. . . and I married his girlfriend!
My father, Dr. George Hill Hodel, was a monster.
While a handsome, successful doctor living the good life in 1940s Hollywood, surrounded by beautiful women and esteemed artists such as Man Ray, John Huston, Henry Miller, and others, he committed a series of heinous murders. One of his victims was a former girlfriend named Elizabeth Short—cast in infamy as the Black Dahlia.
The photos of her bisected, exsanguinated body lying in the weeds near Thirty-ninth and Norton have become a grisly centerpiece of Hollywood noir history. Sixty years later people are still shocked by the premeditated evil of the crime. To look at the photos is to realize that you’re staring into the abyss. One can’t help but ask (as I did): Who was the sicko who cut this poor woman in half? And what the hell was going on in his head?
I was just a kid. Five years old at the time of the murder. Eight when my father abruptly closed his business and fled the country for Asia. He’d been tipped off by friends in the LAPD.
Nobody told me that Dad was the chief suspect in a series of killings in a twenty-mile radius of our house on Franklin Street. Or that detectives from the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office had gone so far as to bug his bedroom and home office. Or that they were about to arrest him when he split.
I grew up innocent of my father’s dark secrets. Then, irony of ironies: I chose to become a homicide detective. My first wife suggested it. I found out later she’d been my father’s girlfriend.
Did she seduce me at nineteen as a form of revenge on Dad for dumping her? Probably. Did she want me to become a cop so I’d discover the horrific deeds committed by my father, ones that she only suspected? Maybe. I can’t ask her now. She’s dead.
I worked the Hollywood beat for twenty-four years, in the same neighborhood where I grew up—my father’s killing ground in the 1940s. Over the decades, I had occasional, brief contact with Dad, who was living abroad and had remade himself into a very successful international marketing executive based in Manila. He was a sophisticated man of the world with a genius IQ—my mother claimed it was one point higher than Einstein’s.
I retired in 1986. Dad died thirteen years later at the age of ninety-one.
I knew very little about my father when his ashes were scattered near the Golden Gate Bridge. Naturally, I was curious about the man he had been. I wanted to know more. Gentle inquiries started with a book of photographs he kept with him until his death. Two of them reminded me of a TV movie I’d seen about the Black Dahlia starring Lucie Arnaz.
My investigation widened and drew me into increasingly lurid and frightening territory. The result: my book Black Dahlia Avenger: A Genius for Murder.
Then in 2003, Los Angeles head deputy district attorney Stephen Kay reviewed the evidence I’d collected and declared the Black Dahlia murder “solved.” Old District Attorney files and forensics told the story. Only after delving into my father’s dark mind was I able to explain why he posed Elizabeth Short’s body the way he did and carved the ghastly smile into her face.
George Hodel did nothing by accident. He lived his life as a bizarre game that trumped even those of his hero, the Marquis de Sade, taunting and outwitting the police, seducing and brutally murdering innocent women.
He didn’t stop in 1950. Nor did he begin in the ’40s. Nor was Elizabeth Short just an ex-girlfriend.
I know now that my father was also responsible for a series of infamous murders in Chicago (where he was known for a time as the Lipstick Killer), Manila (where the local press dubbed him the Jigsaw Murderer), and the Bay Area of California (where he called himself Zodiac).
It’s a bizarre, terrifying, and surreal story that will alter criminal history, exonerate the innocent, and change the way we think about the motives and signatures of serial killers. Hang on.
—the introduction to Steve Hodel’s Most Evil (2009)