Steve Hodel just wants to be believed.
For almost 20 years, the retired Los Angeles Police detective has worked the biggest case of his life, painstakingly piecing together details of the City of Angels’ most unspeakable unsolved homicide — the Black Dahlia murder.
Elizabeth Short, dubbed the Black Dahlia by the tabloid press, was 22 years old when her mutilated body was found staged some six inches from the sidewalk of an empty lot in LA’s sprouting Leimert Park neighborhood on Jan. 15, 1947.
Short’s murder left a trail of questions and clues that Hodel has meticulously traced back to Dr. George H. Hodel — his father.
The elder Hodel was long considered the prime suspect in the murder, a detail buried in decades-old cold case files that had remained untouched until the younger Hodel began investigating after his father’s death in 1999 and published a New York Times best-selling book in 2003.
The Hodel story is truly Shakespearean: The Black Dahlia murderer has eluded authorities for more than a lifetime. And it’s only his progeny, a decorated detective, who seemingly cracks the case wide open.
Now, more than 70 years after Short’s murder, another clue that appears to identify Dr. George Hodel as the killer of Short and at least one other woman has recently surfaced, this one in the form of a three-page handwritten letter dated Oct. 25, 1949. It’s included as the afterword of Steve Hodel’s latest book, Black Dahlia Avenger III, scheduled for release this week.
The voice from beyond the grave is W. Glenn Martin, a former LAPD informant, who penned the detailed missive to protect his then-teenaged daughters. Martin feared the man he referred to as “GH,” and the potential consequences that came with keeping dark secrets.
Martin’s granddaughter, Sandi Nichols, 62, of Indianapolis, Indiana, discovered the letter in July tucked in her mother’s belongings after her mother’s death. Unfamiliar with the murder cases detailed in the letter, Nichols turned to the Internet for answers and found Steve Hodel.
“I have lost lots of sleep over this letter,” said Nichols from her home in Indianapolis. “The letter created some serious questions for me. I suddenly had my hand on something very important. Who was this man‘G.H.,’ and who were those women he killed?”
Innocence and evil
Steve Hodel acknowledges having significant “blank spots” in memories of his early childhood during what would have been the years immediately preceding and following the Black Dahlia murder, years he spent living in a famed Hollywood manse, the same home in which he now believes Short was tortured and killed.
The gaps began to narrow in the years after his father’s death, restored in conversations with friends and family, most importantly with his half-sister, Tamar, with whom he had lost touch for 50 years.
His own early years had all the makings of Hollywood royalty: Born in Los Angeles in 1941, Steve Hodel was four years old when his parents and two brothers moved into the Sowden House, the Lloyd-Wright-designed fortress resembling a Mayan temple on Franklin Avenue in Los Feliz.
“Growing up in that house, my brothers and I saw it as a place of magic that we were convinced could easily have greeted the uninvited with pits of fire, poison darts, deadly snakes, or even a giant sword-bearing turbaned bodyguard at the door,” Hodel told Curbed LA in a 2015 piece about the architectural and historical significance of the famed home. “Right out of Arabian Nights.”
The Franklin House, as Steve Hodel refers to it, also was the backdrop of extravagant, drug-infused sex parties for many elite Angelenos and Hollywood stars, friends and acquaintances of Steve Hodel’s parents, Dorothy and George Hodel.
Dorothy married George Hodel in Sonora, Mexico in 1940 at the age of 34. It wasn’t her first marriage. As a teenager, she fell in love and later married John Huston, the award-winning director, actor and screenwriter. It was through Huston that Dorothy would get to know George Hodel and reconnect with him after her divorce from Huston.
Dorothy and George Hodel divorced in 1945, the same year they moved into the Sowden House with their three boys. They would continue to share the home until 1950 and remained on friendly terms.
At the Sowden House, Steve Hodel, as the middle child of three brothers, remembers a revolving door of people he calls “roomers” who would stay at the home for periods of time, many of them aspiring actresses.
He remembers his parents entertaining friends by hosting a painting party soon after moving into the five-bedroom house that later would be listed as a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument. Steve’s room was at the very back.
“By the time they got to my room, they were all pretty drunk, and they painted my room chartreuse,” Hodel said on a recent drive through Los Angeles, touring the many locales of significance in his investigation of the Black Dahlia murder.
Along one of those stops, Steve Hodel described as a child playing with his brothers, all close in age, in Griffith Park, often walking to and from the park from the nearby Sowden House.
“We played the Three Musketeers here,” Hodel said as he pointed to a wooded area.
