Front Page Detective 1940
Magazine covers for the Front Page Detective publication for the year 1940.
On October 9, 1949, at a remote area of Griffith Park, the tattered purse of Jean Spangler was found, it was all that was left of the Hollywood actress and model, who had vanished after leaving her home in Los Angeles just two days previously. Among the items found in her purse, was a handwritten note addressed to some called ‘Kirk’ and made mention of a doctor. It soon became apparent that the young woman had been leading a life of secrets that no-one knew anything about.
Police began their investigation by attempting to locate the ‘Kirk’ mentioned in the note, and would eventually question a known Hollywood actor about Spangler’s disappearance. But no-one would be charged with any crime, and although there are many varied theories concerning her disappearance, such as a botched abortion or her alleged involvement with Los Angeles gangsters, no trace of Jean Spangler has ever been found and her mysterious disappearance remains unsolved.
During the 1940’s, the city of Los Angeles was a dangerous place for a young woman at night, and from 1941 onwards, there were many cases of women going missing and being murdered. One of the most high profile of these was the brutal killing of Elizabeth Short, who’s dismembered and mutilated body was found dumped on a vacant lot on January 15, 1947. In August 1949, widow and socialite Mimi Boombauer went missing. Five days later he handbag was found, but there was no trace of ‘fun loving Mimi’. It was that same year when Jean Spangler vanished leaving no trace of her whereabouts.
The Rising Starlet
Born in Seattle, Washington, on September 2, 1923, Jean Elizabeth Spangler and her family eventually moved to California, where she attended Franklin High School in Los Angeles. As a teen, Spangler had danced with the Earl Carroll Theatre and Florentine Gardens. Upon her graduation in 1941, she met Dexter Benner, a manufacturer whom she married after a whirlwind romance the following year. However, the marriage was not a happy union.
Eventually Jean filed for divorce, citing cruelty, but the couple continued their on/off relationship, and Spangler gave birth to a daughter, Christine, born April 22, 1944. Spangler soon found herself engaged in a long and bitter custody battle with her former husband over their daughter, with Banner initially granted custody of Christine in 1946. He reportedly denied Spangler the right to see her daughter, however by 1948 the dispute was eventually decided in her favour.
With her background as a dancer and model, Spangler was attempting to break into acting, and by 1949, she appeared to have succeeded in her determination to make it in Hollywood when she was cast in bit parts in several films. She also appeared as a dancer in several uncredited roles, including in Walter Lang’s 1948 film When My Baby Smiles at Me, the 1949 comedy Chicken Every Sunday. Her last role would be in the musical drama Young Man with a Horn, released after her death in 1950.
The Hollywood Disappearance
At the time she went missing, 27-year-old Spangler lived with her mother Florence, five-year-old daughter Christine, brother Edward, and sister-in-law Sophie, on Colgate Avenue in the Park La Brea residential complex near Wilshire Boulevard. At around 5:00pm, on Friday, October 7, 1949, Spangler left her home in Los Angeles for what would be the last time. As her mother Florence was out of town visiting family in Louisville, Kentucky, she left her daughter with Sophie, who would later tell police that Jean told her she was meeting with Benner to discuss a late child support payment.
Spangler said that after meeting with her ex-husband, she was going to work on a night shoot for a film, about which she gave no further details. “She came downstairs and asked how she looked,” Sophie later told reporters. “She smiled at me, and then her little girl, Christine, asked where she was going. ‘Going to work‘ Jean answered again, but she winked at me when she said it.” It was not unusual for her to work late in the afternoon as a bit part extra involved in night shoots.
Some two hours later, Spangler called home and spoke with Sophie to ask about her daughter and to tell her sister-in-law that she would “have to work the full eight hours,” and would probably not return home that evening. The following morning, October 8, Spangler had still not returned home, and Sophie went to the police and filed a missing person report.
The LAPD Investigation
When police questioned Benner about her statement to Sophie that she was going to meet him about his child support payments, he claimed that he had not seen his former wife for several weeks. His new wife, Lynn Lasky Benner, to whom he had been married only one month, corroborated his story. A saleswoman at the Farmers Market, only a few blocks from Spangler’s home, recalled seeing her browsing around 6:00pm., and noted that she “appeared to be waiting for someone.”
