Most Evil

Avenger, Zodiac, and the Further Serial Murders of Dr. George Hill Hodel (Berkley True Crime)

From the Los Angeles Times bestselling author of Black Dahlia Avenger.

“No serial killer book ever written can rival Most Evil.” – George Petievich, author of To Live and Die in L.A.


“I couldn’t read it fast enough…. I loved it.”

Using forensic, visual, and circumstantial evidence, Most Evil, when read cover to cover, leaves readers with little doubt that not only was Hodel's father the Zodiac but he was also the "Lipstick Killer" in 1945 Chicago and the Dahlia-copycat "Jigsaw Murderer" in Manila. As Hodel writes, "Serial killers don't stop until they're caught, go to prison, or die." George Hodel is known to have killed and dismembered the Black Dahlia at age 40. He died in 1999 at the age of 91. It would be naive to think his reign of terror was isolated to 1947 Los Angeles.

Most Evil is a call to arms for law enforcement to re-dedicate themselves to the Zodiac case. Hodel believes that detectives are holding forensic evidence that links his father to the Zodiac. "The Zodiac case in particular has been complicated, immensely time consuming and frustrating," Hodel writes in the conclusion. "Some of the difficulty has been the result of different jurisdictions conducting their own investigations into what initially appeared to be separate crimes. Since 1970 the California Department of Justice has assumed the role of coordinator of the Zodiac investigations by various local police and sheriff departments. That's why I suggest that California DOJ headed by Attorney General Jerry Brown conduct the follow up investigation that results from my book." Hodel has personal possessions of his father's that he believes will link his father's DNA to a known sample of DNA from the Zodiac, if officials heed his call to develop the evidence already in their possession.

Chapter One

“The most fortunate of persons is he who has the most means to satisfy his vagaries.”

Marquis de Sade

Who was George Hodel really? My half-sister, Tamar—who over the course of her fascinating, peripatetic life befriended many illustrious men, including Lenny Bruce, Jim Morrison, Harry Belafonte, Otis Redding, John Phillips and others—describes him as the most powerful, intelligent, handsome man she’s ever known. This despite the fact that he taught her how to perform oral sex at eleven, had sex with her at fourteen in the presence of three other adults, and branded her a liar the rest of her life.

Tamar’s best friend, Michelle Phillips of the Mamas & the Papas, remembers opening a hotel room door in San Francisco in 1967 and seeing George for the first time. “I almost fainted,” she said. “The aura of evil he gave off was so strong and palpable, it almost knocked me off my feet. That’s the first and only time anything like that has ever happened to me.”

As Tamar tells the story, George entered the Mamas & the Papas’ suite at the St. Francis Hotel with two beautiful, young Asian women and immediately took over, ordering around the waiters and telling the band what they should and shouldn’t eat before a concert. Tamar likens him to the charismatic ballet impresario Boris Lermontov in the movie The Red Shoes—impeccable clothes, sophisticated European manners, a deep, cultivated voice.

Later that evening a hash pipe was passed. Dad didn’t partake. Tamar, who knew he’d smoked in the past, asked one of his Asian companions why. “Before when he smoked hash, he made me lock him in his bathroom,” the young woman explained. “He always made me lock him in there and told me not to let him out. George said that when he smokes, it sometimes he does terrible things. He would make me lock him in the bathroom and he would cry and stay there all night.”

Dad left Los Angeles in 1950 after the very public incest trial involving his relationship with Tamar—he was declared innocent—and thereafter blew into town every six months or so unannounced. My brothers and I would be summoned to the lobby of some glamorous L.A. hotel and made to wait hours for the privilege of sharing a few minutes with the great man, who was on some important business and usually had to run to an urgent meeting. During one such visit he presented me with a Tinkertoy set for my birthday. I was sixteen years old.

In a drunken rage, my mother had once called him “a monster.” She said, “He’s a terrible man and he’s done terrible things!” The next day she denied it.

After forty years of living the life of an expatriate in Asia, Dad retired to San Francisco and moved into a modern apartment overlooking the bay with his fourth wife, June. Once when I visited, I brought a loaf of bread but couldn’t find a knife in the kitchen. When I asked June for one, she answered, “No. No. The great man doesn’t allow any knives in the house.”

Tamar wanted all her life to confront Dad with the painful truth of who he really was so he might begin to save his soul. But she never did. Why? “I was afraid of what he might do to me,” she explained. “I knew he could kill me.”

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In 1969 when George was in town on business, he met a pregnant Tamar for lunch at a Beverly Hills hotel. As they passed through the lobby, Dad stopped and pointed to a pattern in the carpet. “What does that remind you of?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” Tamar answered. “Some kind of flower or something. Maybe rhododendrons.”

“Look again,” George said tracing the outlines with the toe of his shoe. “It’s a vagina and lips.”

