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Many Black Dahlia suspects, or persons of interest, have been proposed as the unidentified killer of Elizabeth Short, nicknamed the Black Dahlia, who was murdered in 1947. Many theories have been advanced, but none have been found to be completely persuasive by experts, and some are not taken seriously at all.
The murder investigation by the LAPD was the largest since the murder of Marion Parker in 1927, and involved hundreds of officers borrowed from other law enforcement agencies. Sensational and sometimes inaccurate press coverage, as well as the nature of the crime, focused intense public attention on the case. As the case continues to command public attention, many more people have been proposed as Short's killer, much like London's Jack the Ripper murders.
Because of the complexity of the case, the original investigators treated every person who knew Elizabeth Short as a suspect who had to be eliminated. Hundreds of people were considered suspects and thousands were interviewed by police.
People dismissed as suspects early in the investigation include Daniel S. Voorhees.
While some of the original 25 suspects were discounted, new ones have arisen. At present the following suspects are discussed by various authors and experts:
Dr. Walter Alonzo Bayley was a Los Angeles surgeon who lived in a house one block south of the vacant lot in which Elizabeth Short's body was found, until he left his wife in October 1946. At the time of the murder, Bayley's estranged wife still lived in the home. Bayley's daughter was a friend of Elizabeth Short's sister Virginia and brother-in-law Adrian and had been the matron of honor at their wedding. When Bayley died in January 1948, his autopsy showed that he was suffering from degenerative brain disease. After his death, Bayley's widow alleged that his mistress knew a "terrible secret" about Bayley and claimed this was the reason the mistress was the main beneficiary upon his death. Bayley was never a suspect in the case, but many medical doctors and others with medical training were. In secret testimony, Detective Harry Hansen, one of the original investigators, told the 1949 Los Angeles County grand jury that in his opinion the killer was a "top medical man" and "a fine surgeon." Bayley was 67 years old at the time of the murder, had no known history of violence or criminal activity of any kind, and is not known to have met Short, even though his daughter was a friend of Short's oldest sister.
When Larry Harnisch, a copy editor and writer for the Los Angeles Times, began studying the case in 1996, he eventually concluded that Bayley could be Elizabeth Short's killer. Although critics of Harnisch's theory question whether Bayley's mental and physical condition at the time of the murder would have been consistent with the commission of this type of crime, the original investigators' theory that the body was cut in half because the killer wasn't strong enough to move it intact partially answers this objection. Harnisch theorizes that Bayley’s neurological deterioration contributed to his alleged violence against Short. Some have suggested that the secret that Bayley’s mistress was blackmailing him with was that he had performed abortions, then a crime. However, there is no evidence that Bayley performed abortions or associated with anyone involved in performing abortions. Author James Ellroy endorsed Harnisch's theory in the 2001 film James Ellroy's Feast of Death.
Among the behavioral/psychological evidence that Harnisch marshals as part of his theory: Walter Bayley’s neurodegenerative condition was known to produce violent behavior in otherwise passive individuals; Bayley’s surgical specializations included mastectomies, hysterectomies, and the surgical removal of fat; in conversation with Bayley’s former receptionist, Harnisch discovered that Bayley and his mistress would, at dinnertime, watch movies of surgeries and autopsies.
In devising his theory, Harnisch consulted retired FBI profiler John E. Douglas, who advised that the very public location of the dump site must have some significance, since the killer had the ability to transport the body to a more remote site, where it may not have been discovered; the dump site was one block away from property owned by Ruth Bayley, Walter Bayley’s estranged wife.
Douglas also advised that the facial lacerations indicated personal anger towards the victim: Elizabeth Short would often falsely tell men that she had a son who had died tragically; Walter Bayley did, in fact, have a son who was struck by a car and killed at age 11. The deceased Walter Bayley Jr.’ s birthday was January 13th; Elizabeth Short’s body was discovered on January 15th.
