John St. John, the legendary Los Angeles homicide detective whose exploits over more than four decades in investigations such as the Black Dahlia and Freeway Killer murder cases led to the “Jigsaw John” television series, died Wednesday.
St. John, 77, whose seniority before his retirement two years ago earned him the Los Angeles Police Department’s detective badge No. 1, died of pneumonia and pancreatic cancer at a hospital in West Covina, the department said.
They called him “Jigsaw John” for two reasons.
The first was because he solved, with characteristic tenacity, a dismemberment murder in Griffith Park some years ago. The second was because solving murders is like piecing together a puzzle, and John St. John was good at it.
He joined the force in 1942, serving a tough apprenticeship as a beat cop before trading his crisp blue uniform for the rumpled suit and battered gray fedora of a homicide detective in 1948.
“I’ve done just about everything in this Police Department,” he told a reporter a few years back. “I guess I’ve got more experience in blood and guts than anybody else around.”
That experience served him well.
Over the years, St. John solved at least two-thirds of the more than 1,000 cases he handled--cop killings, murders by an ex-cop, murder for money and murder for passion, gangland slayings--murders often too horribly violent for movies or television.
“You’ve got to see the face of a real victim,” he told a reporter in 1974. “You’ve got to go to a murder scene, and you’ve got to see the face of death. The agony. They could never fake that on TV.”
His empathy for murder victims was rooted in an attack that left him blind in one eye.
A year after he joined the department, he was attacked from behind by a juvenile prisoner wielding an iron bar ripped from a jail bunk.
“You learn,” he said, untroubled by the memory. “Now I know what it’s like to be a victim. Now I know what it’s like to be left for dead.”
St. John was a dogged cop, but a fair one. “He dealt with everyone the same, regardless of race or color or anything else,” Times columnist Al Martinez, who knew St. John well, said Wednesday.
“St. John was a rare man,” Martinez said. “Even though he was a law-and-order man, thoroughly dedicated to police work, he believed firmly in the rights of the accused. No one ever got roughed up by John St. John.”
It was Martinez who authored the “Jigsaw John” television show. The series, based on St. John’s investigations, with actor Jack Warden in the title role, ran for 15 weeks on NBC.
In real life, St. John wasn’t like most of the detectives you see on television. He was fatter than most, shorter than most and walked with a tired shuffle. He had a gold tooth in front and usually carried a battered black attache case. He never shot anyone. And at the time of most of his celebrated cases, he was older than most.
If there was a softness to the man, there was also a jungle wariness, a tested knowledge that life can turn violent in a hurry.
“You know when you have to be apprehensive?” he once asked a reporter. “It’s when you kick in a door to get at someone who’s armed and dangerous.
“You knock once, and if there’s no answer, the door goes down--bang, right now!” he said. “But there’s about 10 seconds from the time when you knock until you get your guy, when you know, sure as hell, someone can die.”
St. John was slow and, when he was at his best, old, his peers used to point out. And that, they said, was why he was so damned good.
He took his time as he interrogated witnesses and carefully studied crime scenes, searching for clues. He had an excellent memory for details, often linking unsolved cases to a suspect by remembering minutiae of crimes long forgotten by others.
“He always solved his cases by what he called ‘the pyramid effect,’ ” Martinez said. “He said you start with a wide base of possibilities and you eliminate, eliminate, eliminate. When you get to the top, that’s the guilty person.”
In 1982, after the Police Department gave St. John its Distinguished Service Medal, a colleague, Don Ham, paid him a homicide’s detective’s ultimate compliment.
“If I ever kill anyone, I would hate like hell to have old John on my case,” Ham said. “Because sooner or later, he’s going to get you.”
William Bonin, the so-called Freeway Killer now awaiting execution on California’s Death Row, probably would agree.
Bonin, a truck driver from Downey, had prowled Southern California in a van in 1979 and 1980, picking up teen-age boys, strangling them and dumping their bodies beside freeways in Los Angeles and Orange counties.
Acting on an informant’s tip, St. John tracked the suspect for eight years, gathering much of the evidence that led juries to convict Bonin on 14 counts of murder.
But there were murders that St. John was unable to solve, and they bothered him. “Sometimes I wake up at 3 in the morning thinking about them,” he said.
One of those, in 1947, became known as the Black Dahlia murder case. St. John wasn’t in on the case from the start, but he joined the investigation a year later, when he became part of the LAPD’s robbery/homicide team.
Elizabeth Short was a young woman--invariablydescribed as “beautiful” by the press--whose nude body, cut in two at the waist, was found in a vacant lot near Exposition and Crenshaw boulevards. It was the most sensational crime of the decade.
Like others on the investigative team, St. John chased down scores of leads, but they all came to naught. Nonetheless, he never gave up on the case, and was still assigned to it when he retired.
Another case that haunted him was the murder of Helen Jones Meyler, whose body was found in her Los Angeles apartment Aug. 27, 1972.
“This old lady never hurt a fly all her life,” St. John told a reporter. “And this guy comes into her apartment and maybe she hears him, so he picks up a candelabra . . . “
St. John used to drive by the apartment every month or so. He’d park his car and walk up the back stairs, listening for something--anything that might offer a clue. He’d pause at the door and stare, looking for something--anything that might have been overlooked before.
“You know, the guy that killed her got maybe 25 bucks--75 at the most,” St. John said. “Why’d he kill her? Why’d he have to do the whole number?”
St. John paused for a moment, thinking about the case.
“Any time you’ve got homicides that aren’t solved, the lives of the victims remain incomplete,” he said. “They’re still haunting us. They’re still restless.
“That bothers me,” Jigsaw John said. “That sure as hell bothers me.”