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Black Dahlia Confidential

Is LA's Most Famous Murder Mystery Solved? James Ellroy Thinks So

This story originally aired on Nov. 27, 2004.

To crime writer James Ellroy, the brief life and horrific death of aspiring actress Elizabeth Short is a classic American tragedy, known as the Black Dahlia case.

"She's a ghost and a blank page to record our fears and desires," says Ellroy. "A post-war Mona Lisa, an L.A. quintessential."

The Black Dahlia case is the most famous unsolved murder in Los Angeles history. It involves a beautiful young victim and a cunning psychopathic killer. It's a real-life mystery that's inspired countless moviemakers and writers from "Double Indemnity," "Chinatown" and "L.A. Confidential."

Even the nickname, "Black Dahlia," is straight out of the movies. The Blue Dahlia was a nightclub in a 1946 crime film. Newspapers adapted the title to fit the Short murder case - and the "Black Dahlia" legend was born.

The mystery behind the legend continues to inspire great storytellers. This fall, director Brian De Palma, and a cast that includes Hilary Swank, Scarlett Johansson and Josh Hartnett, once again brings the twisted case of The Black Dahlia to the big screen.

"The question always - how does something like that, how does that beautiful girl, we see pin-up shots of, become this and who that too her and why. It's one of those mysteries that will go on forever," says De Palma.

"It's the great L.A. murder," says Ellroy. "And L.A. has had some doozies."

Correspondent Erin Moriarty reports on a story about love and loneliness, murder and madness, all played out in Los Angeles.

Steve Hodel was just five years old when Elizabeth Short was murdered. As a cop, he worked the same Hollywood streets Short once knew.

"I had lots of murders where you had young runaways, and within weeks they'd have a needle in their arm and they'd be doing tricks on Hollywood Blvd.," says Steve, who investigated 300 murders over more than 17 years.

To Hodel, the Black Dahlia case was just another cold case. But after he retired, the case would come back to haunt him. "The upper torso was juxtaposed just off to the left, about 12 inches," he says. "The killer was sure that it would be found fairly quickly, as it was. Clearly, he wasn't trying to hide it. He wanted the notoriety."

And the killer got what he wanted. For weeks, a terrified city watched as the search for the Black Dahlia killer unfolded. There were dozens of false confessions, and hundreds of other suspects questioned and cleared. The killer even wrote letters taunting the police and sent Short's personal address book to a local newspaper.

After the biggest manhunt in L.A. history, the murder was officially listed as unsolved. And it's stayed that way for nearly 60 years.

Short was a vibrant young woman from the working-class neighborhood of Medford, Mass., outside Boston. She was growing up in a dark time, during the height of the Depression.

Post-war Los Angeles was a boomtown, overrun with ex-servicemen, star-struck wannabes and hustlers. It was a place where pretty faces were a dime a dozen and life could be tough. Short became a Hollywood hanger-on, going out on the town each night, usually with a different guy.

Her last night alive was Jan. 14, 1947. "It's a Wonderful Life" was playing at Hollywood's Pantages Theater. Around dawn the next day, a mysterious black car was seen in the spot where Short's body was later found. It was a black car very similar to the 1936 Packard owned by Steve Hodel's father, Dr. George Hodel.

George Hodel was a brilliant man, with an IQ of 186, and a child musical prodigy. After a stint as a newspaper reporter at 16, he sailed through medical school, studying surgery. He settled in Los Angeles, running the county's venereal disease clinic, where it was rumored that he treated some of L.A.'s top brass.