He then stomped hard in the middle of the design and asked, “Did that hurt?”

Tamar learned later that while she was in bed resting, days before the birth of her third child, George took her thirteen-year-old daughter, Deborah, out to dinner. Years later, Deborah confessed that while they were eating, she became groggy and passed out. She came to on a bed in a hotel room completely nude with her legs spread open. Looking up, she saw her grandfather snapping pictures.

Joe Barrett, who knew Dad in the 1940s when Joe was a young artist renting a room in our house on Franklin Avenue, said he liked my father and described him as “surrounded by people, but close to no one.” They spent hours shooting the breeze in my dad’s office. “George was brilliant,” Joe remembered, “but not original. I think that bothered him.”

Dad’s last instructions: “I do not wish to have funeral services of any kind. There is to be no meeting or speeches or music and no gravestone or tablet. I direct that my physical remains be cremated and that my ashes be scattered over the ocean.”

Naïve about much of his terrible history and about many of these family legends, I spent a good deal of time with Dad toward the end of his life. We became friends, to a point, but he never really opened up, and I know now that I didn’t really know him.

Most of what I’ve learned about my father came after his death in 1999. Up until then, except for a couple of shadows, he seemed to have lived a full, privileged, and highly productive life. But in order to fully understand this complicated man and the activities he’d kept hidden for so long, I had to start again at the beginning, with the official narrative of his life.

George Hill Hodel entered this world in Los Angeles on October 10, 1907, the only son of well-educated, Russian-born parents. His mother, Esther, a smart, no-nonsense woman, had worked as a dentist in Paris before emigrating to the United States in 1905. His father, George, was a banker who had escaped from mandatory military conscription in Russia by changing his last name from Goldgefter to Hodel and posing as a wealthy traveler on a temporary visit to see his ailing grandmother. With expensive luggage and his first-class train ticket in hand, he managed to cross the Polish border, then on to Paris and freedom.

Despite the fact that they settled in South Pasadena, French was the primary language spoken at home. The house built in 1920 was a handsome estate designed by Russian architect Alexander Zelenko in the style of a Swiss chalet. It included a detached guesthouse, where George Jr. pursued his intellectual and musical studies without distraction.

His parents had reason to believe their son was special. At an early age, tests showed that little George had a genius IQ of 186. At age six, he was identified as a musical prodigy. By age nine “Georgie” was playing solo piano concerts at Los Angeles’s Shrine Auditorium, and even the great Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff traveled to my grandparents’ house in Pasadena, accompanied by the Russian minister of culture, to hear him play.

In 1921, at age thirteen, the boy genius’s scholastic test scores were the highest ever recorded in California’s public school history. Following his graduation from South Pasadena High School at fourteen, he entered the California Institute of Technology to pursue studies in chemical engineering. George Hodel wasn’t your average kid.

A year into his studies at Caltech, another precocious tendency reared its head. The sixteen-year-old had an affair with a faculty member’s wife and got her pregnant. The woman left her husband and moved east, where she had the baby—a girl aptly named Folly. It’s here that my father’s life seemed to take a rebellious left. Though Caltech administrators were able to keep the sex scandal from becoming public, they quickly and quietly demanded my father’s withdrawal from the university. Father complied, and after drifting for a year or two, at age seventeen, was able to obtain fake ID showing him to be twenty-one. After obtaining a chauffer’s license, he immediately got a job hacking for the Los Angeles Yellow Cab Company at night.

But his real interest seemed to be the crime reporting he did for the Los Angeles Record, which in the 1920s was one of Los Angeles’s major newspapers

Prohibition was in full swing, and Dad would ride along with the LAPD vice squad officers and follow them in at midnight as they kicked down the doors to South Central speakeasies. He was there to record the lurid details as pimps, prostitutes, and johns—including the occasional “slumming” Beverly Hills couple and maybe the odd Superior Court judge—were hauled off. The precocious kid from Pasadena was now L.A.’s youngest crime reporter, rubbing shoulders with hoods, murderers, and corrupt officials.

The latter, like oranges, seemed to grow on trees.

Among my dad’s cohorts was a lawyer named Kent Kane Parrot, who reputedly owned most of the officers on the Los Angeles Police Department.

This murky moral setting served as fodder for his best friend and future film director John Huston. One of their pals was a brooding artist named Fred Sexton, who later sculpted the bird that was fought over by Sydney Greenstreet, Humphrey Bogart, and Peter Lorre in The Maltese Falcon.

They acted like young existential bohemians in the ’20s, smoking hashish and frequenting opium dens in Chinatown. It was a perfect set of conditions in which to launch a literary magazine. George’s avant-garde rag was called Fantasia.

