Each and every year, countless are drawn to the bright lights of Los Angeles and Hollywood. With dreams of fame, people flock to the City of Angels for a chance to be the next big thing in movies or music. The glitz and glamour, fame and celebrity of LA is certainly a powerful siren call to a lot of people.
But there is a dark underbelly to LA that touches people, famous and non-famous alike. Sex, drugs, violence, and even murder can be found in as great, if not an even greater supply, than the celebrity so many people who flock to LA are seeking. Though you’d never know it, a lot of people do in fact, live and die in LA.
Sometimes, these deaths go unnoticed. Other times, they’re front page news for a day or so before fading away into obscurity in favor of the next flavor of the day. But still other times, the facts of a case are so fantastic, so outrageous, and so remarkable, they stick with us for years, even decades after they took place.
Let’s look then, at some of the most notorious deaths that have yet to be fully resolved in the history of the City of Angels…
10. Natalie Wood
Having built a very successful career after star turns in films like Rebel Without a Cause and West Side Story, 43-year old Natalie Wood’s life tragically ended November, 1981 – under very suspicious circumstances. Her body was found floating in a cove off Catalina Island on the morning of the 28th – after having been on a yacht just the night before with her husband, Robert Wagner, and her friend and co-star of her latest film, Brainstorm, Christopher Walken. Though initially ruled an accidental death by drowning, the yacht’s captain, Dennis Davern, came forward in 2011, telling authorities that he’d lied during the original investigation, and that there had been a ferocious fight between Wagner and Wood — possibly about an affair with Walken — the night before she died. The case has since been re-opened by the LAPD and that the cause of death on her death certificate has been amended to read, “drowning and other undetermined factors.” Though no arrest is imminent, and police are saying that neither Walken nor Wagner are suspects at this point, the investigation into Woods’ death is still open and active.
9. George Reeves
The life of the former star of the television incarnation of Superman, George Reeves, was a tragic one marked with dark bouts of depression for what he viewed as his “failed career,” and an inability to get the kind of movie roles he wanted. On the night of June 16th, 1959, Reeves’ suffering came to an end when a gunshot wound to the head took his life. Though the LAPD officially ruled Reeves’ death a suicide, many to this day continue to believe that Reeves was the victim of a homicide. It is believed that Reeves and Toni Mannix, the wife of an MGM executive, had been having an affair and that when Reeves ended their relationship, she had him killed. Another theory holds that it was Mannix’s husband, Eddie, that had Reeves killed. Though most believe that Reeves took his own life, many continue to point to the conflicting witness statements that seem to contradict one another, from people inside Reeves’ home the night of the incident, to an alleged confession by Mannix that she’d killed him, to a pile of alleged but officially unconfirmed evidence that seem to indicate Reeves’ death was anything but a suicide.
8. Johnny Stompanato
The boyfriend of screen siren Lana Turner, Johnny Stompanato was a gangster and an enforcer for the infamous Mickey Cohen. Reportedly, Stompanato regularly roughed up Turner and their relationship was marked by violent confrontations. That all ended in April 1958 though, when Stompanato was killed with a kitchen knife in Turner’s home. Officially, it was Turner’s 14-year old daughter, Cheryl Crane, who sought to protect her mother and stabbed the mobster to death. But rumors persist – fueled in large part by the fact that there were no fingerprints on the knife used to kill Stompanato – that it was in fact, Turner herself who did the deed. But knowing that the justice system would go a lot easier on a child, they let Crane take the fall. And the plan worked as Crane was found to have committed justifiable homicide, and both she and her mother were free – though Turner would be plagued by accusations of murder until her death in 1995.
7. Thelma Todd
Todd was a beautiful actress who found regular work in the 1920’s, starring in such hits as the Marx Brothers’, Horse Feathers and Monkey Business. She later opened a small but modestly successful restaurant called Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Cafe. However, in December 1935, Todd was found dead inside of her car just around the corner from her restaurant. Her death was considered an accidental carbon monoxide poisoning, but was later ruled a suicide due to the belief that she’d been experiencing some financial difficulties. But Todd had recently divorced a man she’d accused of spousal abuse, and some theorize that it was that man, Pat DiCicco who killed her and staged it to look like a suicide. Proponents of the murder theory point to alleged blood spatter left both on the car and on Todd’s face as evidence of foul play, rather than a suicide. But Todd was cremated and no autopsy was ever conducted so despite the strong belief among many that Todd was murdered, her case officially remains a suicide.
