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A Startling Take on Black Dahlia Case

April 11, 2003|Steve Lopez

One year ago, a retired LAPD homicide cop approached me and said in a whisper that he had a blockbuster story in the works, but he couldn't divulge the details at the time.

Last week, he got in touch again to deliver the goods.

Steve Hodel, 61, said he had cracked the most notorious unsolved murder in Los Angeles history -- the case of the Black Dahlia.

But it gets even better. The killer, he said, was his father, a powerful and dashing doctor who threw racy parties at his exotic Lloyd Wright-designed home at Franklin and Normandie avenues in Los Feliz -- parties attended by the likes of photographer Man Ray and film giant John Huston.

Hodel's dark journey through postwar Los Angeles goes public with the release today of his book, "Black Dahlia Avenger." In it, Hodel convicts his father, the late physician George Hodel, of slicing Elizabeth Short's body in two in a fit of jealousy on Jan. 15, 1947, and then posing her mutilated corpse in a vacant lot near 39th Street and Norton Avenue in Leimert Park. It was a crime so savage, even hardened detectives were shaken.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday April 16, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
Lopez -- The Steve Lopez column in Friday's California section misspelled the name of a Los Angeles County deputy district attorney. His name is Stephen Kay, not Stephen Kaye.

Less than a month later, another nude corpse was discovered in West L.A., and Steve Hodel pins that one on his father, too. The bludgeoning murder of Jeanne French was called the Red Lipstick Murder, because the killer had used lipstick to scrawl "B.D." on the body, suggesting a link to the Black Dahlia.

But Steve Hodel doesn't stop there. The private investigator, whose colleagues say he was a respected detective during 17 years as a homicide cop in the Hollywood Division, has more on his dad.

Father, as he calls him in the book, was a serial killer responsible for as many as 20 unsolved murders in the 1940s and 1950s, and his murders were covered up. The high and mighty of L.A., Hodel argues, were afraid of Dr. Hodel. The good doctor ran a downtown venereal disease clinic, where he kept dossiers on them.

Hodel says his father was a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde character enchanted with the Marquis de Sade, whose dark musings Dr. Hodel dissected with his sex-crazed coterie of Hollywood luminaries.

And should you think "Black Dahlia Avenger" is too improbable to be anything but a son's poison-tipped arrow, aimed at the heart of a father who abandoned his family, consider this endorsement from the prosecutor who put the Manson family behind bars:

"He got his man," says Steve Kaye, who still works for the L.A. County district attorney's office.

Kaye, who teamed with Hodel years ago on other homicide cases, said if George Hodel were still alive, he would file two counts of murder against him. One for the Black Dahlia case and one for the Red Lipstick Murder.

Kaye read the book manuscript before it was published, and stresses he's not speaking for the D.A.'s office. His summary of Hodel's investigation appears in the book, and begins:

"The most haunting murder mystery in Los Angeles County during the 20th century has finally been solved in the 21st century."

Has it been?

My search for answers began at the Lake Arrowhead cabin where Hodel lives with a girlfriend. He opened his book to a photo of himself sitting on his father's lap.

"That's the most ironic photo for me," he said. By his calculation, his father has just murdered the Black Dahlia, and the boy on his lap would become the cop who finds him out.

Hodel, a man the size of Orson Welles, said he had no inkling until he looked through his father's belongings after the man died in 1999.

He came across two photos. They were vaguely familiar, but he couldn't place them at first. Then one day it hit him.

The Black Dahlia.

In both photos, the woman's eyes are closed, so it was hard to be sure. But after poring through dozens of published photographs of Betty Short, he was convinced.

Hodel dug up news accounts and found another surprise. The handwriting on a taunting note sent to a newspaper, allegedly from the Black Dahlia killer, was similar to his father's.

He also noticed a similarity in the message scrawled on the body of Jeanne French, and sent copies, along with notes by his father, to a handwriting analyst. She said it was "highly probable" that all the writing was done by one person.

So what else did he have?

Steve Hodel's older brother, Duncan, recalled their father using red lipstick to write on a topless woman at a party.

Joe Barrett, now 75, rented a room at the Hodel house more than 50 years ago. He recalled Steve's mother telling him that George Hodel was a suspect, and Barrett also said he was called to the D.A.'s office and asked to spy on George Hodel.

And then there was Steve's sister, Tamar, and the scandal that drove George Hodel out of the country for 40 years. Tamar had accused her father of molesting her in front of guests when she was 14, and later sending her away for an abortion. George Hodel's lawyer ran an all-out smear campaign against Tamar, calling her a promiscuous, incorrigible, pathological liar, and the physician was acquitted.

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