The Murder of the Black Dahlia: The Ultimate Cold Case

Feb 3, 2014 - by Stephen Karadjis - 1 Comment

When the severed, mutilated corpse of Elizabeth Short was discovered in a vacant lot in Los Angeles on January 15, 1947, the search for the murderer of the “Black Dahlia” began its futile run. Over the intervening decades many theories have been advanced about who this killer was, but none have given serious consideration that he was a jilted boyfriend who stalked her as she emerged into the night from the Biltmore Hotel.

by Stephen Karadjis

In crime lore, the murder of Elizabeth Short, a/k/a the “Black Dahlia,” has achieved iconic status. Speculating on the murder of the Black Dahlia has turned into a cottage industry, with books and movies advancing a wide array of perpetrators. The truth is it remains the ultimate cold case, but there is the possibility she was murdered by an enraged, jealous boyfriend who stalked her from San Diego to the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles.

The enigma of Elizabeth Short and her brutal mutilation-murder brings two very
different pictures to mind. The first is a photograph of a vibrant and vivacious young
woman, very beautiful and self-possessed. The second is a horrible image of a defiled and besieged corpse, lying naked, drained of blood, and severed in two on a weed-infested vacant lot on Norton Avenue in Leimert Park, Los Angeles on the morning of January 15, 1947.

The gruesome discovery sent shock waves across the country. About a day and a half later the dead woman was identified by fingerprints. When news broke of the name of the 22-year-old victim a few people came forward to Los Angeles police to say they knew her. Police quickly established the last sighting of Elizabeth Short as being the night of January 9, at the time she left the Biltmore Hotel.

The medical examiner surmised from the extent of bruising spread over a wide area of her corpse that she had been severely beaten. There was no evidence of sexual assault because the killer had washed and scrubbed the body clean.

John Gilmore in Severed: The True Story of the Black Dahlia and the anonymous author of Infamous Murders – published by Chartwell Books in 1989 – report that the homicide bureau speculated Short had been tied up spread-eagled, either in a standing or supine position or suspended head first by a makeshift system of ropes and pulleys. That she was kept bound in this position for the period of her internment, as in a coarse and crude bondage session. The tell-tale signs being ligature marks at the wrists and ankles and impressions made by rope knots indented on the front, back and left side of her neck. The cause of death was listed as blunt-force trauma to the head. Numerous cuts had been inflicted by a sharp-bladed instrument in a criss-cross pattern over her pubic area, and pubic hair was torn out by hand. A knife was used to cut open her cheeks from each corner of her mouth, leaving a gaping injury from ear to ear. She was then cut in half at the waist and her body drained of blood.

No one knows the complete picture of her suffering.

The ‘Black Dahlia” Myth is Born

Overnight Short was dubbed “The Black Dahlia by a sensation-seeking press. Kenneth Anger in Hollywood Babylon II and Steve Hodel in Black Dahlia Avenger suggest that reporters en masse, in their efforts to learn more of Short’s movements and lifestyle, talked to acquaintances already referring to her with this term.  

When Elizabeth Short first arrived in Los Angeles she lived in Long Beach and frequented a drug store. She wore her hair dyed black and outfitted herself in black garments. She was possessed of a fair complexion and striking, classic looks and the contrast of dark and light accentuated her beauty.

The drug store owner, Arnold Landers, told reporters that customers had already begun calling her the “Black Dahlia.”  A “B” movie, The Blue Dahlia, had opened about 10 days earlier at a nearby theater with Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake playing the lead roles. Lake was a voluptuous golden-blonde and patrons of Lander’s shop who became friendly with Elizabeth Short began referring to her as “The Black Dahlia.” When newspapers across the United States began splashing this moniker on their front pages, Elizabeth Short was on her way to an ironic form of immortality.  

Elizabeth Short in Hollywood and San Diego

In the late 1940s, Hollywood resonated images of sunshine and prosperity. With the dark days of war over and the passage of time, a new era dawned. The motion picture industry pulsated. Thousands of people across the vast expanse were beckoned. Elizabeth Short would be one of these, arriving by train at Union Station in Los Angeles in July, 1946.  Like in Nathanial West’s The Day of the Locust, as a newcomer to town, she quickly gravitated to strangers and odd individuals of like-mind for support and company.

