On the morning of January 15, 1947, Elizabeth Short’s body was found in a vacant lot in Los Angeles. She had been brutally killed, stripped and cut in half. The murder of the mysterious 22-year-old Boston native who would become known as the Black Dahlia has gone down in true crime lore as one of the most famous unsolved homicides of all time, a source of endless fascination, speculation and obsession.
Decades later, a haunting photo of a nude woman discovered among the effects of George Hodel after he died led his son, former LAPD Hollywood homicide Detective Steve Hodel, on a bizarre and troubling quest that came to a shocking conclusion. Steve believed he uncovered convincing evidence the photo was the Dahlia — and that his father was her killer.
In “Black Dahlia Avenger” and three other books, Steve Hodel outlines more evidence his father committed many other murders, including the famed Zodiac Killer homicides.
For the 70th anniversary of the Black Dahila murder, Hodel was kind enough to speak at length to True Crime Page‘s Michael Fleeman about the infamous case, his best-selling books, and where his investigation is leading him next.
TCP: After 70 years, why does the Black Dahlia case continue to fascinate?
Steve Hodel: It is what I have called faction. The merging of fact and fiction. The perfect storm of a beautiful young woman, a real-life torture-murder, followed by a skilled surgical bisection, and the killer’s deliberate posing of her nude body on a public street.
Veteran homicide detectives responding to the crime scene, are horrified at the degree of sadism and pure evil of the murder, which extended far beyond anything they had previously seen and experienced.
This was followed by the killer’s telephone call to the city editor of a major LA newspaper, initiating his verbal taunts, then mailing a dozen more notes to the police and press as well as keeping his promise to send them some of her “personal effects.” Her birth certificate, address book, and photographs of her with prior boyfriends.
Then there was the sobriquet, “Black Dahlia,” given to her before her death by WWII servicemen who would see her regularly come in to a Long Beach soda fountain. The soldiers and sailors named her after a recent noir film, “The Blue Dahlia,” that had starred actress Veronica Lake as a femme fatal and had shown in theaters just months before her murder.
Also, the fact that it was the last big print story before television. Forty days of “above the fold” news that went viral. All six LA newspapers were vying to get the hot lead that would scoop the competition. Rumors became tabloid headlines for months.
What are the biggest misconceptions about the Black Dahlia?
There are so many. I spent an entire chapter in Black Dahlia Avenger just attempting to rehabilitate her character and reputation. Hack writers trashed the victim and making claims she was a prostitute and alcoholic, claiming her life “spiraled downward, to where she was performing oral sex in back alleys just to get a drink.” “She was a druggie.” “She was a lesbian, killed by her ex-lover.” All total B.S.
One book author even went so far as to claim the victim had “an infantile vagina” and could not perform “normal sex and that is why she was killed.”
None of it true. Elizabeth was not a prostitute, had no known vices, was well-mannered, well-groomed and those who knew her mostly described her as “a sweet kid.” Elizabeth Short was a rather naïve young woman, who during WWII and shortly after it ended was looking for “Lieutenant Right.” All she really wanted was to fall in love and get married.
Black Dahlia crime scene (Courtesy Steve Hodel)
How did you initially come to investigate the case?
I did not go to it. It came to me. After spending twenty-four years with LAPD, seventeen of them working Hollywood Homicide Division, I retired in 1986. My father, Dr. George Hill Hodel, after spending decades living in the Far East, decided to relocate back to the US and he and his wife, June, in 1990, leased a penthouse suite on the 39th floor of a high-rise in downtown San Francisco.
In the final decade of his life, we became very close and I saw the two of them frequently. I would visit them in San Francisco, and they would make frequent visits to my home. On May 17, 1999 I received that “3 a.m. phone call” from June. “Steve, the paramedics are here. Your father has just been pronounced dead. Come down. Hurry.”
A few days after his death, June brought out a small photo album (3”x 5”) that my father had owned since his childhood. It contained many family photos along with several unknown women. One of them was of a young, female nude with dark hair and I asked June, “Who is this?” She replied, “I don’t know? Someone your father knew from a long time ago.”
Later, information came forward indicating it was possibly a photo of the victim, Elizabeth Short, better known to the world as “The Black Dahlia.”
A few days following this, I had a long conversation with my half-sister, Tamar Hodel. Tamar, in 1949 had been a victim of incest. LAPD arrested our father for the crime and there was a lengthy jury trial, in which he was eventually acquitted. Fifty-five years later, police reports obtained in my investigation pointed to the possibility of a large payoff by the defense attorney to obtain the acquittal.
A half dozen other “blinking red lights” followed in the weeks after my father’s passing that suggested a possible connection to the victim, which in my mind required a follow-up investigation. When I began my investigation, I was confident that I would be able to totally exonerate my father and prove he had no connection to the Black Dahlia Murder.
I followed the evidence as I was trained to do, and sadly it led in the other direction. Proving “beyond a reasonable doubt” that he was in fact her killer.
What was some of the most compelling evidence you feature in Black Dahlia Avenger?
