Hollywood and crime are a potent combination. We the public love our celebrity secrets, and high profile crimes — especially murder — has always been a way to sell newspapers and garner online views. Put the two together and it’s a magnet for the media, and no doubt a lot of pressure on police to come up with a resolution. That makes it all the more surprising that there are so many unsolved murders over the decades that involve celebrities and movie industry power players.
Murder investigations lift the lid off Tinsel Town’s glittery side to reveal the seamy side underneath. From starlets making the rounds of casting couches to secretive, closeted gays, illicit sex tapes to the most gruesome of killings, it turns out the beautiful people can get just as ugly as anyone else. When the trail runs dry, police are often left empty handed. The difference is, when it involves famous people, the mysteries live on long after their cases go cold.
Here’s a look at some of the mysterious deaths and unsolved murders that keep old LAPD detectives up at night, wondering about the ones that got away.
15. Christa Helm — Death Of A Party Girl
Christa Helm was a pretty blonde who left her native Milwaukee at the age of 17 and headed to New York City and then to Hollywood to try for a shot at becoming an actress. She got bit parts in Wonder Woman and Starsky and Hutch, but her biggest success came as a Hollywood party girl, known for hooking up with some of Tinsel Town’s biggest players — including both men and women. Warren Beatty, Mick Jagger, Joe Namath, and the Shah of Iran were among her many conquests. In February 1977, at the age of 27, she was stabbed 22 times, and then bludgeoned to death in front of her agent’s home in West Hollywood. Helms apparently kept a sex diary where she detailed all her escapades with Hollywood’s rich and famous — a diary that disappeared at her death. Some people felt that Lionel Ray Williams might have been a suspect. Williams killed actor Sal Mineo in a similar scenario in the same area exactly one year before Helms was murdered. In 2007, a DNA test was performed on the skin found under her fingernails, and it was determined to be female. Helms had been involved in a relationship with a female singer at the time of her murder. The case remains unsolved.
14. The Shooting Of Barbara Colby
Barbara Colby was a successful actress both on stage and on TV in the late 1960s and 1970s. She appeared in many of the eras hottest shows in guest roles, including The Odd Couple, Kung Fu, and Gunsmoke. She had a guest spot on the Mary Tyler Moore Show, and it led to a regular spot on a spin-off called Phyllis, which starred Cloris Leachman. Colby was set for a good run in a popular sitcom, but it was cut short after she’d appeared in only three episodes. On the evening of July 24, 1975, she was leaving an acting class in Los Angeles with another actor, friend James Kiernan. As they were walking to their car in the parking lot, both of them were shot. Colby died instantly, but Kiernan lived long enough to tell police he didn’t know the men who shot them. There had been two other robberies, including another shooting, in the same area that day, however, the culprits were caught and police were unable to turn up any evidence that they’d been connected. There had been no attempt to rob the pair, and police eventually concluded it was a random drive-by shooting.
13. The Murder Of Bob Crane
Bob Crane is probably most associated with his starring role in the 1960s sitcom hit Hogan’s Heroes — yes, a comedy about American soldiers in a German POW camp. He enjoyed international fame, and everything that came with it. To say Crane was a player was to seriously understate his apparently huge appetite for drink, drugs, and sex. By 1978, he’d ended up in Scottsdale, Arizona, where he was found bludgeoned to death on June 29. Bob was making sex tapes long before they became a fad, and at the time of his death, he was said to be compiling a collection of his greatest hits with the help of his friend John Carpenter, a sales manager at Sony Electronics who’d showed him the wonders of the camera. The murder weapon was thought to be a tripod, throwing suspicion on Carpenter, but for various reasons, he wasn’t charged with the murder until 1994. The case was based entirely on circumstantial evidence, and Carpenter was acquitted. He died four years later of a heart attack, still proclaiming his innocence and leaving the mystery open.