Just a few steps from there, he pointed to where the purse was found belonging to actress Jean Elizabeth Spangler, whom Steve Hodel suspects was one of the many women murdered by his father.
It’s that juxtaposition — of innocence and evil — that has tugged and pulled at Steve ever since he began to unravel the alleged sadistic details of his father’s life.
He suspects he harbors repressed memories of his childhood but has never sought to extract them in therapy, saying simply, “I don’t believe or trust in that. Just too subjective to be relied upon.”
He doesn’t remember hearing about the Black Dahlia murder as a young boy.
“My feelings are psychologically bifurcated,” said Hodel, choosing his words carefully as he explained his feelings toward his father, “in the same way Elizabeth Short was bifurcated physically. Half of me still loves my father because he was good to me when I was a kid, and he had accomplished so much in his life. I knew him as The Great Man. But I also hate him, or rather hate the monster inside him, the ‘Mr. Hyde,’ for what he did to Elizabeth Short and his other victims.”
He fondly recalls countless times as a child, along with his two brothers Michael and Kelvin, accompanying his father on so-called “house calls” to the Hollywood homes of women. He remembers piling into the back of a military-style jeep his father owned dubbed “The Bouncer” and riding around town with a leather medical bag in the front and the roof open, letting in the Southern California sunshine.
Kelvin Hodel, 76, remembers those days differently.
“That was abuse, what he was doing to us,” he said during an interview this month. “My father was taking us to the homes of women he was having sex with and leaving us out in the car for 2 or 3 hours. That was definitely abuse.”
The Black Dahlia
Short was a 22-year-old aspiring actress and small-town girl with stunning looks from Medford, Mass. before she was kidnapped and mutilated, her body surgically bisected in a procedure known as a “hemicorpectomy,” which was first taught in U.S. medical schools in the 1930s.
A novel by James Ellroy served as the foundation of a major Hollywood film about the Black Dahlia murder, the vast majority of it fiction, a tragedy, given that the real events of what happened are far stranger and outrageous than the imagination of any writer. Another book, an autobiography by a daughter of Tamar Hodel who was given up for adoption, is the inspiration for a fictionalized drama mini-series about the Black Dahlia murder by director Patty Jenkins, scheduled to air in 2019.
None bring to light the exhaustive case Steve Hodel has amassed accusing his father of killing Short, who had a wide permanent smile carved into her skin that gruesomely stretched from each end of her lips, a tortuous act that the LA Coroner’s Office reported was done while the victim was alive. Short also was forced to eat feces, was burned on her back with a cigarette or cigar and her killer then performed a partial hysterectomy.
Once dead, Short’s body was expertly bifurcated, her body drained of its blood and staged with her severed body parts, posed strategically in what Steve Hodel describes as a surrealist’s art exhibit.
“Elizabeth’s body was my father’s canvass,” he said. “His scalpel was the paint brush.”
Not just any surrealist presentation, but one that bears striking resemblance to two pieces of artwork, “The Minotaur” and “Lover’s Lips,” by close Hodel family friend, renowned artist and photographer Man Ray.
Ray, a Hollywood darling, was a staple at the Sowden House during the 1940s, according to Steve Hodel, and served as the family’s photographer.
Short’s macabre and complex crime scene appeared intended to be found by an innocent passerby, in this case a woman with her 3-year-old daughter in tow in the Leimert Park neighborhood on the morning of Jan. 15, 1947.
Short’s body was left 6 miles due south of the Hollywood sign. The famous white letters could easily be seen in the distance, as if the staging was ordered up by a director making a horror film.
The way the killer arranged Short’s arms to rest over her head at 90-degree angles, along with the body cuts and slices, appears to be a reverent ode to Ray’s surrealist Minotaur photograph — a torso of a woman’s nude body made to look like a creature, where the nipples make up the eyes, the shadowed belly forms the mouth and so on. The black-and-white photographic rendering pays homage to the Greek mythological creature kept imprisoned in a labyrinth on the Island of Crete and fed on a diet of live maidens.
According to police reports made public at the time, the precision and skill with which the bifurcation of Short’s body was handled led LAPD investigators to conclude early on that the procedure was performed by a highly skilled surgeon.
That surgeon, according to Steve Hodel, was his father, who earned a pre-med degree at the University of California, Berkeley, and was later a highly acclaimed graduate of the University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine. He also was the sole surgeon at a logging camp near Bisbee, Arizona, allowing him to sharpen his scalpel skills years before the world would ever hear of the Black Dahlia.
