Steve Hodel is facing the ultimate crime writer’s challenge: a room full of retired cops who have read his national bestseller “Black Dahlia Avenger: A Genius for Murder.” As Hodel gets out of his Ford Crown Victoria, host Garland Brown, a 62-year-old former Gardena cop with 35 years in law enforcement, introduces himself. “A lot of the guys have some serious questions,” he says. “They’ve all read the hardcover, and the paperback with the new chapter. They know what they’re talking about.”
Hodel, who at 6 feet, 2 inches and 260 pounds has a cherubic face framed by white hair and a trimmed white beard, does not flinch as he steps into the literary lion’s den. After all, he’s already made more than 75 appearances on his 20-month post-publication book tour and answered every possible question about his 481-page opus, a true-life chronicle of crime, corruption and cover-up in which he does his best to prove that his father is the most fabled and elusive murderer in Los Angeles history.
“I’m sure they’ve got lots of questions,” Hodel says. “Everybody does.”
Brown, who organized the Oct. 23 book discussion at his wine country ranch outside Temecula, escorts Hodel into his home, where the retired cops and their wives--like Brown, all strangers to Hodel--are waiting. The rec room is wallpapered with pictures of 22-year-old Elizabeth Short, nicknamed the Black Dahlia, and reproductions of Hodel’s paperback cover, which features a picture of Short and a screaming tabloid tease promising “a new chapter revealing secret D.A. documents and photos.” On the far wall is a detailed map of the Leimert Park crime scene at the corner of 39th Street and Norton Avenue, where Short’s naked body was left in two parts early on the morning of Jan. 15, 1947. She had been surgically bisected at the waist, drained of blood, washed clean and left 18 inches from the sidewalk. Her face was slashed into a hideous death grin, and she was posed in a bizarre style that no one--until Hodel--has been able to explain credibly.
As he enters the room, Hodel is surrounded by people who offer books for his signature and ask questions about the murder that gripped postwar Los Angeles in a media frenzy of fear, frustration and finger-pointing when the case went unsolved despite the most intense manhunt in city history. “If you weren’t around back then, you don’t understand what a sensation it was,” Brown says while Hodel mingles. “People couldn’t believe the killer got away.”
Hodel steps to a microphone with his stack of enlarged photos and old newspaper headlines, then gives a short overview of the book. Three hours of probing questions and detailed discussion later, a poll of the nearly 50 people in the room reveals only one who has any doubt that Hodel’s father, George Hill Hodel--a tall, charismatic, domineering, sex-obsessed doctor with connections to Hollywood, City Hall and a ring of corrupt cops--had killed Short and several other young women in the 1940s. And they have no doubt that he got away with it because of his political connections to the city’s powerful and the leverage he had on them because of the detailed files he kept at his downtown venereal disease clinic. He also gleaned information, and thereby power, with his knowledge of an illegal abortion ring that catered to the city’s elite and that paid off corrupt cops.
“Steve Hodel has convinced me,” Patti Brown, Garland Brown’s wife, says afterward. “The only question left is why the LAPD hasn’t closed the Black Dahlia case.”
The lone dissenter in the room is a woman with lingering questions about photographs from the collection of Hodel’s father. Steve Hodel believes they are pictures of Short. Others are skeptical, including this woman, who adds that she believes the rest of Hodel’s richly detailed, undeniably complex and occasionally convoluted indictment of his father as a compassionate healer by day, a misogynistic stalker by night and perhaps the most diabolically clever killer in L.A. history.
George Hodel kept two small pictures of a woman his son believes to be Short for the last 55 years of a life that included three wives, 11 children, several careers and dozens of girlfriends. They have become a catalyst-turned-curse for Steve Hodel. The pictures, which he found in his father’s private photo album, opened the door into a looking-glass world in which Hodel is cast as the avenging son trying to bring his father to justice after more than half a century.
Hodel was living in Bellingham, Wash., happily retired after 23 years as an LAPD detective, when he discovered the pictures in 1999 shortly after his 91-year-old father died in San Francisco. They became the clues that, for him, linked his father to Short. Hodel, never dreaming his dad was her killer, says he just followed his curiosity about his father’s unexpected connection to L.A.'s noir past. Over the years, the mystifying case has produced plenty of suspects put forth by authors and amateur sleuths. The alleged killers included doctors (police focused immediately on medical people because of the surgical bisection), an alcoholic drifter and even Orson Welles, who did a magic act in which he cut a woman in half. Then there were the more than 50 so-called Confessing Sams who came forward claiming credit for the lurid crime. But nothing stuck, and ultimately it became one of the most notorious unsolved cases in modern American history.
