up the receiver with a loud click.
Now, as she stood outside the phone booth, she seemed crestfallen, almost desperate. Or maybe it was fear.
Again she walked over to the desk, then back to the phone booth, endlessly fidgeting with her handbag and looking around as if she were waiting for someone. A date? More people began to notice her. Perhaps she was a newly discovered actress or just another wannabe scratching at the door of fame to get herself in. She didn't look L.A. Maybe she was from San Francisco. She looked more like Northern California — well dressed, buttoned up, edgy, her fingers twitching nervously inside her snow-white gloves.
Increasingly people in the lobby couldn't keep their eyes off her, this woman in the black collarless suit accented by a white fluffy blouse that seemed to caress her long, pale white neck. A striking presence, she looked a lot taller than most of the people in the lobby that night, probably because of the black suede high-heeled shoes she was wearing. She was carrying a warm full-length beige coat, a portent of the approaching January chill that creeps along Wilshire Boulevard from the ocean every night at the leading edge of the raw, swirling fog.
As the lobby began to fill, each man who passed her, seeing her standing alone with a look of expectation on her face, was sure she was waiting for someone special. Her eyes seemed to widen a bit every time a new guy in a suit came through the door. And each man probably wished in his heart of hearts that he was the Prince Charming she was waiting for that night, probably for a late dinner or dancing at one of the Hollywood clubs.
As time passed, the young woman became increasingly anxious. Where was he? She sat down. She stood up. She paced the lobby. The woman with no name walked over to the check-in clerk at the front desk and had him change her dollar bill to nickels. Again she went into the phone booth and dialed a number, this time more frantically than before as she snapped the rotor with a loud click between each digit. She slammed down the receiver. Still no answer. Where was he? She slumped into one of the lobby easy chairs and nervously thumbed through a magazine without reading. Every ten minutes or so she once again went over and made a phone call. What kind of man could keep such a beauty waiting?
One hour turned into two. If you were watching her face from across the lobby, you would have seen her jaw tighten, her anxiety turn to anger. He was always like that, late when you wanted him to be on time, early when you wanted him to be late. It was all his way. She thought about that afternoon in early December, just a month ago, when he'd told her — ordered her was more like it — to meet him at the Ambassador Hotel, Los Angeles's grand dame, west of downtown on Wilshire Boulevard. "Meet me for a drink at five," he had said.
That time he had forced her to suffer through a three-hour wait at the bar. She had sat there spinning on her red barstool, playing with swizzle sticks, nursing her ginger ales and Cokes, and batting away the advances of seven men, from the twenty-three-year-old bartender to the wealthy real estate broker in his seventies with a Palm Springs tan that made his face look like leather. The remaining five guys had thought she was a high-class hooker or possibly a bored housewife, all dressed up and looking for a little fun. She had suffered a sugar high that night, she complained, after all those sodas she had drunk at the bar just waiting for him. When he finally showed, it was without apology. "I was delayed." Arrogant and simple, just like that. And she took it, too.
That was then. She said to herself she wouldn't take it again. It was late now, pitch-black outside. The bright lights inside the Biltmore lobby sparkled as if they were still greeting the New Year. The beautiful young woman thought about the past eight months. She had expected them to be great when she came back to L.A. from Massachusetts. She'd marry Lieutenant Right and raise a family. But it didn't happen that way.
Then things got worse and she was becoming afraid. Maybe the New Year would bring her better luck.
She dropped another nickel into the payphone and redialed the office number just a few short blocks from where she stood. Finally he picked up. "Yes, I'm here," she said with a show of irritation. "At the Biltmore. I've been waiting well over two hours. Yes, all right, I'm on my way." She hung up, and her demeanor immediately changed. She was radiant.
She walked east through the lobby, stopping first at the concierge desk to look at the large calendar, next at the front desk where she'd checked for messages when she came in, and then down the interior steps toward the Olive Street entrance. The doorman held open the large, ornately designed glass doors for her, and she stepped out into the chill darkness of a California midwinter's night. She turned back one last time toward the hotel, noticed her reflection in the glass door, and straightened the large flower that shone like a white diamond pinned atop her thick black swept-back hair. She paused briefly to straighten it, smiled at the onlookers who stared at her from inside the glass divide, and then turned south, walking toward 6th Street into the deepening fog that curled around her like smoke, making it seem as if she were disappearing into the night. The darkness had a life of its own, folding her into itself.CHAPTER 2
Jane Doe Number 1
Dahlia: From the family Asteraceae, bred as an ornamental flower whose leaves are often segmented, toothed, or cut.