Chandler, publisher of the Los Angeles Times, is accused of involvement in Elizabeth Short's murder in Donald Wolfe's The Mob, the Mogul, and the Murder That Transfixed Los Angeles. In a complicated scenario involving multiple perpetrators, Wolfe claims that Chandler impregnated Short while she was working as a call girl for the notorious Hollywood "madam" Brenda Allen, which led to Short's murder at the hands of gangster Bugsy Siegel. Wolfe's claim that Short was a prostitute is at odds with the Los Angeles County district attorney's files, which plainly state that she was not, as Wolfe asserted, pregnant.
Leslie Dillon was a 27-year-old bellhop, aspiring writer and former mortician's assistant who became a suspect in the case when he began writing to LAPD police psychiatrist Dr. J. Paul De River in October 1948. Dillon was living in Florida at the time of his correspondence with De River, but had formerly lived in Los Angeles. Dillon read a story about the case in a "true detective" magazine in which De River was quoted and wrote to De River regarding his theories on the case, and mentioning his intense interest in sadism and sexual psychopathia in hopes of authoring a book on the subject. Contrary to public perception, Dillon, unlike so many other headline chasers involved at the time, was not a Confessing Sam. He never confessed or admitted to the crime but rather offered up another man as a likely suspect, a friend of his named Jeff Connors. Over the course of their correspondence, De River began to believe that Connors was a figment of Dillon's imagination and that Dillon had committed the murder himself. After the correspondence, in December 1948 Dillon agreed to meet with De River and was given the choice of one of three cities, Phoenix, Los Angeles, or Las Vegas. Dillon expressed reservations about Los Angeles and chose Las Vegas instead and was sent an airline ticket. De River and a few undercover LAPD officers met Dillon in Las Vegas for a couple of days and then proceeded to drive back to California. Once there, Dillon had hopes of going to San Francisco to point out his friend Jeff Connors to De River. After reaching San Francisco, they searched for Jeff Connors but failed to locate him. Only after not being able to track down Connors in San Francisco and offering up intimate details about the crime that even investigators had difficultly explaining was Dillon then handcuffed by an undercover officer and officially taken into custody for their trip back to Los Angeles. After this happened, Dillon sailed a postcard out a hotel window with a plea for help on it; it was discovered by a passerby and turned into local authorities.
After De River and the undercover officers had Dillon in Los Angeles, police soon discovered that Jeff Connors was a real person whose real name was Artie Lane. Lane had lived in Los Angeles at the time of the murder and was employed by Columbia Studios, a favorite hangout of Elizabeth Short's, as a maintenance man. However, contrary to popular belief, Leslie Dillon could not be conclusively placed in San Francisco at the time of the murder. Police concluded that Dillon was most likely in San Francisco at the time of the murder, but not that he conclusively was. In fact, police never could account for Dillon's whereabouts between January 9 and January 15, 1947. Dillon later filed a $100,000 claim against the City of Los Angeles but quickly dropped the lawsuit after it came to light that he was wanted by Santa Monica police for robbing the vault of a Santa Monica hotel while employed there as a bellhop a few years earlier. This "scandal" caused by the Dillon affair partially triggered a 1949 grand jury investigation of police handling of the Black Dahlia case and some other unsolved murders. In 2004, De River's daughter, Jacque Daniel, published a book called The Curse of the Black Dahlia in which she expressed her belief that her father had been unfairly maligned for the Dillon affair.
Joseph Dumais, a 29-year-old soldier stationed at Fort Dix, New Jersey, confessed to the murder a few weeks after it occurred. Although this "breakthrough" was quickly dismissed by the original investigators, the Los Angeles press covered it enthusiastically until it was revealed that Dumais had been at Fort Dix at the time of the murder. Dumais was cleared of any involvement in the crime, although he continued to claim he killed Elizabeth Short each time he was arrested for various offenses, well into the 1950s.