12. Elizabeth Short — The Black Dahlia
Even though decades have passed since her body was discovered, the unsolved murder of Elizabeth Short still resonates in Los Angeles and well beyond. Fictionalized in the 1987 novel, The Black Dahlia, by James Ellroy, Brian De Palma later made into a movie in 2006. We have to point out, though, that some of the lurid details of the book and movie aren’t part of the real story. Here are the facts: Short was only 22, working as a waitress and looking, along with so many others, to make it as an actress in Hollywood. On January 15, 1947, Her body was found in a vacant lot, cut in half at the torso. There were marks on her wrists, her mouth was cut from ear to ear, and she had been disemboweled. Her body had been entirely drained of blood, but there was no blood at the scene. The press dubbed her The Black Dahlia, and police came up with multiple theories. They had everyone on the suspect list from all the men the attractive Short had ever dated, to med students with the know-how to cut up and mutilate her body. The killer even taunted police by mailing the contents of Elizabeth’s purse to the press. None of the leads ever panned out, and her killer has never been found.
11. George Reeves — The Death Of Superman
Acting can be an unforgiving gig. You take a job to make some money, finally, and then you get stuck. That, apparently, is how George Reeves felt after the successful, lucrative, but pigeonholing role of the man of steel in The Adventures of Superman, which ran on TV from 1952 to 1957. George had been a movie actor, and only took the role reluctantly — TV considered far inferior to movie roles at that time. He was reportedly out of work, depressed, and in financial difficulty trying to maintain his Hollywood lifestyle. He was then found naked and dead of a gunshot wound in his upstairs bedroom one evening in June 1959. Police found the gun and a shell casing at the scene, and the death was officially ruled a suicide, but the circumstances were odd to say the least. At the time of the shooting, Reeves was hosting a party for several guests with his fiancee, playwright Leonore Lemmon — all of whom were still downstairs. To thicken the plot, he’d just ended an affair with Toni Mannix, a notorious ex-showgirl who was also married to MGM Studio executive Eddie Mannix. The suicide ruling was widely decried, and theories flew around town, from a hit ordered by Toni or even Eddie for his wife, to a jealous Leonore. With murder officially off the books, though, no leads have ever been pursued.
10. Jack Nance Mystery
Jack Nance was an actor, a favourite of famed American surrealist David Lynch. He’s that iconic figure in the Eraserhead poster, and also appeared in Lynch’s classics Twin Peaks and Blue Velvet. His untimely death in December 1996 remains shrouded in mystery. The day before, he told friends that he’d been in a fight with two other guys at a donut shop across the street from his South Pasadena home. As he told the story, he’d been punched in the head and knocked to the ground, and his friends say he had a black eye. He went to bed that night and never woke up. His death was determined to be caused by a subdural hematoma caused by blunt force trauma — internal bleeding as a result of the injury. But, to complicate matters, he was legally drunk at the time of his death, leading some to speculate that he’d simply done himself in during a drunken accident. While police launched a murder investigation and reviewed security tapes of the area, they failed to develop any leads in the case.
9. The Mysterious Death Of Thomas Ince
Thomas Ince was a star and filmmaker in the silent film era. He was considered an innovator in the new world of movies, and was known as “The Father of the Western”. His death came at the age of 42 in November 1924 while he was partying on a yacht owned by newspaper and media mogul William Randolph Hearst. Ince reportedly became ill, and died 4 days later of a heart attack. But, rumours were rampant that Ince’s death was the result of an accidental shooting. The story went that Hearst had caught his mistress, actress Marion Davies, getting too friendly with Charlie Chaplin. Hearst supposedly went in with a gun drawn, and Davies starting screaming. Ince ran to the room when he heard the commotion, and got shot accidentally as Hearst was aiming for Chaplin. The Los Angeles Times ran the headline “MOVIE PRODUCER SHOT ON HEARST’S YACHT!” — but by the afternoon of the same day, the headline had been pulled. Heart’s own papers ran with “SPECIAL CAR RUSHES STRICKEN MAN HOME FROM RANCH.” Why did Hearst want people to believe he’d been at his ranch and not on the yacht? The papers later amended the story to say that Ince had taken ill on the yacht with indigestion that had somehow later caused a heart attack. Fishy? For sure. But, with no murder on the books, there was never an investigation.
