The Black Dahlia: January 15, 1947, A Werewolf on the Loose

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It was after 10 a.m. on January 15, 1947 — Mrs. Betty Bersinger and her three year old daughter Anne were bundled up against the chill of a cold wave that had held L.A. residents in its grip for several days. Mother and daughter were headed south on the west side of Norton when Mrs. Bersinger noticed something pale in the weeds about a foot in from the sidewalk.

Betty Bersinger

Betty Bersinger

At first Bersinger thought she was looking at either a discarded mannequin, or maybe even a live nude woman who had been drinking and had passed out; that particular area was known as a lover’s lane. But it quickly dawned on her that she was in a waking nightmare and that the bright white shape in the weeds was neither a mannequin, nor a drunk. Bersinger said “I was terribly shocked and scared to death, I grabbed Anne and we walked as fast as we could to the first house that had a telephone.”

Over the years several reporters have claimed to have been first on the scene of the murder. One of the people who made that claim was reporter Will Fowler. Fowler said that he and photographer Felix Paegel of the Los Angeles Examiner were approaching Crenshaw Boulevard when they heard a voice on their shortwave radio: “A 390 W, 415 down in an empty lot one block east of Crenshaw between 39th and Coliseum streets…Please investigate…Code Two … (Code Two meant “Drunk Woman,” and a 415 designated “Indecent exposure.”) Fowler couldn’t believe his ears: “…a naked drunk dame passed out in a vacant lot.  Right here in the neighborhood too…Let’s see what it’s all about.”

Paegel drove as Fowler watched for the woman.  “There she is. It’s a body all right…” Fowler got out of the car and walked up to the body as Paegel pulled his Speed Graphic from the trunk of the car. Fowler called out: “Jesus, Felix, this woman’s cut in half!”

That was Fowler’s story, and he stuck to it through the decades. But was it true?

In her autobiography, Newspaperwoman, Aggie Underwood said that she was the first reporter on the scene. There is some information to suggest that  actually a reporter from the Los Angeles Times was the first. After all these years it is impossible to state with certainty who turned up first–and does it really matter?

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Aggie at the Dahlia body dump site. January 15, 1947.

Here is Aggie’s description of what she saw that day on South Norton.

“It [the body] had been cut in half through the abdomen, under the ribs. The two sections were ten or twelve inches apart. The arms, bent at right angles at the elbows, were raised about the shoulders. The legs were spread apart. There were bruises and cuts on the forehead and the face, which had been beaten severely. The hair was blood-matted. Front teeth were missing. Both cheeks were slashed from the corners of the lips almost to the ears. The liver hung out of the torso, and the entire lower section of the body had been hacked, gouged, and unprintably desecrated. It showed sadism at its most frenzied.”

The coroner recorded the victim as Jane Doe #1 for 1947.

Detectives Harry Hansen [L} and Finis Brown [R] examine Black Dahlia crime scene.

Detectives Harry Hansen [L} and Finis Brown [R] examine Black Dahlia crime scene.

Two seasoned LAPD detectives, Harry Hansen and Finis Brown, were in charge of the investigation. During the first twenty-four hours officers pulled in over 150 men for questioning.

dahlia_herald_1_werewolfThe most promising of the early suspects was a twenty-three year old transient, Cecil French. He’d been busted for molesting women in a downtown bus depot.

Cops were further alarmed when they discovered that French had pulled the back seat out of his car. Had he concealed a body there? Police Chemist, Ray Pinker, determined that the floor mats of French’s car were free of blood or any other physical evidence of a bloody murder.

In her initial coverage Aggie referred to the case as the “Werewolf” slaying due to the savagery of the mutilations inflicted on the unknown young woman. Aggie’s werewolf tag would identify the case for a few more days until a much better one was discovered — The Black Dahlia.

NEXT TIME: The bisected body of the young woman found in Leimert Park is identified.

REFERENCES: 

Fowler, Will (1991).  “Reporters” Memoirs of a Young Newspaperman.

Gilmore, John (2001). Severed: The True Story of the Black Dahlia Murder.

Harnisch, Larry. “A Slaying Cloaked in Mystery and Myths“. Los Angeles Times. January 6, 1997.

Underwood, Agness (1949).  Newspaperwoman.

Wagner, Rob Leicester (2000).  The Rise and Fall of Los Angeles Newspapers 1920-1962.

 

The Wilshire Prowler, Part 2

Karil Graham’s former flame, Leon McFadden, passed a lie detector test and was cleared of her murder.

Investigators were back to square one.

