Scene of the Crime
For a visual history of Los Angeles’ most famous and infamous crimes, you’d be hard-pressed to find anything better than Scene of the Crime: Photographs from the L.A.P.D. Archive. The book (which has an excellent introduction by James Ellroy) is a collection of over one hundred L.A.P.D crime scene photographs taken from the 1920s to the1970s: the graphic and haunting photographs from cases such as the Black Dahlia, the murder of the Two Tonys, the Onion Field killing and ransom notes from the Symbionese Liberation Army are included. Perhaps more moving than the images from these famous cases are the pictures of crimes that happen everyday. There’s one of a beaten woman. Her face looks slightly away from the camera as though unsuccessfully trying to hide her wounds. A man is hanging from an unseen ceiling beam. Why did he commit suicide? The image will haunt you more for not knowing.
If you can’t get your hands on the book right away, take a look at some photographs of historic crime scenes that I took on a recent research trip to L.A.
On January 15th, 1947 the tortured, severed body of a Miss Elizabeth Short was found at Leimert Park, 39th and Norton, in L.A. Miss Short was dubbed the ‘Black Dahlia’ by the press, most likely due to her black hair and the black clothing she often wore. The ‘Black Dahlia’ case is still officially unsolved, and it is the most publicized case in L.A.P.D history. At the time, the area where her body was dumped consisted mostly of vacant lots, now, like the demographics of L.A., it has changed irrevocably and become part of the city’s wealthy suburbs— a fact alluded to in John Gregory Dunne’s excellent novel based on the Dahlia case, True Confessions. In Dunne’s novel, the prologue is first person narration by Detective Tom Spellacy. Spellacy’s words are both racist and strangely elegiac about the changing face of L.A.
Anyway. 39th and Norton two weeks ago. It’s a Jap neighbourhood now, Jap and middle-class colored. No empty lots, no bungalows, no Hudson Terraplane. The Neighbourhood Association has put up streetlamps that look like gaslights and there are topiary trees and over on Crenshaw there’s a Honda dealer and a Kawasaki dealer and Subaru and Datsun and Toyota dealers. The colored all have Jap gardeners and the Japs have colored cleaning ladies, and right where Frank Crotty said, “You don’t often see a pair of titties as nice as that,” there’s this Jap-style house and just about on the spot where we found Lois Fazenda’s bottom half, this Jap family has put up one of those cast-iron nigger jockeys.
Son of a bitch if they haven’t.
June 22nd 1958, El Monte, California, the body of Geneva Hilliker was discovered by some kids playing baseball. The body was lying face down in an ivy patch on a road beside the playing field of Arroyo High School. She had been strangled with a thin white cord and her own nylon stocking. The case is still unsolved. Her son James Ellroy was merely ten years old at the time. Unlike 39th and Norton, the crime scene has barely changed with the passing of time, although much of the ivy is now gone. In 1994, Ellroy (now the legendary Demon Dog of Crime Fiction and the author of The Black Dahlia) would reopen the case with Bill Stoner a retired homicide detective from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. The subsequent reinvestigation is the basis of Ellroy’s book My Dark Places.
Arroyo High School gained another footnote in crime history when in 1969 a recently graduated student, Steven Earl Parent, became one of the victims of the Charles Manson Family. My thanks to the indispensable local resident Ronda Logan for her help in El-Monte.
Read my follow-up post, Ellroy in LA.