So, before we jump into The Zodiac, our final unsolved killer, let’s talk a little bit about Dr. George Hill Hodel Jr. I bring this up because it is nearly impossible to talk about The Zodiac or the Black Dahlia or the Lipstick Murders without the name coming to the forefront.
Dr. George Hill Hodel Jr. is dead. That did not stop his son, Steve Hodel, a former LAPD homicide detective from accusing him of murder. Or rather, several murders. In fact, if you read Hodel’s books, his father is responsible for The Black Dahlia murder (1947), the Lonely Women murders in LA (1940s), the Lipstick Murders in Chicago (also 1940s), and The Zodiac killings (1960s).
Now, there is little doubt that William Heirens, the man convicted of the Lipstick Murders was probably not responsible, despite multiple confessions. Most of the evidence was circumstantial at best and fabricated at worst. He seems to have been a suspect of convenience without the ability to help in his defense. However, he did die in custody and was still serving his life sentence for the Lipstick Murders.
The problem with the Lipstick Murders has always been the victims themselves. Brown and Ross were both adult women who were murdered in their homes. Degnan was six years old and kidnapped, held for ransom (theoretically), and murdered somewhere else. Also, there was a political motivation to kidnap Degnan. She was the daughter of an executive at the Office of Price Administration. They were dealing with a strike and considering extending rationing at the time of her kidnapping. Furthermore, another executive had received threats of just such a thing happening and his family had been put into protective custody. Therefore, it seems unusual that the Degnan kidnapping and murder would be somehow connected to the murders of two adult women.
Degnan, Ross, and Brown were all stabbed, but that’s where the similarities end. Ross and Brown, the adult victims were brutally stabbed and in both cases, police believed they had surprised a burglar despite no valuables being taken. In the case of Brown, it went further, she was also shot (most say in the head) and a message was written on her mirror in her lipstick begging the police to catch the killer before they could do it again.
Degnan was stabbed, but she was also dismembered. The writing on the mirror in Brown’s apartment was not nearly as poor quality (language wise) as the Degnan ransom note, which was full of misspellings and grammar errors despite only containing about twenty words. The dismembering was said to be of skilled precision, which does connect it to the Elizabeth Short murder that would happen 2 years later, but does not seem to connect it to the Ross and Brown murders.
Even the FBI was of the opinion that the Degnan kidnapping/murder and the Brown/Ross murders were not connected. They did not believe Heirens was responsible for any of the murders and actually refuted some expert testimony given by the prosecution. The prosecution even believed their case was incredibly weak. In the case of Ross/Brown a man in his 30s of slight build was described as lingering around before the murders. In the case of Degnan, a man in his 30s or 40s of heavier build was seen lingering around the time of her disappearance (too much weight to actually be added in the short month between the Brown murder and the Degnan kidnapping). Heirens was a man of 18 with a slight build, mostly because he was shorter than both the witnessed suspects. Heirens conviction actually came because his own lawyers decided he was guilty and in an attempt to avoid the death penalty convinced him to confess… which he did… only, he got important details wrong… and the entire thing was a debacle.
Surprisingly, George Hodel does fit the description of a man in his 30s or 4os with a slight build in the mid-1940s, which muddies the issue a little more. Witnesses described the man outside the Degnan home as being around 170 pounds. Hodel was definitely not 170 pounds or even close to it. So, he fits the description of the man who was loitering around the Brown/Ross murders (who was put at 140 pounds), but not the Degnan kidnapping. However, he has the skills to dismember Degnan. Even weirder though, the Chicago police originally decided that a woman was responsible for the Brown/Ross murders. Hodel, slight or not, was not likely to be mistaken for a woman. To add to the weirdness, Heirens also couldn’t be mistaken as a woman and the only evidence that the Brown/Ross murders were even remotely connected to the Degnan murder was the fact that a woman was seen a few hours before the kidnapping outside the Degnan home chasing after children (she even scratched one them). However, this does not support Hodel (or Heirens) as the culprit in either the Ross/Brown or Degnan murders.
Now, the story gets even more complicated…
Dr. George Hill Hodel Jr probably is responsible for the murder and bisection of Elizabeth Short (The Black Dahlia) and the murder of his secretary who died of a forced overdose. As a matter of fact, he was the prime suspect in 1948 for the Elizabeth Short murder. There is even evidence that he was responsible for other murders in Los Angeles during the 1940s. And he did travel to Chicago around the time of the murders of Brown/Ross. Aside from being a physician; Hodel was being investigated for bribing officials in LA, performing illegal abortions, and racketeering since not everyone he associated with was on the right side of the law. He may very well have been responsible for the Lonely Women murders of the early 1940s. I would be interested in knowing if he was in Cleveland during the 1930s…
And now for the final layer…
Dr. Hodel was born in 1907. That means when the first official Zodiac kill took place, he would have been 6o or so. That would explain why he changed his MO so drastically. While the Zodiac did stab some of his victims, he mostly shot them and tormented the police via letters. Hodel seemed to be more hands on, but since he was in his 60s, that would have been harder for him to accomplish.
Also, there were letters in the Black Dahlia case called the Black Dahlia Avenger letters that have been attributed to Hodel Jr. The language and style of speaking is very similar to that in the known Zodiac letters.