Mark Hansen was a Hollywood nightclub and theater owner who knew Short while she was in Los Angeles. Short lived in Hansen's home, as a paying boarder or as a guest (accounts vary), on several occasions between May 1946 and October 1946. Hansen's girlfriend Ann Toth shared a room with Short in this house, which was near Hansen's nightclub, the Florentine Gardens. Short called Hansen in Los Angeles from San Diego on January 8 or 9, making him one of the last people known to have spoken to her. Los Angeles district attorney files indicate that Hansen made contradictory statements to authorities about the nature of this conversation. An address book embossed with Hansen's name was among Short's belongings mailed to a newspaper after Short's murder by someone claiming to be her killer. The address book belonged to Hansen, but he had never used it. Short had been using it as her own. Los Angeles district attorney files indicate that Hansen had tried to seduce Short but she rebuffed him. Hansen was one of the first serious suspects in the case and he was still a prime suspect as late as the 1951 DA's investigation and grand jury inquest. Hansen was linked to three other suspects in the case, each of whom was a medical doctor: Dr. Patrick S. O’Reilly, Dr. M. M. Schwartz, and Dr. Arthur McGinnis Faught.
Hansen died of natural causes in 1964. No charges were ever brought against him. He had no criminal record and no known history of violence. Popular accounts of the Black Dahlia case often portray Hansen as having connections to organized crime, but there is no evidence of this.
Dr. George Hill Hodel, Jr. came under police scrutiny in October 1949, when his 14-year-old daughter, Tamar, accused him of molesting her. Three witnesses testified at his trial that they were present in the room and saw him having sex with Tamar. Another witness, who had previously admitted that she had participated in sex acts with Tamar, recanted and refused to testify. Hodel was acquitted of the charges in December 1949. The molestation case led the LAPD to include Hodel, a physician specializing in public health and sexually transmitted diseases, among its many suspects in the Dahlia case. Authorities put Hodel under surveillance from February 18 to March 27, 1950, including the installation of two microphones in his home, monitored by over 18 detectives, to ascertain whether he could be implicated in the murder. In the surviving transcripts, Dr. Hodel is heard making highly incriminating statements.
"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.... They thought there was something fishy. Anyway, now they may have figured it out. Killed her. Maybe I did kill my secretary...." - George Hodel. February 18, 1950
Ruth Spaulding died from an overdose and Hodel was investigated by the LAPD in 1945 for her suspected murder. He was present when Spaulding died and had burnt some of her papers before police were called. The case was dropped owing to lack of evidence, but documents were later found that indicated Spaulding may have been about to make public that Hodel was intentionally misdiagnosing patients and billing them for laboratory tests, medical treatment, and prescriptions not needed. Hodel's son, former LAPD homicide detective Steve Hodel, believes Elizabeth Short may have been one of his father's patients.
In the final report to the grand jury, dated February 20, 1951, Lt. Frank Jemison of the Los Angeles County district attorney's office wrote:
Doctor George Hodel, M.D. 5121 Fountain [Franklin] Avenue, at the time of this murder had a clinic at East First Street near Alameda. Lillian DeNorak [Lenorak] who lived with this doctor said he spent some time around the Biltmore Hotel and identified the photo of victim Short as a photo of one of the doctor's girl friends. Tamar Hodel, fifteen year old daughter, stated that her mother, Dorothy Hodel, has told her that her father had been out all night on a party the night of the murder and said, "They’ll never be able to prove I did that murder." Two microphones were placed in this suspect's home (see the log and recordings made over approximately three weeks time which tend to prove his innocence. See statement of Dorothy Hodel, former wife). Informant Lillian DeNorak [Lenorak] has been committed to the State Mental Institution at Camarillo. Joe Barrett, a roomer at the Hodel residence cooperated as an informant. A photograph of the suspect in the nude with a nude identified colored model was secured from his personal effects. Undersigned identified this model as Mattie Comfort, 3423½ South Arlington, Republic 4953. She said that she was with Doctor Hodel sometime prior to the murder and that she knew nothing about his being associated with the victim. Rudolph Walthers, known to have been acquainted with victim and also with suspect Hodel, claimed he had not seen victim in the presence of Hodel and did not believe that the doctor had ever met the victim. The following acquaintances of Hodel were questioned and none were able to connect the suspect with murder: Fred Sexton, 1020 White Knoll Drive; Nita Moladero, 1617½ North Normandy [Normandie]; Ellen Taylor 5121 Fountain Avenue; Finlay Thomas, 616½ South Normandy [Normandie]; Mildred B. Colby, 4029 Vista Del Monte Street, Sherman Oaks, this witness was a girlfriend of Charles Smith, abortionist friend of Hodel, Turin Gilkey, 1025 North Wilcox; Irene Summerset, 1236¼ North Edgemont; Norman Beckett, 1025 North Wilcox; Ethel Kane, 1033 North Wilcox; Annette Chase, 1039 North Wilcox; Dorothy Royer, 1636 North Beverly Glenn. See supplemental reports, long sheets and hear recordings, all of which tend to eliminate this suspect.
