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Mystery of Missing Starlet Was Never Solved

October 20, 2002|Cecilia Rasmussen | Times Staff Writer

She doesn't rank with Amelia Earhart, Jimmy Hoffa or Judge Crater, but more than half a century later, there are still some people who wonder what happened to a young actress named Jean Spangler.

It's been 53 years since Spangler, 27, vanished as she walked from her Park La Brea home to the Farmers Market and into thin air.

Her disappearance on Oct. 7, 1949, captured the imagination of Angelenos, who were still absorbed by the 2-year-old "Black Dahlia" dismemberment murder and the more recent disappearance of a widowed Bel-Air socialite named Mimi Boomhower -- who went missing with her front door open and her lights burning.

Family, friends, police detectives and the just plain curious have devised various scenarios about what might have befallen Spangler, a sultry blue-eyed divorcee with a young daughter.

Some of those who still obsess over her disappearance think the talented hopeful who wanted to be a star was silenced by the mob because of her ties to Mickey Cohen's henchmen. Others think her ex-husband did her in to get permanent custody of their daughter. Some think she died as the result of a botched abortion.

Her case dominated headlines for almost two weeks because police saw parallels in her and Boomhower's disappearance.

Spangler, born in Seattle, graduated from Franklin High School in Highland Park in 1941. She landed work as a model and soon began to eke out a living by dancing at Hollywood's Florentine Gardens and Earl Carroll Theatre, and getting bit parts in movies, including "When My Baby Smiles at Me" (1948) and "Wabash Avenue" (1950).

In 1942, Spangler married plastics manufacturer Dexter Benner. He was in his early 20s; she was 19, and a vivacious party girl.

Their union didn't last long. She filed for divorce six months later, accusing him of cruelty. But the couple's on-and-off relationship lasted almost another four years, during which time they had a baby daughter.

When their messy divorce was finalized in 1946, Benner received temporary custody of the child, Christine, 2, in part by charging that Spangler "preferred parties to priorities."

During the two years he had custody, Benner denied Spangler the right to see Christine on 23 different occasions. He threatened Spangler repeatedly that he'd "fix it so you'll never get to see her." Finally, the judge ruled that Spangler's questionable conduct was "buried in the past" and the "little girl's place is with her mother." Spangler and her daughter moved to an apartment in the Park La Brea neighborhood, sharing quarters with her mother, brother and sister-in-law.

But domesticity didn't diminish her ambitions of stardom: She kept looking for the lights, action, excitement and that one big break. Then she got the role that would make her famous -- but not in the movies.

On Oct. 7, 1949, she kissed 5-year-old Christine goodbye and told her sister-in-law that she was going to meet her ex-husband about his child-support payment, which was a week overdue. Afterward, she said, she was going to work on a night shoot for a new film.

"Wish me luck," she said as she crossed her fingers, winked and walked into the misty night.

With that, Jean Spangler disappeared virtually without a trace.

Two days later, just hours after her sister-in-law reported her missing, a Griffith Park worker found Spangler's purse in Fern Dell, a leafy glen that has long been a favorite destination for strollers and picnickers, as well as a dumping ground for the city's killers.

One strap of Spangler's double-handled purse was torn, indicating a possible struggle, police said. But it was the note inside that intrigued detectives: "Kirk, Can't wait any longer. Going to see Dr. Scott. It will work best this way while mother is away."

Who, police wondered, was Kirk?

Before Los Angeles Police Department Deputy Chief Thad Brown, who had headed up the Black Dahlia case, could begin to reconstruct Spangler's last hours, Kirk Douglas phoned him.

The actor, who was vacationing in Palm Springs when Spangler disappeared, said he'd heard news reports about the case. He told Brown that Spangler may have worked as an extra in his last film, "Young Man With a Horn," but said he barely knew her.

Douglas' call raised questions, but police soon cleared him of wrongdoing.

A 60-man team canvassed Griffith Park and the Sunset Strip bars and nightclubs that Spangler had frequented. Detectives learned of a mysterious former medical student known as "Doc" who hung around the Strip and performed abortions for a fee, but never found him.

Media speculation was rampant. If the mysterious "Dr. Scott" was an abortionist who had operated illegally on Spangler and botched it, killing her, why would he carelessly toss her purse -- bearing a note with his name on it -- in Griffith Park?

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