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.

February 1947 — A Confession in the Dahlia Case & Another Murder

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U.S. Army Corporal Joseph Dumais [Photo courtesy of LAPL]

On February 8, 1947 the Herald announced that the Black Dahlia case was solved. They had found the killer!

dahlia_herald_24_dumaisThe Herald story began:

“Army Corporal Joseph Dumais, 29, of Fort Dix, N.J., is definitely the murderer of “The Black Dahlia”, army authorities at Fort Dix announced today.’

Dumais, a combat veteran, returned from leave wearing blood stained trousers with his pockets crammed full of clippings about Short’s murder. According to the Herald, Dumais made a 50 page confession in which he claimed to have had a mental blackout after dating Elizabeth Short in Los Angeles five days before her body was found.

The good looking corporal seemed like the real deal. He told the cops, “When I get drunk I get pretty rough with women.” Unfortunately, when police checked his story against known facts the solider’s confession didn’t hold up. Dumais was sent to a psychiatrist.

Two days after Dumais’ false confession the Herald put out an Extra with the headline: “Werewolf Strikes Again! Kills L.A. Woman, Writes B.D. on Body”.

dahlia_herald_27_werewolf strikesThe victim of the “Werewolf Killer” was forty-five year old Jeanne French. Her nude body was discovered at 8 a.m. on February 10, 1947 near Grand View Avenue and Indianapolis Street in West L.A.

jeanne_french_scene_00057603

Cops at the scene of Jeanne French’s murder. [Photo courtesy LAPL]

Jeanne Thomas French’s life was as fascinating as a Hollywood screenplay. She was an aviatrix, a pioneer airline hostess, a movie bit player and an Army Nurse. And at one time she was the wife of a Texas oilman. The way she died was monstrous.

jeanne and frank picA construction worker H.C. Shelby was walking to work around 8 o’clock that morning along Grand View Blvd. when he saw a small pile of woman’s clothing in weeds a few feet from the sidewalk. Curious, Shelby walked over and lifted up a fur trimmed coat and discovered French’s nude body.

French was savagely beaten–her  body covered with bruises. She suffered blows to her head, probably administered by a metal blunt instrument–maybe a socket wrench. As bad as they were, the blows to her head were not fatal. Jeanne died from hemorrhage and shock due to fractured ribs and multiple injuries caused by stomping–there were heel prints on her chest. It took a long time for French to die. The coroner said that she slowly bled to death.

Mercifully, Jeanne was unconscious after the first blows to her head so she never saw her killer take the deep red lipstick from her purse, and she didn’t feel the pressure of his improvised pen as he wrote on her torso: “Fuck You, B.D.” (later thought to be be “P.D.”) and “Tex”.

French was last seen in the Pan American Bar at 11155 West Washington Place. She was seated at the first stool nearest the entrance and the bartender later told cops that a smallish man with a dark complexion was seated next to her. The bartender assumed they were a couple because he saw them leave together at closing time.

Jeanne’s estranged husband, Frank, was booked on suspicion of murder. The night before she died Jeanne visited Frank at his apartment and they’d quarreled. Frank said Jeanne had started the fight, then hit him with her purse and left. He said that was the last time he saw her. He told the cops she’d been drinking.

David Wrather, Jeanne’s twenty-five year old son from a previous marriage was also brought in for questioning. As he was leaving the police station he saw his step-father for the first time since he’d learned of his mother’s death. David confronted Frank and said: “Well, I’ve told them the truth. If you’re guilty, there’s a God in heaven who will take care of you.” Frank didn’t hesitate, he looked at David and said: “I swear to God I didn’t kill her.”jeanne french_husband lie detectorFrank was cleared when his landlady testified he was in his apartment at the time of the murder, and when his shoe prints didn’t match those found at the scene of the crime.

Cops followed the few leads they had. French’s cut-down 1929 Ford roadster was found in the parking lot of a drive-in restaurant, The Piccadilly at Washington Pl. and Sepulveda Blvd. Witnesses said that the car had been there since 3:15 the morning of the murder, and a night watchman said it was left there by a man. The police were never able to find out where Jeanne had been between 3:15 a.m. and the time of her death which was estimated at 6 a.m.