The youngest victim of George Hodel may have been a 6-year-old girl named Suzanne Degnan, who lived in Chicago, a city Steve Hodel says his father visited often on business.
Kidnapped from her bedroom on Jan. 7, 1946, Degnan was heard by her father at 1:30 a.m. that morning, saying the words, “I’m too sleepy. I don’t want to get up.” He dismissed the sounds to sleep talking but by 7:30 a.m. discovered his daughter missing. That evening, police had found the little girl’s severed head in a nearby sewer; her body parts were found elsewhere.
Degnan’s body, like Short’s, was surgically bifurcated, sliced through the 2nd and 3rd lumbar vertebrae, the only way to cut a body in half without cutting bone.
The same procedure was used on Elizabeth Short a year later, just one week shy of the one-year anniversary of the murder of Degnan. Short’s body was found on a stretch of Degnan Boulevard in Los Angeles that turns into Norton Avenue for a few blocks.
Such remarkable circumstances, Steve Hodel believes, aren’t just coincidences, including the fact that Degnan’s arms were discovered six weeks after her death about a mile from her home, just off a street named Hollywood.
The cause and manner of death of Short is not in dispute. The killer, perhaps with help from an accomplice, kidnapped her and then sliced off her left breast and carved symbols into her flesh.
Steve Hodel believes her torture and murder happened in the basement at the Sowden House. That’s also where he and his brothers would be corporally punished by their father.
A few years ago, as part of a TV crime show on the Black Dahlia murder, he revisited his childhood home with a police cadaver dog. The dog alerted to human remains outside the home and in the basement, though no excavation was made to confirm the detection.
Long before this point in Steve Hodel’s investigation, the dots began to add up:
• He believes Elizabeth Short was a patient of his father, who ran a venereal disease clinic in downtown Los Angeles. George Hodel’s secretary, Ruth Spaulding, who would have been able to make the connection for authorities, had earlier died of a suspicious drug overdose. George Hodel, who was romantically involved with Spaulding just prior to her suspicious death, was questioned in that case. By 1950, the District Attorney’s office had information that George Hodel “did associate with Beth Short.”
• A six-week wire-tapping of George Hodel’s home in early 1950, the transcript unearthed by a journalist writing about Steve Hodel’s first Black Dahlia Avenger book, captured the elder Hodel on tape, making what appears to be an incriminating statement: “Supposin’ I did kill the Black Dahlia. They couldn’t prove it now. They can’t talk to my secretary any more because she’s dead.”
• In a report to the Grand Jury in 1951, Lieutenant Frank Jemison, of the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office, noted that one of George Hodel’s so-called “roomers” at the Sowden House identified Elizabeth Short as one of his girlfriends. Lillian Lenorak also said that George Hodel spent time around the Biltmore Hotel, one of the last places Short had been seen alive in the days leading up to her murder.
• Tucked inside the Lloyd Wright Collection in the archives of University of California, Los Angeles sits another clue, first uncovered in 2008, when Steve Hodel went looking through correspondence between architect Frank Lloyd Wright, Jr. and George Hodel about renovations at the Sowden House. In the folder are receipts from January 1947 for contracting work arranged with the famous architect. The receipts show a purchase of 10 50-pound bags of concrete a few days before Short’s murder. The paper bags were the same size and type found near Short’s body that police believe were used by her killer to transport the detached pieces of her body.
• Less than four weeks after Short’s death, the murder of socialite and starlet Jeanne French bore some of the similar sadistic markings of Short’s death. French, too, was savagely beaten and her body carefully posed nude in a vacant lot not far from where Short was found. Scrawled on her chest in red lipstick was an obscene message signed “B.D.” The handwriting, as did several taunting notes sent to police following Short’s murder, bore a resemblance to Steve Hodel’s father’s distinctive handwriting.
Before his own death in 1999, George Hodel accumulated the life experiences of 10 successful men. Born in 1907, the only child of George Hodel, Sr. and Esther Hodel, he was a musical prodigy with an IQ of 187 that reportedly stood a point above Albert Einstein’s.
By the age of nine, he was performing as a solo pianist at the Shrine Auditorium and entertained, in private session, for famed Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff in the living room of his grandparents’ home in Pasadena.
George Hodel, whose childhood home still sits on Monterey Road on the edge of South Pasadena, graduated from South Pasadena High School in 1923, at age 14, and entered the California Institute of Technology. He was expelled from the university after confessing to having an affair and impregnating the wife of a faculty member.
