Steve Hodel is a former Los Angeles Police Detective & New York Times best selling author, whose investigations into America’s most notorious unsolved murders lead him to make a shocking family discovery.
In an exclusive interview with Budapest Pulse, Steve discusses his illustrious career, The Black Dahlia case & why he believes his father got away with murder.
Thank you for sitting down with us. You were raised in Los Angeles. Can you tell us a little about your childhood? What was LA like at the time?
Most of my childhood memories are positive. Especially living in the Sowden/Franklin house. The Mayan Temple designed by Lloyd Wright, son of Frank Lloyd Wright in the heart of Hollywood. It was like a film set of the Arabian Nights, our father, Dr. George Hill Hodel was the king, our mother, Dorothy his beautiful queen, and my two brothers, Michael and Kelvin and I, the three little princes. Parties, beautiful people, lots of laughter what’s not to like?As a kid, it was great fun. In retrospect, Hollywood was a small town, at least in my eyes from age five to ten. Bike to the parks, to the observatory, walk down the street to watch our favorite Cowboys at the Hitching Post movie house. What’s not to like?
After spending some time in the navy, you moved into law enforcement. Did you always want to be an police officer?
No. Becoming a cop never entered my mind. After joining the Navy at seventeen and becoming a Hospital Corpsman (Medic), I thought I might follow in my father’s footsteps and become a doctor. But, four years of assisting doctor’s kind of turned me off to medicine. I wanted to become a Marine Biologist, then fell in love with a beautiful actress (Kiyo) married, and as presented in that chapter of my book, she talked me into joining The LAPD basically because the pay was $200 more than I was making as an orderly at Kaiser Hospital. Kind of on a lark, I took the written exam, the the oral exam and the psych and physical agility test. Much to my surprise, the next thing I knew, I was in the Police Academy and wearing a badge and a gun. This was 1963. I had just turned twenty-one.
You made detective pretty early in your career right? You investigated over 300 cases in two decades. How was it being a detective?
Yes, my LAPD years were from 1963-1986. First five were in uniform patrol, which included those terrible six days in August 1965 known as “The Watts Riots” where 34 civilian lives were lost and more than a thousand injured. I was assigned to Hollywood Detectives in 1969. Most of my career was at Hollywood and yes, over 300 murder investigations during the next fourteen years. I loved working homicide. Especially in Hollywood, which was a microcosm for murders. Rich, poor, straight, gay, pimps and their prostitutes. Never the same, always challenging, very few smoking gun self-solvers. I loved the hunt and the reward of clearing whodunits.
Ok. Now onto The Black Dahlia. When did you first become aware of the case?
Well, I first became aware of it going through the police academy. The photos were shown to us new recruits as “one of LAPD’s famous unsolved from the 1940s. Crime scene photos. Then nothing until 1975 when a made for television movie came out, “Who Killed the Black Dahlia?” I saw it, but took no notice, it just came and went. The crime never was mentioned during my career—Zero.
What is important to understand is that this crime—came to me. I was thirteen years into my retirement when my father died and certain personal effects were given to me by his wife, June Hirano Hodel. I was close to my father in the last decade of his life and flew to San Francisco to assist his widow, June, in making the arrangements required of a family members passing. She gave me a small album with family photos of loved ones and it also included a photo of a young woman, nude, reclining. I asked June, “Who is this?” Her response, “I don’t know someone your father knew from a long time ago.”
A few days later, I was in telephone contact with my half-sister, Tamar Hodel, who lived in Hawaii and I hadn’t spoken with in several decades and we were sharing memories of our father’s remarkable life. Out of nowhere, she say’s, “Well you know, dad was a suspect in the Black Dahlia Murder.”
In the next month, a number of additional items came into my possession as chronicled in my book, that set me on a course of investigation which I was confident would exonerate my father of any suspicion. I followed the evidence, and the rest is history.
For those who don’t know. Can you tell us a little about The Black Dahlia? Who was Elizabeth Short & why did her murder shock LA & the World?
