“What’s with this British author coming in and solving America’s most notorious unsolved murder?” says Piu Eatwell, jokingly describing the public reaction to her recent book, Black Dahlia, Red Rose. The nonfiction account, which Eatwell calls “part detective story and part history,” traces aspiring actress Elizabeth Short’s final days, as well as the long, circuitous investigation conducted by a police department that bore overly intimate ties with both gangland and the media.
In her book, Eatwell makes a convincing case for the identity of Elizabeth Short’s murderer, a conclusion she reached after years of exhaustive research. Eatwell’s theory centers on Leslie Duane Dillon, a bellhop and one-time mortician’s assistant who was briefly considered the case’s primary suspect, before police let him go. She writes that the Los Angeles Police Department knowingly let Short’s murderer off the hook because Sergeant Finis Brown, one of the case’s two lead investigators, was an alleged corrupt cop with links to Mark Hansen, a local nightclub and movie theater owner and Leslie Dillon’s purported co-conspirator in Short’s death.
After publication last fall, Eatwell heard from various strangers offering different theories and information. But one of those stories stood out because it seemed to both confirm and expand upon the theory she’d posited in her book.
Buz Williams, a retired member of the Long Beach Police Department, told Eatwell that his father, Richard F. Williams, had served on the LAPD’s Gangster Squad – the team originally tasked with investigating Short’s murder. Dick Williams was also a close friend of Con Keller, another Gangster Squad officer who had originally tailed suspect Leslie Dillon.
According to the younger Williams, the former cops couldn’t get Dillon out of their heads. “My dad and I were pretty close after the age of 16 or so,” Buz tells Rolling Stone. “I would go fishing every year with him and his LAPD friends in the High Sierras for about four or five days at a time.” On those trips, Williams heard his father and Keller discussing the Black Dahlia case, and he remembers them saying they believed Dillon had orchestrated the murder with two other men: Mark Hansen and a mysterious figure named Jeff Connors whom investigators had originally written off as a figment of Dillon’s unhinged imagination.
“My dad thought Leslie Dillon was the killer,” says Williams. “Con Keller thought Dillon was present [for the murder] but that Mark Hansen was the killer.” For his part, Williams believes they all conspired to kill Short when she became aware of a hotel robbery scam they were involved in – but more on that later.
Elizabeth Short was a 22-year-old native of Medford, Massachusetts, who headed west with aspirations of stardom. On January 15th, 1947, she was found dead in a vacant lot in L.A.’s Leimert Park neighborhood. But she hadn’t just been murdered; she had also been tortured and mutilated, her body chopped in half with medical precision, cleaned and drained of blood. A tattoo of a rose had been sliced from her thigh and placed inside her vagina. Her face had been slashed (possibly while she was still alive), with the corners of her mouth cut into a vulgar approximation of a smile.
After Short’s body was found, the FBI quickly identified her via fingerprints, which they linked to a previous arrest for underage drinking. The coroner determined that she’d died of hemorrhage and shock from concussion and facial lacerations. After speaking with Short’s friends and acquaintances, the LAPD realized that she’d vanished six days before her murder, leading investigators to surmise that Short was kidnapped before she was killed.
One of the last people reported to have spoken with Short was Hansen, whom Eatwell describes in the book as “a wealthy and powerful Hollywood mover and shaker” with connections to “the fringes of the Los Angeles underworld.” Short had stayed with Hansen for a handful of nights, and the older man was sexually fixated on her, Eatwell writes, though Short had rebuffed his advances. After the murder, Hansen was first linked to the case when an address book, embossed in gold with his name on the front, was mailed to the Los Angeles Examiner newspaper along with a package of Short’s belongings, including her birth certificate, social security card, and personal photographs.
In 1949, after being tasked with investigating Short’s murder, the Gangster Squad came extraordinarily close to arresting Leslie Dillon after he sent a letter, under the pseudonym “Jack Sand,” to the LAPD’s chief police psychiatrist, Dr. Joseph Paul De River. Dillon suggested that an acquaintance named Jeff Connors may have killed Short as revenge after she threatened to reveal “an affair not considered proper by the average person.” De Rivers believed that Connors was nothing more than a “projection of Dillon’s imagination,” Eatwell writes, though Connors turned out to be quite real.
Dillon also knew a number of disturbing details about Short’s murder that the police had been keeping secret, and said he believed she’d been murdered in a motel room. But after holding Dillon for a week, the police released him because they found Jeff Connors, who offered conflicting statements about his own connection to Short. In the end, Connors, too, was released, and – with the exception of a few notable but uncredible suspects over the years – the Dahlia case went cold.
“It’s incredibly difficult to obtain documents, because the Los Angeles police department will not release the [Black Dahlia] files,” Eatwell says. During the course of her research, she closely examined the FBI file – which the bureau unredacted in 2015 upon her FOIA request – as well as grand-jury testimony and newly released portions of the LAPD’s file, to produce what she calls her “good-faith assessment and plausible explanation [for who killed Short].”
Eatwell posits that Dillon murdered Elizabeth Short at the behest of Hansen, whom he worked with. She believes they killed Short at the Aster Motel, where Dillon had reportedly stayed and where motel owners Henry and Clora Hoffman admitted finding, on January 15th, 1947, one of their cabins “covered in blood and fecal matter.” Witnesses who stayed at the hotel noted seeing a dark-haired girl who resembled Elizabeth Short, as well as a man who fit Mark Hansen’s description.
Buz Williams remembers his father and Con Keller discussing how “Dillon said Elizabeth was murdered because she was [involved with] members of this gang, which he was a member of, that would rob hotels,” he says. “One of the gang members would get a job as a night bellboy, find out where the safe was, and then the guy would quit, and a few days later they would come back and rob the hotel safes of jewelry and cash.”
Though Eatwell wasn’t aware of Williams’ knowledge about the case until after her book was published, she thinks he’s onto something. “The angle is coming through more and more: it’s a group of people involved in this killing,” Eatwell explains. “But because [there’s no] forensic evidence, it’s almost impossible to say, ‘This person hit her on the head. This person cut her in two bits.’ What I can say, on the basis of the evidence in my book and on the basis of what’s come out [since], is that Dillon, Mark Hansen and Jeff Connors were mixed up in this killing, and it took place at the [Aster] Motel. It was covered up because Mark Hansen had connections with the police.”
The book’s theories have caused “quite a lot of controversy,” she says. “There was a certain amount of resistance from some forces in the U.S., [and] … a certain amount of skepticism [because] I’m completely the opposite of someone like James Ellroy. I’m not white, I’m not male, I’m not from Los Angeles, I’m not friends with the police.”
Convincing as Eatwell’s argument may be, it’s unlikely we’ll ever get a definitive answer as to who brutally murdered Short that January. There’s a formidable lack of enduring evidence, and most of the case’s key players are long deceased. What we do know: despite an array of signs that appeared to point to their involvement, Leslie Dillon and Mark Hansen were never arrested. And that years later, Dillon named his daughter “Elizabeth.”