The morning of January 15, 1947, was especially cool and overcast for Los Angeles. At about 10:30 A.M., a woman walking with her young daughter caught a glimpse of white flesh through a clump of brown grass in a vacant lot. She turned and saw what she figured was a body lying right there in the dirt, just a few inches from the sidewalk's edge. She ran to a nearby home and called the University Division police station.
Even though the communications officer on the other end of the line tried to get her name, in her excitement the woman never gave it, so dispatch assigned the call to a patrol unit as a "possible 390 down in the lot at 39th and Norton Avenue." A 390 is a stuporous drunk. Nobody knew yet that they were dealing with a corpse. The lot in question was in the Leimert Park section of Los Angeles, a middle-class, residential neighborhood west of downtown in LAPD's University Division. The glamour world of Hollywood lay just five miles to the north, a short ten-minute drive away.
When the call went out, it wasn't just to the patrol unit ordered to respond, it was also to a whole cadre of newspaper reporters cruising their beats, with police radios in their cars crackling out cryptic messages to LAPD patrol units. In 1947 it was as common for the newspaper reporters to monitor the police and fire radio bands on receivers hanging under the dashboards in their private cars as it is for today's reporters to carry handheld digital scanners on their belt clips. If you were a reporter working an L.A. beat in the 1940s you bought the most powerful police radio you could find and the longest whip antenna for your car, in the hope of being the first at a crime, fire, disaster, or any other newsworthy event. Even reporters working for the same paper raced one another to a location at the mere scent of a possible story, because a byline for a reporter meant ownership. And that, too, hasn't changed since the 1940s.
Los Angeles Examiner reporter Will Fowler, son of the famous writer Gene Fowler, and his photographer partner Felix Paegel caught the call from University Division dispatch just as it was broadcast over the police radio and were the first to arrive at the scene. Before any police officers pulled up and posted men to guard the crime scene, Fowler and Paegel were standing there, two eyewitnesses gaping not at a drunken man but at a naked corpse lying spread-eagled in the grass. Fowler later described what he had seen that morning in his book Reporters: Memoirs of a Young Newspaperman:
Then an ivory-white thing caught my eye. "There she is," I said. "It's a body all right."
There's something about a dead body you couldn't mistake. I approached it like I half-expected it to jump up and run after me.
As I got closer, I called back to Paegel, who was pulling his Speed Graphic from the car trunk: "Jesus, Felix, this woman's cut in half!"
It's difficult to describe two parts of a body as being one. However, both halves were facing upward. Her arms were extended above her head. Her translucent blue eyes were only half-opened so I closed her eyelids.
As Fowler knelt over the dead woman in the moments before the police arrived, he could see that her fingernails had been poorly cared for, and her chestnut hair, as it appeared from the roots, had been dyed jet black. He also could see that the woman's lower thoracic vertebrae had been neatly severed — not sawed — because he could see no evidence of bone granules at the separation.
Paegel began documenting the crime scene itself, taking a shot of the body in the barren field and another of Fowler, all alone, stooping beside the body. The photos, which would be published later that same day in the Los Angeles Examiner, were retouched by the photo artist, because the editors wanted to spare their readers the shock of the grisly brutality of the victim's condition. The photo artist covered up the lower part of the woman's body with an airbrushed blanket. He also concealed the gruesome facial wounds the victim displayed by removing the deep slashes on either side of her mouth.
While Paegel was shooting his photographs, the first black-and-white arrived at the scene. The two uniformed officers approached Fowler, not knowing at first who he was, until he showed them his police ID. One of the cops had already pulled out his gun. As more units arrived, Fowler left the scene for a phone booth to call in the story to his city editor, James Richardson. When Richardson heard the victim had been cut in half, he ordered Fowler back to the office right away with the negatives. The photo was quickly processed, and Richardson made the decision to beat the other afternoon papers with an "extra" that he got out onto the street even as Fowler returned to the crime scene for a follow-up.
By now the scene was alive with other reporters, more police units, and detectives who had positioned the uniformed cops and some of the reporters into a human strip of crime-scene tape. Word had spread over the police radios that a woman had been murdered, cut in half, and dumped. That brought an onslaught of reporters, elbowing their way past one another for a closer look at the body. By the time the two crack homicide detectives Harry Hansen and Finis Brown, who had been assigned to the case by Captain Jack Donahoe, arrived at the scene, they had to content not only with the groups of reporters and photographers, but also with uniformed officers from the divisions adjacent to the University Division in whose jurisdiction the responsibility for the case belonged.