8. Biggie Smalls Drive By
Christopher George Latore Wallace, also known as The Notorious B.I.G. and Biggie Smalls, was a giant in the world of hip hop in the 1990s. The New Yorker was in Los Angeles in 1997 to promote his second studio album — rather creepily, in retrospect, titled Life After Death — and was at an after party for the Soul Train Music Awards. After he left in an SUV, accompanied by his entourage, they stopped at a red light. According to witnesses, a Chevy Impala pulled up beside it, and a man dressed in a blue suit with a bow tie shot him four times with a 9mm gun. Biggie died later in the hospital. Did his death have anything to do with the drive by shooting of former friend and then enemy Tupac Shakur six months earlier? One theory is that Suge Knight ordered the hit on Biggie as revenge. Still, Tupac was involved in a fight the night he was fatally shot, and no actual evidence has been found to link the two deaths. It has to be said that Smalls was no stranger to violence, and multiple theories have come up, including police and gang involvement, and even that his friend Sean Combs had him killed to profit from the publicity, but no solid leads have ever been developed.
7. The Shooting Of William Desmond Taylor
Pete Tanner was a husband and father — who apparently didn’t want to be either — in New York. So, he changed his name to William Desmond Taylor, ditched the wife and kids and headed for La La Land, where he became an actor and director in the silent film era. He achieved some success, directing over 60 films and shorts between 1914 and 1922. In 1922, however, he was found dead in his home from a gunshot to the back. Witnesses claimed to have seen a young man with dark hair leaving the house, but no one was ever arrested or questioned, despite the fact that there were several suspects. One was actress Mabel Normand, the last person to see him alive. Rumours swirled that Taylor’s death was a drug hit, after he informed the feds who Mabel Normand’s cocaine dealers were. Margaret Gibson, a silent film actress with shady connections to blackmail and extortion rings, made a deathbed confession that she’d murdered him in 1964, but while Gibson had appeared with Taylor in a few films, no corroborating evidence was ever found.
6. The Death Of Virginia Rappe
Virginia Rappe was a model and actress who’d had a few bit parts in the movies. Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was a chubby comedic actor who was hugely popular in the silent film era. The good life ended for both of them in September 1921, after a Labor Day weekend party. It was the so-called Roaring Twenties and the party, held to celebrate Arbuckle’s signing a multi-million dollar contract with Paramount studio, was full of booze and apparently sex too. Fatty and Virginia ended up in the bedroom, and at some point afterwards, still during the party, she fell ill. A doctor saw her, but pronounced her simply drunk. She never recovered, and finally went to the hospital three days later, but it was too late. She died of peritonitis caused by a ruptured bladder. Fatty was charged with her death on the theory that a violent sexual encounter had caused the ruptured bladder. He went on trial no less than three times, and was eventually found not guilty due to a lack of evidence. However, what with the scandal, his career was ruined, and he died in his sleep at age 46 in 1933. So what really happened to Virginia? Multiple theories arose, including a botched abortion and Fatty’s 300lb. weight crushing her, but nothing was ever proven.
5. Ronni Chasen, Power Publicist
Ronni Chasen was a Hollywood publicist, a well-known power player in the biz. She was renowned not only for publicizing films, but helping them win Oscars, including leading the campaign that won Driving Miss Daisy a best picture award in 1990, a feat she repeated with The Hurt Locker in 2009. In November 2010, as she was coming home from the premiere of Burlesque, when someone shot at her Mercedes five times. Police were called when her car ran the curb and knocked over a street light. Ronni was found slumped over the driver’s seat, and was pronounced dead later at hospital. A small time felon by the name of Harold Smith emerged as the leading suspect after the case was profiled on America’s Most Wanted and a caller said Martin had been bragging about the killing. When police went to question him, he committed suicide by shooting himself. The police say the gun he used was the same one that shot Ronni, but several questions remain. Martin had been bragging that he’d gotten $10,000 for the hit — but for whose benefit? To make matters even more mysterious, police theorized that her killer had been an expert marksman, and may have used hollow point bullets. With the case closed and the prime suspect dead, none of the lingering questions has been answered.