“I had to follow this story,” Hodel says. “Any good detective would have done the same.”
Within 12 months, he had concluded that his father was probably the Black Dahlia killer. Within 24 months, he had moved back to L.A. so he could focus exclusively on the investigation.
“That’s just the way Steve is,” says Stephen R. Kay, head deputy for L.A. County’s district attorney office in Compton. “Once something gets his attention, he can’t help checking it out until he gets to the bottom of it.” Kay says he was impressed by Hodel’s professionalism when he worked with him in the 1970s and 1980s, but hadn’t seen him for nearly 15 years until, in 2001, Hodel approached him with his case and asked for an evaluation.
But the two pictures of an alluring young woman with her eyes closed--one apparently in an erotic moment or, perhaps, freshly killed--also are Exhibit A for critics who dismiss Hodel and his case. If the pictures are not of Short, their reasoning goes, then Hodel’s investigation falls apart. In his book, Hodel is certain the pictures are of Short. Today, after months of hearing from readers who disagree, he says he is 99% certain the photos are of Short.
Despite Hodel’s near-certainty, neither photo is an indisputable match to the few known photos of Short, an emotionally troubled young Massachusetts woman who told friends she came West in 1943 seeking relief for her respiratory problems and romance with someone in uniform, preferably a military officer. As Hodel documents in his book, Short was not a drug addict, prostitute or petty criminal, descriptions that have entered the media echo chamber over the years. She became another of the thousands of pretty people with vague dreams of being “discovered” like Lana Turner at Schwab’s Pharmacy.
When the subject of the pictures comes up in the Temecula rec room, Hodel quickly, defensively, points out the similarities: Both women have Short’s high forehead; thick, full black hair; and diamond-shaped face. He also points out that Short was chameleon-like, with strikingly different looks in her few known pictures. He shows her as a dark, exotic beauty in a 1943 Santa Barbara police mug shot--she’d been arrested for being underage in a bar--and displays several Florida beach pictures in which she looks like an all-American high schooler on prom night. But just as quickly, Hodel says the pictures are moot because of evidence that has surfaced since April 2003, when his book was published. That new evidence includes previously unreleased district attorney files that point to George Hodel as a primary suspect more than 50 years ago. “It’s like pulling someone over for a busted taillight and finding stolen stuff in the backseat,” Hodel says as heads nod throughout the room. “You charge them with burglary, not with the traffic stop. At that point it no longer matters.”
The New York Times, Newsweek, “Dateline NBC,” CourtTV, People magazine and other national media have all run stories hailing Hodel--to one degree or another--as finally solving the quintessential L.A. murder, which was the inspiration for many films and books, from 1981’s “True Confessions” to James Ellroy’s fictionalized 1987 account, “The Black Dahlia.” CBS’ “48 Hours” is scheduled to run a segment on “Black Dahlia Avenger” on Saturday. But Hodel has run into trouble in his hometown. First, and most important to him, the Los Angeles Police Department has given little attention to his theory since August 2003, when he was invited to brief the police brass. “Ninety percent of the room was supportive and seemed to get it, but the detective in charge of the case was defensive,” says Hodel, who retired as a detective supervisor in 1986 with high praise from then-Chief Daryl Gates. “As an ex-cop, I know cops are territorial about their cases, and I fear that’s what’s happening here.”
In a two-hour media briefing last month, two LAPD robbery-homicide detectives poked holes in Hodel’s case and delivered the department’s bottom line: Yes, Dr. Hodel was a suspect and, yes, he could have done it. But because almost all the physical evidence has disappeared from its files--evidence that included the 13 taunting notes the killer sent police and the media and which, through careful analysis, could prove or disprove Hodel’s conclusion, the case will never be closed.
Chief William J. Bratton seconded that opinion: “I’m not interested in a 50-year-old case, and we’re not going to spend any more time or money on it.”
The LAPD wasn’t the first to set aside Hodel’s findings. He woke up one Sunday in May 2003 to a scornful Los Angeles Times book review by novelist Gary Indiana, who concluded: “It is, finally, and not at all sympathetically, appalling that a homicide detective would sell out his professional integrity to produce this piece of meretricious, revolting twaddle, which amounts to evidence manufacturing, litigation-proof slander and chicanery on a fabulous scale and does absolutely nothing to answer the question: Who killed Elizabeth Short?”
Hodel doesn’t like to talk about that review because he knows it sounds like sour grapes. “It’s his right to say anything he wants about the book,” Hodel says. “But when he attacks my professional integrity and accuses me of manufacturing evidence, I think that goes over the line. How can a book reviewer just slander you and make crazy accusations like that?”
