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Los Angeles | L.A. THEN AND NOW

The Real-Life Sleuth Who Inspired 'Dragnet' Character

November 16, 2003|Cecilia Rasmussen | Times Staff Writer

"He thought it was very strange for a woman [Peete] who displayed freshly cut flowers throughout the house to have a beautiful raised flower bed empty of flowers," Ruby Pinker said. "That's where they found the [missing woman's] body."

In 1947, the same year Peete was executed in the gas chamber, Pinker would begin to weigh, photograph and dissect the evidence in the most notorious unsolved murder in Los Angeles history -- the Black Dahlia case.

Her body was found in a vacant lot in Leimert Park, cut in half, mutilated, neatly scrubbed and drained of blood. She was identified as Elizabeth Short, a 22-year-old cashier and waitress.

She was nicknamed the Black Dahlia, which her friends reportedly had called her because of her black hair. Every interesting murder needed a nickname in those days, and the press gleefully jumped on one.

Pinker was interested in more than "just the facts, ma'am," the fictional Joe Friday's catch phrase. Will Fowler, then a reporter for the Los Angeles Examiner, recalled in his 1991 book, "Reporters," some of the little clues that Pinker had taught him to look for in a murder victim, "little signatures of disclosure to inform the keen eye."

When it came to Elizabeth Short, Pinker deduced that the slashed mouth and other gruesome wounds had been inflicted while she was still alive.

"She was a professional sponger, not an out-and-out prostitute," Ruby Pinker said. "She didn't like to work and wanted to play, which she did, and paid for it in the end. Ray pitied her because she was a beautiful girl with such terrible teeth," plugged with wax, "a sign that nobody cared about her."

(One of the people scheduled to attend the event next weekend is author Steve Hodel, who believes his father was the killer.)

Pinker and his first wife had divorced and, in 1947, he met Ruby, whom he married in 1948.

Instead of a honeymoon, the Pinkers hung out at the old Orange County Courthouse in Santa Ana, where Beulah Louise Overell, 17, and her boyfriend, Bud Gollum, 21, were on trial for bludgeoning her wealthy parents to death and blowing up their yacht in Newport Harbor, with the bodies aboard.

As a noted forensic specialist, Pinker was brought in to help investigate the case and testify about his findings. The couple was acquitted, but Ruby Pinker is convinced that the jury "just looked the other way, not believing those kids could do such a thing to her parents ... the evidence against them was overwhelming."

In 1955, the LAPD moved its headquarters to a new $7-million building on Los Angeles Street, the present Parker Center. Pinker was like a kid in a candy store.

His new $200,000 arsenal covered the entire fourth floor. Its equipment included centrifuges, spectrophotometers, spectrographs and other precision analytic instruments widely used in chemistry and medicine.

More than four decades later, the same crime lab would be portrayed in the O.J. Simpson trial as a "cesspool of contamination," which led to another round of modernization.

In 1965, after 36 years and a pile of commendations from across the globe, Pinker left the department to teach police science at Cal State Los Angeles. He died in 1979 at age 74.

Ruby Pinker is a tiny, vivacious woman who has been volunteering for 22 years at the Braille Institute, where she keeps bowling scores and reads books to the blind. She's close to Pinker's two daughters from his first marriage. And she's pleased about the Ray Pinker Award, but sorry that it didn't come while he was still alive.

"He was a wonderful man and I know all the boys at the California Assn. of Criminalists, which Ray helped found, will be tickled too," she said. "Ray kept everything inside. I know he would have been quietly pleased, but he wouldn't have done a handstand."

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