Steve Hodel had stumbled across the photos in a family album shortly after his father, George died a few years ago. The two pictures were of a striking young woman, a beauty with downcast eyes and flowers in her dark hair. Steve asked his father's widow, June, who the woman might be, but she had no idea. A retired Los Angeles homicide defective Steve thought she looked familiar but just couldn't put his finger on her identity. "It was like a talisman," says Hodel, 61. "There was something about these photos."
From that chance discovery Hodel appears to have solved one of the most sensational murders in the history of Los Angeles: the 1947 killing and dismembering of a 22-year-old aspiring actress named Elizabeth Short, a crime that became known as the case of the Black Dahlia. For years the fascinated the public and fed the imagination of writers, notably novelists James Ellroy and John Gregory Dunne (in True Confessions). But having at last gotten to the bottom of it all in his bestseller Black Dahlia Avenger: The True Story, Hodel almost wishes he hadn't. For in a twist worthy of any fictional account, it turns out that the killer was very likely his own father. "I told Steve, if his father was still alive, I would have filed murder charges against him," says Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney Steve Kay, with whom Hodel first shared his findings. "His evidence was very persuasive."
For Hodel, who embarked on his sleuthing in 1999, the year his father died at age 91, the first clue was the flowers in the hair of the woman in the picture. A 24-year veteran of the LAPD and about 300 murder investigations, he was generally familiar with the Black Dahlia case, including the fact that Elizabeth Short often wore flowers in her hair. Intrigued by the possible connection, Hodel, who was then working as a private investigator in Bellingham, Wash., began to research everything about the death of Short, whose body had been found mutilated and cleanly severed in half in a Los Angeles park on Jan. 15, 1947. He discovered that the original investigators had concluded that only a surgeon could have performed the grisly task with such precision. "It took that kind of medical finesse," says Hodel "somebody with real skill." Suddenly it did not seem a coincidence that his father, George, had been a surgeon.
George Hodel was a remarkable man in many ways. He was brilliant, charismatic and "he was very promiscuous," says Hodel. "Sex was vital to him." At 15, with an IQ of 186, he was admitted to the California Institute of Technology but after a year was kicked out, some say because of an affair with a much older woman. He eventually went on to medical school at the University of California, San Francisco. Meanwhile Hodel's personal life was chaotic at best: He married three times and had 11 children by five women. Well-connected and possessed of considerable charm, he hosted wild parties in the '40s for a fast Hollywood crowd that included the likes of filmmaker John Huston, novelist Henry Miller and photographer Man Ray.
Among the many women he had affairs with was Elizabeth Short. After her killing, says Hodel, "five witnesses in newspapers described him as her boyfriend." The motive for the murder? In part, jealousy. Dr. Hodel, says his son, was as possessive as he was promiscuous—and Short was involved with another man. But Steve also believes his father was a sadist who got sexual pleasure from killing. Not long after Short's body was found, a newspaper received a taunting, handwritten note from the killer. An expert told Steve that the sample matched his father's handwriting. It soon became clear that at the time of the murder, L.A. cops considered George Hodel one of their prime suspects because of his relationship with Short. Indeed, after Steve completed his manuscript, a Los Angeles Times reporter was granted unprecedented access to the 50-year-old grand jury file that included transcripts from bugs placed at George Hodel's home. In one of the recorded conversations, George is heard bragging, "Supposing I did kill the Black Dahlia. They couldn't prove it now." Says deputy D.A. Kay: "I would love to have that statement in front of a jury."
So why didn't cops build their case and arrest Hodel at the time? Steve, who thinks George may also have killed a dozen other women in L.A., believes that his father was in cahoots with crooked cops running a high-end abortion business and was thus given protection. When the D.A.'s office started breathing down his neck in 1950, George skipped town without his family, ending up in the Philippines, where he lived for the next 40 years. In the decades that followed, Steve, who has two grown sons by a previous marriage, again met up with his father and ultimately forged a close relationship with him. His feelings remain conflicted. "He was a true-life Jekyll and Hyde," says Steve. "I grew to hate the monster, the murder. But the Dr. Jekyll I love to this day."
John Hannah in Lake Arrowhead, Calif.
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