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The Murder of Jean Ellroy – The Search for Answers

April 16, 2022

Take a look at the photograph below. It was taken in the late-1950s and is quite suggestive by the standards of the time. The woman in the picture is Jean Ellroy. The man she is in a passionate clinch with has never been identified.

And on the night this photo was taken, a serious crime took place.

Jean Ellroy and an unidentified man

Jean Ellroy

Jean was born in Tunnel City, Wisconsin in 1915 to Earle and Jessie Hilliker. The family moved to Tomah, WI, in 1930. Jean finished high school in 1934 and moved to Chicago to study Nursing at West Suburban College. Jean graduated from West Suburban in 1937. She first visited Los Angeles after winning a beauty contest in December 1938. Shortly thereafter, she moved to LA and had a brief and mysterious marriage. Jean’s family never met her husband and knew him only as ‘the Spalding Man’. Jean was good at keeping secrets. She married ‘the Spalding Man’ in Yuma County in November 1940, and it quickly ended in annulment or divorce. It wasn’t until March 2020 that it was revealed, on this website, that Jean’s first husband was the real-estate heir Easton Ewing Spaulding.

Jean married Armand Ellroy in August 1947. Armand was a non-certified accountant and minor Hollywood player. They had been living together for several years prior to their marriage while waiting for Armand’s divorce from his first wife to come through, and Jean was two months pregnant on her wedding day. A botched abortion, several years earlier, had perhaps made Jean think she was unlikely to conceive again. Jean and Armand’s son, Lee Earle Ellroy, was born on March 4, 1948. As an adult, Lee would change his name to James Ellroy and go on to become the greatest crime novelist of his generation. But let’s keep the story with Jean for the time being.

Titian Red, the Dishwater Blonde and the Swarthy Man

Jean and Armand divorced in 1956. Jean moved with Lee to El Monte in 1958. On Sunday morning, June 22 1958, Jean Ellroy’s corpse was discovered outside of Arroyo High School in El Monte. She had been beaten and strangled to death. The previous evening Jean had been seen wearing a ‘navy blue duster dress’ in the company of a man, who due to his olive complexion and dark hair would later be dubbed ‘the Swarthy Man’, at the Desert Inn in El Monte. Several witnesses remarked on Jean’s beauty and described her hair as Titian Red. The Swarthy Man was less attractive. He had an extremely thin jaw. One witness remarked ‘you might think he had no teeth until you saw him smile’. Only one witness recalled speaking to him. The Swarthy Man had asked for ‘just coffee’ in a flat voice. Nevertheless, Jean seemed to be happy and relaxed in his presence. The man folded Jean’s coat and pulled back her chair. He knew how to behave like a gentleman in public, albeit in a brooding fashion. A ‘dishwater blonde’ woman was accompanying Jean and the Swarthy Man at the Desert Inn. The same night Jean visited Stan’s Drive-In twice with the Swarthy Man, sans blonde woman.

Neither the Swarthy Man nor the blonde woman were ever identified and the police were unable to solve the murder. Decades later, James Ellroy exhaustively re-investigated his mother’s murder with the help of retired LASD detective Bill Stoner, which he chronicled in his memoir My Dark Places. The murder of Jean Ellroy has been the subject of much speculation and theorising. In this article, I will present an overview of the various theories regarding Jean’s murder and then, tentatively, proffer one of my own.

Jean Ellroy

Profile of a Killer

In My Dark Places, Ellroy writes ‘A Desert Inn witness called my mother’s male companion a Mexican. The fact surprised me. Jean Ellroy was right-wing and obsessed with appearances. I couldn’t see her out in public with a cholo.’ Ellroy’s attitude here might seem surprising, especially as at one point in his memoir he appears to be unfazed by the suggestion that his mother had a lesbian fling at college. You have to take into account social attitudes of the 1950s. Latino stars such as Ricardo Montalban and Desi Arnaz were married to white women but, outside of Hollywood, for a single mother like Jean to be dating a Mexican might have opened her up to judgment. Of course, assigning ethnicity to the Swarthy Man just on the basis of his skin tone is fraught with risk. Another witness said the Swarthy Man ‘looked like he might be of Greek or Italian extraction.’ Rereading the witness statements, it’s humorous to note that in 1958 people were as prone to tie themselves in knots talking about race as they are today. One witness said, ‘His tan was, seemed like he wasn’t dark enough to be a Mexican. ‘Course, I know there’s lots of light ones, but-‘

Just as the Swarthy Man’s identity has remained elusive, so too has that of the Blonde woman. If the police had been able to locate the Blonde then they would have almost certainly cracked the case. According to Ellroy, Armand’s theory was that ‘my mother balked at a three-way with the Blonde and the Dark Man’. It might seem fanciful, but then why did the Blonde never come forward. Was she scared or in hock to the Swarthy Man in some way? The last time Jean was seen alive was her second appearance at Stan’s Drive-In with the Swarthy Man in the early hours of June 22. The carhop, Lavonne Chambers, noticed that Jean now looked dishevelled, as opposed to her earlier neat appearance, as though she had been ‘necking’ with her male companion. Chambers observed ‘they didn’t seem overly friendly together.’