Elizabeth Short was born and raised in Medford, Massachusetts. She was an attractive young teenager who dropped out of high-school and came West in 1942 to reunite with her father, who had abandoned her and her sisters and mother in the 1930s. They had a quick falling out and she drifted around LA. It was wartime and she was attracted to military men. Basically, she was young, naïve and really was looking to fall in love with “Lt. Right” get married and live happily ever after. She worked at a military base, Camp Cook near Santa Barbara in 1943, was arrested for “Minor possession”, being present underage in a bar with military men. Sent back to MA, then returned to LA regularly from 1943-1947, was abducted and murdered on January 15, 1947.
It is a truly horrific murder. When & why did you start beliving that your father, George Hodel may have been Elizabeth Short’s killer?
To be clear, my now twenty-year investigation and five books are not about “Steve Hodel believing that his father killed Elizabeth Short.” This is not my theory, nor can I take credit for solving the crime. All I have done is uncover the LADA and LAPDs hidden investigation and solution (locked away in the DA vault for fifty-three years) and presented it to the public. Yes, I have added a massive amount of additional proof (physical evidence connecting the Hodel residence to the crime scene, additional witnesses confirming their knowledge that “George Hodel did it”; LAPD paid informant’s original 1949 handwritten letter (in effect a “dying declaration” connecting George Hodel to the Black Dahlia. The informant also linked him to a second 1949 LA Lone Woman Murder of victim Louise Springer in which LAPD brought Hodel in and “grilled” him on.) Bottom line which is made clear from the LADA Secret Hodel/Black Dahlia Tapes and reports; law enforcement had a fillable and convictable case against my father in 1950 and were about to arrest him when he fled the United States.
And who was George Hodel? Was he well known in LA at the time?
I go into heavy biographic’s s Black Dahlia Avenger and its sequels because it is critical to an understanding of his crime signature and his criminality. Too much to attempt to address here but, here are some highlights.
Born in LA in 1907. Musical prodigy (piano) played his own concerts at the Shrine Auditorium in LA at age 9. High genius IQ of 186 (one point above Einstein) Attended Cal Tech at age 15. Crime reporter for large LA newspaper at 17 riding around with LAPD Vice and Homicide detectives during Prohibition and writing tabloid articles about their arrests. Magazine Publisher at 19. Radio announcer for classical music at 20. Berkeley PreMed then graduated with his M.D. from UC San Francisco in 36. A skilled surgeon and the sole surgeon at a Logging Camp in Arizona in 1937. Head of LA County Health Department, V.D. Control Officer for entire County. Doctor to Hollywood’s rich and famous, including politicos and film studios. Psychiatrist, and Leading Expert in Market Research in Asia. And, much more…
You have investigated the black dahlia case & your father’s links to it for going on 20 years. What evidence did you uncover?
Again, too much to itemize. It’s taken me five books to lay it all out. See above responses, but to generalize: Formal police reports reveal he knew and dated Elizabeth Short; tape recorded admissions and confessions by police to: police payoffs, performing abortions (five year prison sentence in 1950), a police tape recorded felony assault, or more likely an actual murder at his residence on February 18, 1950 during DA/LAPD stakeout and officers five minutes away, took no action, recorded him stating to accomplice after the beating, “leave no trace.” Court certified handwriting expert confirms handwritten notes on Dahlia and other Lone Woman Murder victims were written by Dr. George Hodel. (No known expert has provided an opinion that “they were not written by GHH” only several saying their examination is “inconclusive, but cannot eliminate him as author.”)
Where there any other suspects that interested you?
No. I did look at other “theorists” books and “evidence,” but all were total speculation with no real evidence. Also, they all avoided the fact that, as the police had determined, they were dealing with a serial killer, which eliminated their individual “suspect” from the get-go. They were forced to take the ridiculous position that “the Dahlia murder was a standalone murder, none before none after.” LAPD offered and published in the newspapers of that day their written opinion that “at least four of these murders are the same killer.”
It must have been difficult to find out the truth about your father. How did you & the rest of your family take it?
Yes, very difficult for me and all of the family. I had become very close to my father in the last decade of his life (1990-1999) after he and June relocated from Asia back to the U.S. in San Francisco. He died at age 91. After the six or so catalysts that came to my attention that caused me to begin my investigation, I was confident I would clear him from any suspicion. But, I also knew I had to remain objective. Let the professionally trained homicide detective do his thing while I remained a loyal, loving son. I knew I could not contaminate the two. Once the “case was made” and I informed family members and Black Dahlia Avenger was published in 2003, the response from family members was mixed.
