Unsolved Homicides & Mysterious Disappearances of Women in Los Angeles During the 1940s

This month is the seventy-fourth anniversary of the murder of Elizabeth Short–the Black Dahlia.

I will write about the case in the blog again this year, as I have every year since 2013. In addition to writing about the case, I am offering a webinar (see below) on four unsolved homicides (including Elizabeth Short) of women in Los Angeles during the 1940s.

Elizabeth Short’s funeral

The unsolved murders are tragic; but at least family members and other loved ones had a body to mourn and to lay to rest.

Disappearances haunt the living. Did the person leave by choice, or were they taken against their will? As the years pass, the unanswered questions echo in lonely rooms. Broken hearts never quite mend.

In 1949, two very different women vanished in Los Angeles.

MIMI BOOMHOWER

On August 19, 1949, forty-eight-year-old socialite, Mimi Boomhower, known as the ‘Merry Widow’, disappeared from her Bel-Air home. When police arrived for a welfare check, the lights were on and a salad was left out on the dining table. One of Mimi’s dresses was laid out on her bed. Her car was still in the garage and there was no sign of a robbery.

Jean Spangler, a twenty-six-year-old dancer, model, and actress, left her home at 5pm on October 7, 1949. She was supposed to meet her ex-husband to discuss child support payments and then she was expected to be at a night shoot for a film. Jean didn’t arrive at either of her appointments.

JEAN SPANGLER

At 7pm on Tuesday, January 12, 2021, we’ll discuss the homicides, disappearances, and why Los Angeles was such a dangerous place for women in the 1940s.

HO, HO, HOmicide: Holiday Noir–Christmas Holiday [1944]

Welcome! The lobby of the Deranged L.A. Crimes theater is open. Grab a bucket of popcorn, some Milk Duds and a Coke and find a seat. We are celebrating the holidays with holiday themed noir movies.

Tonight’s feature is CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY, starring Deanna Durbin and Gene Kelly.

TCM says:

After receiving his commission on Christmas Eve, Lt. Charles Mason learns that Mona, his longtime girl friend, has married another man. When his plane from North Carolina to San Francisco is forced by bad weather to land in New Orleans, the heartbroken Charles meets alcoholic reporter Simon Fenimore, who takes him to a brothel run by Valerie De Merode. There Charles is introduced to hostess/singer Jackie Lamont, and agrees to take her to a midnight mass. After the church services, the two go to a diner, where Jackie tells Charles that her real name is Abigail and that she is the wife of convicted murderer Robert Manette.

WEBINAR: The Murder of Marion Parker

On December 15, 1927, twelve-year-old Marion Parker, daughter of Perry Parker a prominent banker, was abducted from Mt. Vernon Junior High School. 

The kidnapper went directly to the office of Mary Holt, the school’s registrar. The young man told her that Perry Parker was seriously injured in an automobile accident and was calling for his youngest daughter. Times were different then; Holt never asked the man for his identification, nor did she ask him what he meant by the youngest daughter since Marion was a twin, separated in age from her sister Marjorie by minutes.

The demeanor of the young man erased any doubt that Mary Holt had about his character or intent. He insisted that he was an employee at Parker’s bank. When police questioned her later, Holt said the man seemed sincere because he was quick to suggest that if she doubted his word, she should phone the bank.

If only she had.

William Edward Hickman, who nicknamed himself ‘The Fox’, murdered and mutilated the girl. The crime made him the subject of the largest manhunt in Los Angeles’ history until the 1947 murder of Elizabeth Short. 

Who was William Edward Hickman, and why did he kidnap and murder and innocent child?

Deranged Webinars for December 2020 & a Preview of Topics for 2021

Below is the webinar schedule for the remainder of December 2020. Deranged L.A. Crimes webinars will be dark from December 23, 2020 through January 11, 2021.

If you missed the UNSOLVED HOMICIDES OF WOMEN IN LOS ANGELES DURING THE 1940s in November, a brand new version will be offered on January 12, 2021.

January 2021 marks the 74th anniversary of the murder of Elizabeth Short, the Black Dahlia. It is fitting that we look at that crime and some of the other unsolved murders of women during that deadly decade.

My other passion in life, besides true crime, is vintage cosmetics ephemera, and fashion.  On January 19, 2021, the topic is HAIR TODAY, GONE TOMORROW: HOW THE BOB CHANGED HISTORY. You’ll learn about the history of the bob hairdo, a style that has endured for over 100 years. This is my opportunity to display some of the girlie treasures from my vast collection.

Crime topics for 2021 will include: Harvey Glatman: The Glamour Girl Killer and Attic Sex Slave: The Strange Affair of Dolly Oesterreich and Otto Sanhuber.

I look forward to ‘seeing‘ you at the webinars.

