Elizabeth Short's murder remains one of the oldest cold cases in Los Angeles—and the most sensational killing in a notoriously dark period of the city’s history. On January 15, 1947, a local resident found the mutilated body of a young woman in a vacant lot on South Norton Avenue, near L.A.’s Leimert Park. The victim was Short, a 22-year-old native of Medford, Massachusetts, one of countless Hollywood hopefuls who had gravitated to Southern California with dreams of a movie career. Newspapers covering the case dubbed her “the Black Dahlia,” and the moniker became far more widely known than Short’s own name.
The murder was a particularly brutal one. Short's torso had been cut in half. Some of her organs had been removed. Her head had been bludgeoned. Slashes carved on either side of her mouth created the look of a maniacal grin. And the medical examiner found fecal matter in her stomach, suggesting she had been forced to eat it before being killed.
Despite a lengthy investigation, during which hundreds of officers interviewed anyone they could find who had even the most minimal contact with Short, the Los Angeles Police Department never arrested anyone for her murder, and eventually the case went cold.
Black Dahlia Suspects
The mystery of Short’s murder lived on in popular culture thanks to James Ellroy’s noir novel The Black Dahlia, later made into a movie. Ellroy had been only 10 years old when his own mother was murdered outside of Los Angeles in 1958, 11 years after Short’s murder; that case also remains unsolved. Over the years, numerous theories have arisen regarding who killed the Black Dahlia, along with dozens of (presumably false) confessions.
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In 1991, a woman named Janice Knowlton came forward claiming that her late father, George Knowlton, had killed Short and two other women. A subsequent excavation of his property found no remains or weapons, only a knife, some farm tools and jewelry. More outlandishly, a childhood friend of Short’s wrote a book in 2000 pinning the crime on the celebrated actor-director Orson Welles.
In recent years, Steve Hodel, a retired LAPD detective, grew suspicious after finding pictures of a woman he believed to be Short among the possessions of his late father, Dr. George Hill Hodel, who died in 1999. He came to believe that his father used his medical expertise to kill and mutilate Short—and other victims—before fleeing to Asia in 1950.
In the ‘40s, the Hodel family had been living in a house designed by Lloyd Wright, son of famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Designed in a distinctive Mayan block style, the building—known as Sowden House, is now considered a Hollywood landmark. The younger Hodel’s search of the property in 2012 turned up soil samples that later tested positive for decomposed human remains. A cement sack presumably used to transport the body exactly matched the type bought for use in contracting work at the house. And a handwriting expert deemed the lettering on a taunting note to the press a close, but ultimately inconclusive, match to the elder Hodel's writing. The son summarized all his findings in a 2003 bestselling book entitled Black Dahlia Avenger: The True Story.
A 2017 book by English true-crime author Piu Eatwell entitled Black Dahlia, Red Rose: The Crime, Corruption, and Cover-Up of America’s Greatest Unsolved Murder pins the crime on a mortician's assistant-turned-bellboy named Leslie Dillon. The book suggests that Dillon committed the crime at the request of nightclub owner Mark Hansen, whose sexual advances Short had reportedly rebuffed. According to Eatwell, the crime took place at the local Aster Motel, where she says the owner found one of his rooms covered in blood and fecal matter the day following her murder—but having had domestic abuse trouble himself with the police, chose to clean it up rather than report it.
The LAPD investigated Hodel and Dillon among many viable suspects in the Black Dahlia case, considering them so seriously that they tapped Hodel's phone and brought Dillon in for questioning. Neither led to a murder charge. Through the years, hundreds have confessed. But police have never been prepared to decisively say who killed her.