Welcome to Tell-Tale Crimes, the crime column of the QC. Tell-Tale Crimes will aim to provide a look at both local and national crimes and cases that are sometimes interesting, sometimes relevant, and sometimes both, from perspective of a true crime enthusiast.
Trigger warning: this piece contains mentions of murder, mutilation, assault, incest, and sexual assault.
I imagine Betty Bersinger looked quite spiffy walking her young daughter down the street on that morning of Jan. 15, 1947. According to blackdahlia.web.unc.edu, Bersinger had taken her daughter out that morning to get her shoes repaired. What she probably did not expect was the white figure laying in one of the lots, close to the sidewalk. Due to the figure’s positioning, she at first believed it to be a mannequin that someone had tossed. But why would someone toss a mannequin there, on the side of the street? And why would a mannequin be cut in half?
It was not a mannequin.
What Bersinger and her daughter discovered was the body of a young woman later dubbed “The Black Dahlia” by the press due to a recent film noir that had come out called The Blue Dahlia. The L.A. Police Department (LAPD) was on the scene in a matter of minutes. The woman was lying on her back with her arms sprawled above her shoulders. Her legs were spread and twisted outwards, and cuts and mutilation were found across her body. The edges of her mouth had cuts that reached to each ear. She had been bisected just above the waist, and there was a complete absence of blood at the crime scene, indicating that she had been killed somewhere else.
According to the FBI, the woman’s fingerprints were taken, and, within 56 minutes, she was identified as Elizabeth Short, a 22-year-old woman from Massachusetts. Her fingerprints were in the system due to a previous job at Camp Cooke and an arrest in Santa Barbara for underage drinking. She had been missing since the afternoon of Jan. 9 of that same year.
Born July 29, 1924 in Hyde Park, Mass., Short had always loved acting, and would put on plays and performances with her friends. She was a striking woman with a cheerful personality according to those who knew her, and several friends commented on her captivating “walk,” according to blackdahlia.web.unc.edu. Once the Great Depression hit, her father faked his suicide and left Short, her mother, and the rest of her siblings behind. Later, her father reached out to the family and revealed that he was living in California.
He offered to let Short move in with him in 1942; however, he kicked her out after some time because he did not approve of her lifestyle of dating and partying. She continued to live in the city with friends and beaus. Short left on Dec. 8, 1946 on a bus to San Diego. According to a friend she was staying with, Short had been crying and saying that she “had to get out of there.” She spent some time in San Diego with a man named Robert Manley, who claims that his relationship with Short was never physical, and that the feelings of attraction between them were mutual. Short eventually told Manley that she wanted to return to Massachusetts, but needed to meet with her sister in L.A. first. Manley dropped Short off at the Biltmore Hotel, and was the last person to see her alive.
Once Short was identified, a reporter from The Herald-Express was tasked with finding her mother. The reporter, Wayne Sutton, was told that once he found Short’s mother, Phoebe Short, he was to tell her that her daughter had been murdered. However, Sutton was apparently a man of very little morals and wanted more information on Short, and he knew that Mrs. Short would not be very willing to divulge information once she learned that her daughter had been brutally murdered. So, Sutton came up with a plan: tell Mrs. Short that her daughter had won a beauty contest and that he had been sent to learn more about the winner. Of course, Mrs. Short was very willing to sing praises of her daughter. Once Sutton told her that her daughter had actually been murdered, though, she did not believe him. The LAPD had to contact local police to come out and give Mrs. Short the news officially.
There are many suspects in the Black Dahlia case — 22, currently — most notably Dr. George Hodel. Hodel had the medical expertise to bisect and exsanguinate Short so cleanly, and he was already on the police’s radar for accusations of him molesting his 14-year-old daughter and, later, being under suspicion of murdering his secretary. He is also one of the main subjects in a TNT miniseries I am the Night, based off of a book by Dr. Hodel’s granddaughter, Fauna. However, I would like to discuss a suspect that I find more compelling.
Leslie Dillon was a 27-year-old aspiring writer and previously worked as a mortician’s assistant. He had lived in California, but contacted the LAPD psychiatrist J. Paul De River from Florida, where he expressed interest in the case and wanted to discuss it further with De River. De River began to suspect that Dillon was involved in the murder. However, Dillon never confessed; he claimed that his friend, Jeff Connors, had killed Short. De River and Dillon continued to correspond, and, eventually, De River believed that Connors was not real, and that Dillon was just discussing himself the entire time. De River and Dillon arranged to meet, and De River interrogated Dillon further on the matter. He asked questions posed in the third person, such as “What do you think the killer did with . . .” and Dillon answered in third person, as well. As some of you may know, this is a technique that journalist Stephen Michaud used when interviewing Ted Bundy. Dillon was illegally detained by police and interrogated further, but they eventually lost interest in him as a suspect. He later sued the LAPD for the wrongful arrest, but the suit was dropped when the LAPD discovered he was wanted by the Santa Monica Police after he stole from a hotel he was working at, according to blackdahlia.web.unc.edu.
Personally, out of all of the suspects that I have researched, I find Leslie Dillon the most compelling. However, I have not done nearly as much research into this case as others have, and I encourage you to do your own research, if you’re interested. The Black Dahlia murder has never been solved, and I’m not sure if it will ever be, but maybe you can change that.