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Memories of Murder : Woman Believes Her Father May Have Been Black Dahlia Killer; Police to Excavate Site of Home

June 22, 1991|MATT LAIT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WESTMINSTER — Horrifying memories, surfacing now after being repressed for more than 40 years, have convinced Janice Knowlton, 54, that her father was a killer, possibly even the infamous Black Dahlia murderer.

Knowlton's apparent recollections, which continue to come to her in bits and pieces, have impressed Westminster police detectives enough that today they will excavate the site of her former residence to determine whether evidence of a crime--such as the Black Dahlia's belongings or the body of another woman--is buried there.

"Repressed memories like these do check out. It's not unusual," said Westminster Police Lt. Larry Woessner, although he remains skeptical that evidence from the Black Dahlia case will be dug up.

The Black Dahlia murder was one of the most sensational and horrifying homicides ever committed in Southern California. On Jan. 15, 1947, Elizabeth Short--an aspiring actress and Hollywood groupie--was found dead in the Crenshaw District of Los Angeles. The murder remains unsolved.

Westminster police will be looking for skeletal remains of another woman Knowlton believes was killed by her father and who may have been buried in the now-vacant lot in the 7300 block of Texas Street. Her father, George F. Knowlton, died in a car accident in 1962.

"She seems to think that we may find a purse or some other belongings of Elizabeth Short," Woessner said. "If we do, great."

The Black Dahlia case drew headlines because of the gruesomeness of the crime: The victim was apparently tortured for two days, and her body was neatly severed at the waist. Her internal organs had been removed, and she had been drained of blood. And as a final, cruel joke, the killer had carved an ear-to-ear grin on her face.

Part of the fascination with the murder had to do with Short herself, an aspiring actress who lived on the fringes of Hollywood with dreams of stardom and a reputation for an array of sexual encounters. The 22-year-old woman was called Black Dahlia because of her fondness for tight-fitting black dresses.

Since the murder, more than 500 people, some who weren't even born at the time of the crime, have confessed to the slaying.

Los Angeles Police Detective John P. St. John, one of the investigators who had been assigned to the case, said he has talked to Knowlton and does not believe there is a connection between the Black Dahlia murder and her father.

"We have a lot of people offering up their fathers and various relatives as the Black Dahlia killer," said St. John, better known as Jigsaw John. "The things that she is saying are not consistent with the facts of the case."

Knowlton believes St. John is simply jaded after years of bad leads on the unsolved murder.

More than a year ago, while under therapy, Knowlton said, she started to recall haunting images of hiding in the family's garage while her father tortured a woman she called Aunt Betty.

She said she remembers the woman sitting in a chair under a bright light and her father hitting the woman in the face and head with a claw hammer. Her father later cut the woman's limp body in two with a power saw, Knowlton said she recalls.

A day after the slaying, Knowlton said, she was forced to accompany her father to Seal Beach, where he dumped the body in the ocean but retrieved it when it started to float. He then took the body to a utility room next to the pier and gutted and cleaned the victim's body, she said.

"He was a very sadistic man," Knowlton said.

Finally, Knowlton said, she recalls her father driving to Los Angeles and ditching the body somewhere downtown.

To support her belief that the victim in her apparent memories was the Black Dahlia, Knowlton points to some eerie coincidences. For instance, she said, Short once lived in Medford, Mass., at the same time her family lived in nearby Lynn, Mass.

Knowlton also cited some newspaper clippings that stated Short had talked of marrying a man named George and that noted a tan coupe had often been seen near Short's residence. George Knowlton owned a tan Cadillac LaSalle, Knowlton said.

"From what I'm remembering and from what I've found out about the Black Dahlia case, there are just too many coincidences," the Anaheim resident said.

Knowlton said she has also recalled two other murders committed by her father, and she believes one of the victims was mutilated and buried in the family's yard in Westminster. She believes the other murder occurred in Massachusetts.

Knowlton's mother died in July, 1989, and the apparent memories of grisly murders began flooding over Knowlton a few months later. She said she and her mother had been abused by her father.

At today's excavation, police will be assisted by volunteers headed by Cal State Fullerton forensic anthropology professor Judy Suchey.

Knowlton, who said she continues to suffer mentally and physically from her memories, said that no matter what is discovered at the excavation, "it will mean a lot for my recovery. . . . But even if there's nothing there, I won't consider this closed."

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