Mystery of Missing Starlet Was Never Solved

Times Staff Writer

She doesn't rank with Amelia Earhart, Jimmy Hoffa or Judge Crater, but more than half a century later, there are still some people who wonder what happened to a young actress named Jean Spangler.

It's been 53 years since Spangler, 27, vanished as she walked from her Park La Brea home to the Farmers Market and into thin air.

Her disappearance on Oct. 7, 1949, captured the imagination of Angelenos, who were still absorbed by the 2-year-old "Black Dahlia" dismemberment murder and the more recent disappearance of a widowed Bel-Air socialite named Mimi Boomhower -- who went missing with her front door open and her lights burning.

Family, friends, police detectives and the just plain curious have devised various scenarios about what might have befallen Spangler, a sultry blue-eyed divorcee with a young daughter.

Some of those who still obsess over her disappearance think the talented hopeful who wanted to be a star was silenced by the mob because of her ties to Mickey Cohen's henchmen. Others think her ex-husband did her in to get permanent custody of their daughter. Some think she died as the result of a botched abortion.

Her case dominated headlines for almost two weeks because police saw parallels in her and Boomhower's disappearance.

Spangler, born in Seattle, graduated from Franklin High School in Highland Park in 1941. She landed work as a model and soon began to eke out a living by dancing at Hollywood's Florentine Gardens and Earl Carroll Theatre, and getting bit parts in movies, including "When My Baby Smiles at Me" (1948) and "Wabash Avenue" (1950).

In 1942, Spangler married plastics manufacturer Dexter Benner. He was in his early 20s; she was 19, and a vivacious party girl.

Their union didn't last long. She filed for divorce six months later, accusing him of cruelty. But the couple's on-and-off relationship lasted almost another four years, during which time they had a baby daughter.

When their messy divorce was finalized in 1946, Benner received temporary custody of the child, Christine, 2, in part by charging that Spangler "preferred parties to priorities."

During the two years he had custody, Benner denied Spangler the right to see Christine on 23 different occasions. He threatened Spangler repeatedly that he'd "fix it so you'll never get to see her." Finally, the judge ruled that Spangler's questionable conduct was "buried in the past" and the "little girl's place is with her mother." Spangler and her daughter moved to an apartment in the Park La Brea neighborhood, sharing quarters with her mother, brother and sister-in-law.

But domesticity didn't diminish her ambitions of stardom: She kept looking for the lights, action, excitement and that one big break. Then she got the role that would make her famous -- but not in the movies.

On Oct. 7, 1949, she kissed 5-year-old Christine goodbye and told her sister-in-law that she was going to meet her ex-husband about his child-support payment, which was a week overdue. Afterward, she said, she was going to work on a night shoot for a new film.

"Wish me luck," she said as she crossed her fingers, winked and walked into the misty night.

With that, Jean Spangler disappeared virtually without a trace.

Two days later, just hours after her sister-in-law reported her missing, a Griffith Park worker found Spangler's purse in Fern Dell, a leafy glen that has long been a favorite destination for strollers and picnickers, as well as a dumping ground for the city's killers.

One strap of Spangler's double-handled purse was torn, indicating a possible struggle, police said. But it was the note inside that intrigued detectives: "Kirk, Can't wait any longer. Going to see Dr. Scott. It will work best this way while mother is away."

Who, police wondered, was Kirk?

Before Los Angeles Police Department Deputy Chief Thad Brown, who had headed up the Black Dahlia case, could begin to reconstruct Spangler's last hours, Kirk Douglas phoned him.

The actor, who was vacationing in Palm Springs when Spangler disappeared, said he'd heard news reports about the case. He told Brown that Spangler may have worked as an extra in his last film, "Young Man With a Horn," but said he barely knew her.

Douglas' call raised questions, but police soon cleared him of wrongdoing.

A 60-man team canvassed Griffith Park and the Sunset Strip bars and nightclubs that Spangler had frequented. Detectives learned of a mysterious former medical student known as "Doc" who hung around the Strip and performed abortions for a fee, but never found him.

Media speculation was rampant. If the mysterious "Dr. Scott" was an abortionist who had operated illegally on Spangler and botched it, killing her, why would he carelessly toss her purse -- bearing a note with his name on it -- in Griffith Park?

The only "Scott" investigators came up with in Spangler's past was a handsome Army Air Corps lieutenant named Scotty, with whom she'd had an affair while she was married. Scotty had beaten her and threatened to kill her when she left him in 1945, police learned, but Spangler apparently never saw him again after her divorce.

Her ex-husband denied having seen her, a story supported by his new wife.

Police did not discount the possibility that Spangler had lied about going to see Benner, using him as a cover story to hide the fact that she was heading off to have an abortion. Most of her girlfriends denied she was even pregnant, but one friend told investigators Spangler had confided that she was.

Investigators checked with the studios and the Screen Extras Guild but found no records of her working that night. A saleswoman at Farmers Market, only a few blocks from Spangler's home, remembered seeing her browsing for a while that night around 6 and said that she appeared to be "waiting for someone."

Actor Robert Cummings told the police that, while working at Columbia Studios two weeks earlier, she had walked past him whistling.

"You sound happy," Cummings told her.

"I am," Spangler replied. "I have a new romance."

"Is it serious?"

"Not really ... but I'm having the time of my life," she told him.

At the time, she and Cummings were working on "The Petty Girl," which was completed just two days before she vanished.

Complicating the investigation further, Spangler had been seen in Palm Springs a few days before her disappearance on the arms of "Little Davy" Ogul and Frank Niccoli, henchmen of mobster Mickey Cohen. Both were under indictment for conspiracy, and both disappeared around the same time as Spangler.

Although investigators checked out Spangler's Palm Springs haunts, they would later have it on good authority that Niccoli's body had been tossed into a lime pit in a Cucamonga vineyard before she vanished, and Ogul's body, if not already there, wasn't far behind.

(Ogul and Niccoli were out on bail for a total of $75,000. Their disappearance meant that Cohen would have to cough up the bail money, putting him out of business. Or at least that's what mobster Jack Dragna thought when he ordered the hit, according to Cohen's attorney, Jack Dahlstrum, who wrote an unpublished book on Cohen.)

"Sightings" of Spangler continued to pour in to the police. She and Ogul supposedly were seen from El Paso to Phoenix, Mexico City to San Francisco. But police found no supporting evidence that they were even alive, much less together.

"Jean was not the kind of girl to get mixed up with people like that," meaning the mob, her mother, Florence, told the press. "I am sure she would have communicated with us if she is alive and free. And nobody can tell me that she would have left her baby unless she was forced to do so; she loved her too much."

Custody of Christine reverted to Benner. The child became the focus of another hotly contested court battle when he refused to let her see her grandmother.

Benner repeatedly defied a court order that he permit Florence Spangler to visit. When ordered to serve 15 days in jail for contempt, he fled the state, taking Christine with him. They were never seen again.

Official and unofficial searches for Spangler persisted. Police continued to circulate her picture.

For at least three years, the Los Angeles Times ran a story about the missing starlet on the anniversary of her disappearance. Hollywood gossip columnist Louella Parsons and Spangler's mother each offered a $1,000 reward for information that might lead to her whereabouts.

But today, her fate remains as misty as the night into which she vanished.

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