Scores of sex degenerates were rousted, but each was eliminated as a suspect. Officers also checked out local Chinese restaurants after the autopsy revealed that French had eaten Chinese food shortly before her death.

French’s slaying, known as the “Red Lipstick Murder” case, went cold.

Three years later, following a Grand Jury investigation into the numerous unsolved murders of women in L.A., investigators from the D.A.’s office were assigned to look into the case.

Frank Jemison and Walter Morgan worked the French case for almost eight months, but they were never able to close it. They came up with one hot suspect, a painter who worked for the French’s four months prior to the murder. He admitted to dating Jeanne several times. The cops discovered the painter burned several pairs of his shoes–he wore the same size as the ones that left marks on Jeanne’s body. Despite his odd behavior, the painter was cleared.

There were so many unsolved murders of women in the 1940s that in 1949 a Grand Jury investigation was launched into the failure of the police to solve the cases.

There haven’t been any leads in Jeanne French’s case in decades; however, there is always a detective assigned to Elizabeth Short’s murder case.  A couple of years ago it was a female detective and, surprisingly, she received several calls a month. To this day there are people who want to confess to Elizabeth Short’s murder. The detective was able to eliminate each one of the possible suspects with a simple question: “What year were you born?

The Black Dahlia Case Goes Cold

Elizabeth Short’s murder dominated the front pages of the Evening Herald & Express for days following the discovery of her body.

Even in a murder case as well-publicized as the Black Dahlia, the more time that elapses following the crime the fewer clues there are on which to report. The fact that the case was going cold didn’t dampen the Herald’s enthusiastic coverage. The paper sought out psychiatrists psychologists, and mystery writers who would attempt, each in his/her own way, to analyze the case and fill column space in the paper as they, and the cops, waited for a break. Decades before the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU) was founded the shrinks and writers whose work appeared in the Herald were engaging in speculative profiles of both the victim and her killer.

One of the psychologists tapped by the Herald to contribute her analysis of the victim and slayer was Alice La Vere. La Vere was introduced as “…one of the nation’s most noted consulting psychologists”. According to the newspaper, Miss La Vere would give to readers: “an analysis of the motives which led to the torture murder of beautiful 22-year-old Elizabeth Short”. La Vere’s analysis is surprisingly contemporary.

Here is an excerpt from her profile of Short’s personality:

“Some gnawing feeling of inadequacy was eating at the mind of this girl. She needed constant proof to herself that she was important to someone and demonstrates this need by the number of suitors and admirers with which she surrounded herself.”

La Vere went on to describe the killer:

“It is very likely that this is the first time this boy has committed any crime. It is also likely that he may be a maladjusted veteran. The lack of social responsibility experienced by soldiers, their conversational obsession with sex, their nerves keyed to battle pitch — these factors are crime-breeding.” She further stated: “Repression of the sex impulse accompanied by environmental maladjustment is the slayer’s probable background.”

How does La Vere’s profile of Elizabeth Short and her killer compare with the analysis by retired FBI profiler John Douglas? Douglas suggests that Beth was “needy” and that her killer would have “spotted her a mile away”. He said that the killer “would have been a lust killer and loved hurting people.”

craig_rice_Time

On the salient points, I’d say that La Vere and Douglas were of like minds regarding Elizabeth Short and her killer.

At the time of Elizabeth Short’s murder, mystery writer Craig Rice (pseudonym of Georgiana Ann Randolph Walker Craig) was one of the most popular crime writers in the country. In its January 28, 1946 issue,TIME magazine selected Rice for a cover feature on the mystery genre. Sadly, Rice has been largely forgotten by all except the most avid mystery geeks (like me).

In late January 1947, Craig Rice was invited by the Herald to give her take on the Black Dahlia case. She summed it up this way:

“A black dahlia is what expert gardeners call ‘an impossibility’ of nature. Perhaps that is why lovely, tragic Elizabeth Short was tortured, murdered and mutilated Because such a crime could happen only in the half-world in which she lived. A world of–shadows.”

The police couldn’t catch a break. Not only were they stumped in the Dahlia case, another woman was viciously murdered on February 11th. The victim was not cut in half, but evidence at the scene suggested a possible connection.