According to www.theblackdahliainhollywood.com, Short’s stay in Los Angeles had been a hit-and-miss affair. In four and a-half months she had lived in nine locations, moving eight times. Her first residence was at the Washington Apartments in Long Beach in late July. From there she rendezvoused with Gordon Fickling, an ex-U.S. Air Force pilot she had known from back east. They moved in to the Brevoort Apartments on Lexington near Vine Street in Hollywood, but separated soon afterwards. Short then contacted Marjorie Graham, a girlfriend from Boston living in Hollywood and the two women roomed together, sometimes with a third person, at five different locations from late August until October 22, when Marjorie returned to Massachusetts. Their temporary residences included the Hawthorne Apartments in Hollywood, later the Figueroa Hotel in downtown, the private home of Florentine Gardens Nightclub owner Mark Hansen, and the Guardian Arms Apartments, also in Hollywood.

Short’s last residence in Los Angeles was a small and cramped apartment at the Chancellor in Hollywood, where she bedded down with seven other women in one main room, consisting of double-bunk beds alongside each of the four walls. A corridor separated this room from a narrow kitchen at the other end of the apartment, with a bathroom in between, off the small corridor.

On December 8 she took the Greyhound bus south to San Diego. Later that day she fell asleep in the Aztec Picture Theater and was awakened by Dorothy French, a 21-year-old cashier and usherette. Short spent a month living with Dorothy, her mother Elvira, and younger brother Cory in their home in Pacific Beach, just north of the city limits. During this time she dated a number of men, one of whom was Robert “Red” Manley, a 26-year-old travelling salesman from Huntington Park, in Los Angeles. On January 9, 1947 it would be Robert Manley who would drive Elizabeth Short back to Los Angeles and let her off at the Biltmore Hotel.

Short was discovered dead the following Wednesday, January 15. Betty Bersinger, a local resident, was out walking hand-in-hand with her 3-year-old daughter along Norton Avenue, when she came upon the shockingly mutilated remains of a young woman. She gasped in horror as she halted, frozen in fear. Then upon regaining her composure collected the child in her arms and ran to the nearest house, and immediately raised the alarm.

The press and police rapidly descended and soon a crowd of onlookers swarmed, agog to the stark sight that met their gaze. The chilly winter added an eerie and uneasy feeling. The gruesome spectacle that winter’s morning was one that was to go down as America’s most infamous cold-case murder mystery of the 20th century. What people set their eyes upon that day was the body of a young woman severed completely in half at the waist. The two sections lying slightly at diagonals of each other were drained entirely of blood and grotesquely mutilated.

The Killer Calls the Editor

On the afternoon of Thursday, January 23, 1947, J.H. Richardson, the editor of the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, received a brief telephone call from a man who alluded to himself as the killer. The caller promised to mail Richardson some of Short’s belongings as proof of his claim. (Richardson later in For the Life of Me: Memoirs of a City Editor recounted his conversation with the supposed killer. He perceived the man to be an egomaniac, a “superman” as Richardson worded it, who wanted to show the world what he could do and get away with it. This claim by Richardson was never made public at the time.)

Two days later, the only genuine item of mailed correspondence known to have come from the killer was intercepted by a sharp-eyed employee at the U.S. Postal Service on January 25, 1947.

Letters cut from the pages of a daily newspaper were pasted to the front of an envelope which read, “Los Angeles Examiner and other Los Angeles Papers. Here! Is Dahlia’s Belongings, Letter to Follow.”  The small packet-sized envelope measured 8 inches by 5 inches. It was carefully and delicately pried open by the police.

 Pacios in Childhood Shadows- The Hidden Story of the Black Dahlia Murder’ itemizes the contents of the packet as a Greyhound claim-check; Short’s birth certificate; a Western-Union telegram signed “Red”; some snapshots; an assortment of business cards; a hand-sized, leather-bound address-book with the name “Mark Hansen” embossed in gold lettering on the front cover; and newspaper clippings of Mat Gordon’s obituary. Hodel in Black Dahlia Avenger: A Genius for Murder writes that the envelope was dropped into a public mailbox at a downtown Los Angeles location and franked January 24, 1947 6:30 p.m.

