Postwar Los Angeles, where prostitutes and pimps, perverts and panty sniffers mingled with detectives and derelicts, cowboys and conmen. As the city’s population exploded with a postwar housing boom, organized crime exploded as well. Bugsy Siegel set up the Flamingo Hotel where his buddy Mickey Cohen ran a gambling racket. In 1947, the mob had Siegel bumped off after they grew suspicious that Siegel and his insanely attractive, if a little off in head, girlfriend Virginia Hill were skimming money. Someone popped Siegel with an M-1 Carbine through the window. Was it really money? Or did his own girlfriend set him up? We’ll never know. Virginia was found dead in a park in Austria in 1966, an apparent suicide. After Siegel’s death, Cohen grew more influential along with his top lieutenant, bag man, and enforcer Johnny Stompanato. Handsome Johnny went on to date the gorgeous Lana Turner until her thirteen year old daughter stuck a knife in him. A kid punched the most dangerous man in town’s ticket for him. Officials ruled the death a case of self defense.
Gangsters imported reefer and H while Hollywood stars basked in the Golden Age of American films. High ranking officials within the city and the police department were on the take as well. LAPD ran a Red Squad to track known and suspected communists as well as protection rackets. High ranking police commanders looked the other way while gangsters slung dope, preferring to target black teenagers and pachucos for drug offenses without targeting the supply side. Who were the good guys? Who were the bad guys? Who knows! Everybody was out to make a quick buck. And there were plenty of opportunities for that in the City of Angels.
There were plenty of opportunities for murder as well. The defense industry in Southern California boomed during the war years and with the end of a shooting war and the beginning of the Cold War, it showed no signs of letting up. During the war, single women made their way to the city to work, renting rooms in flophouses, hotels, or private residences. The men came home after 1945 and brought domestic homicide with them. Couples fueled by alcohol battled with fists. Sometimes, the wife ended up dead. Women offed their husbands sometimes too. And, of course, you have the murder suicides. The police had little difficulty solving domestic homicides and sent plenty of men to the gas chamber at San Quentin. But was there something else stalking the city? Some diabolical fiend out to torture, murder, and mutilate women?
On the night of July 26, 1943, Ora Murray, 42, went out dancing with her sister at the Zenda Ballroom. She hooked up with a dapper man who called himself Paul. He offered to drive her around a show her the sights in Hollywood. Orra agreed. Several hours later, a dog owned by a the caretaker discovered the partially nude and badly beaten body of a woman on a golf course. It belonged to Ora. Her undergarments had been violently ripped away and the killer removed her dress and then wrapped it around her body. He also placed a white gardenia on her shoulder. Odd, that. Strangulation was the official cause of death. Now this murder took place just outside the city limits and so the Sheriff’s Department handled the investigation, which went nowhere fast. Meanwhile, the bodies continued to stack up.
She was young, rich, beautiful, and, on Oct. 11, 1944, very, very dead. That night, Georgette finished her shift as a hostess at the Hollywood Canteen where she danced with servicemen. When she drove away in a Pontiac Coupe, it was to her own rendezvous with death. At 11:00 am the next morning, a maid found her body floating in the bathtub with the water still running. She wore the top part of a pajama set, indicating that she returned home unmolested and prepared for bed. Her badly bruised knuckles and scratches on her bare thighs told detectives that she did no go gently into that good night. The police believed she returned home, ate a snack, and was attacked by a person whom she may have known. They further postulated said person might have been lying in wait. A neighbor said they heard her yell “Stop! You’re killing me!” around 2:30 am but they ignored her cries as they assumed it was a simple domestic dispute. (Other than the “You’re killing me part, I guess.) Though the killer beat Georgette and put her face down in the bathtub, the police found a bandage shoved down her throat which caused her to asphyxiate. The killer drove off in her car which was found abandoned later, gas tank empty. The case went cold and investigators never found her killer.
