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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

In most accounts, Short's mother disappears after testifying at the inquest, her sympathetic characterization of her daughter overwhelmed by press portrayals of the seductive Black Dahlia.

After her daughters were grown and married, she moved to Oakland to be near Betty's grave at Mountain View Cemetery, former neighbors said. (Betty was buried there because she loved California, her mother said in 1947.) Betty's youngest sister, Muriel, now 68, said Mrs. Short moved back East in the 1970s and died a few years ago in her early 90s.

Muriel, who requested that her last name and residence not be disclosed, said she has avoided reading any of the books about the crime. Pain was etched in her calm voice.

"The family has put so much time into trying to get away from it . . . trying to put it behind us," she said, "and every time someone brings it up, it starts all over again. . . . It's just too much to bring up all the old hurts again."

Who killed Betty Short? Today the crime would be "very solvable," says John Douglas, former head of the FBI's serial crimes division, who is one of the nation's leading experts on profiling violent criminals and the author of "Mindhunter."

The killer revealed so much about himself through the amount of time he spent with the body, Douglas notes. "Old crimes are fascinating," he said. "It would have been a great case to get."

After reviewing the coroner's inquest and a summary of the case at the request of The Times, Douglas suggests this profile of Short's killer: He was a white man, no younger than his late 20s and possibly older, with a high school education. He lived alone, made his living working with his hands rather than his brains, was adept with a knife and "was comfortable wallowing in blood"--for example, a butcher, a slaughterhouse worker or possibly a hunter who knew how to dress out deer.

He was under great personal and financial stress. He and Short spent several days together and he had been drinking. She rejected him. The mixture of personal stress, alcohol and rejection exploded into murderous rage.

Cutting the body in half was to make transportation easier, Douglas continued. But the level of mutilation reflects a personal rage directed at Short. "You can just imagine him saying: 'You bitch. Look who has the last laugh now,' " he said.

But why Norton Avenue? Douglas notes that there were far better places to dispose of a body. The killer took a high risk to place the body where he did, Douglas said, "because he wanted to put the fear of God in that neighborhood."

Half a century later, Norton Avenue is still a neat, middle-class block of one-story homes with tidy lawns. Returning there for the first time in 50 years, former reporter Will Fowler said, "is like passing yourself on the street in the fog."

Fowler, now 74 and living in Sherman Oaks, hopes the crime is never solved. It would ruin the mystery.

Asdel, the last living detective, hopes someone will come forward. Even if the killer is dead, perhaps a relative might break their silence.

And Betty Bersinger, who touched off the mystery, now 76 and living in Santa Monica, asks the question that has been reverberating for half a century:

"When is all of it going to die down?"

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