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The Most Credible Story Ever Told?

Former LAPD Detective Steve Hodel wants to convince the world that his father was L.A.'s fabled Black Dahlia killer. Slowly, surely, the converts are lining up behind him.

November 21, 2004|Paul Teetor | Paul Teetor's last story for the magazine was about a mentally ill woman charged with a hate-crime murder.

In a two-hour media briefing last month, two LAPD robbery-homicide detectives poked holes in Hodel's case and delivered the department's bottom line: Yes, Dr. Hodel was a suspect and, yes, he could have done it. But because almost all the physical evidence has disappeared from its files--evidence that included the 13 taunting notes the killer sent police and the media and which, through careful analysis, could prove or disprove Hodel's conclusion, the case will never be closed.

Chief William J. Bratton seconded that opinion: "I'm not interested in a 50-year-old case, and we're not going to spend any more time or money on it."

The LAPD wasn't the first to set aside Hodel's findings. He woke up one Sunday in May 2003 to a scornful Los Angeles Times book review by novelist Gary Indiana, who concluded: "It is, finally, and not at all sympathetically, appalling that a homicide detective would sell out his professional integrity to produce this piece of meretricious, revolting twaddle, which amounts to evidence manufacturing, litigation-proof slander and chicanery on a fabulous scale and does absolutely nothing to answer the question: Who killed Elizabeth Short?"

Hodel doesn't like to talk about that review because he knows it sounds like sour grapes. "It's his right to say anything he wants about the book," Hodel says. "But when he attacks my professional integrity and accuses me of manufacturing evidence, I think that goes over the line. How can a book reviewer just slander you and make crazy accusations like that?"

Hodel's friends and family say Indiana's review was traumatic for him. "Steve is a sensitive guy. That was tough for him because he's a man of immense integrity," says Bellingham attorney Dennis Murphy. "Integrity is the foundation of his professional success both in L.A. and here in Washington [as a private investigator]."

Murphy was one of only three people Hodel confided in when he was investigating his father and slowly, reluctantly coming to his horrific conclusions. Indiana's scathing review triggered criticism on the Internet from Dahlia cultists who derided Hodel and his Daddy-did-it theory, which echoed a little-noted 1995 book by Janice Knowlton, based on supposedly repressed memories, called "Daddy Was the Black Dahlia Killer."

"There's a lot of vitriolic stuff about Steve and his book on the Net," Murphy says. "Some people are trying to assassinate him, but Steve has met it professionally each step of the way and just methodically gone about proving his case."

Hodel was particularly stunned by the local response to his book because he is retired LAPD, and because of advance publicity his book received from Times columnist Steve Lopez, who shortly before the release of "Black Dahlia Avenger" persuaded Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley to let him look at his office's previously unreleased Black Dahlia files. (Hodel didn't realize that the D.A.'s office had reinvestigated the case until his book was finished.) In 1950, in a complicated bureaucratic maneuver that Hodel claims was part of a larger cover-up, the D.A.'s office formally closed its reinvestigation of the Black Dahlia case and turned over copies of its files to the LAPD. To this day, the department has refused to open its files. But as soon as Lopez opened the D.A.'s original file, he wrote, a picture of George Hodel fell out. Other documents revealed that Hodel was indeed a suspect and that the police had bugged his house at 5121 Franklin Ave., a magnificent re-creation of a Mayan temple where Hodel believes Short was tortured and killed before being taken to Leimert Park. Lopez even found transcripts of conversations recorded inside that house, including one from Feb. 18, 1950, in which Dr. Hodel says: "Supposin' I did kill the Black Dahlia. They couldn't prove it now. They can't talk to my secretary anymore because she's dead."

The hidden microphones also recorded, on Feb. 19, 1950, a woman crying as she tried to call the operator. Later, there are what seem to be sounds of digging and of a shovel hitting a pipe. Five minutes later, the microphones recorded a woman's scream, and then two minutes later a second scream. Steve Hodel says he has no idea who the screaming woman was, although it was not his father's secretary, Ruth Spaulding, who was listed as an overdose suicide in 1945 despite police suspicions that George Hodel may have killed her. That same day, he was recorded alluding to his connections in local law enforcement agencies and saying, "I'd like to get a connection made in the D.A.'s office."

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