When it comes to cold cases, few are hotter than the so-called Black Dahlia.
Now, almost 70 years after 22-year-old Elizabeth Short was found posed and mutilated in a downtown Los Angeles parking lot, her throat slit and her body sliced in half at the waist and drained of blood, one man and his dog think they may have sniffed out a clue.
No one has ever been charged with the gruesome slaying, despite years of police work, nearly 50 discredited confessions, and intense media attention—heck, there was even a movie. Original detective files have long been destroyed; theories linking the case to the Cleveland Torso Murders of the late 1930s and the Lipstick Killer murders in 1940s Chicago have come up short.
The most intriguing theory, though, may be the one posited by Steve Hodel, whose says his own father did the deed.
Hodel, a crime writer and former LAPD detective who has written two books about the Black Dahlia case (a nickname bestowed by the tabloid press), is convinced that his father, George Hodel, a surgeon, killed Short after a romance between the two turned ugly. He also believes his father killed close to a dozen women in the 1940s in his Hollywood home and then gruesomely posed them in different locales around the city.
The elder Hodel, it has been revealed, was indeed a suspect in the Short murder, but his son says he was never caught out of a combination of high-powered friends (who may have had dirt on the police) and inept detective work. The LAPD never closed the case, but they’re not actively pursuing it either.
Enter the dog.
Last November, Hodel joined forces with former California police detective Paul Dostie and Buster, his rambunctious 9-year-old cadaver-sniffing black Labrador, for the first-ever forensic search at Hodel’s former home. The property is now called the Sowden House and named after its first owner, photographer John Sowden, who had the house built for him in 1926 by Lloyd Wright, the son of architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
Buster is not just any old canine. He gained his experience the hard way, practicing at old cemeteries in Nevada. As his owner, Dostie, explained, decomposing bones give off a distinctive chemical mark that rises up through the soil, and Buster’s big sweaty nose can smell it even after decades have passed.
Because of his acute sniffing skills, Buster has twice gone on missions to the tiny Japanese island of Tarawa to help point out the locations of U.S. Marines buried there after a 1943 battle. He has searched Belgium for Americans shot down in the Battle of the Bulge. He has scoured the land around the Barker Ranch, where Charles Manson and his cult hid after the murders of Sharon Tate and Rosemary LaBianca, searching for more buried victims. Just last month, Buster was flown to Key West, Florida, to search for remains in a 200-year-old pirate grave, as well as an 1860 ship carrying 294 African slaves.
Back at the Hodel house last November, Buster was turned loose to search for scents related to human decomposition—and he perked up, or “alerted” as Dostie calls it, at several potential clues in the basement. Soil samples were taken and results are expected next week.
If the samples come back positive, will Buster’s nose have helped crack one of L.A.’s most fascinating unsolved murders?
Aside from the doggy evidence, Steve Hodel’s own research points to some persuasive clues. Hodel started working on the case after his father died in 1999, leaving behind secret photos of a woman who looked like Short. After digging through an old grand-jury file, Hodel learned that the LAPD had placed bugs in his father’s house in February 1950, two months after he was acquitted for molesting his 14-year-old daughter, Hodel’s half-sister. “There were 18 detectives assigned to pick up Dad and take him down for questioning in the spring,” Hodel says. “While they were questioning him they sent out detectives who put microphones in the rooms. They did this for six weeks.”
In one of the picked-up conversations, George Hodel, who is speaking to an unidentified visitor, says: "Supposin' I did kill the Black Dahlia. They couldn't prove it now. They can't talk to my secretary because she's dead." (Police investigated Hodel as a possible suspect in his secretary’s poisoning but later dropped the case.)
Also discovered in the files were chilling excerpts dated February 18, 1950, in which investigators heard a woman at Hodel’s house asking for an operator several times. “Sounded as though she was crying,” the investigator wrote at the time. Four hours later, an investigator wrote that he thought he heard Hodel and an unidentified German man go down steps, enter the basement, and begin digging. “Something was referred to: ‘Not a trace,’” the file reads. “It also appeared as though a pipe was being hit.”
Not much later after that, investigators heard a woman screaming: “Woman screamed. Woman screamed again. It should be noted that a woman was not heard before the time of screaming since 6:50 p.m. She was not in any conversation, and not heard of again until the time of letting out these two screams.”
On the day of Buster’s search, the intrepid pup zigzagged over the property, nose to the ground, trying to pick up the chemical signature of human decomposition. Dostie says Buster immediately alerted on the front steps as well as the basement vents, then lay down and let out his characteristic high-pitched whine. “He lies down and points his nose at the source and waits for his toy,” says Dostie about Buster’s process. “I could tell the way he was whining that he smelled the scent on the front steps.”
Surprisingly, Dostie says, Buster also homed in on sites on the back of the property near a row of palm trees and a retaining wall near a rear alley. Dostie is convinced that there is something on the property, but he just doesn’t know what. He also doesn’t know if the thing that Buster is picking up on flowed down through to the basement, causing Buster to alert there. Or there is also the possibility, he says, that there is old blood in the basement.
“He can’t tell you what the chemical profiles are he is finding,” says Dostie. “He can’t tell me which one. That’s the problem.”
For his part, Steve Hodel doesn’t think that there are bodies buried in the basement, although he is convinced murders took place there. “I think they bled out,” he said. “I think Buster is alerting to blood.”
“Most of the victims were taken and posed throughout the city in an effort to terrorize the citizenry,” he added. But “with Buster alerting at the rear alley upslope, then that is certainly a possible grave site.”
Unfortunately, Buster can pick up almost every form of human decomposition, which means that he can be alerting on everything from crematory ashes, fetuses (George Hodel was known to perform abortions at his home), human blood, old human remains, you name it.
So, the question remains: was Buster just whining, or did his whine crack open one of L.A.’s most enduring mysteries?