Naturally, the young Ellroy was influenced by his father’s views on Jean’s murder. And for the next thirty years or so, he broadly believed Armand’s theory. He was certain that the Swarthy Man had not killed again after he murdered Jean. He was under the impression that Jean had not been raped. Even when he began his re-investigation and read the autopsy report that Jean had sexual intercourse on the night she was killed, Ellroy still wanted to believe it was consensual. He thought the Swarthy Man had killed her after sex as Jean was drunk and clingy. He wanted to ditch her and move on. Bill Stoner told him this was implausible. He surmised that Jean had resisted sex all evening, although may have indulged in some heavy petting, which lead to a slowly creeping rage in the Swarthy Man. He drives her by Arroyo High School as ‘he decided that the evening wasn’t over for him’ and demands sex one last time. Jean refuses, at which point the Swarthy Man beats her, rapes her and then strangles her to death. Jean had been on her period. The coroner ‘found a tampon at the rear of the vaginal vault’. Ellroy came round to the view that his mother’s murder was a ‘date rape that went bad’.

I took this photo on a visit to El Monte in 2009. It is near the spot where Jean’s corpse was discovered outside of Arroyo High School.

Having killed Jean, what would the Swarthy Man do next? He probably spent the next few months living in abject fear which slowly evolved into relieved shock. So many people had seen him that night and yet the police never came knocking at his door. If Lavonne Chambers had noted the licence plate number on the Swarthy Man’s ‘dark green oldsmobile’, as she was under instruction to do from her employers to deter customers from leaving without paying, then he would have been arrested the following day. The Swarthy Man was lucky, but he wasn’t a criminal genius. Did he kill again? Stoner certainly thought it was possible after he dug up the file on the unsolved murder of Elspeth ‘Bobbie’ Long, a woman who was killed four miles from El Monte, shortly after Jean’s murder and in very similar circumstances.

Stoner commissioned Carlos Avila, a former colleague of his turned Criminal Investigative Profiler, to compile a psychological profile of the Swarthy Man. Avila concluded that ‘unless the offender was arrested and incarcerated for some extended period of time, we would expect the offender to continue killing, if not in this state, in others.’ Avila differed from Stoner’s theory in one important respect. He felt that the sex had been consensual, ‘Whatever circumstances triggered the offender’s anger occurred after the victim reinserted the tampon.’ Had Jean belittled the Swarthy Man’s sexual prowess? Lavonne Chambers noticed Jean had been wearing a pearl ring on her wedding finger, ‘It was an enormous pearl, it was so big… It looked like it went all the way around, because I could see the big part of the pearl.’ When detectives were examining Jean’s corpse they noticed she was wearing ‘a fake-pearl ring on the third finger’. Was the ring a gift from the Swarthy Man and had Jean been idly switching it from one finger to the next? Perhaps the killer moved the ring.

As Ellroy’s father had influenced his views on his mother’s murder, it’s worth examining where exactly Armand fits into theories regarding Jean’s murder. On paper, he appeared to be the perfect suspect. His divorce from Jean had been rancorous. Court records show that he had stalked her. On one occasion he peered through her window and watched her having sex with a man. Years later, when Ellroy discovered the level of abuse his father had inflicted on Jean he wrote, ‘I knew how she came to King’s Row (in El Monte).’ Jean’s sister Leoda ‘thought my father killed my mother. My father got a kick out of the notion. He told me Leoda suspected him from the start.’ Armand lied in his police interview, ‘He told them they met in ’39 and got married in ’40. They got divorced in ’54’ Jean and Armand married in 1947. The divorce was finalised in 1956. Jean married Easton Spaulding in 1940. She may have met Armand around the same time, and was juggling the two men. One was a real-estate heir and the other was a Hollywood fixer. Both of them must have appeared to be good prospects as a husband and, given their roles, would have been smooth talkers. Perhaps, given societal pressures at the time, Armand didn’t want to admit to the police that he had shacked with Jean for years before they married. But this was LA, not the Bible Belt. And the fact that he would lie about dates in a police interview is telling. It probably accounts for why there is no record of the police interviewing Spaulding.

