Former LAPD detective and prolific true-crime author Steve Hodel has pursued the Black Dahlia murder for years. The trail to that gruesome 1947 killing led him to investigate other famous crimes, such as Lipstick Murders and Zodiac Killings. The darkest of dark truths that he has emerged is that the prime suspect in all of these killings was his own father, George Hodel. A recent miniseries, I Am the Night, played fast and loose with his family’s history. Steve Hodel sets the record straight to Zack Kopp.

With the publication of Black Dahlia Avenger in 2003, former LAPD detective Steve Hodel joined the odd club of authors accusing their late fathers of having committed famous unsolved murders. According to Steve, his father, Dr. George Hill Hodel, Jr., was the murderer of Elizabeth Short, the “Black Dahlia”—whose surgically bisected, grotesquely poised corpse was found on Norton Avenue in Los Angeles in 1947—and the perpetrator of a number of other famous unsolved homicidal sprees, including the Lipstick Murders and Zodiac killings. Whether or not he killed anyone, George Hodel—a devoted Surrealist who lived in the Sowden House, designed by Lloyd Wright (son of Frank Lloyd) to resemble a Mayan temple—was tried for raping his teenage daughter, Tamar, in 1949.

In their book, Exquisite Corpse: Surrealism and the Black Dahlia Murder, Mark Nelson and Sarah Hudson Bayliss wrote, “During the trial that followed, two people who had been in the room confirmed seeing Hodel having sex with her. The artist Fred Sexton, a friend of Hodel’s from the time they were teenagers, also testified that he was present and attempted intercourse with Tamar.” (Fred Sexton was an American artist who created the Maltese Falcon prop for the 1941 Warner Bros. film by that name. He died in 1995).

Dr. George Hill Hodel at Franklin Sowden House 1949

Tamar’s unplanned daughter the following year, Fauna, was given away to be raised by a black family, one likely purpose being to distance George from unfounded accusations of being the parent, considering his recent trial.

Steve Hodel said, “To be clear, there was no conviction. George Hodel’s high-powered attorney, Jerry Giesler, was able to paint my 14-year-old half-sister Tamar with a ‘pathological liar’ brush and after a three-week trial, the jury found George Hodel ‘not guilty.’ (Later, secret police reports discovered 50 years after the trial indicated a possible $15,000 payoff to the DA’s Office to gain the acquittal.) The 1947 trial was never really discussed at home, and I would not learn the details until after my father’s death in 1999 during in-depth interviews with Tamar. (Tamar and I had less than an hour’s conversation in the preceding 45 years as each of us had gone our separate ways, with practically no contact as adults.)”

“I never ‘looked at’ any of these crimes before my father’s death, period.  I didn’t even know the ‘Black Dahlia”s real name, and had never head of Chicago’s ‘Lipstick Killer’, nor Manila’s ‘Jigsaw Murder’,” he said.


As a trained investigator, Hodel has spent years compiling evidence connecting his father not only to the Black Dahlia killing, but to the Lipstick Murders of 1946, the Zodiac killings in Northern California from at least the late 1960s to the early 1970s, and others.


 

Fauna’s story is at the heart of a suppressed film based on her memoir One Day She’ll Darken, and the recent miniseries I Am the Night implicating George Hodel for Elizabeth Short’s murder as a fulfillment of the Surrealist credo that there is no difference between dreams and life. Hodel’s status as a “Hollywood doctor” spared him any penalty in that circumstance—”despite the fact that he taught [Tamar] how to perform oral sex at eleven, had sex with her at fourteen in the presence of three other adults, and branded her a liar the rest of her life,” writes Steve Hodel. According to Steve, the same level of prestige, three years earlier, gave his father a pass in the case of Elizabeth Short’s murder, for which he was chief suspect, according to police records.

“The TNT miniseries [I Am the Night] diverged from reality in every way,” complains Hodel. “I had no personal involvement in the production and was unaware of the making of the series or its existence until seeing a trailer a month before its airing on television. While admittedly I did not see the series and have not as of this writing, I do know that it is 95% fiction. My niece, Fauna Hodel, never met my father, George Hodel, in life nor was she ever inside the Sowden/Franklin House until long after my father’s death in 1999. Further, she had no awareness of my father’s connection to the Black Dahlia murder until after the publication of my book, Black Dahlia Avenger in 2003, which detailed his life and crimes. (The only information she could have obtained from her mother was what Tamar told me after our father’s death. That being, ‘The police told me he was a suspect in the Black Dahlia murder, but I’m sure he didn’t do it.’) None of the scenes portrayed in the film were accurate — all fiction.”

As a work of fiction, I Am the Night is plausible. It is believable that a particular strange-looking home in Hollywood was full of Surrealist art and nonstop taboo flouting—as apparently did happen once in a while. But for Steve Hodel, as a near insider to the life those shows were based on, there are unending shortfalls to cite.

