One year ago, a retired LAPD homicide cop approached me and said in a whisper that he had a blockbuster story in the works, but he couldn’t divulge the details at the time.
Last week, he got in touch again to deliver the goods.
Steve Hodel, 61, said he had cracked the most notorious unsolved murder in Los Angeles history -- the case of the Black Dahlia.
But it gets even better. The killer, he said, was his father, a powerful and dashing doctor who threw racy parties at his exotic Lloyd Wright-designed home at Franklin and Normandie avenues in Los Feliz -- parties attended by the likes of photographer Man Ray and film giant John Huston.
Hodel’s dark journey through postwar Los Angeles goes public with the release today of his book, “Black Dahlia Avenger.” In it, Hodel convicts his father, the late physician George Hodel, of slicing Elizabeth Short’s body in two in a fit of jealousy on Jan. 15, 1947, and then posing her mutilated corpse in a vacant lot near 39th Street and Norton Avenue in Leimert Park. It was a crime so savage, even hardened detectives were shaken.
Less than a month later, another nude corpse was discovered in West L.A., and Steve Hodel pins that one on his father, too. The bludgeoning murder of Jeanne French was called the Red Lipstick Murder, because the killer had used lipstick to scrawl “B.D.” on the body, suggesting a link to the Black Dahlia.
But Steve Hodel doesn’t stop there. The private investigator, whose colleagues say he was a respected detective during 17 years as a homicide cop in the Hollywood Division, has more on his dad.
Father, as he calls him in the book, was a serial killer responsible for as many as 20 unsolved murders in the 1940s and 1950s, and his murders were covered up. The high and mighty of L.A., Hodel argues, were afraid of Dr. Hodel. The good doctor ran a downtown venereal disease clinic, where he kept dossiers on them.
Hodel says his father was a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde character enchanted with the Marquis de Sade, whose dark musings Dr. Hodel dissected with his sex-crazed coterie of Hollywood luminaries.
And should you think “Black Dahlia Avenger” is too improbable to be anything but a son’s poison-tipped arrow, aimed at the heart of a father who abandoned his family, consider this endorsement from the prosecutor who put the Manson family behind bars:
“He got his man,” says Steve Kaye, who still works for the L.A. County district attorney’s office.
Kaye, who teamed with Hodel years ago on other homicide cases, said if George Hodel were still alive, he would file two counts of murder against him. One for the Black Dahlia case and one for the Red Lipstick Murder.
Kaye read the book manuscript before it was published, and stresses he’s not speaking for the D.A.'s office. His summary of Hodel’s investigation appears in the book, and begins:
“The most haunting murder mystery in Los Angeles County during the 20th century has finally been solved in the 21st century.”
Has it been?
My search for answers began at the Lake Arrowhead cabin where Hodel lives with a girlfriend. He opened his book to a photo of himself sitting on his father’s lap.
“That’s the most ironic photo for me,” he said. By his calculation, his father has just murdered the Black Dahlia, and the boy on his lap would become the cop who finds him out.
Hodel, a man the size of Orson Welles, said he had no inkling until he looked through his father’s belongings after the man died in 1999.
He came across two photos. They were vaguely familiar, but he couldn’t place them at first. Then one day it hit him.
The Black Dahlia.
In both photos, the woman’s eyes are closed, so it was hard to be sure. But after poring through dozens of published photographs of Betty Short, he was convinced.
Hodel dug up news accounts and found another surprise. The handwriting on a taunting note sent to a newspaper, allegedly from the Black Dahlia killer, was similar to his father’s.
He also noticed a similarity in the message scrawled on the body of Jeanne French, and sent copies, along with notes by his father, to a handwriting analyst. She said it was “highly probable” that all the writing was done by one person.
So what else did he have?
Steve Hodel’s older brother, Duncan, recalled their father using red lipstick to write on a topless woman at a party.
Joe Barrett, now 75, rented a room at the Hodel house more than 50 years ago. He recalled Steve’s mother telling him that George Hodel was a suspect, and Barrett also said he was called to the D.A.'s office and asked to spy on George Hodel.
And then there was Steve’s sister, Tamar, and the scandal that drove George Hodel out of the country for 40 years. Tamar had accused her father of molesting her in front of guests when she was 14, and later sending her away for an abortion. George Hodel’s lawyer ran an all-out smear campaign against Tamar, calling her a promiscuous, incorrigible, pathological liar, and the physician was acquitted.
“Everything in the book is true,” Tamar, 68, told me by phone. George Hodel, she said, was pure evil.
In the end of his book, Hodel reveals the depth of his hatred of his father.
“I wanted him to suffer as greatly as his victims did,” says the former cop, who retired in 1986. “I would inflict the same slow tortures on him as he had inflicted on others.”
Wasn’t this evidence, I asked Hodel, that his book is a vendetta in which he took great leaps to portray his father as a monster?