NEXT TIME: The Lipstick Murder

Black Dahlia: The Investigation Continues

LAPD detectives Harry Hansen and Finis Brown headed the investigation into Elizabeth Short’s murder. The case was a challenge from the moment they arrived on Norton Street. The lack of physical evidence at the body dump site posed a problem.

A skillfully retouched photo of Elizabeth Short at the body dump site.

Police officers knocked on doors and interviewed hundreds of citizens to find the place where Beth was murdered, but they were unsuccessful.

Beth’s mother, Phoebe, was cruelly tricked by the Herald-Express into believing that her much loved daughter was a beauty contest winner, only to be told minutes later that she was a murder victim.

Phoebe Short at her daughter’s inquest.

Murder victims lose their right to privacy; all of their secrets are revealed. To fill column space while multiple leads were being tracked, the Herald looked to psychiatrists, Beth’s acquaintances, and even mystery writers, to speculate on the case, which they did with creative abandon.

The psychiatrist whose expert opinion was sought by the Herald was Dr. Paul De River, LAPD’s shrink. He wrote a series of articles for the paper in which he attempted to analyze the mind of the killer. De River wrote that the killer was a sadist and suggested that: “during the killing episode, he had an opportunity to pump up affect from two sources — from his own sense of power and in overcoming the resistance of another. He was the master and the victim was the slave”.

Dr. J. Paul De River.

In one of his most chilling statements, De River hinted at necrophilia — he said: “It must also be remembered that sadists of this type have a super-abundance of curiosity and are liable to spend much time with their victims after the spark of life has flickered and died”.

People who had only a fleeting acquaintance with Elizabeth Short were interviewed and they weighed in on everything from her hopes and dreams to her love life. Beth was, by turns, described as “a man-crazy delinquent”, and a girl with “childlike charm and beauty”. Many people who claimed to be close to her said that she aspired to Hollywood stardom. The interviews yielded nothing of value in the hunt for Beth’s killer.

Beth at Camp Cooke (now Vandenburg AFB)

While the experts opined, Aggie was busy canvassing Southern California for leads. Underwood had been with the Herald-Express for twelve years when the Black Dahlia case broke wide open. In her 1949 autobiography, Newspaperwoman, she said that she came across Elizabeth’s nickname when she was checking in with Ray Giese, an LAPD homicide detective-lieutenant. According to Aggie, Giese said: “This is something you might like, Agness. I’ve found out they called her the ‘Black Dahlia’ around that drug store where she hung out down in Long Beach.”

Aggie interviews a woman (not Black Dahlia related).

A few days passed and the mystery man known only as Red, was located. He was Robert M. “Red” Manley, a twenty-five-year-old married salesman. Early on the morning of January 20, 1947, Aggie interviewed Manley. The first thing she said to him was: “You look as if you’ve been on a drunk.” Manley replied: “This is worse than any I’ve ever been on.”

Aggie told him that he was in one hell of a spot and advised him to come clean. Harry S. Fremont, an LAPD homicide detective looked over at Manley and said: “She’s right, I’ve known this lady for a long time, on lots of big cases, and I can tell you she won’t do you wrong.”

Manley told his story, and Aggie was smart enough not to interrupt him. He told of having picked Beth up on a street corner in San Diego early in December. And he also revealed that the night he’d spent with Beth in a roadside motel had been strictly platonic. He concluded with: “I’ll never pick up another dame as long as I live.”

Look closely — under “Night In a Motel” is Aggie’s byline. (Photo courtesy of LAPL)

The story ran in the Herald with the headline: ‘Red’ Tells Own Story of Romance With ‘Dahlia’, and Aggie got the byline. She was the only Los Angeles reporter to get a byline in the case.

dahlia_herald_14_aggie_byline
Robert “Red” Manley

The morning following her interview with Red Manley, Aggie was unceremoniously yanked off of the case. She said: “…the city editor benched me and let me sit in the local room without a blessed thing to do.”

The no-assignment routine resumed the next day. Aggie said that she sat for about three hours then started on an embroidery project! Anyone who came into the city room that day and saw Aggie with her embroidery hoop just roared with laughter. She kept at it until quitting time.

Day three — Aggie prepared to do more embroidery when she was told by the assistant city editor that because of an overnight decision she was to go back to LAPD homicide and continue her work.