Though Spangler had told her sister-in-law that she was going to work on a film set after she met with Benner, police checked with Screen Extras Guild who confirmed to investigators that Spangler had no call for work that night, as well as the TV studios who stated they had no record of her employment that night.
On October 9, 1949, two days after she vanished, Spangler’s purse was found by Griffith Park employee Henry Angu, near the Fern Dell entrance of Griffith Park in Los Angeles, situated approximately 5.5 miles from her family home. Hoping to find further evidence at the park, a group of sixty police officers and over one hundred volunteers searched the 4,107-acre natural terrain park, but no other clues were found that might indicate what happened to Jean Spangler. The purse was the only piece of evidence found by police, and beyond this last physical remnant, no trace of Spangler could be found.
Alarmingly, both of the straps on one side of the purse were torn loose as if it had been ripped from her arm. There was no money in the purse, and Sophie told detectives that her sister-in-law had no money when she left her house the evening of her disappearance, and so the police ruled out robbery as a motive. Over the course of the following week, Griffith Park was searched by over 200 volunteers and law enforcement, and during the search, one volunteer’s dog dug up a denim Los Angeles County Jail uniform in a shallow hole, but no other belongings of Spangler were found.
Because murders of wives are most often than not, committed by a person close to the victim, be that a partner, lover, spouse or ex-spouse, many suspected for a time that Dexter Benner murdered his ex-wife in a case of “the husband did it.” In the case of Jean Spangler, the person who had the most to gain from her death was her ex-husband, Benner, who once had sole custody of their daughter, and according to those close to the family, wanted that returned.
At the time she missing, police apparently questioned Benner, who said he hadn’t seen Spangler for several weeks. On October 27, 1949, Benner had been awarded temporary custody of his daughter in a court battle with Spangler’s mother Flofrence, to whom he denied visitation with Christine because he said she was upsetting his daughter by referring to her missing daughter, and also defied a court order that he permit Spangler’s mother to visit the child.
When he was ordered to serve fifteen days in jail for being in contempt of court, the re-married Benner fled Los Angeles with his daughter, later settling in Florida. Once Benner was cleared as a person of interest, investigators moved onto other suspects, but with little evidence surrounding her death, there were few clues as to whom might have caused her disappearance.
The Mysterious Dr. Scott
Among the items found inside Spangler’s purse was a handwritten note addressed to someone by the name of “Kirk”, and read; “Kirk: Can’t wait any longer, Going to see Dr. Scott. It will work best this way while mother is away,”. The note ended in a comma, as though unfinished. Thus investigators began the hunt for the mysterious Kirk and Dr. Scott mentioned in the note. But neither person could be located, and neither Spangler’s family nor her friends knew anyone by those names.
Attempts were made to locate the Dr. Scott referenced in the note, but Spangler’s sister-in-law did not recognize the name. At a press conference, Det. Lt. Harry Didion did confirm the existence of a physician name Scott, explaining that he was “known to Miss Spangler and her coterie of nightclubbing friends.” However, police questioned every doctor with the last name Scott in Los Angeles, but none of them had a patient with the last name Spangler or Benner, her married name.
The “Scott” identified in her life was an abusive man she called “Scotty,” who had been an Army Air Corps lieutenant with whom Spangler had once been involved with, but it was unknown if that was his surname or a nickname. Spangler had allegedly had an affair with the man while her husband was overseas, and told a friend that “Scotty” had threatened her when she left him. But according to her lawyer, she had not seen him since 1945.
The Hollywood Film Star
With regards to the mysterious “Kirk” mentioned in Spangler’s note, police were equally baffled. When Spangler’s mother, Florence, returned to Los Angeles, she told police that someone named “Kirk” had picked up Jean at her house twice but stayed in his car and did not come in. The only other “Kirk” was possibly the best-known movie star in the country.
With Hollywood film sets, parties and the nightclubs, a wide variety of individuals are all brought together, and in and out of Spangler’s life. Investigators believed that if they looked most closely at her working relationships, romances and interactions, it might give an insight into any potential motives, as well as opportunities for committing murder. At the time she disappeared, Spangler had recently completed filming a bit part in the film Young Man with a Horn starring Kirk Douglas.