The same day the envelope was posted the black handbag Elizabeth Short was carrying and the black suede high-heeled shoes she had been wearing at the Biltmore were recovered from the Los Angeles dump. Robert Hymans, who operated a cafe at 1136 South Crenshaw Boulevard, a few blocks from the death site, had noticed the shoes jutting out from the handbag where they had been tossed atop a garbage can, then driven away by the garbage truck. The killer had obviously mailed the contents of the handbag as he had told editor Richardson he would then dumped the handbag and shoes.

The small packet-sized envelope seized by police reeked of gasoline, causing detectives to surmise that the killer had momentarily toyed with the idea of burning the envelope, then decided to mail it after all. Other law enforcement reasoned the shrewd culprit soaked the packet to remove fingerprints.

Fingerprints however were enhanced by the LAPD crime-laboratory and despatched forthwith to the FBI for cross-matching, but no match was retrieved from existing files. The public has never been privy to whether the prints were complete and intact or partial, hazy smudges. But with no match on file in 1947, the Los Angeles Homicide Bureau concluded the perpetrator had never, up until murdering Elizabeth Short, been arrested for a crime and had never been fingerprinted and that the crime was a one-off aberration.

As decades passed with still no match forthcoming, detectives further deduced that the person responsible never again fell foul of the law.

A Special Grand Jury Convenes

Despite all the years having elapsed since the discovery of the murder of Elizabeth Short, the LAPD “Black Dahlia” files are still closed to the public. The files are contained in four filing-cabinet drawers. Only one LAPD homicide detective, aptly referred to as the “gatekeeper,” has the exclusive access to these drawers until the privilege is passed on to the next gatekeeper. This secrecy over the files is now obsolete. Almost every person associated with Elizabeth Short has died. Short herself would have turned 90 years old on July 29, 2014.

 In early 1949, the office of the L.A. District Attorney empanelled 12 civilians to form a special grand jury to investigate police corruption throughout the ranks of the LAPD. The other prime-purpose was to look-into the failure of the LAPD to solve the “Black Dahlia” murder and a string of other brutal slayings and abductions of women across the same time period. This monumental undertaking lasted the entire year.

The grand jury findings brought to light an avalanche of corruption at the highest levels. Inter-departmental jealousies and secrecy prevailed and were wide-ranging and it was found that very often information was not passed on. These revelations led to a complete shake-up of the LAPD, throughout the ranks.

Although many positive actions came in terms of bleeding out any festering corruption within the LAPD, there was little forward movement in solving the murder of the “Black Dahlia.”  One result of the grand jury’s deliberations was to cull the list of 22 suspects the D.A. investigators identified as possible suspects to a handful for follow-up investigation.

Profiling the Killer

Two theories prevail about the “Black Dahlia” homicide. One was that Short had never met her killer and the other that she knew him. What supports the second view are the mutilations inflicted on her corpse. To some investigators they are signs of a personal vendetta. Renowned FBI criminal profiler and author John Douglas adheres to this theory.

Douglas formed the view that the killer knew the victim well and held an emotional attachment toward her. He sees the killer as someone who lived alone, had a high school education, engaged in manual labor, and was under great personal and financial strain at the time of committing the murder. Douglas also suggests the murderer was not averse to wallowing in blood and could have worked as a butcher or in a similar profession or perhaps was a person who was accustomed to hunting animals and was likely as a child or youth to have mistreated or abused animals. The killer Douglas believes may also have been burdened by a personal physical defect or disability.

To Douglas, the ferocity and violence perpetrated on Elizabeth Short, the horrific mutilations to her corpse and the disposing of her severed body on public land for passerbys to discover are all telltale signs the killer knew the victim. The message being conveyed is that this was personal and based on a perceived wrongdoing the killer believed Short had done to him.