Still a teen at the time, he tracked down the woman on the East Coast, only to be told he had ruined her life and to go away. Forever.
George Hodel went on to become a self-employed magazine publisher (his works focused on death); a cab driver in downtown LA; a crime reporter for the Los Angeles Record; a radio announcer for the Southern California Gas Company, introducing Angelenos to classical music; a medical student in San Francisco; a cab driver in San Francisco; a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle; a division head in the LA County Health Department, the county’s venereal disease control officer; and the owner of a private health clinic.
Those health-related positions, says Steve Hodel, made his father privy to the sexual disease histories of the rich and powerful in Los Angeles, including cops, prosecutors and celebrities.
That information proved to be insurance when legal troubles eventually caught up to George Hodel.
Tamar Nais Hodel, Steve Hodel’s older half-sister, came to live for a time at the Sowden House with her father and half-brothers. Her mother and George Hodel’s ex-wife, Dorothy Anthony, also stayed for a time.
“My father took avant-garde to the hilt, and the women went along with it,” Tamar said in an interview published in DuJour Magazine in 2015, shortly before her death at age 80. “But it was hidden.”
Tamar, then 14 years old, ran away from the Sowden House on Oct. 1,1949 and soon was arrested by police. When questioned about her reasons for running away, Tamar told police it was because of the sex parties at home. When asked how she knew about the parties, she admitted to having taken part in several.
She also detailed how she had been molested by her father since the age of 11. And that she had become pregnant after having sex with her father, another man and a woman. Her father, she said, arranged for an abortion for her shortly before she ran away.
When the District Attorney’s office interrogated George Hodel, according to a news article at the time in the Los Angeles Daily News, he responded: “Everything is a dream to me.”
He also mustered a defense based on possibly being in a state of hypnosis at the time, making it hard for him to know what was real and what was imagined, the stuff of surrealism. “If this is real and I am really here, then these other things must have happened,” he added.
To bolster his case, George Hodel hired prominent attorneys Jerry Giesler and Robert Neeb, known for getting celebrities out of trouble.
Three adults testified during the scandalous three-week trial in 1949, making newspaper headlines at the time. All supported Tamar’s accusations. Despite the witnesses and the initial admissions by George Hodel himself, the doctor to the stars was acquitted.
It’s in the months following the trial that the Sowden House was bugged by the DA’s office investigating the Black Dahlia murder, gleaning audio recordings of questionable conversations, as well as the screams of a woman being beaten, the sounds likely emanating from the basement.
George Hodel is heard on tape giving another man the instruction, “Leave no trace.”
A Los Angeles newspaper soon quoted anonymous sources saying that the police planned an imminent arrest of a suspect in the Black Dahlia case.
Dr. George H. Hodel then fled the City of Angels.
The favorite son
Steve Hodel needs to be believed.
The years following his father leaving the country were difficult but filled with loving memories of his mother and brothers, Michael and Kelvin.
Overnight, Dorothy Hodel found herself the sole breadwinner in the family and found secretarial jobs to get by. She’d spend the next 15 years raising her three sons.
“Though an alcoholic in the extreme, she managed to clothe and feed her sons, and instruct us in what was truly important in life,” Steve Hodel once wrote about his mother.
They moved from place to place around Los Angeles, at one point renting an apartment at the edge of the Santa Monica Pier overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
It was in that apartment that Lt. Frank Jemison, of the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office, interrogated Dorothy Hodel about her ex-husband’s relationship with Elizabeth Short, as well as the days surrounding Short’s murder. He showed her photographs.
In the end, Dorothy Hodel offered no information of significance.
“I have nothing to tell you that would bear out any idea you may have that he did this,” she said, according to a 1950 transcript of the interview. “All I know is that he is not the sort of man that would psychologically be the kind to do it. He has a fine record as a doctor and is a dedicated man.”
Steve Hodel, nine years old at the time George Hodel left in 1950, has no real recollection of the questions swirling around his father at the time.
Steve would not learn about his father’s arrest and the subsequent trial until well into his teens. Tamar was sent to juvenile detention after her father was acquitted. The siblings would lose touch for the next 50 years, not having a meaningful conversation until after their father’s death.
In the ensuing years, George Hodel rebuilt a professional and personal life abroad.
He first moved to Hawaii, before it was a state, and served as a staff psychiatrist at Kaneohe Territorial Hospital, chief of the psychiatric clinic at Oahu Prison, and a lecturer at the University of Hawaii. By 1952, he married Hortensia Laguda, his fourth wife, with ties to the Philippine government and with whom he would have four children. George Hodel would later move to the Philippines.
