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Writer Offers New Explanation of 'Black Dahlia' Murder Mystery


A movie to be released later this year will highlight an unsolved murder that horrified Los Angeles nearly 60 years ago. Numerous books have also examined the killing known as the 'Black Dahlia' murder. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan spoke with Donald Wolfe, the author a new book called "The Black Dahlia Files," the latest work to try to solve the mystery.

The upcoming film, called The Black Dahlia, will star Josh Hartnett, Scarlett Johansson, and Hilary Swank, and it is a fictional account of the murder. Donald Wolfe says his book, on the other hand, is fact.

The murder victim, Elizabeth Short, was called the Black Dahlia because she dressed in elegant black clothes and had wavy jet-black hair. Some say she graced it with a Dahlia flower. The name, bestowed by the press, recalled a 1946 movie called The Blue Dahlia. And writer Wolfe says the crime, like the movie, was a murder mystery that transfixed Los Angeles.

"The body was discovered on January 15th of 1947," he said. "It was the beginning of a whole series of headline news story about the murder and it was actually on the front page of all the L.A. newspapers for over a month."

The city had five newspapers. They were locked in a fierce circulation war, and issued extra editions that mixed fact, speculation and fiction.

The killing was gruesome, and readers were shocked to learn the grisly details. The young woman's body had been cut in two and her face was disfigured. Newspaper headlines asked what kind of fiend could commit such a crime.

Suspicion, over the years, has focused on many people, from Elizabeth Short's father, who had moved from Massachusetts to Los Angeles, to the many men that she dated.

Police questioned hundreds of suspects, extracting dozens of confessions, but they later said that the murder remained unsolved.

In 2003, a retired Los Angeles police detective, Steve Hodel, published a book identifying his own father, a well-known Hollywood doctor, as the killer. The writer Janice Knowlton had earlier argued that her father killed the woman. Neither book settled the question.

Don Wolfe was the first writer to gain access to the newly opened files of the Los Angeles district attorney. He says his research shows the victim was pregnant, and that the evidence suggests she was a prostitute.

"There have been many stories and different versions of what happened, but when you read the district attorney's reports and interviews with suspects and witnesses, it becomes very clear that she was pregnant at the time," Wolfe said.

That, in Wolfe's view, is the key to the murder. He said Elizabeth Short, who had arrived in the city with dreams of Hollywood stardom, joined a prostitution ring tied to mobster Bugsy Siegel. He said Siegel committed the murder, furious that she refused to have an abortion after becoming pregnant by a prominent publisher. Siegel himself was killed in his Beverly Hills mansion in a notorious gangland slaying five months later.

The story seems fanciful, the stuff of which movies are made, and one reviewer called Wolfe's book "pure speculation." The same can be said of most other books on the subject. But corruption was rampant in Los Angeles in the 1930s and '40s, when some local officials were known to be on the mob payroll. Gangster Siegel, best known for his connections to gambling in Las Vegas, was part of the Los Angeles underworld, and local police often ignored its illegal operations. Mr. Wolfe says his explanation fits the facts.

The author said many murders have been committed in the city, but the Black Dahlia killing captured the public imagination.

"She was a naïve, young pretty girl that, like many people that went to Hollywood hoping to become a movie star, just ended up with the wrong crowd and fell through that Tinseltown trap that captured a lot of young pretty women back in those days, and probably still today to a certain degree," Wolfe said. "But it ended up very tragically."

The late reporter Will Fowler, the first person to arrive at the murder scene, told Don Wolfe that the Black Dahlia case was best left a mystery. Wolfe disagrees and said he has finally solved it, but his book is not likely to be the last word on the subject.