true crime

TRUE CRIME: Her body was found cut in half. Now we might know who killed Black Dahlia.

Warning: this post contains graphic details and may be distressing for some readers. 

On January 15, 1947, Betty Bersinger and her three-year-old daughter were walking past a vacant lot near their home in Los Angeles when Bersinger spotted what looked like a broken mannequin lying in the weeds.

In fact, it was the body of a young, dark-haired woman. She had been cut in half at the waist, and the upper and lower halves placed a foot apart. She had been mutilated – her face slashed from the corners of her mouth up to her ears, her uterus removed. She had been drained of blood, leaving her skin white.

The cutting and draining was done with such precision that one of the investigators, Detective Harry Hansen, declared that her killer was most likely a “top medical man”.

At first, the horrific crime was dubbed “the werewolf murder”. But before long, the victim became known as “the Black Dahlia” – a nickname she’d had before she died. Seventy years later, the case remains open. But now a new book claims to have compelling evidence that proves who the killer was.

It didn’t take police long to identify the young woman as Elizabeth “Betty” Short. Her fingerprints were on record because she had been arrested four years earlier, at the age of 18, for underage drinking.

Short’s childhood was messed up. Her father, Cleo, lost most of his money when the Great Depression hit, and faked his suicide, leaving his car near a bridge. Short was aged just five at the time. Her mother Phoebe took on several jobs to look after Short and her four sisters.

Growing up in Massachusetts, Short suffered from severe asthma and had lung surgery as a teen. Movies were her escape and she dreamed of being a movie star herself. When her father finally got in contact with her mother, to say he was alive and living in California, Short headed over to join him. But before long, he kicked her out of his house.

Short fell for a pilot, Major Matt Gordon, but he was killed in action just before the end of WWII. At the time of her death, she was working as a waitress, and dating a married salesman, Robert “Red” Manley.

The Los Angeles Examiner learnt Short’s identity before her parents were informed of her death. A journalist rang her mother, Phoebe, and said her daughter had won a beauty contest. He pumped her for information before telling her that her daughter had actually been murdered.

Newspapers published salacious stories about Short. One said that her romances had changed her “from an innocent girl to a man-crazy delinquent”. It was claimed she was a prostitute, but there was no evidence to back that up.

Betty's body was found cut in half in LA’s most notorious murder. (Image: Getty)
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About a week after Short’s body was found, the Examiner was contacted by someone claiming to be the killer. Short’s birth certificate, photos and her address book were posted to the newspaper. The envelope also contained sentences made from bits cut out of newspapers and magazines, one reading “Heaven is here”.

Around 750 investigators worked on the case. Manley was the initial suspect, but he was cleared.

Another suspect was Mark Hansen, a Danish businessman whose name was on the cover of Short’s address book. She had stayed at his house on more than one occasion.

Police worked right through the names of men in the address book. Each of the men told a similar story. They’d met Short on the street and taken her out for a meal or to a nightclub. Nothing romantic had happened, and they’d never seen her again.

Checks were also done on all the students at the University of Southern California Medical School, which was located near where the body was found.

LA newspapers and police received numerous letters from people claiming to be the killer. These led nowhere.

Years passed. Once the last of her other four daughters grew up and got married, Phoebe moved to California to be near Short’s grave in the Mountain View Cemetery.

Investigations continued, but the murder was never solved. Detective Hansen worked on the case until his retirement in 1971. He felt Short had been killed by a man she had met.

"She probably went too far this time, and just set some guy off into a blind, berserk rage," he told the LA Times.

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Over the years, around 500 people have confessed to killing the Black Dahlia, some of whom weren’t even born when she was murdered. The case set a new record in false leads.

LISTEN: Mamamia Out Loud share the Casefile episode you need to listen to (post continues after audio...)

One of the most convincing theories has come from former LA police department detective Steve Hodel. He believes his father George, a doctor who abandoned his family, was the killer. When sorting through his father’s possessions after his death, Hodel discovered an album with two photos of Short. He later learnt that his father was, at one point, the prime suspect in the murder.

Hodel has spent years trying to build up the case against his father, but his evidence has been largely ignored by the LAPD.

“My judge and jury are the public,” he told The Guardian.

Now a new book, being released this week, claims to prove, once and for all, who murdered Short. British lawyer and author Piu Eatwell spent three years researching Black Dahlia Red Rose: America’s Most Notorious Crime Solved For The First Time. She points the finger at Leslie Dillon, another man who has long been high on the list of suspects.

Dillon was an aspiring writer who used to work as a mortician’s assistant. He came to the police’s attention when wrote to a psychiatrist at the LAPD, Dr Paul De River, saying he had an interest in sadism and sexual psychopaths, and claiming that his friend had killed Short. Police interviewed Dillon and he revealed details about the mutilation of Short’s body that police hadn’t released to the public, including a rose tattoo on her thigh that was cut out.

However, the investigation into Dillon was dropped. Eatwell claims this was due to police corruption. She believes the very wealthy Mark Hansen was obsessed with Short and then became frustrated with her. He told Dillon to get rid of her, not realising how sadistically he would do it.

Eatwell says that if Dillon was still alive, there “probably would be enough evidence” to charge him. But she says that when she started researching the case, she didn’t expect to find the killer.

“I just wanted to do it justice,” she told The Mirror, “and I was amazed with the evidence how no one had done this before."

You can pre-order Black Dahlia Red Rose: America’s Most Notorious Crime Solved For The First Time on Amazon.

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