Special Case File
Sin City Murders
Death in the City of Angels
Sin City Murders
"I swear to God I didn’t kill her"
During the decade of the 1940’s, the city of Los Angeles was fast becoming the cinematic heart of the United States, with its emerging Hollywood district becoming known for producing some of the most iconic films of the 20th Century. Yet behind the glamourous era of the handsome leading men and beautiful movie starlets, there existed the dark and dangerous underbelly of this sinful city.
Iconic locales, such as Sunset Strip, Hollywood Blvd., as well as other neighbourhoods and regions in Los Angeles were fast becoming known for the decadent vice of celebrity scandal and police corruption, gambling and prostitution, as well as organised crime and infamous slayings, all of which would contribute to City of Angels becoming known as the ‘City of Sin’. With a cast of characters worthy of a Hollywood Film Noir crime thriller, some of the most sensational and still unsolved murders were committed on the streets of the largest city in California.
Tales of murder, mayhem, political corruption, and celebrity scandal were rife in Los Angeles during the 1940’s. News reporters of that period had the habit of naming particularly lurid crimes with a headline grabbing title, such as the 1944 shooting death of a young waitress which became known as the “The Red Ribbon Murder”, or the brutal “Red Lipstick Murder” of an aviatrix in 1947. One of the most ghastly and infamous murders in the history of Los Angeles is that of Elizabeth Short, which became known as the “Black Dahlia Murder”, and would forever become a symbol of the darker side of the city.
At night the streets of L.A. were a dangerous place for a young woman, and there were many other unsolved murders around this time period, that of almost twenty women over the course of eight years, most of whom were committed under similar circumstances, that of a beautiful woman who’s life was brutally cut short by an unknown madman who slipped away into the night never to be unmasked.
The Murder of Ora Mae Murray “The Gardenia Murder” (July 1943)
Arriving in L.A. to visit her sister Latona and her husband, Oswald Leinann, 42-year-old Ora Mae Murray had travelled on June 22, 1943, from Camp McCain in Mississippi where her sergeant husband was stationed, whilst she worked at the PX. About five days into her visit, the women decided to dancing at a dance hall. These establishments were prevalent all over the world during World War II, and were considered a morale booster for both soldiers and the civilian population.
The large dance halls usually had an orchestra, whilst smaller ones consisted of a three-piece band, and the atmosphere of music and dancing were a celebration to raise the spirits during the war. On the evening of June 27, Ora and Letona went dancing at the Zenda Ballroom, where they met two men, “Preston and Paul”. They were invited to take a ride in Paul’s flashy blue convertible coupe, however Preston decided not to join them. The trio stopped by Letona’s house so they could pick up her husband, but he begged off and so Letona stayed with him. It would be the last time she saw her sister alive.
He was soon identified as 26-year-old Roger Louis, aka Lewis Gardner, who also used the name Grant Terry. He was a swindler, who at that time was serving a sentence at Leavenworth for fraud and impersonating a federal officer. He was arraigned for trial over the murder of Ora Murray, which ended in a mistrial.
At the onset of the retrial, which was scheduled for December 19, 1944, the charges were dropped at the request of deputy district attorney John Barnes. He was however found guilty of grand theft, swindling from his erstwhile fiancé and was sentenced to between 1-10 years at San Quentin. No other suspects were arrested in connection with the murder of Ora Murray, and her murder remains unsolved.
As police investigated further, they came across a date book diary in the bedroom containing the names of servicemen. One particular soldier was thought to have been infatuated with Bauerdorf. He was described as “swarthy”, and allegedly cut in on Bauerdorf during nearly every dance on the night of her death. This man eventually came forward and was identified as Cpl. Cosmo Volpe, who was soon eliminated as a suspect after his alibi checked out.