Well, probably the most important evidence uncovered was the secret LA District Attorney “Hodel Black Dahlia Case Files.” Locked in a vault in the DA’s Office for 55 years, with today’s LAPD completely unaware of their existence. They became the independent corroboration to my own investigation and verified and confirmed my findings. They were “the smoking gun.”
With the discovery of the 146-page DA bugging transcripts establishing that Dr. Hodel was the prime suspect all along. That a task-force of 18 detectives was assigned to stake out and listen in on his personal conversations 24/7 for the next 42 days was truly astonishing. Two man teams, one detective from the DA and one from LAPD, listening in from the basement of Hollywood Police station each assigned to a four hour shift.
These police reports not only established he was the prime suspect and knew and dated Elizabeth Short prior to the murder, but showed they had his actual confessions on tape to the Dahlia murder: “Supposin’ I did commit the Black Dahlia murder. They can’t prove it now, my secretary is dead.” He confessed in detail to how he overdosed his secretary and made it look like a “suicide”. LAPD confirmed they investigated him for suspicion of murdering her — Ruth Spaulding — in May 1946.
The transcripts also included his additional taped admissions to police payoffs, performing felony abortions, and the most dramatic of all—a tape recorded murder and or serious felony assault at his home, while the detectives listened in only five minutes away, and took no action.
Other critical links were the witness statements connecting him to knowing and dating Elizabeth Short and the independent court certified handwriting expert’s identifying his handwriting to the taunting notes mailed in by her killer, calling himself, the “Black Dahlia Avenger.”
Elizabeth Short mugshot
Your next book includes even more evidence.
Black Dahlia Avenger II covers the follow-up investigation from 2006-2014 and presents a massive amount of additional linkage. Too much to detail here, but I would start with my discovery of the “cement bags” and being able to trace and place them at the Sowden/Franklin House, our home in 1947, through dated receipts during the victim’s so-called “missing week.” The bags were used to transport the bisected body from our home to the empty lot five miles south was an incredible discovery. At the time of the original investigation, LAPD confirmed the cement bags, found next to the body seen in police crime scene photos, were used to transport the body parts “from an unknown residence to the lot.” (Later interviews by Lt. Jemison of my mother established she and us three boys were not home during that three-week period leading up to the murder and had been staying with her brother, my uncle.)
Next on the list would be the 2012 and 2013 forensic search of the crime scene — Sowden/Franklin House– by the cadaver dog, Buster, and his subsequent “alerting” to human remains in the basement of the house. Followed by the recovery of soil samples, their analysis by Dr. Arpad Vass, and the forensic expert’s findings that, “the soil samples were positive and specific for human remains.”
Also, the 2014 Bio-Tech, state-of-the-art Facial Recognition analysis in Germany of the original George Hodel photograph of the nude woman to known photographs of the Black Dahlia victim, Elizabeth Short. The results by Dr. Robert Frischholz, showed a “90-95% probability that they were the same woman.” Many readers continue to deny the possibility that the two are the same, however, it is has become a moot point since the secret police reports establish that George Hodel and Elizabeth Short knew each other and had dated before her murder.
George Hodel and Elizabeth Short (Courtesy Steve Hodel)
In your books, you build a case that your father was a serial killer, whose victims also included those of the Zodiac Killer. Tell us about him.
To understand his crimes you have to understand my father’s background and biographics. George Hill Hodel was born in downtown LA in 1907. He was a musical prodigy. He played his piano concerts at the Shrine Auditorium at age 9; highly gifted mentally, with an IQ of 186 (one point above Einstein’s); went to CalTech at 14, sexually precocious; had an affair with a professor’s wife and she became pregnant and it broke up her marriage. Asked to leave the college, George became a crime reporter for a major LA newspaper at 17 and rode around with LAPD vice and homicide detectives, then wrote tabloid crime reportage of the events.
He went north and attended premed school at Berkeley, then obtained his MD at UCSF in 1936. With natural eye/hand coordination his professors vied for him to be their assistant due to his skill as a surgeon. He graduated and became the sole surgeon at a logging camp in Arizona, then after two years returned to LA where he joined the LA County Health Department and quickly rose to the top and became the Venereal Disease Control Officer for LA County.
After his arrest for incest with his 14-year-old daughter, Tamar, and the trial, he fled the US just as he was about to be arrested for the Black Dahlia murder by DA investigators. At that point with him gone, the crime was covered up and the secret investigation locked away in a vault.
Five marriages. Eleven children. He died in San Francisco at the advanced age of 91.
How has investigating your father changed you?
It has become an obsession to try and get to the bottom of his crimes. My investigation is now in its 17th year, and has resulted in the publication of four separate books. One investigation, one suspect, and twenty-five murders.
Before my father’s death in 1999 and this investigation, I pretty much accepted that we lived in a well-ordered universe, that Justice prevailed and the good guys always won. Sadly, seeing my father’s sadistic crimes one after the other going and remaining unsolved while he continued to live “the good life” privileged with fine food and beautiful women for nine decades has forced me to question what I formerly took for granted philosophically. That is not necessarily a bad thing, but it has made me realize that EVIL does frequently go unpunished.
If you could him you father one question now, what would it be?