This personal association or perceived emotional closeness the killer felt he had to Short, coupled with individual criteria known about each suspect can be used as a premise to eliminate suspects from the DA’s 22 suspect list. From this list there were only seven suspects who were proved to have known Short on a social or personal level.

The D.A.’s Short List of Suspects

Of the seven suspects, only one deserves special mention. George Bacos, head usher at NBC Studios at Sunset and Vine in Hollywood, was an ambitious 23-year-old who was employed on a commission basis at a record promotion company, Jay Faber Associates. As another sideline to an already busy schedule, Bacos contracted entertainment talent to nightspots around town, including the Crown Grill located two blocks south of the Biltmore Hotel. Short frequented this establishment and was last seen walking in this direction.

Bacos had met Short while dating Short’s roommate, Lynn Martin. During the four plus months Short lived in Los Angeles, Bacos took Short out 12 times. When Short was identified as the murdered woman, police sought Bacos for questioning. His statements to police contained comments that were both disingenuous and derogatory towards his slain acquaintance. Website www.theblackdahliainhollywood.com  provides the following quotes, attributed to him:

            "I used to see her with a lot of people. As a matter of fact, for my part I tried to avoid her as much as possible. I was new in radio and made contacts, and she dressed kinda cheaply, you know too obvious and everything... I didn’t want to kiss her because of all that goop she used on her face. I’m used to nice cultured girls."

Photographs of Short taken in Los Angeles during the second-half of 1946 convey a strikingly attractive young woman who was discerning and elegant in the manner she dressed. Her blouses were buttoned to the neckline. There was nothing cheap or revealing. In fact she dressed with a taste for quality, contemporary fashion and outfitted herself in classic black. Her favourite colors were pink and blue.

Bacos says he was used to “nice cultured girls” yet he confessed to dating and having had sexual relations with Lynn Martin who was found to be 15 years old. She had lived with Short and Marjorie Graham at several hotel apartments in Hollywood and downtown. She essentially lived off the generosity of boyfriends and associates and from casual employment. Young women living on the fringes were easy targets for men of means like Bacos.

Jack Egger was head-usher at CBS Studios at Columbia Square on Sunset Boulevard near Gower Street. He liaised with Bacos on a professional level. Egger said of Bacos, to DA investigators, “I don’t like him very well. He is very conceited; I just don’t care for him myself. Never very close to him, just speaking acquaintance.” Egger related that Bacos frequented Brittingham’s Restaurant and Cocktail Bar adjacent to the CBS building. Bacos told investigators in response, “That used to be my hangout. I’d see her in there. I’d say hello, be as nice as possible, try to get away.” Remember this is what Bacos said after Elizabeth Short was found, the victim of a brutal mutilation-murder – a person he had dated a dozen times.

Bacos went on to become a television-writer in the 1960s and 70s. He received critical acclaim for writing a three-episode segment of the “Kojak” television series named “Night of the Piraeus.’ At age 80 in 2003 he wrote the novel Warriors Down. The setting is the backdrop of the Vietnam War with guerrilla fighting and news-reporting rampant. The lead character is a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist Michael Traynor. Traynor’s forte at journalism is brilliant and raw but far too honest and clean for some in the U.S. government – too close to the brutal truth. Those in positions of high office wanted his reporting contained. Feeling ostracised, alone and betrayed Traynor, now diminished, holds three criteria close to his heart which are worth living for: They are to reclaim his good name and self-respect and last in capital-letters REVENGE.

It is strange and uncanny that Bacos writes a novel late in life that has revenge as its principal theme. Revenge is destructive and insidious and at odds with reclaiming self-respect and one’s good name. Short’s murder is believed by many to be a crime based on incredible anger stemming from revenge.

Both the LAPD and the DA investigation held him to be a good suspect. There was no direct evidence but it is interesting that nearly three years following Short’s murder the DA had him on their condensed list of 22 suspects, aligning themselves with the LAPD.  Bacos is a definite possibility.

Debunking the Black Dahlia Literature

There have been several film adaptations and a number of books written recounting the murder of Elizabeth Short.