My father had eleven children from five different women.
My full brother Kelvin was totally convinced, as was my half-sister, Tamar, who had been the victim of the incest trial back in 1949, where my father was acquitted. (Despite the fact their were three adult witnesses present who testified against him. Later police reports refer to a “possible $15,000 payoff by Dr. Hodel to the DA’s office.”)
His children by his Filipina wife, Hortensia were irate and their position was “no way could their father be a serial killer.” So mixed results as to my investigation from the family.
How do you think your father got away with the murder?
You have to understand the history and conditions in Los Angeles at the time. It was a real life “LA Confidential”. Corruption was commonplace in every field. In the LAPD, the DA’s Office, film studios, city government, all were “on the take.” As Head of LA County Heald Dept Hygiene Section George Hodel had knowledge and access to all medical records. Also, he was treating the rich and famous and LAPD brass for their “indiscretions” providing them with the new “quick cure” known as Penicillin. He was also performing abortions for their girlfriends who were “in trouble” with unwanted pregnancies. George Hodel was in effect UNTOUCHABLE. The term back then for such a man was a “High Jingo”.
GHH made it easy for them. Just as he was about to be arrested by the one “clean cop”, DA Lt. Frank Jemison, he fled the country. In the Wind. Gone. At that point, as I see it, the midnight oil starting burning at LAPD and City Hall and the powers that be, police and DA made a Machiavellian decision. They rationalized, “He’s gone out of the country. Maybe we will find him and extradite him back. If we do, maybe he gets attorney Jerry Giesler (the Johnny Cochran defense attorney of his day) and beat it in court as he did in the ’49 incest trial. Or, if he does come back maybe he will lay out all he knows about our internal corruption? Better to lock the files away, for now, let Chief Bill Parker take command in a few weeks, clean up Dodge and then come back at a later time.”
I think that is exactly what they did. But, of course, never came back to it and kept the investigation hidden for fifty plus years until my investigation blasted open the locked vault.
Why does The Black Dahlia case still fascinate the general public after all these years?
Because it has all the elements required to fascinate. A beautiful woman, surgically bisected and posed nude in public. The name, Black Dahlia, a mysterious flower. The absolute horror of the crime itself: extended sexual torture and cuttings to the body. It was the last big print story before television took hold. Six LA newspapers each vying to scoop the other with above the fold headlines. Then the myth. Hack writers coming up with their various invented “theories.” Even within just three short years, her murder had become a laugh line in one of Hollywood’s greatest classic movies, “Sunset Boulevard.” The scene where the star Joe Gillis (actor William Holden) goes to New Year’s Eve party hosted by his friend Artie Green (actor Jack Webb) who introduces him to a room full of partygoers, “Fans, this is Joe Gillis, the well-known screenwriter, uranium smuggler and black dahlia suspect.” (Fans laugh) It was downhill from there.
Of course the publishing of the horrific photographs showing the victim’s cut and tortured bisection in Kenneth Anger’s tabloid book on sex and scandal, “Hollywood Babylon.”
Then we have Brian DePalma’s quote after making James Ellroy’s fictional version “Black Dahlia” into a movie in 2006. DePalma in the article says, ‘England has their Jack The Ripper, we have our Black Dahlia.”
You’ve also linked George Hodel to a couple of other infamous unsolved murders. Can you tell us about those cases please?
Well, it took me four additional books, as sequels, (Most Evil (Dutton 2009), Black Dahlia Avenger II (Thoughprint Press 2014), Most Evil II (Rare Bird Books 2015) and most recently Black Dahlia Avenger III (Rare Bird Books 2018) to present his ongoing serial crimes from 1945-1969. So, impossible to present that information here but here’s a cursory introduction to those crimes.