He would return to Los Angeles only intermittently and usually without notice. Steve Hodel remembers the surprise visits as clinical: His father would often ask each of the brothers to take 10-minute turns catching him up on their lives since he last saw them.
When Steve Hodel turned 17, with his mother’s signed permission, he enlisted in the Navy and was stationed abroad for a time at Subic Bay in the Philippines. He met his new step-mother and younger half-brothers and sisters while stationed there. On several occasions, he would go partying with his father.
“I have to admit, we would go drinkin’ and whorin’,” Steve Hodel said. “It doesn’t sound so great now, but we had fun together. We spent time. I was getting reacquainted with The Great Man.”
George Hodel would reside overseas for about four decades, returning to visit, among other places, LA, Chicago and San Francisco, turning those cities into ports of murder, according to Steve Hodel.
By 1961, Steve Hodel was back in Los Angeles and fell instantly in love with Amilda Kiyoko Tachibana McIntyre. He met Kiyo, as she was nicknamed, at a party in the Hollywood Hills. Steve Hodel was 20 and Kiyo was 28, or so she told him.
Like much in his life, nothing was quite as it seemed.
Within months, the couple had eloped. A few months later, Kiyo suggested he apply to join the Los Angeles Police Department, which was hiring at a higher starting salary than what Steve Hodel was making as an orderly at Kaiser Hospital in Hollywood.
After initially being lukewarm to the idea, he became excited about the prospect after passing the entrance exams, taking the psychological test and acing the in-person interview.
Then in January 1963 came a strange phone call that led to an even stranger meeting. He was asked to meet in person with a captain in the personnel division at the LAPD headquarters.
Steve Hodel knew something wasn’t right.
“You have no business being a police officer,” Capt. Earle Sansing told Steve Hodel as soon as he sat him down. “I know all about your family and your father.”
Presuming Sansing was referring to his father’s 1949 incest trial, Steve Hodel gave an impassioned plea: He was not his father. He knew nothing about the trial, other than his father had been acquitted and moved away soon after, and his mother never spoke of it.
Perhaps it was Steve Hodel’s speech. Maybe it was the realization that Steve Hodel appeared to have no clue that his father was the prime suspect in LA’s biggest unsolved homicide. Sansing changed his mind by the end of the meeting.
And so it was that Steve Hodel entered the Los Angeles police academy, 16 years after Elizabeth Short’s death.
He was still a rookie during the summer of 1965, when the Watts riots erupted. That fall, he received word from his father about being in town for two days — and to come find him at the Biltmore Hotel.
Steve Hodel made dinner plans to introduce his father to Kiyo. The dinner was over before it began.
Kiyo, who had been extraordinarily excited at the prospect of having dinner with George Hodel, bought a new dress for the occasion and spent hours getting preened and ready, according to Steve Hodel. She was a vision.
When his father entered the restaurant and approached the table, Kiyo and George Hodel locked eyes. Barely a few words were spoken before George Hodel, uncharacteristically flummoxed, apologized and said some unexpected business matters needed his attention in New York.
It was then that Steve Hodel learned Kiyo and his father had previously had an intimate relationship about 20 years earlier, when George Hodel found her sitting alone on a bench one evening in downtown LA and brought her home to stay for a while.
Steve Hodel also learned Kiyo was not 28 years old, as he believed, but 45. The pair soon divorced.
While his personal life crumbled, Steve Hodel found purpose and pride with the LAPD. As a patrol officer, Steve Hodel made it his mission to rescue juveniles from the streets and get them help.
“The older ones were sometimes too far gone,” he recalled on a recent September morning, standing outside the Hollywood division station where he spent the bulk of his career. “But the younger ones, I could help.”
In 1969, he was approached about joining the Hollywood detective division. He would go on to investigate more than 300 homicides over the next 17 years. He remarried in 1976 and had two sons before retiring as a supervisor in 1986, the same year his older brother Mike unexpectedly died of lung cancer and barely three years after his mother had died.
“I have no doubt that she knew that our father was a serial killer and was responsible for the murder of Elizabeth Short,” Steve Hodel says of his mother. “I suspect her heavy drinking was her own way to try to drown the knowledge of the many horrors that she hid and held inside.”
After his retirement from LAPD, he moved with his family to Bellingham, Washington. He continued to work as a private investigator.