James Ellroy’s “The Black Dahlia,” a superbly drafted work of fiction, was published in 1987. Its main thrust was not so much about the murder and Elizabeth Short herself, but about the people around her and those investigating her murder, who become obsessed with Short and what happened to her. This is a theme that continues to the present day. There has been a number of non-fiction books authored afterwards and released onto the market.

Severed - The True Story of the Black Dahlia by John Gilmore is original, daring and masterfully written, depicting late 1940’s shadow-land noir Los Angeles. He builds his case outlaying the known facts with an interconnecting series of cameos or fabled stories coloring the pages. Jack Anderson Wilson is identified as the killer, a petty criminal harboring a long rap sheet, which lists burglary, theft and violence as his mainstay code of offenses. Despite continuing decades of similar activity intermingled with prison time, Wilson restricted his bad deeds never graduating to harder crime.

Severed was the first non-fiction work to be written and when released went down as a resounding success and was triumphantly acclaimed. For example Kenneth Anger is quoted as saying “My God, this is a frightening tale....The most famous murder in L.A., and we suddenly see that we knew nothing before, only the glitter and red of blood. This, now, is Pandora’s Box.”  Charles Higham was quoted as saying “This project stands as the only authentic true-crime book written on America’s most bizarre and haunting murder case.” But in the years since its release in 1994 there have been many detractors.

Gilmore did not provide any footnotes or endnotes, nor an index or bibliography. There is no way to clarify a lot of the things he has written. People have tried. One is Los Angeles Times journalist Larry Harnisch, who in 1997 wrote a story for the Times on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the “Black Dahlia” murder. Harnisch who did his own research then and in the years since is quoted as saying that Gilmore’s book is 25 percent mistakes and 50 percent fiction. Gilmore expounds a number of cameos within the pages of Severed. Harnisch has said he has never been able to establish the existence of any of these characters Gilmore wrote about.

There is no evidence whatsoever Elizabeth Short ever met or knew Jack Anderson Wilson. None of her associates in Los Angeles ever mentioned him. Neither the Los Angeles Police at the time or the DA investigators mention him or held him to be a suspect.

One of the main selling points of his book was his theory that Short had infantile genitalia and was incapable of having intercourse and was a pseudo-hermaphrodite. This has, since the release of Gilmore’s book been disproven. Detective Harry Hansen and the LAPD found three people who had sexual relations with Short. The coroner’s autopsy report states that Short’s reproductive organs and system were “anatomically normal.”

Until Gilmore wrote his book there was little research or interest on the “Black Dahlia” murder but its releasesparked a renewed popularity and devotees and researchers have since taken him to account. John Gilmore is without doubt a highly talented writer and Severed is spellbinding and chilling, but the pages are cluttered with fairy tales.

Janice Knowlton in Daddy was the Black Dahlia Killer asserts that her father George Knowlton impregnated Short in November 1946 and because of this pregnancy murdered her. Don Wolf in The Black Dahlia Files reports that newspaper mogul Norman Chandler, owner of the Los Angeles Times impregnated Short after she had serviced Chandler as a call girl through notorious madam Brenda Allen, and that gangster Bugsy Siegel murdered her on Chandler’s orders and that Gilmore’s suspect Wilson was an accomplice. These claims make great fiction but are preposterous. The autopsy report confirms Short was not pregnant.

Both Knowlton in Daddy was the Black Dahlia Killer and Wolfe in The Black Dahlia Files assert that Short was a prostitute. Knowlton even claims that Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Short worked together as a double act. These claims are totally refuted by the DA investigation and by the Los Angeles police. Detective Harry Hansen in charge of the murder investigation stated “there was no record of any solicitation, offering or resorting or prostitution in any way, shape or form. She was no pushover. She’d bait and take all she could get and give out nothing. She did not put out.” 