Actually, it was the victim, Elizabeth Short that put me on the scent of these additional crimes. In the secret DA police reports, they documented that in 1946 some six months before her murder she went to Chicago and began investigating the three “Lipstick Murders” which had become national headlines in 1945 and early 1946. She slept with several of the newspaper reporters on the cases attempting to gain information informing them that she “knew a Chicago policeman working the cases.” (That Chicago officer would later be identified as her sometime boyfriend, Dr. George Hodel, who was doctoring in China while she was in Chicago in the summer of ’46.)
Obviously, this forced me to ask myself, “Why was she investigating these crimes?” Answer- She suspected my father had committed them. This would effectively sign her death warrant. George discovered she was checking him out, quit his job in China returned home, she began running and hiding and was dead within two months of his return.
Suffice it to say, I have made a compelling case that my father did in fact commit those crimes, which included the same surgical bisection of one of the victim’s as he would later perform on Elizabeth Short. (A medical procedure known as a “hemicorpectomy” taught in medical schools in the mid-1930s. Father graduated in 1936)
That took me to Manila where I identified a Black Dahlia copycat murder in 1967 where the victim’s body was posed on a vacant lot two miles from my father’s then home.
That took me to crimes committed in 1968 and 1969 in the San Francisco Bay Area where I present a compelling case that twenty-years later George Hodel began committing serial crimes and gave himself the pseudonym of “Zodiac.” I present thirty-two unique crime signatures and MO’s (modus operandi) comparing his earlier crimes to those in Bay Area, along with confirmed handwriting and the solving of an authenticated “Zodiac cipher” which was written and signed by the killer and mailed to the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper. The signature, which cipher was “cracked” by a French high school teacher by the name of Yves Person, was written in ancient Celtic language signed with five letters—H O D E L.
And what became of your father?
He outlived all his pursuers and returned to the United States in 1990 and spent the last decade of his life (age 82-91) living comfortably with his wife of thirty-years (June was forty years younger than he) in a penthouse suite on the 39th floor in downtown San Francisco
The television mini-series, I am The Night has just been released. Have you seen it & if so what are your thoughts?
No, I haven’t seen the TNT miniseries. I was not aware of its production until seeing the trailers on television a few months back which were promotional for the series. Consequently, I cannot comment on the material other than to say it is fictional and has nothing to do with my true-crime investigation. The lead actor, Fauna Hodel was my niece, my half-sister Tamar’s daughter. Fauna never met my father (her grandfather) in life and was never at our home, the Sowden/Franklin House until long after his passing in 1999.
Cadence 13, in conjunction with TNT is presenting an eight-hour podcast, Root of Evil: The True Story of the Hodel Family and the Black Dahlia, which I and Hodel family members did participate in making. I would highly recommend listening to this series, which is the true story and how it has affected various family members as well as including a factual telling of my investigation and linkage to our father as a serial killer. The podcast begins on February 13 at a podcast near you.
Finally, Steve. What are your plans for the future?
Well, I am currently involved with my own project and am hoping to make a miniseries documentary focused on not just presenting my investigation, which has already been told in multiple one-hour television documentaries such as Dateline, 48-Hours, Court TV, Bill Kurtis, Cold Case Files, etc.
Working with some top people to see if we can make this happen. I want to focus on what I consider my father’s crime signature of, “Murder as a Fine Art” which he used in many of his murders. This was his personal madness and what made him one of the world’s most fascinating international serial killers.
Bottom line is, Dr. George Hill Hodel was a unique psychopath unlike any other I have seen. He was a perfect storm of rage and hate. A misogynist, misanthrope, and sadist of the highest order.
Whether or not the documentary happens, I am currently working on what I hope will be my final book, “The Early Years.” George Hodel didn’t wake up at age 39 and say, “I think I’ll be a serial killer.” Sadly, he started very young, in his teens.
Consequently, my next book on “The Life and Crimes of George Hodel” will be to present those crimes from the 1920s and 1930s.
Hopefully, that will get me out of this Black Hole.
When I joined LAPD in 1963 my plan was to work for twenty years, then retire at age forty-one, with a lieutenant’s pension to an island in the beautiful Puget Sound region of the Great Northwest. Didn’t quite work out that way, so now at age seventy-seven, Plan B is to retire at say age eighty-one and kick back and enjoy my grandchildren.
Hopefully, I can make that happen.
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