The report, from which the above excerpt was taken, was submitted at the completion of the D.A.'s investigation of George Hodel and at least 21 other suspects.
In 2003, George Hodel's son, former LAPD homicide detective Steve Hodel, published a book, Black Dahlia Avenger; A Genius for Murder ISBN 1-55970-664-3, claiming his father, who died in 1991, had in fact committed the Black Dahlia murder as well as a host of unsolved murders over the better part of two decades. Steve Hodel says he came up with the idea when he saw two pictures in his dead father's photo album that he claims resemble Short, although Short's family insists they are not of her and many other observers have failed to see the resemblance. Since beginning his investigation, Steve has located and identified one of the photographic subjects as a former friend of George Hodel. The other photograph remains unidentified. Steve Hodel claims he was unaware at the time that his father had been a suspect in the case, although his sister Tamar was friends with Janice Knowlton, author of her own book, Daddy Was The Black Dahlia Killer, and case documents make it clear that Steve's parents and many of their associates knew the senior Hodel was a suspect. After reviewing the information presented in Steve Hodel's book, Head Deputy D.A. Stephen Kay proclaimed the case solved, but others have noted that Kay, who has since retired, formed this conclusion by treating Steve Hodel's many disputed assertions as established fact. Detective Brian Carr, the LAPD officer in charge of the Black Dahlia case at the time of Steve Hodel's briefing, said in a televised interview that he was baffled by Kay's response, adding that if he ever took a case as weak as Steve Hodel's to a prosecutor he would be "laughed out of the office." In a September 2006 television interview with Cold Case Files host Bill Kurtis, Carr added, "I don't have the time to either prove or disprove Hodel's investigation. I am too busy working on active cases." In his most recent book, Most Evil: Avenger, Zodiac, and the Further Serial Murders of Dr. George Hill Hodel ISBN 978-0-525-95132-2, Steve Hodel, with the aid of Ralph Pezzullo, has also claimed that George Hodel was responsible for numerous other high profile murders, including the Zodiac Killer.
Author James Ellroy endorsed Steve Hodel's theory in the foreword to the paperback version of Hodel's book. As of November 2006[update], however, Ellroy has since refused to discuss theories in the case and says he has no idea who the killer was and will never again talk about the Black Dahlia publicly.
Steve Hodel maintains a website (date retrieved June 12, 2013) wherein he continues to update the case with additional discovered information.
Little reliable information is available on George Knowlton, except that he lived in the Los Angeles area at the time of the Black Dahlia murder and died in an automobile accident in 1962. In the early 1990s, George Knowlton's daughter Janice began claiming that she had witnessed her father murdering Elizabeth Short, a claim she based largely on "recovered memories" that surfaced during therapy. The Los Angeles Times said in 1991:
Los Angeles Police Detective John P. St. John, one of the investigators who had been assigned to the case, said he has talked to Knowlton and does not believe there is a connection between the Black Dahlia murder and her father. "We have a lot of people offering up their fathers and various relatives as the Black Dahlia killer," said St. John, better known as Jigsaw John. "The things that she is saying are not consistent with the facts of the case."