I would want to hear the WHY of it from his own mouth. Why did you become a misogynist and misanthrope of the highest order? Why so many random killings? Why did you torture and brutalize young children? Tell me personally, what were the triggers that caused you to hate your fellow man so much?
What has been the LAPD’s response to your findings?
Obviously, I am very disappointed in LAPD’s current non-action. I was a highly decorated and respected homicide detective and I held one of the highest clearance rates for solved homicides on the department. I assumed once I met with the powers that be back pre-publication in 2002 that we would obtain the evidence, do DNA and it is a slam dunk. That was not to be.
Initially all was well. Then Active Head Deputy DA Steve Kay and I made the formal briefing and presentation of evidence to the LAPD Brass and senior detectives from Robbery-Homicide Division. LAPD Assistant Deputy Chief James McMurray after reviewing all of my evidence, gave the following order to his detectives, “Unless you find some major holes in Steve Hodel’s case, go ahead and clear the Black Dahlia Murder.”
This order did not go down well with the Robbery-Homicide detectives, as they felt it was stepping all over their territoriality and egos. Knowing their commander was going to retire in a year, they did nothing, and waited. He retired and since then they have continued to do nothing.
I have approached them in an attempt to present the new evidence, but they claim they “Don’t have time to look at the investigation. Too busy with ongoing cases.” There is no further investigation required on their part.
The fact is the current LAPD sees itself in a lose-lose situation. If they confirm my findings they believe it will discredit and throw mud on LAPD’s two greatest legends: Chief William “Bill” Parker and Chief of Detectives Thad Brown. They know they cannot defeat my evidence, and as we say, “The Case is Made.” So, their only alternative is to claim, “No time to look at it and prove or disprove Hodel’s investigation.” Moreover, that has been their position for the past 10 years since Chief McMurray said, “Clear the case.” Kind of a modified, “Don’t Look, Don’t Tell.”
That said, my judge and jury have been my readers. They get it, which is reward enough for me.
Is any of the original LAPD case file still around?
There remains a locked Black Dahlia Case File in LAPD’s Robbery-Homicide Division. Six drawers of reports, witness interviews, but nothing of real value.
In 2006, after being pushed against the wall by reporters interviewing them on my investigation for a Dateline episode, detectives, when asked about Dr. George Hill Hodel, were forced to admit that all the files about him have “disappeared.” They were unaware that his name ever came up as a suspect. No interviews, no DA Hodel Black Dahlia File, no taped transcripts, nothing. All evidence implicating Dr. Hodel had been removed from the police files. Ditto all the evidence. I assumed we would obtain my father’s saliva off one of the mail-ins, but confronted by the press, they had to admit “all the evidence has also disappeared. None of the “Black Dahlia Avenger” mailings were available for comparison.”
The only way we ever discovered the existence of the DA Bugging Transcripts was because of DA Lt. Frank Jemison, who had been assigned by the 1949 Grand Jury to take over the ineffective LAPD Dahlia investigation. He took over the case, solved it, but then was ordered to hand over all of his written reports and evidence directly and in person to LAPD Chief of Detectives, Thad Brown, which he did. However, in a CYA, cover-your-ass, move on his part, the future-thinking Lt. Jemison locked away a second set of books in the DA vault.
Those secret investigative reports were the only remaining record. No one knew they existed except Lt. Jemison and he was long dead. The discovery came as if by accident when LA Times reporter Steve Lopez, doing an exclusive piece on my breaking story, happened to ask then DA Steve Cooley for information and he responded by saying, “Well there is an old box of Black Dahlia reports in the vault. Want to take a look?” (DA Cooley had not read, nor did he have any idea that the archived Dahlia material contained transcribed dynamite.
You link your father’s actions to art. How?
The most fascinating aspect of the entire investigation and that which links all four books together is my father’s extremely unique crime signature of “Murder as a Fine Art.” His fascination with and connection to surrealism and the Dadaists as close personal friends and confidants was key to understanding his taunting clues.
George Hodel truly believed, as did the Surrealists, that there was no difference between the dream and waking states. George was a nihilist. Nothing mattered. Elizabeth Short’s body was his canvass and his surgeon’s scalpel was his paintbrush. Her murder was his “masterpiece.”
Posing the victim’s bodies at street names which gave a clue to his crimes. Marking and cutting Elizabeth Short’s body to mimic and pay homage to his friend’s surrealist art. Positioning the Zodiac killings at a specific prearranged location in the San Francisco Bay Area then sending taunting clues and ciphers to the San Francisco Chronicle along with maps hinting at how to solve the crime.
What are you working on now?
Groan. One more George Hodel related book. “The Early Years.” Obviously, my father did not wake up at age 39 in 1947 and decide to become a serial killer. He killed many times previous and those crimes, which I have dubbed “The LA Lone Woman Murders” were included in Black Dahlia Avenger and Black Dahlia Avenger II. They include nine crimes from 1943 -1950, which is when he fled LA for Asia. The fifth book will cover his crimes from the 1920s and 1930s. Many of which I have been aware of during my ongoing investigation over the past decade.