4. The Mystery Of Peter Ivers
Peter Ivers was a musician with links to the movie business and beyond. Among his credits include the song ‘In Heaven’ that David Lynch asked him to write for Eraserhead in 1978. His most lucrative successes came as a songwriter for various R&B artists such as The Pointer Sisters. He was also host of New Wave Theatre, a campy local Los Angeles underground cable program that was eventually broadcast on USA Network in the 1980s, known for promoting the latest punk and New Wave acts, including Bad Religion and The Dead Kennedys. In 1983, at age 46, Ivers was found bludgeoned to death in his loft apartment in Los Angeles. Friends had arrived at his apartment, and the crime scene was contaminated before police arrived. The police didn’t find any leads, and they even lost their “murder book’ or notes on the case. The matter was dropped until a book came out in 2008. Titled In Heaven Everything Is Fine: The Unsolved Life of Peter Ivers and the Lost History of New Wave Theatre by Josh Frank and Charlie Buckholtz, the book details a number of suspects, most of them within Ivers circle of the music and film biz. The LAPD reopened the case, but the murder remains unsolved.
3. Bobby Fuller – Rocket To Fame Cut Short
It’s every musician’s dream to have a hit single and ride it all the way to the top of the charts. Bobby Fuller and his band, the Bobby Fuller Four, had a bona fide top ten hit on their hands in 1964 with the release of I Fought The Law And The Law Won, the catchy single that was again made famous by The Clash in 1977. But, by then Bobby wasn’t around to benefit. In July of 1966, he was found dead in his car outside his apartment in Los Angeles. The circumstances were odd. He has bruises to his face, chest, and body, and he was covered in gasoline. The police first believed he’d committed suicide by inhaling gas fumes, but then the official story was changed to accidental death. But what about the bruises, and the blood found on the car seat? Also, by the time he was found, his body was in full rigor mortis, which happens after several hours — and his car had only been parked in the spot for a short time. Many believed he had been murdered, and then his killer had been scared off while trying to torch the vehicle. Rumours flew around town that the mob had been involved, or even Charles Manson. Without a verdict of murder, however, the case was never investigated.
2. Jean Spangler — Disappearance Of A Starlet
Jean Spangler was a dancer, model, and bit part actress in 1940s Hollywood. In October 1949, at the age of 26, she left the home she shared with her mother and daughter. She claimed that she would be meeting with her ex-husband and then would be going to do some work on a movie set. She never came back. After a missing person report was filed the next day, police found out that there were no movie shoots happening that evening. Her ex-husband said he hadn’t seen her in weeks and his new wife gave him an alibi. Two days later, her purse was found in a park, but nothing else ever turned up despite a massive search. The most tantalizing clue was a note found inside her purse. Addressed to someone called Kirk, it said: “Can’t wait any longer, Going to see Dr. Scott. It will work best this way while mother is away,” Was it an illegal backroom abortion gone wrong? Oddly, actor Kirk Douglas called police to say Jean had been in a bit part in a film he was working on — even though police had not made that connection. One theory involved a gangster boyfriend who also had connections to her ex-husband’s new wife. Police kept the file open for years, but her disappearance has never been explained.
1. The Bizarre Murder Of David Bacon
David Bacon was born as Gaspar Griswold Bacon Jr., into a wealthy Massachusetts family. After graduating from Harvard, he dabbled in acting. He eventually moved to Los Angeles and got married. Years later, his wife revealed that it had been a “lavender marriage” — David was gay and she was a lesbian, and the marriage was a social convenience for both. In 1943, he was starring in The Masked Marvel, a low budget series. In September of that year, Bacon’s car was seen driving all over the road in Santa Monica, eventually crashing into a curb. He climbed out, wearing only a bathing suit, and staggered a few steps before collapsing to the pavement, where he died. A small knife wound in his back had punctured his lung. He’d told his wife that he was going for a swim. Police found his wallet and a camera in the car. When they developed the film, there was only one picture of David lying naked on the beach, smiling. Witnesses say they’d seen him earlier with a man in dark clothes in the car, and a blue sweater was also found. Despite the bizarre clues, no viable leads were ever developed and the case remains unsolved.
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