Hairnet from the 1920s

Felonious Flappers: Bad Girls of the 1920s & 1930s

What is it about Los Angeles that brings out the evil in a woman? Crime writer Raymond Chandler speculated that a local weather phenomenon could cause a woman to contemplate murder: 

“There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.” 

Join me on Tuesday, November 24, 2020 at 7pm PST for a webinar that will introduce you to some of the baddest dames in L.A. history.

One Hundred Forty Dollars a Day, Conclusion

Imagine being 31-years-old and looking at life in prison. Craig Coley didn’t have to imagine it.

There are few decent options for a man in prison, but dozens of opportunities for him to further screw up his life.  Craig faced a choice. He could involve himself in gangs, drugs and violence, or he could preserve his humanity.

Craig chose the latter.

He maintained his innocence from the moment of his arrest, and he never wavered.  But protestations of innocence are not evidence.  The guilty often shout the loudest about how they have been betrayed by the legal system.  

Craig adjusted to prison, as well as anyone can, but a part of him never gave up hope. Another lifer at Folsom taught him how to make jewelry. He placed his items in the gift shop and sent the proceeds to his mom to hire investigators.

Folsom Prison

As Craig faced his tenth year in prison, a Simi Valley detective, Michael Bender, came across Craig’s case file. After reading it over he said, “. . . a real investigation hadn’t occurred.”

Mike Bender

Soon after reading the file, Mike went to visit Craig in prison.  He talked to Craig, and at the end of it he believed in Craig’s innocence.  He said, “In dealing with a lot of bad guys over the years, there are mannerisms and body language you come to know. He [Craig] didn’t have that.”

Craig had gained a tough advocate who understood the system.  Mike didn’t just appear tough. In 1985 he earned the title of Toughest Cop Alive. He competed against cops from the world over.

The competition is based on athletic prowess. When he won the world competition Mike was 450 points ahead of his nearest competitor. Mike earned the title several times.

To have even the slightest chance of winning Craig’s release, Mike needed every bit of physical and mental strength he possessed. He didn’t know it but he had entered a marathon.

Back at Simi Valley PD, Mike talked to his supervising lieutenant, the same man who was in charge of the original murder investigation. He was not interested in having the Coley case second guessed and possibly overturned.

Unwilling to give up, Mike took Craig’s case to the city manager, city attorney, a local congressman, the attorney general of the State of California, the ACLU and the FBI.

In 1991, Mike was ordered to stop pushing the case or face termination. Mike quit the police department and left Simi Valley. He took with him 16 boxes of files that Craig’s mother had amassed.

Every Saturday Mike and Craig talked on the phone. Mike visited the prison when he could. His daughter or Craig’s mother would often accompany him (Craig’s father passed away in 1989).

Rather than dwell on what seemed impossible, Craig put his energy into running a support program for incarcerated veterans. He was a mentor and a model prisoner.

Craig became a practicing Christian in 2005. He said it helped him “cut out all the nonsense.” He earned degrees in theology, Biblical studies and Biblical counseling.

Mike and his family moved to Northern California in 1991. They stayed there until 2003, when they relocated to Carlsbad near San Diego.

During all those years, Mike never stopped trying to get Craig’s case re-examined.

A turning point in the case came in September 2015 when then Gov. Brown agreed to conduct an investigation. In 2016, Mike met with David Livingstone, the new Simi Valley Police Chief, who began his own investigation with the Ventura County District Attorney’s office.

On November 11, 2017—the 39th anniversary of the crime—investigators went back to the apartment building where the crime occurred. They went to the apartment where the neighbor said she saw Coley’s truck and looked out the window at 5:30 a.m.—as she said she did. The investigators determined that the lighting conditions made it difficult to see any details on vehicles below and that it was impossible to see inside any vehicle.

In many cases where someone is wrongly accused it is DNA evidence that is the key that unlocks the cell door. It was no different for Craig.  DNA evidence which was supposed to have been destroyed, was discovered in storage at the original testing lab. The sperm, blood and skin cells on Rhonda’s sheets and clothing belonged to another man.

No DNA evidence was found to connect Craig to Donnie’s murder, either.

Craig Coley in High School c. 1964 ate 16

On November 22, 2017, Governor Brown granted Coley a pardon based on innocence. The pardon said, “Mr. Coley had no criminal history before being arrested for these crimes and he has been a model inmate for nearly four decades. In prison, he has avoided gangs and violence. Instead, he has dedicated himself to religion. The grace with which Mr. Coley has endured this lengthy and unjust incarceration is extraordinary.”

Craig was released later that day, in time to spend Thanksgiving dinner with Mike and his family.  About his release, Craig said, “You dream about it, you hope for it, but when it happens, it’s a shock. To experience it was something I never thought would feel as good. It was joy, just pure joy. I got all tingly in my stomach and then I was bawling like a baby for a while.”

