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Black Dahlia Backlash 

Family members take Hodel’s Avenger to task

Thursday, Jul 10 2003
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Since the true-crime bombshell Black Dahlia Avenger was released back on April 11, author Steve Hodel and publisher Arcade have been raking in the sales faster than a water vendor in Saddam City. The book accuses the ex–LAPD detective’s dead dad, Dr. George Hodel, of Elizabeth Short’s gruesome 1947 slaying. It has spent several weeks on both The New York Times and Los Angeles Times nonfiction best-seller lists and at one point had an Amazon.com sales ranking as high as 19. Powerhouse Hollywood agency CAA is repping the book, and there’s been the usual speculative talk of big-time movie deals.

Heady stuff, but then Hodel’s claim to have cracked L.A.’s most famous unsolved murder case has netted a ton of press, most of it notable for its lack of journalistic skepticism. Hodel’s primary evidence against his socialite sire is a couple of photos he found among his late father’s effects, photos he asserts are of the Dahlia. Hodel also cites a handwriting analysis that fingers his father as the author of mysterious letters — in which the writer brags of being the Dahlia murderer — mailed to the newspapers of the day.

As for that fawning media, reporter Josh Mankiewicz all but endorsed Hodel’s claims to have laid the mystery to rest in an April 13 segment of Dateline NBC in which he dramatically describes the photos as “the Dahlia, Elizabeth Short, her eyes closed as if in a dream.” Then, in a May 18 review for The New York Times, film historian David Thomson gushed that “someone like Kevin Spacey should buy the film rights to this book quickly.” People magazine declared in a June 2 article that Hodel “appears to have solved” the crime by discovering the two photos.

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Not getting as much media play are people who don’t believe the pics are of Elizabeth Short, among them family members and longtime Dahlia buffs. As reported by the Weekly in April, neither Detective Brian Carr, keeper of the LAPD’s Black Dahlia files, nor John Gilmore, author of Severed: The True Story of the Black Dahlia Murder, buy Hodel’s claim that the disputed pics are of the Dahlia. While their dissent may be expected, now even Short and Hodel family members are coming out against the photos.

The Dahlia’s surviving sisters posted a statement on Dahlia buff Larry Harnisch’s Web site (www.lmharnisch.com) rebuking Hodel’s claims that the snaps are of Elizabeth Short. The statement was confirmed by Short’s niece, who, like her relatives, prefers to stay out of the media’s Dahlia-glazed eyes and asked us not to reveal her name.

“If we thought for a minute any of it would help solve the case, we would do anything we could, but we believe it [Hodel’s book] is just another case of someone trying to profit from the story,” she explains. “Betty was my mother’s sister. I have not read the book, but both my mother and I have looked at the two photos that he claims are of Betty. They are not Betty. Not even close.”

Hodel’s half sister, Diane Hodel, agrees that the photos are not of Elizabeth Short. She also says she remembers her father as a kind, loving, sophisticated man, not a serial murderer. Hodel’s other half sister, Tamar, doesn’t remember her father so kindly, having accused him of incest, a scandalous charge of which Hodel père was eventually acquitted. Tamar Hodel is thankful to her brother for sticking up for her claims against her father in Black Dahlia Avenger, but even she won’t vouch for the photos. Of the two pics, which appear side by side in the book, she says the photo on the left “looks really different from the one on the right.”

What about the handwriting analysis linking Hodel senior to the anonymous letters sent to newspapers?

“The handwriting evidence is, you know, inconclusive,” NBC’s Mankiewicz admitted recently. “Hodel’s handwriting analyst said it’s ‘highly probable,’ which is not the highest degree of certainty . . . Anyway, handwriting analysis is always open to interpretation. We hired our own handwriting analyst, which was not as conclusive.”

Why didn’t that make it into Mankiewicz’s story? “I think for time. I don’t know. I know it was in one version of the script.” Mankiewicz explained that the original piece was 26 minutes long, but was cut to 13 minutes because of a news emergency. He promised a longer, more balanced piece would eventually air on Court TV.

At the D.A.’s Office, I poked through the same box of docs the Los Angeles Times’ Steve Lopez rooted through while researching his somewhat cracked columns on Black Dahlia Avenger. Most of the files seemed to be about the long-forgotten and quite frightening Leslie Dillon incident, in which an innocent man was almost framed for the Dahlia’s murder. Dr. Hodel’s mug shot was in an envelope with several others, and there were transcripts of buggings done of Hodel’s home. These reveal Hodel to be a randy fellow with a wicked sense of humor who knew the cops were listening and enjoyed baiting them. Also in the box is D.A. investigator Frank Jemison’s report from 1950 detailing 22 suspects in connection with the Dahlia case. It states that three weeks’ worth of Hodel surveillance “tend to prove his innocence.”

So far CAA has yet to find a buyer for Hodel’s story. Not surprising considering the fact that you could wallpaper Mann’s Chinese with all the Black Dahlia screenplays floating around this town. Still, the Black Dahlia Avenger’s weird, sordid ride on the media roller coaster may not be over. Hodel is reportedly working on a sequel to prove what he says he’s already proved in the first book. The guy’s got chutzpah, that’s for sure.

Reach the writer at stephen.lemons@newtimes.com

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