June Ziegler was with Bauerdorf at the canteen on the night prior to the murder, and she mentioned that Bauerdorf dated a serviceman less than a month before her murder. This man was 6’4″ and a friend of another serviceman whose name was frequently mentioned in the diary. According to Ziegler, Bauerdorf remarked that the tall soldier was very much taken with her. However she did not return his interest and quit going out with him. The soldier was sought for questioning by officers No-one was ever charged with her murder and the case remains unsolved.
The Death of Ruth Spaulding (May 1945)
Ruth Frances Spaulding was found at her home on 1206 West Second street, having swallowed sleeping tablets in what appeared to be a suicide attempt on May 9, 1945. Transported to Georgia Street Receiving Hospital, the city’s main trauma hospital, she died two hours later. It was determined by doctors she had died by “ingestion of a lethal dose of barbiturates”.
Her death was investigated by the Los Angeles county coroner, who determined the cause to be suicide. At the time of her death, 27-year-old Spaulding worked as a secretary for Dr. George Hodel, who operated his own medical practice and was head of the county’s Social Hygiene Bureau. Shortly after Spaulding’s death, Dr. Hodel travelled to China where he worked with the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration.
In October 1949, Dr. Hodel came under police scrutiny when he was accused of molesting and impregnating his 14-year-old daughter, Tamar Hodel, after which she was given a back-alley abortion. Three witnesses came forward, two of whom admitted to participating in the sex acts. At the widely publicised trial, two of the witnesses testified, but the third recanted her earlier testimony and refused to take the stand. Some believed that Hodel had threatened to woman into silence.
This resulted in Hodel’s acquittal of the sexual assault charges in December 1949, and many believed his daughter had made up the abuse allegations for attention. It was this molestation case that first brought Hodel to the attention of the LAPD detectives investigating the Black Dahlia murder of Elizabeth Short in January 1947.
Because of the nature of the crime, and the belief that a doctor was involved, Hodel was now considered a potential suspect. He was also interviewed as a suspect in the June 1949 murder of Louise Springer, known as the “Green Twig Murder”, however no charges were ever brought against him for a lack of evidence linking him to the crime.
The LAPD placed him under surveillance from February 18, 1950 to March 27, 1950, by installing two microphones in his private Hollywood residence on Franklin Avenue, which were monitored by up to eighteen detectives. It was the intention of the surveillance squad, to see if Hodel made any insinuating comments about his involvement in the Elizabeth Short’s murder. Most of the transcript involves dull conversation, but does include Hodel having sex, talking about money problems and berating his secretary.
On the February 19, 1950, something sinister was recorded; “8:25pm; Woman screamed. Woman screamed again, (It should be noted the woman was not heard before the screams)” Later that same day Hodel was overheard talking to a confidant. “Realise there was nothing I could do, put a pillow over her head and cover her with a blanket. Gat a taxi. Expired at 12:59. They thought there was something fishy. Anyways, now they may have figured it out. Killed her.”
The Murder of Gladys Landon (July 1946)
On Wednesday, July 10, 1946, Kenneth Landon, a service station operator, reported his wife as a missing person at the 77th Street police station. 36-year-old Gertrude Evelyn Landon had disappeared from her home at 9635 S. Hoover Street in South Los Angeles, and initially police suspected the involvement of Mr. Landon as a possible suspect. On Sunday, July 15, 1946, 33-year-old Wilmington shipyard worker Theodore P. Walther was looking through junk at a dump site that was part of the giant gravel pit that recently had become the Chandler Palos Verdes Sand and Gravel Co.
There he came upon the half-buried body of a woman, clad only in bra, panties and shoes, and was wearing a large 22-stone engagement ring, a gold wedding ring as well as a necklace. Captain J. Gordon Bowers of the sheriff’s department verified the identity of the victim through fingerprints as that of Gladys Evelyn Landon. Considering the circumstances of the crime, police soon ruled out Kenneth Landon as a suspect in the case.