On November 29, an attorney for Coley asked that Coley’s conviction be vacated. That motion was granted and the judge issued a finding of actual innocence.

In February 2018, Gov. Brown approved a $1.95 million payment. That is $140 for each day he was wrongfully behind bars.

In June 2018, Coley filed a federal civil rights lawsuit seeking damages from the city of Simi and Ventura County. In February 2019, Simi Valley settled with Coley for $21 million.

That Craig fought to win his release is no surprise; but why did Mike spend 28 years of his life fighting for Craig’s freedom?  Mike summed it up, “I always believed in truth, integrity and honor. “I’m glad this story has a happy ending. If I was on my deathbed knowing he was still in prison, I would have had a hard time with that.”

EPILOGUE

Following Craig Coley’s release from prison there was a new suspect in the murders of Rhonda and Donnie Wicht – Joseph James DeAngelo – the Golden State Killer. 

This headline dated June 16, 2020

DNA cleared Craig of the murders, and it also cleared DeAngelo. 

Joseph James DeAngelo, the Golden State Killer

Unless the killer is dead or incarcerated, Rhonda and Donnie’s killer is still out there.

One Hundred Forty Dollars a Day

Ohio native, Edgar Hamilton, a machinist, moved his young family to Pasadena, California in the late 1950s.  The Hamilton’s were among the many thousands of new SoCal residents who chose to leave the harsh Midwestern winters behind them – and who could blame them?

The Southern California landscape was a patchwork of bean fields and orange groves. Summer nights smelled of jasmine. The post-war housing boom made it possible for working-class families to achieve the dream of a ranch style home with a backyard swimming pool.

If you visited Knott’s Berry Farm it was for a chicken dinner, homemade biscuits and boysenberry pie. Disneyland’s Matterhorn Mountain was the park’s main attraction.

Until the late 1960s, the vibe stayed the same in SoCal. It changed everywhere in the late 1960s. Assassinations, protests and Vietnam dominated the news cycle.

Around 1970, the Hamilton family moved out to Simi, in Ventura County. Many working-class people migrated to Simi then. They came largely from East and Central Los Angeles. The population of the Simi Valley swelled – in fact the Route 101 corridor became a full-fledged freeway, but life was still lived at a slower pace than in L.A.

Edgar’s family thrived. His oldest daughter, Rhonda, married young and for a while she lived in Texas.  Her marriage to Donald Wicht failed – but not completely – they had a beautiful son, Donnie.  He was the light of Rhonda’s life.

Following her divorce in 1977, Rhonda and Donnie returned to Simi. Rhonda waitressed to provide for herself and her son, and to pay for cosmetology school. She fixed her gaze on the future.

Rhonda’s younger sister, Rachelle (Shelley), planned to attend a wedding on November 11, 1978. Rhonda promised to do her hair.

On the morning of the wedding, Shelly telephoned Rhonda to let her know she would soon be on her way over. Rhonda didn’t answer.  Shelley tried again. Still no answer.

Now Shelley was starting to worry and her uneasiness turned into action. She got into her car and sped over to the Tierra Apartments at 1861 Byers Street, where Rhonda and Donnie lived.

Shelley found the front door of the apartment locked.  She stood outside. She had an overwhelming sense of dread.  She phoned her husband, and it was he who entered the apartment through a window. Shelley said, “. . . when I got inside, I just stood in the living room.  I couldn’t go any farther.  I went downstairs, called my parents, and the rest was a blur.”

Rhonda was beaten, raped, and a macramé rope was pulled tight around her neck. Four-year-old Donnie was suffocated to death with a pillow. One of his arms dangled over the side of his bed.

Someone phoned the police.  Shelley phoned her parent’s home and got her younger brother, Rick. She may have been incoherent, but he got the message. He said later, “I knew something was wrong, so I jumped into my car, and when I got there, no one stopped me; I just walked right into a crime scene.”

Rick sleepwalked through the rest of his senior year at Royal High School. He said he was just trying to get to his graduation.

Rhonda’s family was devastated. She didn’t have any enemies. She was a kind and caring twenty-four-year-old with a toddler. Who would want them dead?

Police found only one person who may have had it in for Rhonda.  Craig Coley.

The 31-year-old restaurant night manager was Rhonda’s steady boyfriend until recently. Rhonda wanted to end their relationship.

Simi police had questions for Coley, so they went out to find him and bring him in.

NEXT TIME: A suspect is arrested.