Steve Hodel in Black Dahlia Avenger: A Genius for Murder nominates his own father George Hill Hodel as the killer. Dr. Hodel was a very distinguished medical practitioner and highly regarded. But his reputation was totally destroyed when in 1949 his teenage daughter Tamar Hodel accused her father of incest and threw in for good measure a statement naming him as the “Black Dahlia” killer. Following the fallout from these allegations and his trial, even though he was acquitted of the incest charge, his reputation in tatters, he left Los Angeles early the following year, 1950. He was thoroughly investigated by the Los Angeles police and by the District Attorney’s office. Both agencies came to the conclusion that he had nothing to do with Short’s murder. One blundering Hodel makes within his 500-plus pages is to tell readers that two photographs displayed in clear black and white are of Elizabeth Short. Neither bust-shot looks anything like her. Hodel was forced to retract a few years back now when one of the women still alive came forward to say she was one of the young women and that she was a friend of the late Dr. George Hodel.

William T. Rasmussen’s Corroborating Evidence: The Black Dahlia Murder is a thoroughly documented and very informative work. The author makes the case linking the “Black Dahlia” murder to the “Cleveland Torso” murders of 1934-38. But along with Don Wolfe’s Black Dahlia Files he jumps on the bandwagon and backs Gilmore’s suspect Jack Anderson Wilson as the serial killer. There is no evidence of Wilson’s involvement in either case. No evidence he was even a killer at all.

Childhood Shadows: The Hidden Story of the Black Dahlia Murder was written by Mary Pacios, a childhood friend of Elizabeth Short from Boston. A very definitive and well written look at Short’s life prior to her arrival in California, her book provides an invaluable insight into the real person and the private world of Short. Pacios, incredibly, names wonder-boy Orson Wells, the actor and director and star of Citizen Kane, as the killer.  

The Curse of the Black Dahlia by Jacque Daniel details the involvement of her father J. Paul de River, the police psychiatrist overseeing the case. Leslie Dillon was 27 and working at a hotel in Miami when in October 1948 he wrote a letter to De River after reading an edition of True Detective magazine which detailed the crime along with a psychological profile of the killer.

 

An exchange of correspondence ensued with the psychiatrist concluding Dillon was the murderer. A trap was set with the purpose of extracting a confession, culminating with Dillon being held against his will at a hotel near Los Angeles, without counsel, his constitutional rights being denied.

 

Because of this unlawful detention, a writ of habeas corpus was issued and Dillon had to be released. The fiasco led to the convening of the 1949 grand jury and the dismissal of Police Chief Clemence Horrall, following the investigation of police corruption within the LAPD.

 

Nonetheless, after a comprehensive investigation with evidence presented, the grand jury named Leslie Dillon as the prime suspect. Although Dillon was never indicted, there are strong reasons suggesting he should have been.

 

Fred Witman was a forensic psychiatrist and colleague of Dr. de River sworn in to give testimony in September 1949 before Deputy District Attorney Arthur L. Veitch and Chief H.L. Stanley of the Bureau of Investigation.

Witman divulged that subsequent to the murder he had called Dr. de River having reached two conclusions. Firstly he believed the killer had worked as an embalmer at an undertaking firm, and secondly, based on his personal expertise of such crimes and of the individuals who commit them, predicted the murderer would, by his own doing reveal himself to authorities at some point.

If Dillon were the killer then Witman was correct on both counts. Dillon had worked in Oklahoma City and in Oakland, California as an embalmer's assistant and ended up writing to Dr. de River in October 1948, thus exposing himself.

Witman further produced in testimony a photograph taken by the medical examiner of the slashed pubic region of Short's corpse and pointed out that the letter "D"' had been carved into her flesh. Deputy District Attorney Veitch then asked Witman "There is also apparentlly an 'E' or an 'F' there" to which Mr. Stanley of the Bureau stated "Definite 'E' ."

The carving of these two letters into the flesh of Elizabeth Short is a revelation in itself. There is no mention of this in the official coroner's report and the LAPD has always denied the existence of any initials carved on the deceased.

Author Jacque Daniel herself states that she and a colleague had viewed the photograph in the DA files and states in her book "and there was no initial 'D' that we could see."

But if one examines the photograph of the pubic region closely the letter "D"' can be seen in the top left hand corner of the pubic region and what appears to be the letter 'F' alongside to the right, although if the authorities were correct in 1947, and they most probably were then it is an"'E".

Witman alluded that Dillon was always in the habit of signing pictures he drew, simply with the letter "D". The carving of the two intitials must be part of the information pertaining to the'Black Dahlia case that has always been held back by police even to the present day.

