The Magazine

Daddy Did It

Steve Hodel finds a new suspect for Black Dahlia's murder.

Aug 18, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 46 • By JON L. BREEN
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After Dr. Hodel's death in 1999 at age ninety-two, Steve Hodel found in his father's album a pair of photos that piqued his curiosity. Believing both to be of the same woman--and that woman Elizabeth Short--he began to research the Dahlia case, without access to police files but using newspaper accounts and personal contacts. His investigation led him to conclude that his father not only murdered Elizabeth Short but killed several other Los Angeles women as well. Furthermore, he connects his father's alleged partner in crime, Fred Sexton, to yet more murders, committed after Dr. Hodel left the country, including the 1958 killing of Geneva Hilliker Ellroy, mother of novelist James Ellroy.

Serial killers were not as closely studied nor as well understood in the 1940s as they are today, and the lack of cooperation among law enforcement agencies made the connections between their crimes less likely to be detected. Still, many at the time believed one killer might have been responsible for several slayings of young women, including the Black Dahlia, though the Los Angeles police department finally, and somewhat inexplicably, adopted the official position that the killing was an isolated crime.

As a police detective, Hodel knows how to build a case. Much of the circumstantial evidence he gathers is persuasive, especially the connection, bolstered by support from a graphology expert, between hand-printed messages to the police and press, ostensibly from the Black Dahlia killer, and his father's own writing. Some of them were signed "Black Dahlia Avenger" or with the abbreviation "B.D.A." Like the Jack the Ripper letters, which they often resembled, these might have been hoaxes. But a message in the same style of printing, including the letters "B.D.," was found written in lipstick on a subsequent victim, Jeanne French, whose nude and mutilated body was found, in another vacant lot, on February 10, 1947.

THE ACHIEVEMENTS of Chief William Parker and Chief of Detectives Thad Brown--who turned Los Angeles's tarnished and corrupt police department into the exemplary big-city force celebrated on the radio and television program "Dragnet"--were real. But along the way, claims Hodel, they were party to one of the most infamous cover-ups in law enforcement history. Hodel contends that his father was known by Los Angeles police to be the Black Dahlia killer but escaped justice because he knew too much about local vice, including an abortion clinic run by two detectives, and police connections to organized crime.

Steve Hodel has made a solid prima facie case against his father, one that gets a stamp of approval from Los Angeles County's Head Deputy District Attorney Stephen Kay. Information revealed since the publication of Hodel's book supports the claim that his father was a prime Black Dahlia suspect. Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez quotes the following statement by Dr. Hodel from wiretaps of his phone: "Supposin' I did kill the Black Dahlia. They couldn't prove it now. They can't talk to my secretary, because she's dead."

BUT THERE ARE still problems with the account in "Black Dahlia Avenger." In accusing a parent of the crime, Hodel joins a bizarre subgenre already occupied by the generally derided "Daddy Was the Black Dahlia Killer" (1995), in which Janice Knowlton (assisted by writing pro Mike Newton) blamed her father for the crime--by relying on repressed memories. Some of the cynical ridicule vented on Knowlton has spilled over onto Hodel, and the spectacle of a son pinning such heinous crimes on his own father, who is both beyond earthly justice and unable to defend himself, invites questions of morbid psychology, familial disloyalty, exploitation, insensitivity, and greed.

But Hodel doesn't show such morbid tendencies in other ways. He reveals a respectful attitude to Elizabeth Short in his refusal to depict her as a prostitute or to reproduce graphic post-mortem photos, and he is openly disgusted with Will Fowler's trivializing of a torture murder as "an unopened present" and "a wondrous thing" in his 1991 memoir "Reporters." In accusing his father, Steve Hodel is also salvaging the reputation of his half-sister, who at the time of the incest trial was excoriated by Dr. Hodel as a pathological liar, a charge believed even by her own family. Indeed, Tamar Hodel's witness-stand statement that her father killed the Black Dahlia was a factor in the jury's disbelief.