Matt Hodel, Steve’s youngest son, describes a childhood with a present and loving father who fostered a habit of watching Jeopardy, Sixty Minutes, and playing Trivial Pursuit. He remembers tagging along during police department poker nights, where as he describes it, “I first began to pick up on the art of paying attention to people.”
He found his grandfather cold and intimidating.
“The image I had of my grandfather growing up was that he was a highly intelligent and successful man: one that demanded to be shown respect and was prideful of his intellect,” said Matt Hodel, 39, now a photographer and naturalist living in Kauai. “There was never any sense of a warm grandpa-type person anywhere in there. I thought him intimidating and cold as long as I knew him. So that never changed.”
In 1990 at 83 years old, George Hodel returned to the United States permanently, settling into a penthouse on the 39th floor in San Francisco’s Financial District with his fifth wife, June Hirano, who was 39 years his junior. George Hodel had hired Hirano as an assistant right out of college when he was working as a marketing executive overseas. The pair had known each other for 20 years before getting married in Reno, Nevada in 1989.
It was during those final years that father and son began to forge a meaningful relationship for the first time, with each traveling to each other’s homes and regular phone conversations in between visits.
“The three of us would take day trips to museums, Muir Woods and take scenic drives,” recalled Steve Hodel, who by that time had divorced from his second wife. “I became much closer to my father over those years.”
Then one evening in 1999, Steve Hodel was awoken in the middle of the night by Hirano: His father, at 91, had just taken his last breath.
In the days that followed, Steve Hodel reconnected with his estranged half-sister Tamar, who was now living in Hawaii. They shared stories about their childhood and their emotionally distant father. Tamar began to fill in the blanks for her brother, about their father’s abuse, about the incest trial and about the troubled relationship she continued to have with George Hodel throughout her life.
While helping his step-mother go through his father’s belongings in San Francisco, Steve was given a small palm-sized photo album that belonged to his father. He flipped through it, not realizing it was a doorway into a deep abyss: A photo of Steve as a young boy sitting on his father’s knee; a picture of his mother; pictures of nameless nude women; several pictures of Kiyo, further proof of the sordid relationship George Hodel once had with Steve’s first wife.
Then Steve stopped at two images of a what appeared to be the same woman with black hair, her eyes cast down. She looked familiar, but he had trouble placing her.
Turning to Hirano, he asked, “Who is this?” Her simple response: “I don’t know. Someone your father knew a long time ago.”
Later that evening, Black Dahlia came to mind when Steve Hodel took another look at the photos. He couldn’t explain why and cast aside the thought until a later conversation with Tamar.
The weight of his sister’s words in that conversation would change the course of his life:
“You know,” she said over the phone, “Dad was a suspect in the Black Dahlia case.”
Steve Hodel should be believed.
Knowing no other way, he began to handle the revelation that his father was possibly connected to one of the country’s most notorious unsolved crimes the only way he knew how — as a detective. He reached out to his father’s friends and reconnected with family members he had not spoken to in dozens of years.
He admits, almost as though confessing a sin, that at first, he set out to prove his father’s innocence.
“I couldn’t believe The Great Man I knew could ever do something like this,” he said, using a term of endearment he had come to use to describe his father. “I was convinced I would be able to completely exonerate him and remove him from any suspicion. I was very wrong.”
That realization struck him like a boulder when his girlfriend, who was living in Los Angeles at the time, visited the UCLA archives and sent him copies of clippings that displayed several of the handwritten notes the Black Dahlia killer had written to the police and press. The handwriting, according to Steve Hodel, eerily matched his father’s distinctive block printing.
So he did what any dedicated detective would do: He moved back to Los Angeles to pursue the case full-time.
Steve Hodel, a product of the LAPD, relied on his years in the Hollywood division to devise a plan of attack that was straight out of the detective handbook: He began to check all available information on both the suspect and the victim.
Father ceased to be father. With no room for emotion, he needed their connection and history wiped clean. “Tabula rasa,” as detectives like Steve Hodel like to say.
“I’m just following the evidence like LAPD trained me,” he said. “I wouldn’t have been able to uncover any of this without that training.”
He poured over the details included in hundreds of archival articles from all the major newspapers of that time and filed Freedom of Information Act requests to retrieve law enforcement documents, including the complete dossier of FBI interviews of witnesses from 1947 and Elizabeth Short’s associates.
He even went so far as to obtain an independent evaluation from a court-certified handwriting expert. Without providing her with the details of the case, the expert said it was highly probable that the writing of the daunting letters penned by the Black Dahlia murderer was the same as George Hodel’s.