There is no mention of it in any books or articles and it was omitted from the autopsy report and its existence emphatically denied by the LAPD. But anyone can see the initals if they look closely. This photograph is in Severed by John Gilmore, for all to see, though Gilmore never mentions it.

 

The police and DA failed to established Dillon's whereabouts after January 8 until January 16, 1947. He was working in San Francisco until January 8 and from January 16. There was a mountain of circumstantial evidence pinning him to the murder, but he was not brought to trial for two reasons. Firstly because he had been illegally detained and secondly for a lack of concrete evidence. Apparently he had a witness or witnesses who were willing to come forward, in the event he was put on trial, to say he was in San Francisco at the time. The police believed these characters were unsavory and lacked credibility.

 

The downside to the book is the author's misguided attempt to implicate people in high places and unnecessarily delve into tangents of conspiracy theories. Regardless, it is the opinion of the author of this article that Daniel's book is the most credible and compelling. The question begs to be asked: Did Leslie Dillon murder Elizabeth Short?

 

One fact not mentioned in Daniel's book is worth noting. The handbag and shoes belonging to Elizabeth Short were left atop a trash can at 1146 S. Crenshaw Boulevard on January 24th, 1947, nine days following the murder. This was most probably the killer's only mistake. But it was a colossal blunder on his part. The killer did not foresee the possibility that someone might link the items to the murder. It was a mistake because it reveals that the murderer most probably lived within walking distance. This was an astounding oversight by police at the time.

 

Dillon lived at 906 S. Crenshaw Boulevard in 1946, two blocks away. He was living in San Francisco in January 1947 but returned to live in Los Angeles in April 1947. It is possible Dillon kept the rent going for the South Crenshaw address, knowing he might return. If he rendezvoused with Elizabeth Short or met her for the first time after she had alighted from the Biltmore Hotel via the Olive Street exit then she was killed at 906 S. Crenshaw Boulevard. This address has never been proposed as the place of her execution. 

 

Over the years several films detailing the “Black Dahlia” homicide have come to the screen. The Blue Gardenia, a 1953 Warner Brothers picture, was the first loosely based adaptation. “Who is the Black Dahlia,” a 1975 made-for-television movie was next starring Lucy Arnaz and Efrem Zimbalist Jr. In 1981 True Confessions followed, starring Robert DeNiro and Robert Duvall. Finally 2007 saw the release of The Black Dahlia, based on the 1987 book by James Ellroy.

 

An Alternative Scenario

There is an alternate scenario never put forward in any books or movies that may explain what happened to Elizabeth Short: She was being stalked by a jealous boyfriend she went out with in San Diego. Of major support to the stalking theory is that no one in Los Angeles knew when Short would return. In fact, after a month in the San Diego area, she even came back a day later than she had planned to.

When Manley gave his statement to homicide detectives following the murder, he revealed a peculiar anomaly that interrupted the drive. He noticed Short craning and twisting her head round to the left as cars were passing in the same direction, and back toward those vehicles travelling south in the opposite direction. The logical explanation for this odd manifestation was that she was concerned someone she knew might be following her. Call it intuition or premonition, but it is not an uncommon occurrence for intensely appealing women to be stalked and this might have happened to her in the past.

Manley also told detectives he had noticed scratch marks on the outside of Short’s upper arms and a trickling of fresh blood. He said Short had told him she had a very jealous boyfriend who was of Italian descent. But the jealous Italian boyfriend she referred to could only have been one person, Sam Navarra.

 From the police investigation of her time in San Diego, a day-to-day time-table of Short’s movements established who she had been out with and how she filled in her time during that month. Website www.blackdahlia.info outlays this timetable.  The only man of Italian descent was Sam Navarra. Short had stepped out with Navarra on the last night she spent at the home of Elvira and Dorothy French at Pacific Beach, January 7, 1947. When LAPD detectives interviewed Navarra he told them that Short had said she was leaving the next morning to return to Massachusetts.