This soon led to public speculation that he was the “Kirk” mentioned in the note found in her purse. Upon reading about the discovery of the note, Douglas spoke with police over the phone while vacationing in Palm Springs, and denied that he knew Spangler. On October 12, 1949, Douglas gave a formal press statement in which he said: “I told Detective Chief Thad Brown that I didn’t remember the girl or the name until a friend recalled it was she who worked as an extra in a scene with me in my picture Young Man with a Horn…” Douglas was quoted in the October 13, 1949 issue of the San Bernardino Sun as saying, “then I recalled that she was a tall girl in a green dress. I talked and kidded with her a bit on the set… But I never saw her before or after that and have never been out with her.”
Throughout his career, rumours persisted that Kirk Douglas had raped aspiring actress Natalie Wood, who was 16-years-old at the time, during an audition at the Chateau Marmont during the summer of 1955. The alleged attack “went on for hours,” and was described as brutal and violent. Spangler had also told her friend, actor Robert Cummings, that she was having a casual affair at the time, but did not reveal the identity of the man.
When Cummings asked her if it was serious, she responded: “No. But I’m having the time of my life.” Spangler’s girlfriends with whom she regularly attended nightclubs told police that she was three months pregnant when she disappeared and that she had talked about having an abortion, which at the time was illegal.
Witnesses, who frequented the same nightclubs and bars as Spangler, told police they had heard of a former medical student known as “Doc”, who performed abortions for money, but this individual could not be located, nor could investigators prove that he existed. The theory that Spangler disappeared under circumstances related to a botched abortion attempt was investigated by the Los Angeles Police Department, as well as a potential connection to the series of murders that had occurred in the Los Angeles area.
The Black Dahlia Connection
Spangler’s mother begged the media to help find her daughter, and offered a $1,000 reward to anyone with information about her whereabouts. The disappearance has remained an unsolved missing persons case, and was never officially designated a homicide. At the time, some newspapers reported that Spangler was feared to be one of several female victims in a series of killings in Los Angeles, potentially linked to the Black Dahlia murder in 1947.
Retired LAPD detective Rick Jackson worked the case during his many years on the force, largely because of his interest in its possible connection to the Black Dahlia murder. Although there was no formal case file on Spangler’s disappearance, Jackson kept a notebook he made of documents related to the case. His former partner, Det. Elizabeth Camacho confirmed that no case file remains. “Forensically, I don’t think anything was ever uncovered,” she said, noting that a murder report was never filed.
“It was always a suspicious missing person [case].” Because the disappearance was classified as such, any and all existing evidence was likely discarded over the past decades, including the purse, which Jackson claims he never saw outside of in photographs. Former LAPD homicide detective Steve Hodel has claimed that his father, the deceased Dr. George Hodel was responsible for the disappearance of Jean Spangler, as well as a series of other murders throughout Los Angeles.
In his book Black Dahlia Avenger, Hodel put forward his theory that his father had committed the brutal 1947 slaying of Elizabeth Short, as well as the murders of Jeanne French in 1947 and Gladys Kern in 1948, along with several others and Jean Spangler. Her purse, the only piece of evidence in the case, was found approximately a quarter of a mile from Dr. Hodel’s residence, the “Frankling House” in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles.
Hodel also recalls how his half-brother Duncan once said “… I remember one of the girl’s Dad was dating back then was a drop-dead gorgeous actress by the name of Jean.” It is the theory of Steve Hodel that his father was with Spangler on the night of her disappearance, and believes she may have made the mistake of threatening to reveal what she knew or suspected of him to the police.
Jean Spangler was last seen in public at a Hollywood restaurant, arguing with a man who’s description matched that of George Hodel. This was the final sighting of Spangler, during the early morning hours of October 8. A popular radio DJ of the era, Al “The Sheik” Lazaar, who conducted tableside interviews, reported seeing Spangler at a Sunset Strip restaurant at about 2:30am. She appeared to be arguing with two men, and when Lazaar approached the table, the men waved him away.
