Stephen R. Kay, head deputy for L.A. County's district attorney office in Compton, has prosecuted murder cases for more than 35 years, and he says Steve Hodel has enough facts to convict his father, the late Dr. George Hodel, for at least two murders.
But it wasn't easy for Kay--speaking for himself and not the D.A.'s office--to write a six-page letter to Hodel endorsing his case. He concluded that the evidence was strong enough to indict George Hodel for the Elizabeth Short murder and the mutilation-murder three weeks later of Jeanne French, a case known as the Red Lipstick Murder because the killer wrote an obscenity and the initials BD in lipstick on French's body.
It was difficult for Kay because part of Hodel's case explains how George Hodel evaded the biggest dragnet in city history and continued to live and allegedly kill in Los Angeles for three years until he fled the country in 1950. The explanation involves police corruption that reaches all the way to two now-dead LAPD legends, William Parker, who served as chief from 1950 to 1966, and former chief of detectives Thad Brown, who became interim chief when Parker died.
But Kay has been able to separate the facts of Hodel's case from the broader theory about why the case went unsolved. "I don't have to deal with the police cover-up," Kay says. "The evidence Steve Hodel has uncovered is compelling enough for me without having to confront the issue of the cover-up."
Among dozens of pieces of evidence, Kay cites four key parts of an intricate circumstantial case:
* The handwriting on the 13 taunting notes and letters the apparent killer sent to the police and press in the first few weeks after the murders, as well as the writing on French's body: "Steve identified it as his father's [handwriting], and then he did the right thing. He got an independent evaluation from a court-certified handwriting expert without telling her anything about the person or the case involved. That expert said it is highly probable--the highest you can go without having the original document--that the writing is the same as Dr. Hodel's, and I agree. His block printing is very distinctive."
* The similarities between the Short and French murders: "Short was killed on Jan. 15 and French on Feb. 10," Kay says. "Both were stomped, both suffered blunt-force trauma to the head and both were posed in vacant lots early in the morning. There were so many similarities that it jumped out at me." The most obvious link, he says, is that the killer took the time to write on French's body. "It's clear the killer still had the Black Dahlia on his mind and that he still had a lot of anger toward her even as he was doing this new killing." And, again, the handwriting. Both Hodel and the handwriting expert, Hannah McFarland of Seattle, identified the lipstick printing on French's body as likely being George Hodel's.
* The killer could only be a surgeon, which dramatically shrinks the suspect pool for the Short murder: "It had to be a skilled surgeon because the body was so neatly cut in half with no trauma to the organs and no serrated bones," Kay says. "Anyone else, even someone who worked at a coroner's office, wouldn't be able to do it with that kind of precision. There is no other credible explanation."
* The two photos of Short found by Hodel in his father's album: "The photos prove a physical link between Dr. Hodel and Short," Kay says. He thinks at least one of the pictures--showing a woman naked with her eyes closed--is definitely Short. He also agrees with Hodel that even if one or both turn out not to be Short, it doesn't negate the supporting evidence that has surfaced since Hodel undertook his investigation. "Steve has taken the case way beyond the pictures," Kay says. "It no longer depends on the pictures."--P.T.