In a December 9, 1925, article in the Los Angeles Evening Herald, drama critic Ted Le Berthon provided his readers with an up-close-and-personal look at George Hodel. In his article “The Clouded Past of a Poet,” he described the young writer/editor as “tall, olive-skinned, with wavy black hair and a strong, bold nose. His eyes are large, brown, somnolent.” According to Le Berthon, “George drowned himself at times in an ocean of deep dreams. Only part of him seemed present. He would muse, standing before one in a black, flowered dressing gown lined with scarlet silk, oblivious to one’s presence. Suddenly, though, his eyes would flare up like signal lights and he would say, ‘The formless fastidiousness of perfumes in a seventeenth century boudoir is comparable to my mind in the presence of twilight.’”

Heady stuff. George dated an attractive fellow bohemian by the name of Emilia Lawson. His buddy John Huston squired a slim, petite intellectual named Dorothy Harvey. When Huston and Dorothy ran off to Greenwich Village, New York, to get married, George and Emilia opened a bookstore in downtown L.A.

Then for reasons unexplained (maybe it’s because he’d just turned twenty), George veered more mainstream. First, he took a job as a radio host for the Southern California Gas Company’s Music Hour, introducing classical music listeners to everything from Beethoven to Gilbert and Sullivan. Then, he and Emilia and their newborn son (named Duncan) moved to San Francisco, where George enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley, and pursued a course of study in pre-med.

Berkeley led to medical school at nearby University of California, San Francisco. He supported his young family by driving a cab until he and Emilia landed something far better: They were hired by the San Francisco Chronicle to write a weekly column called “Abroad in San Francisco.”

It would seem as though George had a full plate. But somehow he found the time to get involved with another woman: Dorothy Anthony, a young art student/model who bore him a third child, a daughter named Tamar.

Medical school led to an internship at San Francisco General Hospital, then his first doctoring gig with the New Mexico State Department of Public Health attending to the medical needs of Hopi and Navajo reservations and serving as a surgeon at the Civilian Conservation

By the early ’40s, he’d returned to L.A., reunited with Dorothy Harvey Huston, recently divorced from John, married her, and quickly had four sons: Michael, John, me, and Kelvin.1 He was now the senior VD control officer for Los Angeles County and also operated his own private practice specializing in the treatment of venereal diseases in downtown L.A.

An esteemed, well-heeled physician with a wide range of interests, my father cultivated friendships with surrealist artist Man Ray, author Henry Miller, beat poet Kenneth Rexroth, and others. I remember the mid-1940s as a fun time as a young boy, playing with my brothers and meeting my parents’ glamorous friends at the architecturally distinctive John Sowden House on Franklin Avenue in Hollywood.

It wasn’t until 1999 that I discovered my mom and dad had actually divorced in 1944. Nor did I have the slightest inkling that the LAPD was investigating my father in connection with the death of his twenty-seven-year-old girlfriend and secretary, Ruth Spaulding, who died from an overdose of barbiturates on May 9, 1945.

I knew from family lore that Dad had joined the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Agency (UNRRA) and had become a military officer assigned to a billet in China at the end of World War II, but did not know of the details.

I have since discovered that in August, 1945, while the LAPD was actively investigating George Hodel as a possible murder suspect in the death of Ruth Spaulding, George made the application to UNRRA. In his application he requested to be stationed “anywhere overseas, but would prefer Asia.” He was accepted and after conducting some research at the “home office” in Washington, D.C., during the fall and winter of 1945, he was assigned as “chief regional medical officer” to Hankow, China. He arrived in early February 1946 and was given the honorary rank of lieutenant general and assigned a military jeep, complete with a three-star flag, a driver, his own personal cook, and two administrative aides. Just seven months later, in September 1946, Father unexpectedly resigned his commission and resumed his medical practice in Los Angeles.

From my seven-year-old perspective, my dad, who had recently returned from China, was extremely cool. He sometimes drove a military jeep; was tall, suave, and good-looking; and had an endless stream of beautiful young women lined up outside his home-office waiting to see him. Sure, every once in a while he took me down to the basement to whale on my backside with his belt. But I knew I had it coming. He’d caught he smoking a cigarette on the front steps.

There were multiple compensations, such as spying on my fourteen-year-old half-sister, Tamar, and other young ladies sunning themselves nude in the courtyard. Life with Dad was good.

Then suddenly, in 1950, just before my ninth birthday, the curtain came down. Mom packed my brothers and me into a friend’s pickup and drove us away from Hollywood. I didn’t learn the reason until ten years later, when I found out that my father had been accused of committing incest with Tamar.

The details were incredibly lurid, especially for the 1940s. Dad had sexual intercourse with his fourteen-year-old daughter in front of his friend Fred Sexton and two other adult women. After an abortion, Tamar ran away and was found by the police. During her detention and follow-up interview with LAPD Juvenile detectives, Tamar disclosed the details of the 1949 sex acts with her father, as well as the fact that he taught her how to perform oral sex several years prior, when she was just eleven.