There were many unusual aspect to the murder of Gladys Landon. Her car, a 1933 four-door Plymouth sedan, was missing, and apart from what little she was wearing there were no other clothes found nearby, indicating that she had been killed somewhere else and driven to the gravel pit. Police ruled out robbery as a motive owing to the presence of the jewellery. Held on July 17, the coroner’s inquest revealed that Landon had died of strangulation, probably sometime before midnight on July 10. Despite the brutal nature of her death, the coroner found no evidence of sexual assault.
Her car would turn up on July 18, having been abandoned at the corner of Menlo Street and Slauson Avenue, south of Exposition Park in South Los Angeles. Police never found any further evidence in the case, her killer was never caught and Mrs. Landon’s murder was never solved. Over the years, many have suspected that Landon’s killer might have been the same person responsible for the brutal death of Elizabeth Short, and that a vicious serial killer was stalking women on the streets of L.A.
The murder of Elizabeth Short is perhaps, one of the most enduring and infamous crimes in Los Angels history, with numerous suspects put forward as the possible killer. Many books and films have been made with the intention of explaining the unsolved crime. Dr. George Hodel has been proposed as a leading prime suspect, owing to his own checkered criminal history and the fact that he is a suspect in other murders of young women around the same time, some of which as suspected of being connected to the Black Dahlia case.
In the months leading up to her murder, Short was herself investigating the series of murders in Illinois known as the Lipstick Murders. It was has been suggested that she was close to exposing the real murderer in those crimes, which were attributed to a young man named William Heirens, and that she was killed to prevent her from exposing the truth. But this is just one of many theories for her ghastly death.
The Murder of Mary Tate (January 1947)
On February 27, 1947, 41-year-old Terry Tate, of 123 N. San Pedro Street, was arrested on suspicion of the murder of his wife, Mary. She had been found strangled with one of her own stockings in her room at 107 Weller St., described as a rooming house or hotel. At the inquest, the manager of the rooming house, Asaichi Ujiri testified that he last saw the victim on the Saturday night of January 18th, in the company of an unidentified white male.
She was found the following Sunday morning by Uriji, beaten and strangled. The coroner’s jury recommended her husband be held for further questioning, but he was soon released. On July 1, 1947, Oscar Johan Hallgren, a 40-year-old former film technician was held by police for the Tate murder. Three witnesses positively identified Hallgren, of 341 West Poplar Street, Compton, as the man see with Mrs. Tate shortly before her body was found.
He had previously been a patient at Moose Lake State Hospital, MN in 1940. He was too was released for a lack of evidence and later died in Long Beach, CA, in 1976. Sadly, because May Tate was a Black woman, her case did not warrant much press coverage in the wake of the Elizabeth Short murder, which occurred several days before.
Police then focused on the man last seen with Jeanne during the hours before her death. Witnesses described how she was with a small man with a dark complexion at the Pan American Bar in West Washington Place. The bartender recalled how the pair left together, however police were never able to trace the man. Her car was later traced to a parking lot, and witnesses said it had been there since around 3:00am on the morning of the murder.
Another witness said a man was seen leaving the car at the location, however this man was never traced either. Soon every lead went cold and the Red Lipstick Murder faded from the newspapers. Three years later, during a re-investigation ordered by the Grand Jury, detectives came across another suspect. Some four months before he brutal murder, the couple hired a painter named George Whitt to work on the family home.
It was discovered that Jeanne and George began seeing each other, and Whitt would admit they went on several dates. When police questioned him, Whitt’s behaviour aroused suspicion, and it was learned he had burned some clothes and several pairs of shoes around the time of the murder. He reportedly told investigators that he feared becoming a suspect, and believed he would be accused of the murder of Jeanne French once police found out about their affair. It is unknown if the shoes owned by Whitt would have been a match or even the same size as those worn by the killer, but he too was found to have a solid alibi and was cleared of any involvement.