Hodel’s friends and family say Indiana’s review was traumatic for him. “Steve is a sensitive guy. That was tough for him because he’s a man of immense integrity,” says Bellingham attorney Dennis Murphy. “Integrity is the foundation of his professional success both in L.A. and here in Washington [as a private investigator].”
Murphy was one of only three people Hodel confided in when he was investigating his father and slowly, reluctantly coming to his horrific conclusions. Indiana’s scathing review triggered criticism on the Internet from Dahlia cultists who derided Hodel and his Daddy-did-it theory, which echoed a little-noted 1995 book by Janice Knowlton, based on supposedly repressed memories, called “Daddy Was the Black Dahlia Killer.”
“There’s a lot of vitriolic stuff about Steve and his book on the Net,” Murphy says. “Some people are trying to assassinate him, but Steve has met it professionally each step of the way and just methodically gone about proving his case.”
Hodel was particularly stunned by the local response to his book because he is retired LAPD, and because of advance publicity his book received from Times columnist Steve Lopez, who shortly before the release of “Black Dahlia Avenger” persuaded Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley to let him look at his office’s previously unreleased Black Dahlia files. (Hodel didn’t realize that the D.A.'s office had reinvestigated the case until his book was finished.) In 1950, in a complicated bureaucratic maneuver that Hodel claims was part of a larger cover-up, the D.A.'s office formally closed its reinvestigation of the Black Dahlia case and turned over copies of its files to the LAPD. To this day, the department has refused to open its files. But as soon as Lopez opened the D.A.'s original file, he wrote, a picture of George Hodel fell out. Other documents revealed that Hodel was indeed a suspect and that the police had bugged his house at 5121 Franklin Ave., a magnificent re-creation of a Mayan temple where Hodel believes Short was tortured and killed before being taken to Leimert Park. Lopez even found transcripts of conversations recorded inside that house, including one from Feb. 18, 1950, in which Dr. Hodel says: “Supposin’ I did kill the Black Dahlia. They couldn’t prove it now. They can’t talk to my secretary anymore because she’s dead.”
The hidden microphones also recorded, on Feb. 19, 1950, a woman crying as she tried to call the operator. Later, there are what seem to be sounds of digging and of a shovel hitting a pipe. Five minutes later, the microphones recorded a woman’s scream, and then two minutes later a second scream. Steve Hodel says he has no idea who the screaming woman was, although it was not his father’s secretary, Ruth Spaulding, who was listed as an overdose suicide in 1945 despite police suspicions that George Hodel may have killed her. That same day, he was recorded alluding to his connections in local law enforcement agencies and saying, “I’d like to get a connection made in the D.A.'s office.”
Lopez wrote two columns about Hodel and his book, as well as the supporting evidence he uncovered at the district attorney’s office. His verdict: Hodel’s case was intriguing but not yet 100% convincing. A month later came Indiana’s devastating book review, followed by several dismissive columns in the L.A. Weekly. One Weekly headline captured the general tone of the criticism: “Urban Myths: Busting the Black Dahlia Avenger.” After that came media and police silence until this May, when Lopez wrote another column explaining why author James Ellroy, whose fictionalized “The Black Dahlia” was a 1987 bestseller, now endorsed Hodel’s theory after initially expressing disbelief.
“We can only glimpse who Betty Short was--but now we know who killed her, and why,” Ellroy wrote in the foreword to the paperback edition of Hodel’s “Black Dahlia Avenger,” which was issued earlier this year with a new chapter about the previously undiscovered material from the D.A.'s files.
Hodel’s book 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. George Hodel was born in 1907 in L.A.'s Clara Barton Hospital, quickly developed into a musical prodigy with a 186 IQ, and entered Caltech in Pasadena at age 15. As a freshman, he fathered a child with a faculty member’s wife, triggering his expulsion.
In rapid succession he became a crime reporter for the Los Angeles Record, a cabdriver, a magazine publisher, a radio announcer, a medical student, a doctor and the head venereal disease control officer for Los Angeles County. During the 1920s and ‘30s he started drinking and using hashish, opium and possibly stronger drugs. Along with a running buddy, photographer Man Ray, George Hodel adopted the surrealist philosophy that there is no difference between the dream and waking states. In many photos taken of the surrealists, they pose with their eyes closed to signify their reverence for the dream state--just as Short has her eyes closed in the disputed photos. George Hodel also considered himself a dadaist, someone who rejects accepted conventions.
In the early 1940s, Steve Hodel says, his father began a series of late-night abductions during which he murdered several women, some of them strangers, some of them women he knew romantically. He speculates that drugs and alcohol brought out the misogynistic traits that his father kept under control during the day. According to the D.A.'s files, Short was one of George Hodel’s many girlfriends and was identified by at least one witness, Lillian Lenorak, a former girlfriend of Hodel, as having been at the Franklin House several times.