Square one in this case was to conduct a thorough search of police department records for recently paroled “hot prowl” burglars living in the area. Hot prowl burglars are the creepazoids who enter a home while it is occupied. The risk is increased for the perpetrator, and that may be the point of it. Sneaking around in a home while the inhabitants watch TV, listen to the radio or, even more terrifying, as they sleep, is a major rush for some of the more twisted souls who walk the planet.

three-suspectsThe records search turned up the names of three possible suspects; although only one of them, a 37-year-old ex-con named Clifford Russell Pridemore, was arrested. LAPD picked him up near 7th and San Julian Streets downtown–the heart of Skid Row. According to detectives, Pridemore was well-dressed when they busted him–a fact which they found to be very suspicious given he had no visible means of support.

Pridemore had been released from Folsom in July 1954 after serving a term for burglary. His modus operandi as a burglar was eerily similar to the circumstances in Karil’s murder case. And the fact that Pridemore had a history of assaulting women made him a solid suspect.pridemore

Curiously, three nurses who lived a few doors down from Karil had slept through the hot prowl burglary of their apartment on the same morning that Karil died. Their empty handbags were found on the porch outside their door. It seemed likely that the person who killed Karil had creepy-crawled through the nurses’ apartment too. Was that man Clifford Pridemore?

While detectives continued to sift through the few available leads, Karil’s brother-in-law, H.L. Manley, made arrangements to clear out the dead woman’s apartment.  One of Karil’s prized possessions was an original water color painting by Raoul Dufy. The painting was valued at about $1800 (over $16,000 in 2016 dollars). Manley told reporters that the painting, along with Karil’s other belongings, were headed for storage “at least until we can decide what to do with them.”

Karil’s body was released by the Coroner on February 23rd and taken to the Heath Funeral Home in National City for a funeral in San Diego–which is where her mother lived.

Police leaned hard on Pridemore but he never wavered in his assertion that he had nothing to do with Karil’s slaying. LAPD assigned another team of detectives to work with Jack McCreadie and Charles Detrich–Howard Hudson and Harry Hansen. Hansen was one of the principal detectives in the 1947 mutilation murder of Elizabeth Short, the Black Dahlia. (The case was unsolved in 1955 and remains so to this day.)

A possible witness, unnamed by the cops for fear of reprisal by the killer, came forward. The witness had observed a man loitering in the immediate vicinity of Karil’s apartment at least twice. Once on the night she was killed.

sluggingA couple of weeks following Karil Graham’s murder police announced they were investigating the slugging of Emily Jones, 26, a local dance hall hostess. Jones had awakened in her apartment at 474 South Hartford Avenue as a prowler attempted to assault her. He beat her with a bottle and his fists, then he fled through a window. Evidently Jones’ assailant had entered the apartment after removing the screen from an unlocked window.

For reasons that they didn’t make public, LAPD detectives were convinced that Jones’ attacker was not the same perpetrator who had bashed Karil’s head in.

Karil’s inquest was held on March 8, 1955 and it took the jury only 10 minutes to decide that she had been murdered “by unknown person(s).”

However, the killer was not Clifford Pridemore–police were able to clear him.woman-beaten

In May 1955 a woman was brutally beaten near the scene of Karil’s slaying. The victim, Nadia Copmpaneitz, a social science student on a visa from France, was attacked by an intruder who ripped the screen from a window in her apartment at 143 North Reno Street.
Nadia told police that she awakened at 4 am–certain that she was not alone in her room. Suddenly gloved hands tightened around her throat. She was able to roll away from the man. Enraged, the intruder beat her and left her with wounds to her scalp and eye. Nadia was fortunate. She lived.

The leads in Kari’s murder dried up and the case went cold.

NEXT TIME:  A knife attack, another murder, and a suspect in Karil Graham’s murder.

The Butcher, Conclusion

lillian johnsonThe murdered and badly mutilated bodies of two women were found at separate downtown Los Angeles hotels on November 15, 1944.

The first victim to be found was twenty-five year old Mrs. Virgie Lee Griffin of 1934 W. 70th Street. Virgie’s body had been stuffed in a clothes closet in the Barclay Hotel at 103 W. Fourth Street. Near her remains lay a large butcher knife and a razor. A preliminary examination suggested that Mrs. Griffin had been murdered about 8 a.m. The detectives who caught the case were Det. Lts. Harry Hansen (in 1947 he would be one of the lead detectives on the Black Dahlia case), R.F. McGarry, and Stewart Jones. Some of the cops had to be re-deployed when another woman was found dead and mutilated at a hotel just blocks away.

The second victim, thirty-eight year old Mrs. Lillian Johnson of 114 W. 14th Place was discovered just after 3:30 p.m.

Even seasoned veterans of L.A.P.D’s homicide division were sickened by the condition of the bodies. Both women had been hacked to pieces — Lillian’s breasts and vagina had been dissected.