Aggie barely had time to pull out her notebook before she was pulled off the case again! This time it was for good. An announcement was made that Aggie’s new assignment would be the city desk. She was flabbergasted. She had just become one of the first women in the United States to hold a city editorship on a major metropolitan daily.

Why was Aggie removed from the Black Dahlia case? There are those who believe that there was a cover-up and that Aggie was getting too close to a solution to Short’s murder, so someone with enough juice had her promoted to keep her out of the way. That makes little sense to me, as city editor she’d have been directing the activities of all the reporters working the case, and she wasn’t a person who could be bought. The timing of Aggie’s promotion remains an intriguing part of the Black Dahlia case.

NEXT TIME: The Black Dahlia case goes cold — or does it?

Black Dahlia: The Investigation Begins

Jane Doe #1, was found in a weedy vacant lot in Leimert Park on the morning of January 15, 1947. The Los Angeles Times, reluctant to tarnish the city’s image, relegated the shocking sex murder to page two.

Just because they balked at splashing the disgusting details of the murder across the front page, doesn’t mean that the Times didn’t indulge in lurid hyperbole worthy of a Hearst newspaper – note the headline below.

Los Angeles police detectives intended to send the victim’s fingerprints via airplane to the FBI in Washington, D.C. as they always did, but a massive storm in the east made it impossible. What could they do?

THE BLIZZARD OF 1947

The Examiner owned a Soundphoto machine, an early fax, and while it had never been used to transmit fingerprints everyone agreed it was worth a try. The fingerprints were successfully transmitted and subsequently identified Jane Doe #1 as 22-year-old Elizabeth Short. The Examiner expected something in return for their largesse. Because of the crucial role they played in getting the identification, the Examiner leveraged a deal with the police—their continued cooperation with the police in exchange for exclusives.  LAPD Captain Jack Donohoe wasn’t overjoyed. He didn’t relish the paper’s constant meddling, but he knew reporters would pursue the case with or without police approval.  The deal was the lesser evil.

During the initial phase of the investigation many of the stories that Beth told her family and acquaintances surfaced in newspaper articles, and although much of the information has subsequently been disproved the lies remain.

On January 17, 1947, under the headline: “Mrs. Phoebe Short Can’t Believe Slain Girl Hers,” the most persistent of Beth’s lies was repeated by her mother. Phoebe told reporters, “She was working in Hollywood doing bit parts for the movies until two weeks ago.  She said she left Hollywood (for San Diego) because of the movie strike, which made it difficult to get work as an extra.”

Beth was pretty enough to work as a film extra, but there is no credible evidence that she ever did.

In another letter, Beth told Phoebe she was working in an Army hospital in San Diego, or in some connection with the armed services. It was a lie.

To learn more about Beth, and maybe uncover a suspect, detectives questioned dozens of people. No one seemed to know her well.

By January 18, Phoebe Short and her daughters were on their way to Los Angeles from their hometown of Medford, Massachusetts and the police were no closer to a solution to the crime.

NEXT TIME: The search for a killer continues

The Black Dahlia: January 15, 1947

Bundled up against the chill of a cold wave that had held Los Angeles residents in its grip for several days, Mrs. Betty Bersinger and her three-year-old daughter Anne walked south on the west side of Norton in Leimert Park, a Los Angeles suburb. Midway down the block Bersinger noticed something pale in the weeds fifty feet north of a fire hydrant and about a foot in from the sidewalk.

At first Bersinger thought she was looking at either a discarded mannequin, or a live nude woman who had passed out. 

Betty Bersinger recreates her phone call to police.

It took a moment before Bersinger realized she was in a waking nightmare.  The bright white shape in the weeds was neither a mannequin, nor a drunk.

Bersinger later recalled, “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 person who made that claim was Will Fowler.

Fowler said he and photographer Felix Paegel of the Los Angeles Examiner approached Crenshaw Boulevard when they heard an intriguing call on their shortwave radio.  It was a police call and Fowler couldn’t believe his ears. A naked woman, possibly drunk, was found in a vacant lot one block east of Crenshaw between 39th and Coliseum streets.  Fowler turned to Pagel and said, “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 hopped out of the car and approached the woman as Paegel pulled his Speed Graphic from the trunk. Fowler called out, “Jesus, Felix, this woman’s cut in half!”