Manley arrived outside the French’s Pacific Beach home the next morning, January 8, and following an exchange of farewells the two were under way. But instead of heading off to a bus station for Short’s announced trip back to Massachusetts, they drove only a few miles before pulling in at the Mecca Motel where they booked a cabin for that night. Manley, working as a travelling salesman, had calls to make the following morning and Short made a decision to bide her time and wait until the next day January 9.

With the whole day in front of them they made the most of it. They had something to eat and drink and went out dancing in the evening. The following afternoon they set off along the Pacific Coast Highway for Los Angeles.

The day had gone and darkness had closed in as they approached the downtown area. Manley pulled in at the Greyhound terminal where Short checked her bags into a locker. Deposited were a suitcase, a small bag and hat box. They drove on a short distance, arriving outside the formidable facade of the Biltmore. It was dusk.

Elegantly attired in a black-collared suit with fluffy-white blouse and white gloves, black nylon stockings, high-heeled black-suede shoes and a full-length beige coat borrowed from her actress-friend Anne Toth, she stepped from the vehicle and walked toward the double-fronted doors which were opened by the hotel doorman.

Over the next four hours Short was seen passing the time, perambulating and loafing about the Biltmore’s marbled interior, every now and again stopping at the period phone booth to make a telephone call.

It is most likely she was soliciting known acquaintances for a place to spend the night. But the people she had met in Los Angeles were short-term associates and not friends of long-standing. Some she knew better than others. It is also possible she was telephoning the same person time and again. This is more likely because following her identification as the murdered woman no one came forward to say Short had telephoned them that night.

Somewhere around 10:30 p.m. she strode out into the night and disappeared into the maze of dark streets. Everything after this point is blackness, like turning off a television set, left to the imagination.

This is pure speculation, of course, but Navarra may have arisen early the morning after his night out with Short and was parked nearby to watch as Manley and Short departed. He perhaps followed them only to see the pair drive onto the grounds of the Mecca Motel. Then later, now incensed with rage, was there to observe the two retire for the night behind closed doors.

He may have been infuriated about her lying to him about going back to Massachusetts.  Perhaps by now he had made up his mind to take revenge and murder her. He stalked them all the way to Los Angeles and waited till she walked from the Biltmore Hotel and surprised her. Perhaps with no place to sleep the night and not having the chance to think she got into his car. He may simply have asked to talk to her. From there he most likely would have driven back to San Diego and then tied her up once inside his home. Navarra was said to have lived on Columbia Street, adjacent to the ocean. But it is possible he had a place in Los Angeles. No one would have seen him as it was late at night.

When Short’s corpse was discovered she had been savagely mutilated, her legs were lying spread-apart and a handful of grass-stalks were found protruding from her exposed vagina. Later during the autopsy the coroner found a hunk of flesh gouged from her left thigh which contained the tattoo of a small rose lodged full-inside her vagina. Her corpse was also dumped alongside a suburban footpath for all to see. The message the killer was conveying was that this was a woman of easy virtue, that she had done wrong by him and he had taken revenge upon her and taught her a lesson. The killer wanted the world to know this.

Navarra probably had an alibi given to police by unsuspecting family members or friends. At the time detectives were focused on someone with medical training and people like Navarra where the alibi checked out were disregarded as potential suspects and rapidly overlooked.

Navarra may not have been the killer but everything seems to fit in-place for it to have happened this way.

There are only three concluding possibilities remaining. The first is that Elizabeth Short eventually got through on the telephone to the man she had been trying for several hours to call and he agreed to pick her up outside the Biltmore Hotel. Then once back at his residence something happened to set things off leading to murder. The second possibility is that Short met with a stranger. The third is that she was being stalked by a very jealous suitor. The Los Angeles Police made numerous inquiries in the San Diego area and must have been thinking along those lines of the possibility the killer came from that city.

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1 comment on "The Murder of the Black Dahlia: The Ultimate Cold Case"

Michael Thomas Barry Feb 7, 2014 · Log in or register to post comments

The fascination with the Black Dahlia case has had an endearing grip on the imagination of crime buffs for decades. Stephen Karadjis has written a very compelling article that puts a new spin on a very old and very written about written about subject. Kudos for a job well done.

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