Those who propose Dr. George Hodel as a suspect believe he murdered Elizabeth Short, Jeanne French and several other women. It is suspected he left the message scrawled in red lipstick on Jeanne’s body as a message to the L.A.P.D, who had investigated him over several crimes including rape and murder. There is also a connection between red lipstick and the Black Dahlia murder, because prior to her death, Elizabeth Short was conducting her own investigation into the Illinois Lipstick Murders committed between June 1945 and January 1946. However, the suspects cited in the case, including George Whitt and George Hodel wore a larger size shoe than the size 6 or 7 worn by the killer. The case remains unsolved.
In 1942 she left the studio and gave up an apartment she had at 1850 N. Cherokee St., while he last permanent residence was 28221/2 Rowena St., which she departed from on September 1, 1946. Mrs Winters told police that her daughter had been addicted to alcohol, and that she had been trying to “straighten her out,” fearful that her daughter needed help, she would meet with her three times a week at hotels and bus stations to give her small amounts of money.
Although she had been attempting to find her daughter a room, she continued to be a resident of of downtown barrooms, and only held occasional jobs as a waitress since leaving the studio. It was also reported that she had a police record. Meanwhile the possible suspect, Mr. Wickliffee had an extensive record, with three arrests for window peeping, vagrancy and begging in his hometown of Joplin, MO, and upwards of seventeen arrests in Wichita, Kansas, for vagrancy and loitering. Nothing further came from the investigation and her murder remains unsolved.
Housewife and mother of three Mrs. Montgomery was reported missing by her husband, 45-year-old Thomas, on the night she disappeared. He soon came under suspicion and was arrested by police, who believed he had murdered his wife. James Kennedy came forward and identified him as the man seen leaving the victim’s car in front of his house at 6112 Hooper St. Neighbours of the Montgomery’s reported to police that they heard screams in the vicinity of the couple’s home on the night of May 2, and that the family car had been parked on the driveway.
Thomas admitted to detectives that he and his wife had “three big arguments” before she was found dead but denied killing her. Police tested bloodstains found on two pairs of shoes belonging to Dorothy, and found it had been caused by rabbit’s blood, which is what Mr. Montgomery claimed as the family kept rabbits. Thomas Montgomery stood trial for his wife’s murder and was acquitted for lack of evidence or motive.
The Murder of Rosenda Mondragon (July 1947)
The Santa Rosa Press Democrat described 20-year-old Rosenda Mondragon at the time of her death as a Latin beauty. Born in New Mexico, she became married at the age of 17 to 22-year-old Antonio Mondragon. The marriage had been fraught with unhappiness, and on the evening of July 8, 1947, a drunken Rosenda awakened her husband to served him with divorce papers.
They continued to argue into the early morning hours, until she left the family home at 2:30am. Mr. Mondragon would later tell police that he dressed and followed her with the intention of driving his wife to her room at 836 S. Crocker. However, before he would reach her, a car pulled up alongside and she got in, he said. Reporting at that time was conflicting, with different accounts of what happened given by both the Examiner and the Times.
In what would become known as the “Red Hibiscus Murder”, on December 10, 1946, Naomi Tullis Cook was beaten to death with a 5-inch bolt at Lincoln Park. Four teenagers arrested on suspicion of her death were later released without charge on February 18, 1947. It is unknown if her murder was connected to that of the Cook murder, however a common theme among the murders of this time was of lone drunk women out walking the streets of L.A. at night.
Much like Laura Trelstad, Rosenda Mondragon was out on foot, and was picked up by her killer. With a lack of suspects, Antonio Mondragon was picked up police and given a polygraph test, which he passed. With no other suspects, the case soon went cold, and was one of more than seven that were committed against young women in Los Angeles during the year of 1947.