Steve Hodel also called every relative and family friend that he could think of who knew his father and interviewed them covertly. He did not let them know he was on a trail. He put in as much time catching up and chitchatting as he did asking questions relevant to the case.
When he discovered that the newspapers of the day reported that there was a “missing week” in the whereabouts of Short immediately preceding her death, he pieced together the details of her last days alive.
He tracked down a police officer who had reported talking to Short on the afternoon before her murder. Beat officer Myrl McBride, 88 years old at the time Steve Hodel caught up with her in 2001, described Short as “sobbing” and “fearful” when Short rushed to McBride in a panic about a man inside a nearby bar.
Short claimed “an ex-suitor had just threatened to kill her,” according to McBride, who tried to calm down the young woman desperate for help. Later that afternoon, McBride would see Short coming out of a bar with two men and a woman, people whose faces she could not remember.
The morning following McBride’s encounter, Short’s bifurcated body was found in a lonely lot.
“If you believe in destiny and fate, if there is such a thing,” Steve Hodel reflected last month in an interview, “I was fated to do this.”
Validation of his work came quickly after the publication of his first book, which prompted a renewed interest in the case that led to the unearthing of the Lt. Jemison file at the LA County District Attorney’s office that named George Hodel as a prime suspect.
While there remain competing theories about who killed Short, none have garnered the public acknowledgment from law enforcement like Steve Hodel’s body of work.
The most notable validation came from Steven Kay, who had worked in the district attorney’s office when Steve Hodel was a LAPD detective and recalled firsthand Hodel’s stellar work while at the department. In 2002, Kay — still on the job and promoted to head deputy district attorney — met with Hodel and agreed to review Hodel’s investigation.
After three months of studying the evidence, Kay, speaking for himself and not the DA’s office, gave his legal finding:
“I have no doubt in my mind that George Hodel murdered both Elizabeth Short and Jeanne French,” said Kay, after carefully reviewing Steve Hodel’s investigation. “And were he alive today and were the witnesses alive, I would have no problem in filing two counts of murder against Dr. George Hodel, and I believe if I took that case in front of a jury that I would convict him.”
Steve Hodel continued to pursue his father’s trail, publishing several other books pointing to George Hodel as the man behind other murders, including the Zodiac killings that gripped the Bay Area in the late 1960s. None had the reception of his first book.
It’s the Black Dahlia and surrounding Los Angeles murders that have served as Steve Hodel’s calling card.
“It grew into the story of the victims, their families and then, of course, my dad as well, and his return to what I feel was always his truest calling,” said his son Matt Hodel, “to dive head and heart-first into tragedy to pull some sense of truth and hopefully justice out of the wreckage.”
Steve Hodel’s younger brother Kelvin, nicknamed “Kelly,” is in awe of the work his older brother has devoted to unraveling the mystery. Only 11 months apart, the brothers call themselves “Irish twins” and share similar voices.
Steve is serious; Kelly relies on humor in conversation, ribbing his brother about outshining the LAPD with his detective work.
“The [LAPD] Hollywood Division called,” Kelly Hodel says he likes to joke to his brother. “They said they could’ve solved the Black Dahlia case, too, if their daddy did it.”
At 76, Kelly Hodel is the lead singer of a band called Oldies But Goodies that plays gigs solely for hospitalized veterans in Los Angeles. He joined the Navy at 17 and later served in the U.S. Marine Corps as a combat medic before enjoying a civilian career dedicated to opening free medical clinics across California, Texas and Mexico.
“It’s funny, you open 60 free clinics and nobody says anything,” Kelly Hodel deadpans. “But you say your father was a serial killer, and everybody wants to take you to lunch. It’s weird.”
He drops the jokes when asked about his father. Even prior to his brother’s first book, Kelly says his feelings toward his father were muted. “I didn’t respect him. Here’s a man who has children and doesn’t take care of them, either financially or emotionally,” Kelly said in an interview this month. “He would come into town every couple of years, and we’d have a quick dinner somewhere, and then he would be gone again.”
Kelly Hodel acknowledges his father was a “brilliant man” who held varied, esteemed careers and saved lives as a doctor. But he says Steve had more of an attachment to their father, calling Steve his father’s “favorite son.”
“I knew that our father was a little crazy,” he said. “The orgies at the Lloyd Wright house, the way he treated women, the way he treated us. I knew he had a temper, and he was not quite all there. So, I wasn’t surprised. I was saddened at the people he killed, and the families that he separated.”