Due to his high position as L.A. County’s chief V.D. control officer, Father’s 1949 arrest by the LAPD for child molestation and incest obviously made for front-page news.

At a preliminary hearing, witnesses, including Dad’s lifelong friend, Fred Sexton and the two women who had been present, testified to the facts surrounding the charges and testified to observing the sex acts. Father was “held to answer,” and a full jury trial was scheduled for December 1949.

Father immediately hired L.A.’s two top-gun criminal defense attorneys: Jerry Giesler and Robert Neeb to prepare his criminal defense. “Get Me” Giesler, was legendary for his ability to obtain acquittals. His client list was a Who’s Who of Hollywood luminaries that included Alexander Pantages (rape) Errol Flynn (sex crimes with juveniles), Charles Chaplin, Bugsy Siegel, Greta Garbo, Edward G. Robinson Jr. , Robert Mitchum, Busby Berkeley, and even the “Scopes Monkey Trial” attorney, Clarence Darrow. Now it was my father’s turn.

The three-week jury trial was held at the Los Angeles Hall of Justice, in December 1949. The People’s case was overwhelming. The witnesses testified to actually observing the sex acts between father and daughter. And the case was bolstered by the introduction of admissions made by George Hodel to the arresting detectives, in which he told them that he and his daughter “have been studying the mysteries of sex” and that “these things must have happened. I need to talk to my psychiatrist, but I am afraid he will find something wrong with me.” Incredibly, even with the prosecution’s airtight, slam-dunk case—the jury found him not guilty.

The defense team of Giesler and Neeb had worked their magic. Later police reports discovered in 2004 would document and suggest a possible $10,000 payoff may have been made during the trial, along with a separate police interview that established cash payoffs by Father to his abortionist accomplice, made just four days after the jury’s verdict. Regardless, Dad was acquitted. He and his attorneys were able to convince a jury that “the teenager had fantasized the whole thing.”

Tamar, branded forever in our family as “Tamar the liar,” was shipped back to San Francisco.

As summarized in my 2003 book, Black Dahlia Avenger: A Genius for Murder, and supported by electronic surveillance stakeouts and tape-recorded admissions found in the secret 1950 Hodel-DA Files, we now know that my father by his own admission was “The Black Dahlia Avenger” and murdered both Ruth Spaulding and Elizabeth Short. In the spring of 1950, tipped by his friends in law enforcement of his imminent arrest for the Dahlia murder, Father quickly slipped out of the country and moved to Hawaii, where he obtained a degree in psychiatry.

My brothers and I were left to fend for ourselves and help prop up our mother, who had become an alcoholic and was barely able to cope. We moved from one cheap rental in the Valley to another, trying to avoid the bill collectors, hoping our mother would stay sober enough to land a scriptwriting job with one of the film studios.

When I caught up with my father a decade later, in 1960, I had become a hospital corpsman in the U.S. Navy assigned to Subic Bay, Philippines, and he was as fabulous as ever. I’ll never forget our first reunion at Dad’s office/residence in Manila. Appropriately, he had leased Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s old WWII headquarters on Manila Bay. There he stood in front of his huge mahogany desk, larger than life, wearing his white sharkskin suit and chain smoking Havana cigars. At age fifty-two, he’d exchanged his life in L.A., doctoring to the rich and famous, for that of an international marketing executive based in Manila. And he’d replaced Mom and my brothers and me with a high-society Filipina wife and four handsome new children.

I tried not to judge him. I told him I still loved him. Despite his stiff formality, I found myself captivated by his personal charm and charisma. A true man of the world. Listening to his beautiful speaking voice reciting one adventure after the next—was spellbinding. With each weekend visit I became more enamored with my father’s lifestyle. During my two-year billet in the Philippines we wined, dined, and visited his favorite brothels on a regular basis. I learned that he and his Filipina wife, Hortensia, were living apart.

He eventually divorced her, too, after she bought an annulment from the Pope, and moved on to a succession of young Asian beauties that ended with him marrying his fourth wife, June, who at twenty-three was in charge of his Tokyo office.

The next thirty years my life was focused on my career as an LAPD homicide detective while during this same period, my father continued to build his company and reputation. By the 1970s the protean Dr. George Hill Hodel had reinvented himself as the most respected market research expert in Asia.

In 1990, just three years after my retirement from the LAPD my father and June (who by then had been married to him for twenty years) decided to relocate their lives and business to the United States. They chose downtown San Francisco and moved into an office/penthouse residence on Bush Street, in the heart of San Francisco’s financial district. For the next nine years I would be a regular visitor to their home and became very close to both my father and his most loving wife, June. My father died there of congestive heart failure in May 1999 at the age of ninety-one.


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