Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Black Dahlia

Black Dahlia Intro


There is always some excitement when a veteran homicide detective comes forward with a new theory on a cold case, especially a classic case like the Black Dahlia murder. I confess a certain excitement as I began reading the 467-page Black Dahlia Avenger by retired LAPD cop Steve Hodel. As I read, my excitement diminished and my disappointment increased. I was reminded of a 1995 paperback called Daddy Was the Black Dahlia Killer by Janice Knowlton, a book that claimed to solve the case based on Knowlton's repressed memories of her father.

Steve Hodel
Steve Hodel

Hodel claims that after his father's death, he learned things about the brilliant, accomplished surgeon and businessman who sired him which convinced him that Dr. George Hodel murdered Elizabeth Short and some 20 or so other women. In other words, his father was a serial killer.

It is not difficult to understand how some adult children of less-than-perfect fathers want to exact some measure of retribution from a parent who did not measure up to the child's standards. It is even easier when the "offending" parent is dead and cannot defend himself. Dr. Hodel died in 1999 at the age of 91.

Dr. George Hodel had an IQ that measured a few points above Einstein's, was a child prodigy in music and a one-time young crime reporter with a talent for writing. Steve Hodel says that in 1938 his father got a job as a physician with the L.A. County Health Department. After taking a post-graduate course in the treatment of venereal diseases, Dr. Hodel was promoted the next year to be the VD control officer for the entire department.
Steve Hodel says that his father also started the private First Street Medical Clinic, "for which he hired a staff of physicians. Its main focus was the treatment of venereal disease, which at that time, before the introduction of penicillin, had reached near-epidemic numbers in Los Angeles County." The author claims that his father kept files on his clients -- as though that activity by itself suggested suspicious behavior. I suppose that having medical files on individuals that have been treated for VD could be really handy for an extortionist, but one cannot get around the fact that few reputable doctors don't keep files on their patients. What Hodel is suggesting is that his father treated police officers and other powerful men for VD and then blackmailed them into covering up his high-profile murders. The evidence provided for this very serious allegation is simply that his father kept files on his patients.

While Steve Hodel may have been a capable homicide investigator, his case against his father is not exactly compelling. As Fred Shuster says in his April 11, 2003 article for the L.A. Daily News, "He [Hodel] admits there is not a person alive who can corroborate his allegations, including claims that the corrupt 1949 grand jury was ordered to stop hearing evidence because of fears the LAPD's reputation would become tarnished if the VD files became public."

Dr. George Hodel's wife gave stepson Steve a photo album with several photos which reminded him of Elizabeth Short. In the three photos from this album that Hodel includes in his book, one does have some similarity to the commonly available "Black Dahlia" photos and two others do not.

Steve Lopez wrote in the online edition of the April 11, 2003 Los Angeles Times that Larry Harnisch, a Times editor who had extensively researched the Dahlia case, says that the photos are not of Elizabeth Short. LAPD Homicide Detective Brian Carr, who managed that case file, said he could not tell whether it was Elizabeth Short or not.

Book Cover: Black Dahlia Avenger by Steve Hodel
Book Cover: Black Dahlia Avenger by Steve Hodel

In 1949, the Hodel family was embroiled in a major scandal. Dr. George Hodel's 14-year-old daughter, Tamar, ran away from his house and when found, she made accusations that her father molested her, held wild parties in the home, and was the killer of the Black Dahlia. While it is very difficult to sort fact from fiction in the accusations, a few important items emerge from Steve Hodel that help explain the circumstances:

  • "Tamar hungered for attention and affection and sought it any way she could find it, particularly being seductive with boys and men. She had become too much for her mother to handle, "uncontrollable and incorrigible and it was time for her father to take over."
  • Fourteen defense witnesses, including Tamar's mother, grandmother and half-brother, testified that Tamar was a pathological liar and was not to be believed. The credible testimony from these witnesses and from Dr. Hodel resulted in his acquittal, but the damage to his career and reputation was immense. He left L.A. shortly thereafter and stayed away for several decades. During this time, he built a very successful market research company in Asia.

Despite Dr. Hodel's acquittal of the incest charges, police added Dr. Hodel to their list of 20 or more suspects that were part of the Black Dahlia investigation. Dr. Hodel knew this and realized that there was a wiretap on his telephone. For the benefit of the police listening to his telephone calls, Dr. Hodel occasionally made statements in jest that were meant to tease the cops.

Along with the paucity of real evidence for the author's claims, the Dr. George Hodel that his son presents us does not fit the profile of a brutal murderer or a serial killer. While it is probably true that Dr. Hodel was not a model father, he clearly enjoyed the company of women, married several times and had many intimate relationships with women. It is very difficult to imagine a person who liked women (perhaps too much) brutalizing one in the way Elizabeth Short was. The gruesome post-mortem mutiliation of Elizabeth Short was the work of a true woman hater, not some jealous lover as Hodel suggests.

Also, Steve Hodel frequently makes the point that his father was arrogant and supremely self-confident about himself and his intelligence. This personality does not gibe with the behavioral profile of a serial killer, who is seeking to empower himself by destroying others. Dr. Hodel was powerful and successful in his own right and did not have to brutalize women and pose their mutilated bodies in a shocking way to "prove" his power.

This is not to say that Steve Hodel has not made his case to at least a few important people. Stephen R. Kay, a seasoned L.A. prosecutor, believes that Hodel has solved the case.

When Los Angeles Times reporter Steve Lopez asked Steve Cooley of the L.A. District Attorney's office if he was going to spend money to investigate Hodel's accusations, Cooley answered. "Not a nickel."

So, after laboring through 467 pages, I have to agree with the L.A. Times editor Larry Harnisch who called Hodel's book the equivalent of seeing the face of Jesus on a tortilla.


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