6. William Desmond Taylor
One of the most notorious murders in the history of Los Angeles was that of successful film director William Desmond Taylor. On the morning of February 2nd, 1922, his body was found in his apartment. He’d been shot in the back. Because he had a substantial amount of cash on his person, a two carat diamond ring, and assorted other expensive personal effects, robbery as a motive was ruled out. And given the fact that there was no sign of forced entry, most believe that Taylor knew his killer. Suspects ranged from his personal valets, to a young actress who had an unrequited crush on the director, to her mother, but nobody was ever arrested. Amid accusations of studio interference with the investigation – some claimed that details of Taylor’s life would be an indelible black mark on many studios and industry insiders, thus affecting their stockholders and cash flow – and the subsequent order to detectives to back off the case, Taylor’s actual killer was never found and the case remains open. Though, given the age of this one, it seems highly unlikely that his killer will ever be brought to justice.
5. Ronni Chasen
A very well known Hollywood publicist, Ronni Chasen had helped several films that she’d publicized win Academy Awards. Returning home from the premier of the film Burlesque in November 2010, Chasen was shot multiple times inside of her car where she died. Though police have theorized that Chasen was killed during a robbery, the fact that her purse and wallet remained behind seems to contradict that theory. Police eventually identified Harold Martin Smith as their main suspect, and when they showed up to serve a search warrant on his apartment, Smith shot and killed himself – with the same gun that had been used to kill Chasen. Smith had earlier bragged to friends that he’d been paid $10,000 dollars to kill Chasen, but with his suicide, police were left with no clues as to who might have hired him to kill the publicist and why.
4. Christa Helm
Before there was Paris Hilton, there was Christa Helm. She was a Hollywood socialite, party girl, and wannabe actress, who enjoyed getting together and spending the night with some of the industry’s power players – all in a vain attempt to catch her big break. In February 1977 though, Helm was beaten and stabbed to death outside of her agent’s home in West Hollywood. The police were never able to develop any solid leads and Helms’ killer remained free and undetected. It is believed though, that Helm kept a secret “sex diary,” and recordings of the industry people she’d hooked up with, and that she was killed to keep the contents of these materials from ever going public. It’s an unconfirmed rumor as police have never been able to find such materials if they existed – though, if she was killed because of them, it stands to reason her killer would have taken those materials with them.
3. Notorious B.I.G.
There seemed to be a very real, very deep, and very abiding hatred between hip-hop stars Tupac Shakur and Christopher Wallace – aka, the Notorious B.I.G. Both men were charting hits and growing very rich with strings of successful albums. But the East Coast/West Coast rivalry between Biggie’s Bad Boy Entertainment, and Tupac’s label, Death Row Records, finally came to bloodshed. After Tupac was gunned down in Vegas in September 1996, in what most seem to believe was a revenge killing, Biggie was shot and killed in a drive-by in March 1997. Biggie’s mother, Voletta Wallace brought a suit against the LAPD, claiming they were behind his murder – a case that was ultimately dismissed. Though police say that there is no link that exists connecting the murder of Biggie with that of Tupac, you’d have to be a moron to believe they aren’t connected. And though police say that the investigation is open and still ongoing, one has to wonder how hard they’re really working to find Biggie’s – or Tupac’s – killers.
2. Nicole Brown Simpson/Ron Goldman
Back in 1994, it was the case of the century. The city of LA – the world actually – was abuzz after football star O.J. Simpson was put on trial for the absolutely brutal and grisly murders of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend, Ron Goldman. With accusations of police misconduct, tampering with evidence, and a frame job by the LAPD, the OJ Simpson trial was must-see TV for millions. After a very lengthy trial that had unprecedented media coverage and scrutiny, the jury in the case acquitted Simpson of the murder charges and he was once again, a free man. Though in the civil trial, a jury found Simpson liable for the deaths and awarded the families $33.5 million dollars, the criminal case ultimately remains open, and the murders of Brown Simpson and Goldman remain unsolved.
1. Elizabeth Short aka The Black Dahlia
Lured to LA by the promise of fame, 22-year old Elizabeth Short instead met a grisly end and the “Black Dahlia,” remains LA’s most notorious unsolved murder. Her naked body was found in the Crenshaw District in January 1947. Marks on her wrists indicate that Short had been tied up, and the deep gashes on her face suggest that she’d been tortured before her body, cut completely in half was dumped in the vacant lot where she was discovered. Given that she was missing for about 5 days before her body was discovered, we can only imagine the hell she endured. The police had a huge suspect pool to work with. Too huge apparently as no one person ever rose to the top of the list, and the LAPD never made an arrest in the case and it remains unsolved to this day.
Though far from conclusive, a retired LAPD detective and private investigator, Steve Hodel, in his book, Black Dahlia Avenger, suggests that his own father, the late Dr. George Hodel, killed Short and a number of other women.