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COLUMN ONE

A Slaying Cloaked in Mystery and Myths

The truth about Betty Short's gruesome murder may never be known. But 50 years later, the 'Black Dahlia' story still holds the power to fascinate.

January 06, 1997|LARRY HARNISCH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

After talking to Manley's wife, reporter Fowler led police to a home in Eagle Rock, where Manley and a business associate had returned from a San Francisco business trip.

"Right away, Manley said, 'I know what you're talking about--it wasn't me; I wasn't there,' " Fowler said.

Manley was booked as a suspect by one of the two lead LAPD detectives, Harry Hansen. But he passed a polygraph test and was released to patch up his marriage.

Suspicion and an earlier history of mental problems trailed Manley. In 1954, his wife had him committed to a mental hospital, saying he was hearing voices. Later that year, doctors from a VA hospital administered sodium pentothal in a final attempt to extract the truth about the Black Dahlia killing. He was again cleared. In 1986 he died alone in an Anaheim apartment, 39 years to the day after he left Betty at the Biltmore. Authorities said death was the result of an accidental fall.

Nine days after Short's body was found, the apparent killer mailed an envelope full of her belongings to the Examiner. The envelope was addressed with gruesome humor, using letters clipped from a page of movie ads, including part of the phrase "Heaven is HERE!" from the ad for "Stairway to Heaven."

The envelope contained Short's Social Security card, birth certificate, snapshots and an old address book with some pages missing. Gasoline had been rubbed on the contents of the envelope to remove fingerprints.

The address book sent police off on another furious round of investigation, tracking down about 75 men who were listed.

The men told similar stories: they met Betty Short on a corner or at a bus stop, they went out for a meal or to a nightclub. Nothing romantic ever happened, and they never saw her again.

Police reached another dead end. Detectives on loan for the investigation were gradually sent back to their divisions. Until they retired, lead Dets. Hansen and Finis Brown chased leads and examined other cases that might have been related. Nothing conclusive ever emerged.

"She just asked for trouble," Hansen speculated after retirement in 1971. "She probably went too far this time, and just set some guy off into a blind, berserk rage."

The current guardian of the case and the drab four-drawer file cabinet that holds everything known about the murder is Det. Brian Carr, who was born four years after Short was killed. He refers to the files every month or so when he gets calls about the case.

"If this were any other case, it would all be in some warehouse," Carr said.

The last living detective from the original investigation is Ralph Asdel, 76, who was in his fifth year with the Los Angeles Police Department when the murder occurred. Within weeks of the killing, Asdel says, he tracked down a man he believes was the murderer, acting on tips and a description of a man seen near where the body was found.

He said he talked to the suspect at a restaurant a few blocks west of the crime scene, but did not confront him with his suspicion. There was no proof beyond the fact that the man had recently repainted a car that seemed to resemble one spotted near the murder scene.

"Sometimes the good Lord gets you these feelings or hunches," said Asdel, who lives in Santa Clarita. "You get the hair standing up on the back of your neck, whether it's a routine traffic stop or whatever. You just know."

The town of Medford, Mass., likes being known as the place where "Jingle Bells" was written. It does not enjoy its reputation as the hometown of the Black Dahlia. The plaque--donated in 1993 by a freelance Dahlia researcher and placed on Salem Street where Short's house once stood--was strenuously opposed; people said Medford should not honor its most notorious daughter.

An Obsession Becomes Writer's Inspiration

The toll was higher for best-selling author James Ellroy, who wept after he wrote the last page of his 1987 novel "The Black Dahlia."

It was the culmination of a 28-year obsession that began on his 11th birthday--eight months after his own mother's unsolved murder--when his father gave Ellroy a copy of Jack Webb's "The Badge," a nonfiction spinoff of "Dragnet."

He read the section on the Black Dahlia killing 100 times. But his obsession turned to nightmares so vivid that he used to be afraid to go to sleep.

"The nightmares were sophisticated and visual," Ellroy said. "I would see these odd winch devices and gears and pulleys lowering Elizabeth Short into a bathtub; viscera floating in bathwater, bloody suds, her face with that lacquered hairdo being cut ear to ear, blood gurgling. That was horrible."

As he grew older, Ellroy imposed a story structure on the nightmares as a way of controlling them and began fantasizing about rescuing the Black Dahlia.

"I hated my mother at the time she died," Ellroy said. So the Black Dahlia's killing became a substitute for his mother's. "I seized on it," he said. "In looking back I was trying to get at the horror and grief I couldn't express over my mother's death."

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