Debunking the Myths Surrounding America’s Most Famous Murders

From the Black Dahlia to the Zodiac, discredited theories of unsolved cases still thrive.

November 27, 2017 10:01 am
 The mugshot of Elizabeth Short, also known as The Black Dahlia. (Wikipedia Commons)
The mugshot of Elizabeth Short, also known as The Black Dahlia. (Wikipedia Commons)

There was a time when some who were big fans of true crime weren’t all that comfortable telling others. A trip to the true crime section of a bookstore, with all its black and red covered paperbacks, could feel awkward—as if anyone who saw you there might assume you were up to no good.

That’s changed in a huge way. True crime is cool now. Thanks to the mass appeal of the Serial podcast, people who once whispered in embarrassment about their fascination with a big murder case in the news are now happily live-tweeting watching Netflix docs like Making a Murderer or the remarkable HBO doc about killer millionaire Robert Durst, The Jinx.

Along with this surge in true crime’s popularity has come a renewed interest in major unsolved crimes. That means all the lies, myths, and urban legends that have accumulated around those cases have come along for the ride.

Debunking all that b.s. would be exhausting. It’s worth a shot to at least tackle three of the big ones: the Zodiac Killer, the Black Dahlia Murder, and the murder of JonBenet Ramsey.

Everyone Thinks the Zodiac Was Their Dad

The Zodiac was a clever serial killer. Most aren’t as smart as their fictional counterparts; they benefit from bad policing, animal cunning, and a certain amount of community and law enforcement denial. Zodiac, however, came damn close to matching a fictional character for intrigue and cleverness.

That’s one explanation for why his unsolved string of murders—his confirmed death toll is five victims—created its own niche in the study of unsolved crimes. Because the Zodiac left behind so much mystery with his unsolved codes, taunting letters, and seemingly random murders he’s become a tabula rasa. What we do know about the Zodiac’s appearance, his personality as portrayed in the letters he sent to the press and police can be applied to a wide variety of men.

A famous suspect sketch of the killer depicted him with square-rimmed glasses and a crewcut—a look for perhaps millions of white males over 30 in the late 1960s. Many of those men had children. Over time, those children grew up with memories and photos of—in some cases—emotionally remote, at worst abusive fathers who sported the pinched look and style of the Zodiac suspect sketch. Those men often had some military experience as well. And there the stage was set for several claims to be made about 40 years down the road that dad had to be the mysterious killer. Here are just a handful:

Dennis Kaufman — In 2006 Kaufman claimed his stepdad Jack Tarrance had to be Zodiac. He claimed Tarrance’s handwriting was like the Zodiac letters and that he’d found bloodstained evidence he sent to the FBI. Kaufman also said Tarrance could be the Black Dahlia killer. Kaufman has been quiet for the last ten years so it’s likely the FBI wasn’t impressed.

Deborah Perez — A few years after Kaufman’s claim, Perez claimed her father Guy Ward Hendrickson was the Zodiac. There was little besides Perez’s claims to really make a case. Perez was her own worst enemy credibility-wise as well; she’d previously claimed she was JFK’s love child.

Steve Hodel—As a former LAPD homicide detective Hodel brought credibility to any theory he might propose. He proposed that his father George Hodel was the Zodiac. He offered handwriting samples to prove his case but some of those turned about to be from Black Dahlia victim Elizabeth Short. More on that and why Hodel’s claims are so dubious in general below.

Gary Stewart—Earl Van Best Jr., Stewart’s father, was the Zodiac. Stewart wrote an entire book about his theory, The Most Dangerous Animal of All. Researcher Michael Butterfield carefully picks apart Stewart’s claims apart on his website, and makes the case that Stewart never presents any viable evidence, but benefitted from a strong PR campaign from his publisher.

Many claiming knowledge of the Zodiac’s real identity appeared to habitually claim knowledge that solves other cases, or a history of dubious claims in general.

Former detective John Cameron came to the Zodiac case with a strong reputation as a cold case investigator, and he has proposed a very believable suspect who wasn’t even his dad: convicted serial killer Edward Wayne Edwards.

Edwards, who died in 2011, had—like the Zodiac—five confirmed victims He worked in a similar way, killing two couples and a lone male victim. He was also literate and a decent writer. Cameron’s zeroing in on Edwards made perfect sense on many levels.

Cameron’s theories ran off the rails, however, when he also tagged Edwards as a viable suspect for the murder of JonBenet Ramsey, the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa, and yes, the Black Dahlia—even though he was just 14 years old at the time.

