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Search Fails to Turn Up Evidence of '47 Murder : Mystery: A woman's contention that her father was a killer--perhaps that of the Black Dahlia--leads to some curious finds, but nothing that police say is evidence of foul play.

June 23, 1991|MATT LAIT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WESTMINSTER — A rusty knife, animal bone fragments and costume jewelry were found Saturday buried in a vacant lot as police checked a woman's ghastly story that her father was a killer--perhaps, as she contends, the infamous Black Dahlia murderer.

Based on the woman's horrifying memories, apparently repressed for more than four decades, Westminster police excavated the site of the woman's former home but found no conclusive evidence of a murder.

Although the items found are "very interesting," Police Lt. Larry Woessner said, it would be difficult to tie any of them to a murder, especially the sensational Black Dahlia slaying that shocked the Southland in 1947. Police concluded the search Saturday night.

The items did appear to be buried on purpose, which is "unusual" and puzzled police, Woessner said.

The items alone, however, are not enough to be linked to a crime or prompt a full investigation, he said.

For Janice Knowlton, 54, of Anaheim, the dig validated morbid visions that she said came to her nearly two years ago under therapy. The visions have convinced her that her now-deceased father, George F. Knowlton, killed three women, including Elizabeth Short, 22, an aspiring actress known as the Black Dahlia.

The nickname for the actress and Hollywood groupie derived from her jet-black hairdo, according to Times columnist Jack Smith, who covered the case as a reporter years ago. Others also remember the name being associated with her fondness for tight-fitting black dresses.

On Jan. 15, 1947, Short's body, severed at her waistline, was found in the Crenshaw District of Los Angeles. She had apparently been tortured for two days before she was killed, medical examinations indicated.

The murder grabbed headlines as details of the crime were released: Short's internal organs had been removed, she had been cleaned and drained of blood and her killer had slashed an ear-to-ear grin on her face.

Since the slaying, more than 500 people have confessed to the crime, and hundreds of leads have been followed and discounted. The murder remains unsolved.

On Saturday morning, the most recent lead was checked, when about 15 volunteers and a forensic anthropologist excavated the site of Knowlton's former residence in the 7300 block of Texas Street in Westminster.

As more than two dozen spectators and a flock of reporters watched, workers moved rapidly in the morning with shovels and sifters, finding nothing more significant than a dog's skeleton, an apparent cow's jaw and a horseshoe.

But after 1 p.m., the crew discovered some unusual farm tools and costume jewelry.

Woessner said the items appeared to have been buried on purpose. "We don't know how significant this is, but it is definitely interesting. . . . Why would anyone put (such things) that far underground?"

A short time later, a single-edge, 5-inch-long knife was found. Westminster Police Detective Mike Proctor said the knife, tools and jewelry were intriguing but did not know quite how to assess them.

"Right now we're going to move a lot more deliberately (in this investigation). We don't know what we have," he said. "We basically are here looking for (another) victim. We haven't put too much credence in the Black Dahlia (connection)."

He added that small bone fragments that came from a large animal or--less likely--a person were also found. "We're not really sure what they are right now, but they're probably from an animal."

Knowlton has said she remembers her father torturing at least two women in the family's detached garage and striking them with a claw hammer.

One victim--Knowlton recalls calling her Aunt Betty and believes that she was Short--was beaten to death by her father with the hammer, she said.

She said she also believes that her father then used a power saw to cut the victim in two and that a day after the slaying her father forced her to accompany him as he disposed of the body.

After a failed attempt to dump the body in the ocean near Seal Beach, the father retrieved the corpse and in a fit of anger took a knife and gutted the corpse's insides, Knowlton said she recalls.

The father then wrapped the body in a blanket and ditched it in downtown Los Angeles, she added.

"I'm convinced that she was the Black Dahlia," Knowlton said.

Before the excavation, Knowlton said, she thought police might find the hammer or other tools used by her father, and possibly bones of another victim she believes he killed.

She said her memories of the second slaying and another murder that she believes occurred in Massachusetts are not as clear as those of the first killing.

Like the police, most of the onlookers were not too impressed by the recovered items and were skeptical that any startling evidence of a crime will be found, particularly human remains.

"If the guy had enough sense to dump the Black Dahlia in Los Angeles, he would be smart enough to not butcher somebody in front of his daughter and then bury her in his own back yard," said Joe Fernandez, who lives near the lot.

Louis Avalia came from Huntington Beach to watch the dig because he said he has been following the case for years.

"The man had to be a maniac. . . . I don't think it could have happened here," he said.

Knowlton, who arrived in the afternoon, viewed the items as proof that her story is believable and added that she feels vindicated.

"I wish this whole thing (the murders) didn't happen, but I'm glad something at least a little suspicious was found," said Knowlton, who was dressed all in black. "I feel better that there was something."

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