MIDNIGHT IN THE DESERT –A CONVERSATION ABOUT HISTORIC LOS ANGELES CRIME

MY INTERVIEW WITH DAVE SCHRADER ON MIDNIGHT IN THE DESERT

On March 10th, B.C. (before Covid) I was interviewed by Dave Schrader for his wonderful radio show, MIDNIGHT IN THE DESERT. We talked for 3 hours about historic Los Angeles crime.

When I first agreed to do the interview I wondered how we would fill the time. By the 2 1/2 hour mark I knew we’d never be able to cover everything. The time flew. Dave is a terrific host and I recommend that you check out his show. I hope to make a return visit sometime during the summer.

Dave’s area of expertise is the paranormal, but he also has an interest in crime. Here’s a little more about Dave:

Dave Schrader has been one of the leading voices of the paranormal since 2006 when he launched his wildly popular talk show, Darkness on the Edge of Town on Twin Cities News Talk – Minneapolis’s top-rated AM talk station.

The show grew to become one of the station’s most successful shows and most-downloaded podcasts, expanding Schrader’s reach globally. Seeing an opportunity, Schrader moved his show to Chris Jericho’s network of shows on PodcastOne, where he further expanded his worldwide audience.

You can find Dave on MIDNIGHT IN THE DESERT.

Ellroycast — Black Dahlia

I was interviewed by Grant Nebel and John Anderson for Ellroycast, their podcast which examines all things James Ellroy.

Grant and John are big fans of Ellroy’s work. His novels, screenplays, articles and LAPD ’53, the photo essay book I was fortunate to work on with James and his co-author Glynn Martin.

Grant, John, and I talked about Ellroy’s novel, The Black Dahlia, vis a vis the 1947 murder of Elizabeth Short. There is an astonishing number of misconceptions about Beth Short. Over the decades the myth has not just obscured reality, it has devoured it.

As a historian, I have an obligation to uncover and tell the truth. It isn’t easy with a case as infamous as the Black Dahlia.

Each time I read an article that begins with Beth arriving in Hollywood to pursue dreams of stardom I want to hurl the offending document across the room, or set fire to it.

Did Beth write to her mother and tell her she was seeking an acting career? Sure. Was it the truth? Emphatically no! There is no evidence that she went on a single cattle call, appeared as an extra, or did anything other than have the occasional Hollywood address.

Why, then, do the myths persist? Maybe because to some people they seem sexier than the truth. As far as I’m concerned Beth’s real life is more fascinating than the myth.

Her death reveals the dark side of the Greatest Generation. Beth’s story is not the trope for a wanna be Hollywood glamour girl. If you’re seeking a Hollywood tragedy metaphor, then read about Peg Entwistle who jumped 50 feet to her death from the “H” in the Hollywood sign on September 16, 1932.

Beth, and many other young, single women, coped with the chaos of Post-War Los Angeles by drifting from man-to-man, room-to-room and bar-to-bar. Los Angeles was a place where a fixed address was a luxury few could afford (even if they could locate a vacant apartment), and violent crimes committed by troubled vets frequently made headlines.

I’m glad that Ellroycast is visiting his world. His novels capture the zeitgeist of Post-War Los Angeles: the darkness and danger, the violence and the victims.

“I never knew her in life. She exists for me through others, in evidence of the ways her death drove them”
― James Ellroy, The Black Dahlia

Thanks again to Grant and John for inviting me to Ellroycast.

Film Noir Friday — Saturday Matinee: Shadow of a Doubt [1943]

shadow of a doubt

Welcome!  The lobby of the Deranged L.A. Crimes theater is open! Grab a bucket of popcorn, some Milk Duds and a Coke and find a seat. Tonight’s feature is SHADOW OF A DOUBT, directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring Teresa Wright, Joseph Cotten and Macdonald Carey — with a fine performance by Hume Cronyn.

The script was a collaboration between Thornton Wilder, Sally Benson and Alma Reville (Hitchcock’s wife).  This was Hitchcock’s favorite of his films. 

Of course Hitch makes a cameo appearance in the film, and Wikipedia tells you when to look for him:

Alfred Hitchcock appears about 15 minutes into the film, on the train to Santa Rosa, playing bridge with a man and a woman (Dr. and Mrs. Harry). Charlie Oakley is traveling on the train under the assumed name of Otis. Mrs. Harry is eager to help Otis, who is feigning illness in order to avoid meeting fellow passengers, but Dr. Harry is not interested and keeps playing bridge. Dr Harry replies to Hitchcock that he doesn’t look well while Hitchcock is holding a full suit of spades, the best hand for bridge.

 

Before the feature, enjoy this short subject from the CRIME DOES NOT PAY series.

Crime Does Not Pay was an anthology radio crime drama series based on MGM’s short film series which began in 1935 with Crime Does Not Pay: Buried Loot. The shows were transcribed at MGM’s New York station, WMGM.