Will Fowler crouches down near Jane Doe’s body.

That was Fowler’s story, and he stuck to it through the decades. He said he closed the dead girl’s eyes. But was his story true?

There is information to suggest that a reporter from the Los Angeles Times was the first on the scene; and in her autobiography, Newspaperwoman, Aggie Underwood said that she was the first.

Aggie Underwood on Norton Avenue, January 15, 1947

After 73-years does it really matter?  All those who saw the murdered girl that day saw the same horrifying sight and it left an indelible impression.  Aggie described what she observed:

“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.”

Air brushed newspaper photo of Jane Doe

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

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

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

Cops were further alarmed when they discovered French had pulled the back seat out of his car. Had he concealed a body there? Police Chemist, Ray Pinker, found no blood or any other physical evidence of a bloody murder in French’s car. He was dropped from the list of hot suspects.

Ray Pinker

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

NEXT TIME: Jane Doe #1 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.

30 More Years of Crime in L.A.

When I  began this blog in December 2012, I arbitrarily chose to examine crime in Los Angeles during the years from 1900 to 1970.  Now, however, I think it is time to expand the purview to include the decades of 1970, 1980 and 1990 to encompass all of the last century. In terms of crime in the City of Angels, the last three decades of the 20th Century are enormously interesting.

The 1970s have been called one of the most violent decades in U.S. history. Homicide rates climbed at an alarming rate and people felt increasingly vulnerable.

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Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry

Hollywood contributed to popular culture, and helped fuel the debate on crime and punishment, with a slew of vigilante films like Dirty Harry and Death Wish. The films  showed bad guys being blown away by impressively large weapons.  It was cathartic, but not terribly realistic.

It was during the ’70s that the bogeyman got a new name when FBI Investigator Robert Ressler coined the term “serial killer”.

In 1978 convicted rapist and registered sex offender, Rodney Alcala, appeared on the Dating Game. Why wasn’t he more thoroughly vetted by the show’s producers? I have no idea. Even more astounding than his appearance was the fact that he won! The bachelorette who selected Rodney ultimately declined to go out with him–she found him “creepy”. He’s currently on California’s death row and is believed to have committed as many as 50 murders.

ramirez_108a

Richard Ramirez aka the Night Stalker, flashes a pentagram on his palm.

Some people joined cults where they banded together with like-minded folks for spiritual comfort and to retreat from the scary world-at-large. But there is not always safety in numbers, and evil can assume many guises. In 1978, over 900 members of the People’s Temple died in a mass suicide commanded by their leader, Jim Jones. The group was living in Guyana when they drank cyanide-laced Kool-Aid. The People’s Temple may have been founded in Indiana, but like so many other cults before them they established a presence in L.A.

Jim Jones of the People's Temple

Jim Jones of the People’s Temple

A crack cocaine epidemic swept the country in the early 1980s.  It decimated communities and cost many people their lives. Crack  was inexpensive, easily accessible, and even more addictive than regular cocaine.

The 1980s gave rise to a “satanic panic” which resulted in some of most bizarre prosecutions we’ve seen in this country since the Salem Witch Trials in the 1690s. The McMartin Preschool abuse trial was the most costly ($15 million) ever in the U.S. and resulted, rightfully I believe, in no convictions.

Surprisingly, there was a decline in crime during the 1990s, and it has been attributed to a variety of factors including: increased incarceration; increased numbers of police, growth in income; decreased unemployment, decreased alcohol consumption, and even the unleading of gasoline (due to the Clean Air Act). Despite the decline, there was still enough murder and mayhem to make us uneasy.

oj-simpson-murdeHere in L.A. there was the murder trial of O.J. Simpson, the so-called Trial of the Century. If you remove fame, wealth, and race and reduce the crime to its basic elements you end up with nothing more than a tragic domestic homicide–the type of crime which is altogether too common everywhere–yet the case continues to fascinate.

Heidi Fleiss, the Hollywood Madam, made news in 1993. At her pandering trial actor Charlie Sheen divulged that he had spent in excess of $53,000 for services rendered by Heidi’s girls.

Please join me as I explore the entirety of 20th Century crime in Los Angeles.

Joan