Kelly Hodel becomes even more serious when he speaks about his brother’s unending pursuit of the truth. He believes his brother’s every word. “I didn’t have to get all the facts before I believed him,” says Kelly Hodel, who has read all of his brother’s books, save for the latest installment. “I’ve known Steve his whole life, and he has never, ever told a lie. I knew what he was saying was true.”
More than anything, he says he is proud — before making one final joke about his brother.
“He writes like a cop,” he quips. Officially, the Black Dahlia case remains open and unsolved.
“You’re right, we still get lots of calls about the Black Dahlia,” says LAPD detective Mitzi Roberts, the person officially in charge of the Black Dahlia case. “I can only tell you the case is active and ongoing.”
Roberts is not allowed to discuss the case in any detail with media without permission from top brass. An interview request is pending. Before Roberts hung up the phone, she offered this about Steve Hodel: “He has a good theory. But we don’t have any physical evidence to prove it,” she said. “And for every theory out there about the Black Dahlia, there are 10 more.”
This past July, Steve Hodel had just sent the final draft of his fifth book — Black Dahlia Avenger III — to his publisher when he received an email from Sandi Nichols.
Nichols explained that her mother had recently passed away in Indianapolis, and in her belongings was a 69-year-old letter from her grandfather. Nichols’ grandparents had divorced long before they died and knew little about her grandfather, W. Glenn Martin.
In the aged handwritten letter, Martin names a man he refers to as “GH” as the Black Dahlia killer, who used his close connections with police and law enforcement to avoid prosecution.
“Elizabeth was 22 when she was killed. She had four siblings, a mother who loved her dearly,” Nichols said, after researching the murder and contacting Steve Hodel. “To think that ‘good’ people knew who killed her and covered it up and went on to live their own lives is unconscionable to me. Elizabeth matters. Her family matters.”
In the letter, Martin also identifies “GH” as an acquaintance of and the likely suspect in another murder that occurred two years after Short’s death — Louise Springer, who was abducted and strangled on June 13, 1949.
On that evening, Springer, a 28-year-old wife and mother, had forgotten her glasses inside the salon where she worked. Her husband offered to run in to retrieve them while she waited in the car. When he returned 10 minutes later, Springer and his new green Studebaker convertible were missing.
Three days later, Springer’s body was found in the backseat of the car that had been abandoned on West 28th Street. An autopsy revealed that she had suffered blows to the head and was strangled to death with a white sash cord. Her body had been violated with a 14-inch long tree branch.
After speaking with Steve Hodel, Nichols mailed her grandfather’s three-page letter — written less than three weeks after George Hodel had been arrested for child molestation — to get his thoughts.
“It becomes obvious that the Martin letter was not intended for public consumption,” Steve Hodel writes in the afterword of his latest book. “It was written to be read by law enforcement only if either of his daughters came to foul play.”
Scribbled on the envelope of the Oct. 25, 1949 letter were chilling words: “In Case of Margaret Ellen’s or Glenna Jeans (sic) Death.”
Margaret Ellen — Nichols’ mother — and Glenna Jean, Nichols’ aunt, were teenagers at the time Martin wrote the letter, which began with a bombshell: “I believe Choate framed this with McCawley(sic) to let G.H. get out of it as the known Black dalia(sic) killer.”
Steve Hodel identifies Choate and McCawley as Joe Choate, a former LA deputy district attorney who later became a private attorney, and Sgt. Kenneth J. McCauley, an internal affairs LAPD officer at the time the Martin letter was written.
Martin establishes in the letter that he was assigned jobs by McCauley and received a call from the sergeant while having dinner with his mother and “G.H.” at Martin’s home.
Reading in between the lines, Steve Hodel believes Martin feared that “G.H.” had learned Martin was an informant and may have provided police with information.
“G.H. was grilled by police on Louise Springer death; he and I both knew her,” Martin wrote in his letter. “The investigation officers became G.H. friend, so matter dropped. He threatened to get even with me.”
If Martin’s letter is taken at its word, it would mean George Hodel was questioned by police over a period of five years in the deaths of at least three women — Ruth Spaulding, Elizabeth Short and Louise Springer.
Leaving little doubt that “G.H.” in the letter is George Hodel is the fact that Martin also mentions Hodel’s live-in maid and lover, Ellen, whose voice would be recorded months later during the wiretapping at the Sowden House.
For Steve Hodel, the letter is another piece of the puzzle to fall into place.
It won’t be the last.