Elizabeth Short 1946

“George Hodel sold the residence in 1950 and fled the country just before his imminent arrest by DA investigators for the murder of Elizabeth ‘Black Dahlia’ Short. There were no secret rooms in the Franklin House as shown in the television version. There was no surreal artwork displayed at the residence as portrayed in several scenes. The miniseries suggested or hinted at the possibility that Fauna Hodel might be his daughter and his granddaughter, taking a scene right out of Chinatown. Not so. At the time of the filming TNT had DNA evidence and knowledge that George Hodel had been eliminated as being Fauna’s father but chose to keep this information secret from the public.”

“George Hodel’s psychopathology and crime signatures as connected to ‘Murder as a Fine Art’ were unknown to the Hodel family and not discovered by me until 2002, which was three years after his death and several years into my active criminal investigation.”

Whether or not his father was guilty of serial murder, Steve is revered by family members for his honesty, never mind all the police skills. He has one of the more interesting family histories I can think of. His appearance in the accompanying podcast Root of Evil, co-produced by Fauna’s daughters, his great nieces, Rasha and Yvette, provides a counterbalancing shot of realism to offset the fictionalization of his father in I am The Night. Listening to Tamar’s children recount being passed around as sexual favors at parties she threw, is painful—the legacy of abuse inculcated in Tamar by her father repeated in the serial abuse of her own offspring. This excellent production has multiple episodes and is highly recommended to anyone interested in sharing in a multi-generational familial perspective on one of the most famous murders in American history.

As a trained investigator, Hodel has spent years compiling evidence connecting his father not only to the Black Dahlia killing, but to the Lipstick Murders of 1946, the Zodiac killings in Northern California from at least the late 1960s to the early 1970s, and others.

George Hodel was friends with the surrealist artist Man Ray, so it begs the question: Did he ever speak with Ray about how Elizabeth Short’s body had seemingly been positioned in imitation of Ray’s 1934 photomontage The Minotaur? In Ray’s work, a woman’s breasts are the creature’s eyes, her torso the rest of its face, and her upheld arms are the horns, an arrangement not dissimilar to how police detectives found Short’s mutilated body in 1947. Had George Hodel ever talked about other crime sprees with his fellow Surrealists—like the Lipstick Murders in Chicago, of which Robert Heirens was convicted, resulting in his imprisonment from 1946 until his death in 2012, or the Zodiac killings in Northern California?

1974 Zodiac rendition by artist 1970

“It is my belief that George Hodel worked alone,” says Steve Hodel. “With the exception of Fred Sexton as an accomplice in Los Angeles and probably in the January 1946 child abduction murder of little Suzanne Degnan. Were others involved?  Was it a real-life game of Exquisite Corpse where several ‘artists’ contributed to the extended torture, force-feeding of feces, and sexual assault along with the markings/cuttings on the body? A sadistic scene taken right from the pages of the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom, or the School of Libertinage? Possibly, but I tend to believe it was two individuals: Dr. George Hodel and Fred Sexton. My sense is that he presented himself to Man Ray, his wife Juliet and fellow surrealist artist, Edmund Teske, as a sort of patron and kindred spirit. Welcoming them into his grand Mayan Temple (The Sowden House) as their intellectual and kindred spirit. “Here, man, have some more wine and let’s examine the subtleties of Breton’s 1924 Manifesto.”

In a book called The Ultimate Evil, Maury Terry makes a convincing case that a Manson appointee, possibly Bruce Davis, had been responsible for the Zodiac killings at the behest of the Process Church. Was there any truth to that?

“With the exception of Fred Sexton as an accomplice in some of the LA Lone Woman Murders and the Chicago ‘Lipstick Murder’ of little Suzanne Degnan, it is my belief that my father’s crimes were committed by himself as ‘lone wolf’ type murders. I have found no indications of collaboration with or communication of these crimes with any other individual in Manila, Riverside or in the San Francisco Bay Area as Zodiac.  The only sharing of his crimes that I am aware of was his dramatic written taunts and admissions to the press and police through his public personas, as: ‘Black Dahlia Avenger’, ‘Lipstick Killer’, and ‘Zodiac’,” says Hodel.


In a book called The Ultimate Evil, Maury Terry makes a convincing case that a Manson appointee, possibly Bruce Davis, had been responsible for the Zodiac killings at the behest of the Process Church.


As regards the Black Dahlia, “We know hours before her murder, she was seen exiting a downtown bar with ‘Two men and a woman.’ I believe the two men were George Hodel and Fred Sexton, and the woman remains unidentified. I believe that Sexton was most probably involved in the torture/murder at Dr. Hodel’s Sowden/Franklin House just eight hours later.”

George Hodel is on tape equivocating about possibly having committed the crime, and multiple circumstances make him an extremely likely candidate. Retired District attorney Steven Kay, who worked on the Manson Family murder case, pronounced the case solved by Hodel’s investigation, as far as he was concerned. Crime novelist James Ellroy noted the poetic justice inherent in this evil madman’s son growing up to be a homicide investigator and exposing his father’s misdeeds before contractual obligations—something about them wanting to market it as an unsolved case, thus more suspenseful, a better sale—compelled him to walk back his comments.