However, we need to look at the evidence from the night Jean was murdered. Jean was on a date with the Swarthy Man and, at the time, she wasn’t on speaking terms with Armand. Witnesses put the Swarthy Man as being in his late thirties or forty, and Armand was twenty years older than that. Armand had a cast-iron alibi, his son, for the night Jean was killed. Leoda must have known this and probably believed that, although he didn’t murder Jean, Armand’s campaign of abuse had somehow psychically contributed to her death. Unless it was more concrete than that. What if the Swarthy Man had been hired by a third party? This seems unlikely. Romeo spies may be trained in the art of seduction, but it’s beyond implausible to think that a contract killer could have been paid to worm his way into the affections of an El Monte divorcee and then murder her. Ockam’s Razor suggests Jean’s murder really was just a ‘date rape that went bad’.

If Armand couldn’t have killed Jean then how about her first husband? This appears to be another dead-end. Easton Ewing Spaulding didn’t remotely resemble the Swarthy Man. Besides, there isn’t any evidence to suggest that Jean had any contact with Spaulding after their brief marriage in 1940. The fact that Jean’s marriage to Spaulding remained a mystery, even from her own family, for eighty years appears to have been just an adjunct puzzle to the main enigma. It was a mystery to the groom’s family as well. The Spaulding family is sprawling and distinguished (not to mention very helpful to me in my research), and Easton’s marriage to Jean is not recorded in their comprehensive family history The Spaulding Heritage.

Ellroy and Stoner identified a number of possible suspects (Jim ‘Boss’ Bennett, Will Lenard Miller and John LoPresti for example) to Jean’s murder. But upon investigating these leads, they were soon able to discount them. By the time you finish reading My Dark Places, you get the strong impression that no one who is named in the book could have been Jean’s killer. Outside of the several suspects mentioned in My Dark Places, the only other suspect who has been named in print is Fred Sexton. In the critically-lauded Black Dahlia Avenger, Steve Hodel identifies Sexton (an associate of Hodel’s father Dr George Hill Hodel, who is now the main suspect in the Black Dahlia murder) as a potential suspect in the murder of Jean Ellroy. However, Hodel has always stressed that this is only a possibility and there is no evidence that Jean and Sexton ever met.

So where does that leave the investigation?

Police Sketch of the Swarthy Man

The Identity of the Swarthy Man

Now I have to make a confession. You may have begun this article thinking the photo of Jean (at the top of the page) was taken in The Desert Inn on the night she was murdered. In fact, it was taken during Christmas 1957 while Jean was visiting Leoda in Madison, Wisconsin. The serious crime that took place that night was one of sexual molestation. In his memoir, The Hilliker Curse, Ellroy recalls that his mother went clubbing on New Year’s Eve with Leoda and her husband Ed and left him in the care of a German au pair who gave off ‘Hitler-Jugend vibes’. The woman molested Ellroy in an assault which culminated in her fellating him before he kicked her away and she ran from the room cursing in a ‘Kraut blue streak’. Ellroy may write about the assault in a flippant style, but I have spoken at length with him about it and his recall of the incident is vivid. Jean never knew it happened, but several years later Ellroy told his father. Armand ‘thought it was funny, because it was a girl doing it.’

While in Madison, Ed sold Jean a red-and-white Sedan and she used it to drive back to LA. Once they were back home, Jean broke the news to Lee that they were moving to El Monte. The Christmas trip seemed to harden her belief that she needed to move, perhaps after taking advice from her family. Six months later, Jean was dead.

This brings me to a final hypothesis. What if Jean met her killer on that Christmas trip to Madison? They hit it off and he said he would visit her in Southern California, perhaps as soon as he could get time off work in the Summer. They went on a date to Stan’s Drive-In and the Desert Inn, but Jean was resistant to sex. This infuriates the man, who has been fantasizing about sleeping with Jean for six months and has travelled across the country to do it. He rapes Jean and murders her and then leaves town. The police are unable to trace him as no one knew him in El Monte.

Before I get too carried away though, I am duty-bound to try and falsify my hypothesis. If Jean had met a man in Madison who wished to visit her, and who had the potential for violence, then why didn’t her family flag this to the police at the time? They were with her the night she went clubbing. The photo of Jean in the arms of another man is not unusual given the circumstances. She was recently divorced and had been dating several men. If the ‘Swarthy Man’ was Mexican then it seems more likely he was from one of the Southern Border States, rather than from Wisconsin.

Once again, the hypothesis doesn’t quite fit. We may never know who killed Jean Ellroy. Too much time has passed. The best we can do is shake the tree.

We owe her that.

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