The crime scene remained open to the press, with photographers free to roam at will for the best shots. Today a crime-scene investigator would never permit the press to trample on what might be evidence and photograph a murder victim lying in the open. But conditions were very different in 1947 Los Angeles. Police and press were interdependent, and in a sense were very real partners. Most reporters carried police badges and often impersonated detectives to get the real stories any way they could. The press needed the power and the doors that were opened by carrying a badge, and the police needed the press to make them look and sound good, even when they screwed up. Before the days of access journalism and a hostile media, reporters and the police in 1947 Los Angeles formed a mutual admiration society.
Whenever investigating detectives asked the press to hold back certain information they didn't want made public, editors and reporters would almost always comply. When a well-connected reporter asked for certain confidential information from the police on a person for a story he or she was working on, the reporter would usually get it. In such a quid pro quo world you broke the rules at your own peril. In this case, the crime-scene photographs of the butchered body would be held back from the public by the press for almost four decades until, it seemed, nobody cared anymore, and the graphic untouched images of the victim's body finally found their way into print. The first public display of these photographs of which I'm aware was in Kenneth Anger's book Hollywood Babylon II, published in 1985. More followed, six years later, in Will Fowler's Reporters, showing the body at different angles and with longer perspectives.
The photographs from both these books verified for the first time that the body was lying supine, cleanly bisected at the waist. Carefully examining the photographs: the two separated halves lie in close proximity, although the upper torso appears to have been placed asymmetrically, approximately twelve inches above the lower portion and offset to the left by approximately six inches. Both of the victim's arms are raised above the head, the right arm at a forty-five-degree angle away from the body, then bent at the elbow to form a ninety-degree angle. The left arm extends at a similar angle away from the body, and then bends again to form a second ninety-degree angle that parallels the body. This was no normal "dumping" of a victim to get rid of a corpse quickly. In fact, the body had been carefully posed, just six inches from the sidewalk, at a location where the victim was certain to be discovered, to create a shocking scene.
This kind of cold and conscious act was exceptionally rare in 1947. According to criminal researchers, it occurs in less than one percent of all homicides even today. Most veteran homicide investigators, even those who've been involved with hundreds of murder cases, never see an instance where the body is posed the way the victim was that January morning.
As reporters arrived and left and more police units reported in, detectives and forensic crews continued to collect whatever physical evidence they could find. Among the pieces of evidence they retrieved was a paper cement bag with small traces of what appeared to be water-diluted blood on it. This bag, clearly visible in the photographs, was lying just six inches above the victim's outstretched right hand, and one detective speculated that it had been used to carry the two sections of the body from a parked car at sidewalk's edge to the grassy lot.
Police noted a vehicle's tire prints at the curb's edge, close to the body. There was also a bloody heel print from what was believed to be a man's shoe. Later newspaper reports revealed that these two important pieces of evidence were not secured or photographed by the on-scene detectives.
Detectives Hansen and Brown quickly determined that, due to the absence of any blood at the scene, the killer had committed the crime elsewhere, then transported both halves of the body to the empty lot on Norton. No identification was found at the location and the victim was initially listed as "Jane Doe Number 1."
The Los Angeles newspapers were already running wild with the story when, the following morning, Dr. Frederic Newbarr, then chief autopsy surgeon for the County of Los Angeles, performed the autopsy. His findings showed the cause of death to be "hemorrhage and shock from a concussion of the brain and lacerations of her face." He determined further that "the trauma to the head and face were the result of multiple blows using a blunt instrument."