While detectives were reviewing evidence and interviewing hotel employees, an APB went out with a description of the suspect. Patrolman H.E. Donlan had been handed a police bulletin containing information about the wanted man and he recalled seeing a guy who fit the description while he was walking his beat at Third and Hill Streets. He decided to check out the bars.

Patrolman Donlan walked over to a bar at 326 S. Hill Street, just a few doors from where Lillian Johnson’s body lay. He noticed that one of the patrons, who fit the suspect’s description, was sitting with a glass of wine and he was chatting up a woman — maybe his next victim. In the man’s hand was a book of matches from the Barclay Hotel. That was enough for Donlan, he walked over to the man who looked up at him and said: “What do you want?” The patrolman replied: “This.” and snapped a pair of handcuffs on the man’s wrists. His name was Otto Stephen Wilson.

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As a city employee Patrolman Harry Donlan wasn’t eligible for a reward for the capture of Otto Stephen Wilson, but Police Commissioner Al Cohn wrote him a check for a $100 War Savings Bond saying:

“I’ll give you another $100 bond if you repeat the job when the next murder comes along.”

It had been a successful day for the cops. The first murder had been discovered at 2 p.m., the second at 3:30 pm. The suspect was in custody by 5:30 p.m., and by 7:30 p.m. he had confessed!

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At homicide headquarters detectives said that when he was arrested Wilson’s hands were found to be stained with blood and he had a razor in his pocket.

Once they had him in custody detectives began to interview Wilson. He told them he had been born in Shelbyville, Indiana and graduated from high school in 1930. Immediately following high school Wilson had joined the Navy, serving until 1941 when he was given a medical discharge for sexual psychosis.

Otto Stephen Wilson

Otto Stephen Wilson

According to Wilson’s statement his wife had gone to naval authorities and told them about a few of the homosexual encounters she knew he’d had. She also told them how her husband had once waited for her to get out of the shower, sliced her buttocks with a razor and then began to lick at the drops of blood. These are the “unnatural impulses” to which I referred yesterday.

The U.S. Navy agreed with Mrs. Wilson, Otto’s impulses were definitely unnatural and they discharged him as quickly as they could.

Since his discharge Wilson had been working menial kitchen jobs in and around Los Angles all the while, according to him, trying to suppress his urge to kill or destroy women. Because he had syphilis the cops at first thought his urge to kill was revenge on all women for his having contracted VD, but he said that he knew that he’d caught the disease three years earlier, after his impulse to kill had started to invade his thoughts.

Finally Wilson began to tell cops the details about his day of slaughter.

He said that he met Mrs. Griffin in a Main Street bar and took her to the Barclay Hotel where they registered as Mr. and Mrs. O.S. Wilson — not a very clever alias. Once in their room the pair continued to drink. Later Wilson would claim that he became enraged when Virgie asked for $20, but the truth was that he’d brought the butcher knife and razor with him to the room, he had intended to commit murder.

He started by choking her, then he stabbed her several times. For over an hour he sat naked on the bed with Virgie’s body and attempted to remove her arms and legs with a razor. When he found it too difficult to carry out his planned dissections he left the room and went to a movie.

What film do you see after committing murder? Wilson walked over to the Million Dollar Theater at Broadway and Third where he saw The Walking Dead; also on the bill was Return of the Ape Man, but he couldn’t stay for a double feature, he had another urge to kill.

Poster - Walking Dead, The_04

Wilson’s second and final victim was Mrs. Lillian Johnson. Johnson was choked and stabbed just as Griffin had been, but this time Wilson bit off the dead woman’s nipple. He couldn’t recall if he swallowed it. Wilson’s reason for murdering Lillian was simple, he said he did it for “pure cussedness”.

Dr. J. Paul De River, Criminal Psychiatrist for L.A.P.D, interviewed Wilson right after the detectives had finished with him. In his book “The Sexual Criminal – A Psychoanalytical Study”, De River includes Wilson’s interview and a review of his case in the chapter on “Sadistic Homicide-Lust Murder” identifying Wilson as Case Study 116, K.

De River described Wilson in his report to the police:

“He was a necrophiliac and cannibalistic, all of which when summed up are the manifestations of the sado-masochistic complex.”

Before you rush out to buy a copy of of De River’s book be forewarned, the book was universally denounced, investigated by the Police Department, and I believe it was illegal to send it through the mail at one point.

Cops investigated Wilson for other unsolved homicides of women in L.A., one of which was the murder of Georgette Bauerdorf, and they would have loved to pin more killings on him but it wasn’t to be. He couldn’t be connected to any murders other than the two he committed on November 15, 1944.

Otto Stephen Wilson was found guilty of both slayings and sentenced to death. On September 20, 1946 he was executed in California’s gas chamber.