Nevertheless, the Westminster Police Department took her claims seriously enough to dig up the grounds around her childhood home, looking for evidence. They found nothing to tie George Knowlton to the crime. In 1995, Janice Knowlton created a sub-genre as the first person to publish a book claiming that his or her own father committed the Black Dahlia murder. The book was written with veteran crime writer Michael Newton. In the book Knowlton, a former professional singer and owner of a public relations company, alleged that her father had been having an affair with Elizabeth Short and that Short was staying in a makeshift bedroom in their garage, where she suffered a miscarriage. Knowlton said she was later forced to accompany her father when he disposed of the body. Knowlton claimed that a former member of the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department told her that her father was considered a suspect in the case by that agency, but this claim is unsupported by the public documents that have been released in the case. She claimed the same source told her that future LAPD chief and California politician Ed Davis and Los Angeles County District Attorney Buron Fitts were suspects in the murder as well. Janice Knowlton died of an overdose of prescription drugs in 2004 in what was deemed a suicide by the Orange County, California, coroner's office.
In a side note to her accusations against her father, Janice Knowlton, who was a frequent contributor as "jgk61". to various online forums wherein the Black Dahlia case was discussed, posted an article to a Usenet group in August 1998 in which she names Dr. George Hodel (see above) as a suspect in the case. Knowlton's sister has since stated on amazon.com's web page for her sister's book, Daddy Was The Black Dahlia Killer, that after publication of Knowlton's book, Tamar Hodel, daughter of George Hodel and sister of Steve Hodel, contacted Knowlton and the two women remained "email pals for several years."
Knowlton also made claims prefiguring those of Black Dahlia Files author Donald Wolfe. In 1999, she claimed in various public forums that Norman Chandler participated in a coverup of the murder. Knowlton claimed that on Halloween 1946 she was sold at the age of nine as a child prostitute to a Pasadena Satanic sex cult. She frequently alleged that she was sold as a child prostitute to a long list of dead movie stars and other notables, including Norman Chandler, Gene Autry (whose name she continually misspelled as Autrey), Arthur Freed, and Walt Disney. Knowlton became so abusive in her Usenet posts that Pacbell canceled her account in 1999.
The last person seen with Elizabeth Short before her disappearance, Manley was the LAPD's top suspect in the first few days after the killing. After two polygraph tests and a sworn alibi, Manley was set free. He also identified Short's handbag purse and one of her shoes after they were discovered in a trashcan on January 25, 1947, several miles from the murder scene. Manley, who had been discharged from the army for mental disability, subsequently suffered a series of nervous breakdowns and claimed to be hearing voices. As a result, he was committed to Patton State Hospital by his wife in 1954. He died on January 16, 1986. The coroner attributed his death to an accidental fall.
According to Los Angeles district attorney files, Dr. Patrick S. O’Reilly was a medical doctor who knew Short through nightclub owner Mark Hansen. According to the files, at the time of the murder O’Reilly was a good friend of Hansen and frequented Hansen's nightclub. Files also state that O'Reilly "attended sex parties at Malibu" with Hansen. O'Reilly had a history of sexually motivated violent crime. He had been convicted of assault with a deadly weapon for "taking his secretary to a motel and sadistically beating her almost to death apparently for no other reason than to satisfy his sexual desires without intercourse," the files state. Further, the files indicate that O'Reilly's right pectoral had been surgically removed, which investigators found similar to the mutilation of Short’s body. The files indicate that O'Reilly had once been married to the daughter of an LAPD captain.