“I was hoping for reasons to omit him as a suspect,” said Hodel, arguing he had reconciled with his father before his death.
I wasn’t sold.
Like all mysteries, this one leads you down dark alleys and through a maze of fact, myth and distortions. Hodel draws sweeping conclusions, but when I began to investigate, all I found were shadows.
I talked to the handwriting analyst and felt as though I’d caught her in contradictions.
I called Joe Barrett, and he said the D.A.'s office never told him Dr. Hodel was a Black Dahlia suspect, as Steve Hodel had claimed.
Larry Harnisch, an editor at The Times whose years of research led him to believe another doctor killed the Black Dahlia, called Hodel’s book the equivalent of seeing Jesus on a tortilla.
As for the photos in Dr. Hodel’s album, Harnisch said they’re not of Betty Short. Homicide Det. Brian Carr, assigned to baby-sit the four-drawer cabinet that holds the LAPD’s Black Dahlia files, studied the photos and finally said he couldn’t tell one way or another.
Carr wouldn’t let me into the Dahlia file, but if Hodel’s theory is true, the files were sanitized half a century ago in an LAPD cover-up.
It was true that the D.A.'s office had believed the LAPD was dragging its feet and ordered a grand jury investigation that was headed up by D.A. Det. Frank Jemison. And so the trail led me to the office of the Los Angeles County district attorney.
Steve Cooley told me that Kaye had already laid out Hodel’s theory in a dramatic, closed-door presentation, but Cooley wasn’t close to being convinced. Besides, he said, he’s got enough to worry about without reopening a 56-year-old case.
“Am I gonna spend money” looking at this? Cooley asked. “Not a nickel.”
No problem, I told him.
I’ll do it for free.
Far as I knew, the grand jury file was a sealed document, and I couldn’t get within six miles of it. But Cooley told me to go ahead and see what I could find.
Before reaching into the file, I’d already made one discovery. I found I was torn by conscience, duty and a sense that I was trespassing. It’s as if Betty Short herself is asking you and everyone else to please get to the bottom of it, so she can finally be left alone.
I set up shop in an office with a photo of Cooley and James Ellroy. The L.A. crime writer’s mother was murdered in an unsolved case, leading to Ellroy’s fascination with the Black Dahlia. (Steve Hodel’s book says Ellroy’s mother might have been killed by an accomplice of George Hodel.)
With Ellroy looking over my shoulder, I opened a dusty old box, and it was like exhuming a body.
My stomach turned when I came to photos of the corpses of Elizabeth Short, who was 22, and Jeanne French, 45. You could almost hear their screams. Both had brief flirtations with Hollywood. But fame came in death, delivering them finally to this cardboard coffin.
Flipping past those photos, a number of smaller mug shots slipped out of the stack, and looking up at me, his eyes dark and narrow, was Dr. George Hodel.
So he was a suspect.
OK, but so were a lot of people. Det. Jemison had compiled a list of 22 suspects, with Dr. George Hodel among them.
In his summary, Jemison said an acquaintance of Hodel had identified Elizabeth Short as one of his girlfriends. The detective also noted that Tamar’s mother had told her that Dr. Hodel never came home the night Short was killed. Later, Dr. Hodel allegedly said, “They’ll never be able to prove I did that murder.”
And yet, Jemison says the transcripts from the electronic bugging of the Hodel house “tend to prove his innocence.”
I looked at the transcripts.
It’s February of 1950, two months after the incest trial has damaged Dr. Hodel’s reputation, despite his acquittal.
He talks to visitors and callers about the D.A. being “out to get me.” He makes arrangements to leave the country, and he cautions callers that his phone is tapped.
Interesting, but not enough.
Sandi Gibbons, a D.A. spokeswoman, had found a second George Hodel file and left it with me. In it, I found transcripts from the bugging of Hodel’s house that were not in Jemison’s file.
At 7:35 p.m. on Feb. 18, George Hodel was speaking to a man with a German accent.
“Supposin’ I did kill the Black Dahlia,” he said. “They couldn’t prove it now. They can’t talk to my secretary because she’s dead.”
At 8:20 p.m., Hodel and his visitor sounded like they were heading down to a basement.
At 8:25, a woman screamed.
At 8:27, another scream.
The notation made by the listening officer is hard to follow, but he reports someone in the house said to call the hospital. Then the officer wrote something unintelligible about a dead secretary.
I called Steve Hodel to tell him what I found in the file. He said he believed his father’s secretary knew about his crimes and so he had to silence her.
But he didn’t know her name, and there may be no way to find out what really happened.
Maybe nothing happened. Maybe George Hodel was just taunting the police, knowing his house was bugged. It’s one more riddle, wrapped in a mystery.
Maybe the decent thing to do is to just walk away and let her be.
Sleep, Betty. Sleep.
Steve Lopez can be reached at Steve.Lopez@latimes.com.