The basic facts are that Zodiac first struck December 20, 1968, and committed his last confirmed murder on October 11, 1969. He sent taunting codes and letters to the police and press, and there are still no truly plausible solutions to most of the codes. The Zodiac’s last confirmed letter was sent to the San Francisco Chronicle in 1974. No theories about his identity have been confirmed by hard evidence such as fingerprints or DNA. He remains a ghost. 

Dads Named George Killed the Black Dahlia

The horrific murder of Elizabeth Short in January 1947 captured the public imagination. She was an attractive but destitute young woman on the fringes of Hollywood and she’d fallen prey to a psychopath who killed her, dismembered her body, and left a meticulously clean crime scene in a vacant lot in south L.A.

The police were stymied from the beginning the press went wild with the story, and in the end the Dahlia murder remained a gruesome mystery—one a couple of people have claimed they solved by blaming dads named George:

Steve Hodel—Former detective Hodel is back again, as his primary accusation of his late father George was that the senior Hodel killed Elizabeth Short. George Hodel’s surrealist artist pal Man Ray supposedly inspired the murder and subsequent dissection. Hodel made this case in his book Black Dahlia Avenger, in part with photos he’d found in an old album kept by his father which he insisted were of a living Elizabeth Short. Photos which most agree look absolutely nothing like the Dahlia.

Janice Knowlton—Knowlton wrote Daddy Was the Black Dahlia Killer in which she said her father George was the culprit. (It’s hard to say why people with fathers named George found it so easy to believe dad was capable of horrific acts.) Knowlton, who died in 2004, claimed she realized this due to “recovered memories”—an “almost completely discredited” form of psychotherapy.

There have been credible Dahlia suspects such as the still-unknown Cleveland Torso Killer, who committed similar murders—but this is a very cold case. Suspects plausible and ridiculous have been dead for decades. For too many reasons to list, only a miracle could conclusively finger the Dahlia killer.

JonBenet Ramsey Will Never Rest

The murder of child beauty pageant contestant JonBenet Ramsey is the most recent and most likely to be solved one day. There’s plenty of evidence, including DNA, and still-living witnesses. Public interest in the death of a little girl in her wealthy parents’ Boulder home on Christmas night 1996 has led to a profusion of untruths, myths, and the same kind of conspiracy theory-like shenanigans that have dogged Zodiac and the Black Dahlia.

Much of the suspicion in the case has fallen on the girl’s parents, John and Patsy Ramsey.

There’s solid logic behind that. Most such murders are committed by a parent or someone close to the victim. The Ramseys have been accused of not cooperating with police—which wasn’t initially true at all—and many believe Patsy Ramsey’s handwriting matched the writing on the fake ransom note. But at least six handwriting experts have said while they couldn’t rule her out they couldn’t match her to the evidence, either.

The trace DNA gathered from JonBenet’s clothing also failed to match her parents.

But other suspects have been ruled out as well.

John Mark Karr—Karr, an itinerant teacher from Georgia who’d been arrested in the past for child pornography, falsely confessed to killing JonBenet in 2006. His confession caused an explosion of coverage, but investigators quickly realized he wasn’t credible, simply seeking attention.

Bill McReynolds—The idea that the man who played Santa for JonBenet a few days before her death might have been her killer seemed drawn from fiction—and it was. McReynolds, a former University professor, has long been ruled out as a suspect.

Michael Helgoth—Helgoth was a troubled salvage yard worker who committed suicide soon after JonBenet was murdered. The 26-year-old has been touted as a suspect as recently as 2016, but his DNA as well as reportedly extensive investigation took him out of the running as far as police were concerned.

JonBenet’s brother Burke, who is now 30, was directly accused of her murder in a 2016 CBS documentary. The Case of: JonBenet Ramsey stated the Ramseys staged a coverup to protect Burke, nine at the time, and purported to have new evidence, but it didn’t deliver. John Ramsey filed a massive $350 million lawsuit against the network and several involved in the production after the documentary aired, his representatives saying in the complaint that CBS “perpetrated a fraud upon the public.”

But aside from a ridiculous internet rumor that singer Katy Perry is a grown-up JonBenet, the mystery remains impenetrable.

These legendary unsolved crimes—allegedly deadly dads named George notwithstanding—are shrouded in clouds of confirmation bias, of tenuously-connected rumors and flat-out lies.

None of them have been conclusively solved. No one has closed the murder book or boxes of evidence and put them away. The longer they remain unsolved, the more they’ll gather layers of myth.

There’s a rational hope someone will have to answer for JonBenet, and maybe Zodiac as well. But If known facts remain obscured by theories, fantasies, and lies, the truth will remain out of reach.

Steve Huff has written for the New York ObserverCrime Watch Daily, and is the weekend digital editor for Maxim.

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