Wilson was a lifelong petty criminal and alcoholic who was interviewed by author John Gilmore while Gilmore was researching his book Severed. After Wilson's death, Gilmore named Wilson as a suspect owing to his alleged acquaintance with Short. Prior to Wilson's death, however, Gilmore made an entirely different claim to the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner in a story appearing January 17, 1982. While Severed says that homicide Detective John St. John was about to "close in" on Wilson based on the material Gilmore provided, St. John told the Herald-Examiner in the same article that he was busy with other killings and would review Gilmore's claims when he got time. As reliable sources of information about the case, such as the FBI files and portions of the Los Angeles district attorney files, have become publicly available, statements about Short and the murder attributed to Wilson in Severed and supposedly tying him to the crime have not been borne out as accurate. Severed also claims Wilson was involved in the murder of Georgette Bauerdorf. Severed and many other sources based on Severed erroneously claim that Short and Bauerdorf knew each other in Los Angeles, supposedly because they were both hostesses at the same nightclub. In reality, by the time Short arrived in Los Angeles in 1946, Bauerdorf had been dead for two years and the nightclub had been closed for a year. Wilson was never a suspect until Gilmore brought him to the attention of authorities.
Wilson figures in Donald Wolfe's book The Mob, The Mogul, And The Murder That Transfixed Los Angeles. Wolfe hypothesizes that Wilson was present at Short's murder and claims a connection between Wilson and gangster Bugsy Siegel through some small-time gangsters Wilson supposedly associated with. He was also part of the military.
Although the vast majority of suspects in the case were male, authorities did not rule out the possibility of a female killer. One theory held that, because Short had checked her baggage, including her clothing and cosmetics, a week before she died, she must have been staying with another woman (who presumably would have loaned Short the essentials) during the intervening time. Another theory was that the assailant bisected Short's body because he or she was not strong enough to move it in one piece. One of the first people to confess to the murder was a WAC sergeant stationed in San Diego. Authorities took the confession seriously enough to investigate and found it groundless. Another suspect is referred to simply as "Queer Woman Surgeon" in the Los Angeles district attorney's files on the case. Newspaper stories at the time implied that Short was a lesbian or bisexual, but the district attorney files state bluntly that Short "had no use for queers."
Folk singer Woody Guthrie was one of the many suspects in the murder, according to the Los Angeles County district attorney's files and Ramblin' Man: The Life and Times of Woody Guthrie written by Ed Cray and published in 2004 by W.W. Norton. According to Cray, Guthrie drew police attention because of some sexually explicit letters and tabloid clippings he sent to a Northern California woman whom he was allegedly stalking. The mailings disturbed the recipient so much that she showed them to her sister in Los Angeles, who contacted the police. Guthrie was quickly cleared of involvement in the murder, but various authorities attempted to prosecute him, with minor success, on charges related to sending prohibited materials through the mail.
In her 1999 book, Mary Pacios, a former neighbor of the Short family in Medford, Massachusetts, suggested filmmaker Orson Welles as a suspect. Pacios bases this theory on such factors as Welles's volatile temperament and his creation of mannequins three months before Short's death that supposedly featured lacerations virtually identical to those inflicted on Short. The mannequins were used in the "house of mirrors" set for The Lady From Shanghai, a film Welles was making with his ex-wife Rita Hayworth around the time of the murder. The scenes containing the set were deleted from the film by Harry Cohn. In one of Short's last letters home, her older sister Virginia claimed she had written that a movie director was going to give her a screen test.
Pacios also cites Welles' familiarity with the site where the body was found and the magic act he performed to entertain soldiers during World War II. She believes that the bisection of the body was part of the killer's signature and an acting out of the perpetrator's obsession. Welles applied for his passport on January 24, 1947, the same day the killer mailed a packet to Los Angeles newspapers. Welles left the country for an extended stay in Europe 10 months after the murder without completing the editing of Macbeth, the film he was both directing and starring in. Despite persistent attempts by Republic Pictures to get him to return to complete the film, he refused. According to Pacios, witnesses she had interviewed state that Welles and the victim both frequented Brittingham's restaurant in Los Angeles during the same time period and waitresses believed Short was going out with someone at Columbia Pictures. Welles was never a suspect in the investigation.