Similarly, the proprietor of the restaurant, Terry Taylor, also reported seeing Spangler earlier that evening, at a front table with a man he described as “a clean-cut” fellow about 30 or 35″. This incident occurred on October 7, 1949, just one week before Hodel was formally arraigned on felony charges that could see him serve decades in prison. Dr. Hodel’s arrest resulted from the accusation he had molested and impregnated his 14-year-old daughter, Tamar Hodel, after which she claimed she was given a back-alley abortion.
Steve Hodel said of his father “he was performing abortions for the rich and famous, and a lot of [police] officers if their girls got in trouble.” He believes the mysterious “Dr. Scott,” was another member of his father’s abortion ring, which was headed by a Dr. Audrain and made up of physicians who paid hush money to the police. Hodel contends that the LAPD of the 1940’s was the real-life L.A. Confidential back then.
A station attendant named Art Rodgers told police that on the same evening Spangler had been seen a Hollywood restaurant, he saw a man and a woman matching Spangler’s description who came to the gas station that night near the Sunset Strip. The man bought gas and Rodgers the couple were headed to Fresno, but as they drove off, the woman, who “shrank down” in the passenger seat, cried out, “Have the police follow this car!” Rodgers called police, but by the time they were on the scene, the vehicle and its occupants were long gone.
Hodel believes it was his father who was spotted with Spangler. He fits the description of the man spotted with her, and he drove a 1936 black Packard sedan resembling the one Rodgers described. This same vehicle also matches descriptions of cars seen leaving the Elizabeth Short crime scene in 1947. At the time, the Los Angeles Examiner printed a map with the headline “Black Sedan Hunted in L.A. as Death Car.”
It is the firm conviction of Steve Hodel, that it was his father who was seen with Spangler the night she went missing. “It’s my belief she started dating Dad either late September or early October,” he said. In his pursuit of the truth about his father, Hodel was given clearance to search the Franklin House in 2012, in an attempt to locate forensic evidence. A trained dog indicated the smell of human remains in the basement and the slope behind the house, and soil samples recovered identified the presence of human remains in the soil.
The Mob Connection
During the 1940’s, the mobster Mickey Cohen held a tight grip over the criminal underworld in Los Angeles. Investigators explored the theory that Spangler’s disappearance was related to Los Angeles gangsters with whom she purportedly was associated. She was known to have worked for a time as a dancer at Florentine Gardens, a nightclub owned by Mark Hansen and Nils Thor Granlund. Incidentally, Hansen was considered a suspect in the murder of Elizabeth Short, and was known to have been the last person to have spoken with her in the days leading up to her brutal death.
It was Spangler’s acquaintance with Hansen that might have led to an association with various mob affiliates, including bootlegger and gambling entrepreneur Anthony Cornero Stralla and Mickey Cohen, a violent gangster who worked on behalf of Al Capone’s Chicago Outfit and Bugsy Siegel. It’s been alleged that Spangler had been seen with “Little Davy” Ogul, an associate of Cohen’s, in Palm Springs, as well as in Las Vegas, Nevada with Ogul and Frank Niccoli, another Cohen associate.
In September 1949, Niccoli disappeared after having been indicted on conspiracy charges. On October 9, 1949, two days after Spangler went missing, Ogul disappeared. This led police to investigate the possibility that Spangler and Ogul, who was also under indictment for conspiracy, had fled to avoid prosecution. Thomas Ellery Evans, a gangster and acquaintance of Ogul, was interrogated by police during their investigation.
In April 1950, Spangler’s sister Betsy testified that neither she nor her sister were ever acquainted with Ogul, Cohen, or any of his associates. That same year, a customs agent in El Paso, Texas reported seeing Ogul and a woman who looked like Spangler in a local hotel. The hotel clerk identified Spangler from a photograph, but neither Ogul nor Spangler’s names appeared on the hotel register.
Because her life and career were tragically cut-short, Jean Spangler never quite reached that level of success she craved in Hollywood. A young and talented woman and aspiring starlet, who sought fame and fortune, but instead found her name immortalized through tragedy. The LAPD continued the search and circulated Spangler’s picture for several years, and she is still listed as a missing person, and the LAPD has not closed the case. Until evidence is uncovered that reveals exactly what happened to her and why she went missing, the disappearance of Jean Spangler will continue to haunt the City of Angels.
Magazine covers for the Front Page Detective publication for the year 1940.
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