It was clear to the medical examiner that not only had her body been neatly and cleanly bisected, but that a sharp, thin-bladed instrument, consistent with a surgeon's scalpel, had been used to perform the operation. The incision was performed through the abdomen, and then through the intervertebral disk between the second and third lumbar vertebrae. The bisection had been carried out with such precision that it was apparent it was the work of a professional, someone trained in surgical procedures. Police criminologist Ray Pinker confirmed the medical examiner's opinion, and later his findings were confirmed after a study he made with Dr. LeMoyne Snyder of the Michigan State Police.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Black Dahlia Avenger"
Copyright © 2012 Steve Hodel.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1 The Biltmore,
2 Jane Doe Number 1,
3 A Death in the Family,
4 A Voice from Beyond the Grave,
5 Dr. George Hill Hodel Jr., 1907–1999,
6 George and Dorero,
7 The Hollywood Scandal,
9 Subic Bay,
11 The Dahlia Witnesses,
12 The LAPD and the Press: The Joint Investigation,
13 The LAPD and the Press: The Avenger Mailings,
14 The "Red Lipstick" Murder,
15 Tamar, Joe Barrett, and Duncan Hodel,
16 Fred Sexton: "Suspect Number 2",
17 LAPD Secrets and the Marquis de Sade,
18 Elizabeth Short's "Missing Week",
19 The Final Connections: Man Ray Thoughtprints,
20 The Franklin House Revisited,
21 The Watch, the Proof-Sheet Papers, the FBI Files, and the Voice,
22 Handwriting Analysis,
23 More 1940s L.A. Murdered Women Cases,
24 The Boomhower — Spangler Kidnap-Murders,
25 Sergeant Stoker, LAPD's Gangster Squad, and the Abortion Ring,
26 George Hodel: Underworld Roots — The "Hinkies",
27 Dahliagate: The Double Cover-up,
28 The Grand Jury,
29 The Dahlia Myths,
30 The Dahlia Investigation, 2001–2002,
31 Forgotten Victims, 1940s: The Probables,
32 Forgotten Victims, 1950s: The Probables,
33 George Hodel–Elizabeth Short: Reconstructed Timeline,
34 Filing My Case with the District Attorney's Office,
The Final Thoughtprint,
New Investigation: Hard Evidence and Forensics,
Author's Note: 2015 Edition,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Well written thought provoking
Black Dahlia Avenger: A Genius for Murder is a difficult book to rate. In the book, retired LAPD homicide detective, now private investigator, Steve Hodel launches an investigation into the unsolved murder of the Black Dahlia. After his father passed away, Steve had the opportunity to look into one of his father’s personal photography albums and discovered a picture in there of a woman he recognizes as the Black Dahlia. At first, he believes his father probably just met her at some point. Yet, he’s determined to find out more about the connection between his father and Elizabeth Short. However, the deeper he starts digging into the past, the more he comes to realize his father might be involved in the Dahlia’s murder. And not just in her murder, but in the murder of other young females too. It must be horrible to find out your father is a murderer. Although I’m not one hundred percent convinced of Mr. Hodel’s guilt, I do feel sorry for Steve, and how it must make him feel. It must take courage and a special kind of integrity to keep digging, though. Regardless, if George Hodel is the murderer of Elizabeth Short or not, he was not a loveable man – as the reader discovers through Steve’s recollections of the past, George Hodel was once put on trial for raping his own daughter, he was quite tyrannical, had four wives and over a dozen girlfriends, and was very much into sadism. However, if that makes him the murderer of Elizabeth Short remains to be seen. The book is part memoir of Steve’s childhood with his father, his father’s life and the trial regarding his raping of his own daughter, and I thought I wouldn’t like those parts. However, I did like them. They’re writing with an easy flowing style, more so than the rest of the book, and George Hodel, despite being a rather cruel, self-absorbed man, does make an interesting person to read about. The evidence linking George Hodel to the Dahlia crime is circumstancial at best. At least, for the first 90% of the book. The handwriting analysis didn’t convince me (handwriting analysis has often been debunked, and I’m quite skeptical about it), nor did the military-watch near the crime scene that matched Hodel’s watch, and to be honest, I found most of the evidence rather flimsy. He also talks a lot about an LAPD cover-up. I skipped that chapter for the most part. For one, I don’t believe in cover-ups. They might happen, but they’re rare, and when someone isn’t convicted or even tried as a suspect, I choose to believe it’s because of lack of evidence rather than a cover-up. I find that it’s a sensationalized reaction given too often just for cases where there’s simple not enough evidence to do anything. The theory that George Hodel committed the crime with another man involved too, a friend of his, doesn’t persuade me either. Killers are solitary beings, and the Dahlia murderer doesn’t strike me as the kind of murder you’d commit with two people – it seems the work of a solitary predator. Either way, by the end of the book I was nowhere near convinced. Then, however, comes some of the new evidence released by the LAPD, and what convinced me of the strong possibility of George Hodel’s guilt there was the phone conversation he had at some point at his home residence (the LAPD wired his house, they too considered him a strong suspect). You don’t say those things unless you’re guilty. I don’t want to give away more, in case you want to read the book, but this convinced me at least of the strong
Nothing but admoration for the author
The book was interesting--for the first few chapters. After that, it just become a mumble/jumble of speculation and conjecture.
Takes off her power suit and puts on her regular clothes