The sins of the father

The sins of the father

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Associated Press


He carries it in his pocket as a talisman, a tiny 3-inch book of grainy photos that he touches now and then as if reminding himself that the horror is real.

Steve Hodel, a retired LAPD homicide detective, is adjusting to the discovery of evidence, including this little book, that he said proves his late father, a respected Los Angeles doctor, was the torture killer of Elizabeth Short, the so-called Black Dahlia. Hodel believes his father might have killed several other women, as well.

If he is correct, Hodel has cracked a more than half-century-old murder case that is the oldest and most notorious of Los Angeles' unsolved "cold cases." It also is one of the most sensational, a mystery replete with a beautiful victim, a grotesque murder, an incest trial and famous characters from the heyday of old Hollywood.

Hodel, 61, has written this gruesome tale in a book, "Black Dahlia Avenger."

"This is Hannibal Lecter meets LA Confidential in Chinatown," said Hodel, who now lives in Lake Arrowhead, a mountain town east of Los Angeles. "You couldn't make up a story like this.

"Even before this, people would say to me, 'Your family is so interesting you should write a book,"' Hodel said in an interview. "But the fact that I would grow up to be a policeman and then discover this, well…" His voice trails off in sadness.

In his book, Hodel paints his father, Dr. George Hodel, as a fiend who tortured and carved up a young woman and perhaps went on to kill others before he abandoned his family and fled the United States.

"I loved my father and respected him," Hodel said. "His blood flows through my body. He gave me being. But now I have come to look at my father as the true Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde."

Steve Hodel's journey into the darkness of his father's life began with the little brown photo album given to him by his father's widow when the elder Hodel died in 1999 at the age of 91. Its yellowing pages contained snapshots of some of George Hodel's 11 children from four marriages, including Steve and his mother, the ex-wife of director John Huston.

But what caught his eye were two carefully posed and framed photographs of a mystery woman with flowers in her hair.

"It wasn't immediate recognition," the author recalls. "But I thought, 'Why do I know this face?"'

He remembered a movie about the Black Dahlia case and began to do computer research, comparing the photos in the album with those of Elizabeth Short.

"Initially, I was sure there was some other explanation," Hodel said. "Dad knew a lot of beautiful women. I was in denial."

But as his research continued, his conclusion became inescapable.

Dr. George Hodel was a man with a genius I.Q. who socialized with Hollywood legends such as Huston and artist-photographer Man Ray. He is shown in his son's book as the central figure in a depraved social set that dabbled in orgies and drugs.

The 1947 Black Dahlia killing is a Los Angeles legend. The body was severed at the waist, drained of blood and washed, then carefully posed in a vacant lot. Hodel said the pose was right out of a sculpture by Dr. Hodel's famous friend, Man Ray.

Contributing to the crime's enduring fascination were the beauty of the 22-year-old victim, who wore dahlias in her black hair, and the stories circulated at the time of her Hollywood ambitions.

"It's become synonymous with unsolved murders of beautiful women," said Sandi Gibbons, spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County district attorney's office.

Mystery writer Robert Crais, the author of, "L.A. Requiem" and other books set in Los Angeles, said it was no ordinary crime.

"Certain things are part of the fabric of Los Angeles," he said, "and the Black Dahlia is one of them."

Elizabeth Short had come from Massachusetts in the 1940s in search of a better life. She dated many men and lost her true love in a wartime plane crash. Records show that several witnesses identified Short as a girlfriend of Dr. George Hodel.

When District Attorney Steve Cooley decided recently to release the long-secret files on the case, Steve Hodel's theory gained substance. His father's photograph was in the file, along with transcripts of electronic surveillance on his home for three weeks in 1950.

The reports are fragile, typed on onionskin paper that is yellowed and crumbling. But they make clear that Dr. Hodel was one of the prime suspects in the investigation of Short's murder.

He had been tried and acquitted on a charge of committing incest on his 14-year-old daughter in a sensational 1949 trial during which the Black Dahlia was mentioned. Afterward, police electronically bugged his Hollywood mansion, a Mayan-style edifice designed by Frank Lloyd Wright's son Lloyd Wright, where the rich and famous partied.

The transcripts of overheard conversations include a statement in Hodel's voice saying: "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."

At another point, he is quoted as saying, "Maybe I did kill my secretary."

And there is a tape in which a woman is heard screaming.

The younger Hodel now believes that his father killed the secretary to keep her from talking. He also links Dr. Hodel to the so-called "red lipstick murder" of Jeanne French, a woman found slain within weeks of Short's murder with an obscenity and the initials "B.D." scrawled on her nude body in red lipstick.

The author also said he recognizes his father's handwriting on taunting cards and letters sent to police after the Black Dahlia killing. He said his research indicates that his father and an alleged accomplice might also be linked to the murders of seven other women and suggests they were serial killers.

Why didn't the police prosecute Hodel's father? The book offers a complicated theory involving police corruption and Hodel's position as the doctor who worked with the public health department in treating venereal diseases in Los Angeles. His medical files might have included some famous names. Steve Hodel also suggests some authorities were bribed.

He also notes that as the investigation progressed, Dr. Hodel left the country, spending most of the rest of his life in the Philippines.

Hodel's theory, placing his father in the same league as Jack the Ripper, is not without its skeptics.

Over the years, many people confessed to being the Black Dahlia killer, but no one was ever charged.

Books were written and movies made about the case. Dozens of Web sites are devoted to it.

Theories abound about who might have killed Elizabeth Short. One writer even tried to implicate director Orson Welles.

A supporter of Hodel's theory is Deputy District Attorney Stephen Kay, a former prosecutor in the Charles Manson case who worked with Steve Hodel for many years. He said Hodel's story is different because he arrives with unusual credentials. For 24 years, he was an LAPD homicide detective assigned to Hollywood.

"He had a reputation for honesty and being a good investigator," Kay said.

When the younger Hodel began his unusual project, he went to Kay and swore him to secrecy. The prosecutor, stepping outside his official duties, said he would privately examine Hodel's evidence and tell him if the case could have been prosecuted.

At the time Hodel wrote the book, the DA's files were not open to him. He gleaned most of his information from newspapers, public documents and family archives.

Based on Hodel's evidence, Kay said he would have no reluctance to file a murder case against Dr. Hodel if he was alive.

Hodel has broken with some family members over his book. His father's widow no longer speaks to him. But his half-sister, Tamar, the subject of the incest trial, is convinced he is right.

"I always thought my father had killed the Black Dahlia," she said in a telephone interview. "I said it back then."

Tamar Hodel, now 68 and living in Hawaii, said she was branded a liar in the trial and went into exile with her mother in Mexico after the scandal.

"Now everything is falling into a clear light," she said.

"Even with all the horrible things they said about me, I was under my father's spell for quite awhile," she said. "But I'm so glad I told the truth … Now I understand his cruelty, and I see it had nothing to do with me."

Steve Hodel believes his search was worthwhile. He said he often imagined Elizabeth Short and the other women his father may have killed crying out for justice.

"I've investigated 300 murders, and I've never seen anything close to this," he said. "I feel that I was being guided to find these important truths. It's been a spiritual trip for me."


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