We know hours before her murder, she was seen exiting a downtown bar with ‘Two men and a woman.’ I believe the two men were George Hodel and Fred Sexton, and the woman remains unidentified.


In Most Evil, Steve Hodel writes, “Tamar’s best friend, Michelle Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas, remembers opening a hotel room door in San Francisco in 1967 and seeing George for the first time. ‘I almost fainted,’ she said. ‘The aura of evil he gave off was so strong and palpable, it almost knocked me off my feet. That’s the first time anything like that has ever happened to me.”

If Steve Hodel is right, several of the most gruesome, theatrical series of killings in the United States (and Manila) in the last century were committed by one driven iconoclast inspired by Andre Breton and his precedents. George Hodel was potentially in the vicinity of all the killings Steve has accused him of, in all the different locations, has been verified. As to whether he looked for these murders before or after researching his father’s whereabouts at any time is anyone’s guess. For that matter, butchers might know how to avoid bones when they cut, too (not just surgeons).

Anyone can be made to look guilty, but Steve’s conviction of his late father’s murderous nature is founded on a son’s familiarity plus professional training as a homicide detective. Unfortunately, there’s still no DNA-grade proof, notwithstanding all the indicators.

Steve’s niece, Fauna, his sister Tamar’s daughter, passed away from breast cancer at the age of 66 on September 30, 2017. “I only met Fauna on two or maybe three occasions,” he says. “Each time our visit was no more than an hour or two. I never really knew her.” As to whether or not George made it known to any of his artistic confederates that he’d rendered the Black Dahlia murder and other noticeably surrealistic killing sprees like the Lipstick Murders, Steve replies he would not be privy to such knowledge.


Retired District attorney Steven Kay, who worked on the Manson Family murder case, pronounced the case solved by Hodel’s investigation, as far as he was concerned


“However, it is made clear that, post-Black Dahlia murder (1947), at least five of his fellow surrealists learned of his crimes and each expressed that knowledge in their artwork. I believe that his close friend and surrealist artist, Fred Sexton was his accomplice in at a minimum of four of George Hodel’s previous murders. Those were the 1938 West Texas kidnap/torture murders of Hazel and Nancy Frome, as presented in my recently published book, In The Mesquite (2019). Followed by the 1946 kidnap/Jack the Ripper type murder of little Suzanne Degnan in Chicago as ‘The Lipstick Murderer’. [I believe Sexton was also] an accomplice in the 1947 abduction/torture-murder of Elizabeth ‘Black Dahlia’ Short, which was followed three weeks later by the 1947 LA Lone Murder kidnap/stomping death of Jeanne French, aka ‘The Red Lipstick Murder.’”

LAPD bulletin requesting info on Elizabeth Short

Whether or not he ever commented on the distinctly surrealistic nature of the crimes he’s allegedly guilty of—things like the demonstrative use of lipstick, hooded costumes decorated with strange symbols—with his fellow surrealists or anyone else, let alone assumed responsibility, George clearly made an impression on his contemporaries. Says Steve, “I expect he would have had some communication with Fred Sexton as they both lived for another 50 years after the Dahlia murder. We do have documentation (copies of letters) that George Hodel sent to Juliet Man Ray in the mid-to-late 1980s. In those letters, he mentions presenting her with a drawing, by Filipino artist Fernando Modesto whom George had commissioned. The drawing was an erotic interpretation of Man Ray’s ‘The Lovers Lips.’ Included in this drawing were several male phallus and female vaginas. (Apparently, George attempted to meet with Juliet in Paris and was unsuccessful, but did leave a Modesto drawing at her residence, which she later acknowledged receiving).”


Tamar’s best friend, Michelle Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas, remembers opening a hotel room door in San Francisco in 1967 and seeing George for the first time. ‘I almost fainted,’ she said. ‘The aura of evil he gave off was so strong and palpable, it almost knocked me off my feet. That’s the first time anything like that has ever happened to me.”


Life imitates art. Art imitates murder. Collaborators or not, according to Steve, “After the 1947 Black Dahlia murder, it became obvious that many in George Hodel’s ‘inner circle’ learned of his crime and I believe that his fellow surrealists viewed that crime as Dr. Hodel’s still death Surreal Masterpiece.  His own ‘Exquisite Corpse,’ if you will. As documented in my writings, I believe his fellow artists’ each individually acknowledged the crime in their later artworks. Here are those acknowledgments as they appeared chronologically in the decades to follow:

 

  1. Fred Sexton’s painting “The Death of Monalita” (1955)
  2. William Copley’s painting, “It is Midnight Dr. ____.”(1961)
  3. Man Ray’s Lithograph “Les Invendables”  (1969)
  4. Marcel Duchamp’s “Etant Donnes” (1969).”

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