She is perhaps the most famous dead girl in American History, a young woman drawn to the glitz and glamour of Hollywood with dreams of becoming an actress. But like so many would be stars, reality soon set in. Her mutilated and bisected corpse was found in a vacant lot on 49th and Norton in Los Angeles on January 15, 1947. Elizabeth Short was only 22 when she died. Journalists dubbed her The Black Dahlia, and her murder has inspired much speculation in the decades which followed. I’m not an expert on her murder, though I’ve read widely about it. There are numerous suspects, though none were ever charged. What the person or persons responsible for her death did almost defies even the most diabolical minds. They kept her alive for at least a short period of time. Bound, tortured, forced to eat feces, the official cause of death was determined to be bleeding from multiple deep lacerations to the face coupled with shock from repeated blows to the head. It is the most heinous of crimes, and Elizabeth Short never got the justice she deserved.
Not even a month after Elizabeth Short died, another woman, Jeanne French, met her death at the hands of a fiendish killer. She was 45 years old, a nurse, a pilot, and the former wife of a rich Texan in the oil business. A construction worker on the morning of February 10th saw what he thought was a pile of women’s clothes. He walked over to investigate and saw a fur coat. When he lifted it, the man received quite a shock. Underneath the coat was the brutally beaten, nude body of Jeanne French. The killer struck her in the head with a blunt instrument, perhaps a socket wrench, and the proceeded to beat and stomp her to death. The blow to the head didn’t killer her. Internal bleeding from her fractured ribs did. It took her a long time to slowly bleed to death. The coroner believed she was probably unconscious after the blow the head, a small mercy for sure. The killer then removed red lipstick from her purse and wrote “Fuck You, BD” (or maybe PD) on her body. She’d had a fight with her estranged husband the night before her death, but his whereabouts at the time of the murder were attested to. Jeanne was last seen alive at a club in the company of a “swarthy” man. They left together. But this, as the others, went cold. Police rounded up the usual suspects, but came away with nothing.
From the file labeled weird comes the strange case of the murder of 15 year old Lillian Dominguez. On the night of October 2, 1947, young Lillian attended a school dance. When it ended, she set out for home with her sister and a female friend. As they passed the intersection of 17th Street and Michigan Avenue in Santa Monica, the trio crossed paths with a man who walked by them in the darkness. They walked a few feet and Lillian told her sister “That man touched me.” A few steps later she yelled “I can’t see!” and promptly collapsed and died on the pavement. The cause of death? Stabbing. The killer stabbed her straight in the heart with either a stiletto knife or maybe an ice pick. Though she had two companions with her, they were unable to give any description to the police other than the fact that the killer had been male.
And there were others. Too many to give full attention to, as they deserve. Evelyn Winters, 42, found nude, beaten and strangled to death in March of 1947. Laura Telestad, 37, found nude and strangled with a strip of cloth. Body dumped in a vacant lot. Rosenda Mondragon, 20, found nude, tortured and strangled. Body dumped a mile from where Evelyn Winters’ body was discovered. Gladys Kern, 50, a real estate agent found dead in a house she was scheduled to show in 1948. Beaten and stomped to death. Louise Springer, kidnapped in her car. Found beaten, strangled, sexually assaulted and sodomized with a tree branch. Jean Spangler, 27, had been a roommate of Elizabeth Short. Jean disappeared and her body was never found.
Was Los Angeles in the grips of a fiendish serial killer? The short answer is maybe. I’m not an expert in homicide. When I was a detective, arson was my specialty, but I’ve received training in homicide investigations and have been around them, so I know a bit. The manner and method of some of these cases would indicate that the police may have had one assailant on some of them. But others don’t really fit given the age or manner of death of the victim. I do think we can say with some certainty that some of these cases were the work of one person. Murders are not new. Crime is not new.
If anything, the study of history teaches us that f—-d up people have been around forever. Serial murder is not a recent phenomenon, nor are sexual homicides. Though we look back with a bit of nostalgia, the truth is Los Angeles was trapped in its own true life noir tale in the 1940s. With the police and city administration on the take, evidence could be made to disappear (as happened with the evidence associated with the Dahlia case). Cases could be penned on a minority to protect a well connected individual. Though the police were able to do more forensically at the time than you might think, it wasn’t enough. Given the time that has passed, these women will never get justice. Their killers got away with it. And that, Dear Readers, is a tragedy.