The Kidnapping of Viola Norton (February 1948)
On the morning of February 14, 1948, a woman was found in the crouching position in the back yard of a property at 3997 Westside Ave. When police arrived, they found she had suffered from head injuries and she was taken to hospital, where, she was identified by her husband Paul as Mrs. Viola Norton of 226 S. Third St., Alhambra. Doctors were treating her for a possible skull fracture and deep scalp wounds inflicted by a blunt instrument.
Near the crime scene, several doors away in the driveway at 3391 Westside Ave., police found one of the woman’s slippers near a pool of blood, along with her rifled purse. Mrs. Norton told police that on the Friday evening, two men in a light blue sedan had abducted her off the sidewalk at around 1:30am. She said she remembered leaving a bar, and then fighting with her assailants, who tore at her clothes. She was then beaten, bludgeoned, slashed, dumped for dead just blocks from Elizabeth Short scene.
The Murder of Louise Springer (June 1949) “The Green Twig Murder”
On June 16, 1949, a convertible automobile was found abandoned at 125 W. 38th Street. Inside was the decomposing body of Mrs. Louise Springer, who was found in the rear seat of her husband’s car. She had been garrotted with a length of clothesline that was knotted around her neck, with two knots under her left ear. Her face was swollen and almost black, and her brown skirt was tangled around her hips and her yellow jacket twisted around her body. It was found that her killer had violently driven a 14 inch long, 1/2 inch thick, stick or tree branch into her vagina.
In some reports, the stick was also used to sodomise the victim. Some thirty-six hours before, Louise Springer had been reported missing by her husband. Working as a stylist at a beauty shop, she had finished work shortly before 9:00pm on the evening of June 13, and Laurence Springer had arrived to pick her up from work. He parked in a lot on Crenshaw, located just across the street from the shopping centre where his wife worked.
The Disappearance of Jean Spangler (August 1949)
On the evening of October 7, 1949, dancer, model, and part-actress Jean Spangler left her home in Los Angeles, telling her sister-in-law that she was going to meet with her ex-husband before going to work as an extra on a film set. Spangler was last seen alive at a grocery store several blocks from her home at approximately 6:00pm.
It wasn’t until two days later that police discovered Spangler’s tattered purse was discovered in a remote area of Griffith Park, approximately 5.5 miles from her home. Inside was found a letter addressed to an unknown person. It read: “Kirk: Can’t wait any longer, going to see Dr. Scott. It will work best this way wile mother is away.”
Because she had recently worked on the film Young Man with a Horn starring Kirk Douglas, he called police to clear his name, telling them he was in Palm Springs at the time, which police accepted. Douglas denied that he knew Spangler, however later, when interviewed via telephone by the head of the investigating team, Douglas admitted that he had “talked and kidded with her a bit” on set, but that he had never spent time with her outside of the film production.
He gave a formal press statement on October 12, 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… 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.” Although she had told her sister-in-law she was going to meet with her ex-husband and then work on a film set, detectives asked her ex Dexter Benner, he told them he had not seen her for several weeks.
The Disappearance of Mimi Boombauer (August 1949) “The Happy Widow Murder”
On the night of August 18, 1949, 48-year-old Mimi Boomhower had arranged to meet her friend, Stella Hunter, for a night out. However, she cancelled due to a business meeting and instead went alone to several Hollywood nightclubs. That night Mimi vanished, her whereabouts a complete mystery. Known as ‘fun loving Mimi’ to her friends, the widowed Mrs. Boomhower’s late husband had died some ten years ago, and she lived alone at the couples upmarket home, a Spanish style mansion in the middle of Bel-Air.
With her money dwindling, she began to pawn items to keep up the façade of the previous life she enjoyed with her husband, Novice E. Bloomhower, a linoleum magnate and big game hunter, wealthy and a social gadabout, who always made sure his wife wore large diamonds on her fingers. When police searched her home they found an uneaten salad at her table, with the lights left on and her front door open, while her car was still in the garage. The last person who had spoken with Mimi was a friend who telephoned on August 18, between 7:00pm and 8:00pm, to discuss and approaching social event.