Hodel says that uncovering all this information about his father has been the most painful experience of his life, and friends and family agree. “He’s gone through hell with this,” says his 25-year-old son, Matthew Hodel. “But he had to pursue it, no matter where it led. I’m proud of him.”
But critics portray Hodel as committing a form of patricide, a posthumous vendetta against a father who abandoned his family after being tried for--and acquitted of--molesting Steve’s 14-year-old half-sister in late 1949. That criticism may have been triggered, in part, by the word “avenger” in the title of his book. It suggests that Hodel is proclaiming himself the Black Dahlia avenger, going after his father. In reality, the name came from one of the taunting postcards apparently sent by the killer to the police and press in the first weeks after the murder. The writer signed one note as “Black Dahlia Avenger,” and in another he declared “Dahlia killing was justified.”
George Hodel fled the state in 1950, his son says, after Dist. Atty. William E. Simpson’s staff took over the Black Dahlia investigation from the LAPD. He sold his mansion, moved to Hawaii and became a psychiatrist counseling the incarcerated criminally insane for a year. He then moved to Manila, where he established himself as a successful market researcher with a new family and four kids. He didn’t return to the United States for 40 years, but finally moved to San Francisco in 1990 with his third wife, who was 40 years younger.
Hodel says he had reestablished his bond with his father during the nine years before the elderly man died, and he provides the personal correspondence between the two to prove it. Most telling is a note he wrote to his father on May 9, 1999, eight days before he died: “I want you to know how much I love you. You are a truly great man, and I am very proud that you are my father.”
Jill Bernstein, a Bellingham attorney who has known and worked with Hodel for more than a decade, says the patricide charge is absurd and compounds Hodel’s pain. “There’s no doubt his father was a towering figure in Steve’s life, and writing this book has brought Steve nothing but grief,” Bernstein says. “They had found a real way to reach each other as men in the decade before Dr. Hodel died. They found the humanity in each other. Steve was sad when his dad died.”
Bernstein has practiced law for more than 20 years and is a former president of the Washington Assn. of Defense Attorneys. Like Murphy, she employed Hodel as a private investigator. “He was the best P.I. in this area ever,” she says. “The thing I really liked about him was, if he couldn’t make a case, he would say so. He was always all about finding the truth.”
Others swear to the same quality in Hodel. “He’s like a bulldog with a bone,” says head Deputy D.A. Kay, who is convinced by Hodel’s case against his father. “He’ll just keep working a case and working it till he’s gotten to the truth, whatever it is. If he can’t make the case, he’ll tell you.”
James McMurray, who recently retired as the LAPD’s chief of detectives, says he supervised Hodel from 1980 through 1983. “He was one of the top detectives in robbery-homicide,” McMurray says. “He is careful, thorough and persistent. He would never pursue a case if the facts didn’t justify it.”
McMurray says Hodel’s hardcover book was “pretty compelling” to him. “Then, when all the transcripts and stuff came out from the D.A.'s office, that took it over the top for me. That would have been enough for me to bring a case against Dr. Hodel.”
Kay says he’s baffled that the LAPD is unable to either prove or disprove Hodel’s case. “I find it shocking that the key physical evidence in the biggest unsolved murder case in L.A. history has disappeared from the LAPD. It’s a black mark for the LAPD that they haven’t solved the Black Dahlia case. I would think they would do everything they can to solve it. With Steve Hodel’s research, it’s been handed to them on a silver platter.”
Near the end of the discussion in Temecula, during which Hodel never expresses any anger about his father, one of the women in the room asks Hodel how he could be detached from a story that has had such a huge impact on him and his family. Hodel says he is just doing his job.
“I didn’t want to write this book,” he says. “I was retired for 13 years when the case came to me. I didn’t create this path. I’m just walking it because it’s in front of me.”
A few weeks earlier, working at his crowded desk in his Studio City apartment, Hodel was asked about his ultimate goal: to have the case closed by the LAPD. Did he really think that goal was possible after all these years, with his father dead and the Black Dahlia case so much a part of L.A.'s noir mystique?
Hodel’s old detective badge No. 336 sits on the desk. Nearby, taped to a bookcase, a large-type computer printout serves as a kind of serenity road map. It’s a quote he has attributed to German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer on the nature of truth: “All truth passes through three stages: first it is ridiculed, second it is violently opposed, and third it is accepted as self-evident.”
“I figure I’m somewhere in transition between stage two and stage three,” he says, exhaling slowly. “Stage three is taking a little longer than I expected.”