Then there is the radian hint; one of the Zodiac postcards contained a huge Zodiac symbol (the circle with the cross through it) and later mentioned radians, inches to larger increments, and Mt. Diablo. In 1981, a radian was put on Mt. Diablo and it did mark two of the known locations of Zodiac attacks.
Hodel Jr was a genius with an IQ near 170. He probably would have known and understood a radian (two radians must always equal the full circumference of a circle and always equals 180 degrees…knowing where to put the start of a radian is an exact science which is why it is impressive).
Hodel Jr. was a follower of the work of Man Ray, who mostly did work in photography and was tied to dadaism and surrealism in the art world. Both used positioning as a source of beauty in their work. Short was definitely posed during her disposal. The Zodiac had a thing for positions as well, although, they appear to be more geographical based on the radian. Furthermore, Hodel Jr. loved the Mikado and the Zodiac did quote from the Mikado.
Unfortunately, Hodel in no way, shape, or form resembles the witness statements or the composite sketch of The Zodiac. Also, The Zodiac was said to be in his forties, maybe thirties, with brown hair. Hodel had black hair and even as a spry 60 year old, he would have had trouble passing as a man in his forties. I’ve inserted a picture here of Hodel from the 1940s and the composite of The Zodiac to really show what I mean about him not matching the description:
Even as a younger man, Hodel doesn’t really fit The Zodiac composite (I’m being generous by pretending that, with some tweaking, he might, at some point, resemble it).
In an odd twist (yes, there have already been many), a teacher in France supposedly deciphered the code used in the Zodiac name letter. Using some sort of ancient Celtic text, he found the name Hodel inside the 13-letter cipher. However, this happened in 2015, after the release of a couple books by Steve Hodel accusing his father of being The Zodiac and the results have not been independently verified by cryptographers.
Also, Steve Hodel presents over 30 different MOs used by his father over the course of his killing years (which seems to span all of George Hodel’s adult life). For a single serial killer, this isn’t just unheard of, it’s unfathomable. Most MO changes are due to either partnerships changing or disability/injury. While it is not impossible for a serial killer to change MO for no other reason than he can, that many changes is… bizarre. It can’t even be claimed as smart because by all accounts, The Zodiac, wanted attention for his kills and changing MOs that often would ensure the exact opposite.
So, what does this really long blog post really mean? It means that while I would say Dr. George Hill Hodel Jr. was behind the Black Dahlia murder and perhaps a handful of others in the 1940s in LA, it is highly unlikely that he was involved with The Zodiac murders 20 years later and I’m not going to spend much, if any, time putting that theory forward when I discuss The Zodiac tomorrow.
* Side notes:
I have read Hodel’s books and he makes a compelling argument for his father being The Zodiac. However, there are a lot of things left to the imagination with his theories; one is the composite sketch, another is his father not being in town during one of the known murders, another is the description of the man police talked to after the murder of the taxi driver – he was too short and young to be Hodel Jr., then there is the slight limp reported by witnesses to the taxi driver’s murder, a limp Hodel Jr didn’t have, but Zodiac appeared to have all the time – it was also reported by the survivor of the Lake Berryessa attack and the attempted kidnapping of Kathleen Johns when the man got out to fix her tire. Because of these inconsistencies, I am more inclined to believe that a 25 year old Dr. Hodel Jr. was responsible for the Cleveland Torso Murders than I am that a 60 year Dr. Hodel Jr. was The Zodiac. I admit that part of this does stem from a bias: I find the evidence that Richard Gaikowski was The Zodiac to be more compelling than any other official suspect or the evidence presented by Steve Hodel against Dr. George Hodel Jr.
Also, while I do not believe that William Heirens was responsible for the Lipstick Murders; I do not believe that the kidnapping/murder of Susan Degnan is related to the Lipstick Murders either. I am not convinced that Dr. Hodel Jr was responsible either. Some of the evidence found in the Brown/Ross murders was long black hair, which is one of the reasons the Chicago Police Department originally thought a woman was responsible, and while Hodel did have black hair, it wasn’t unusually long for a man.
In the case of Degnan, it is very likely that a pissed off cattle slaughterer was responsible (they were the ones striking and dairy rationing weakened their position since the country wanted dairy – the war had just ended and that was supposed to bring about the end of rationing, the strike causing the OPA to prolong that rationing had detrimental effects to the movement itself because society was not supportive and eventually caused the union to submit to terms it didn’t entirely agree were beneficial to its workers). Furthermore, Dr. Hodel Jr. has no other child victims on the list of suspected kills, even when you figure in The Zodiac and Jigsaw Murders (he would if he were The Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run).
One of the links between Degnan and Hodel put forth by the book was that Elizabeth Short supposedly went to Chicago and snooped around the Degnan murder and this was part of the reason for her murder two years later. However, this is not really supported by evidence and for all intents and purposes, Short was a hostess at a gentleman’s club (these were dance clubs not strip joints in LA in the 1940s and made her an entertainer…just as likely, she was a prostitute which has been largely and vehemently denied over the years, but is still a very hard possibility to ignore since other women at the club were prostitutes). Why would an escort/entertainer look into the murder of a little girl?
As a final note; Steve Hodel did put forth his father as a candidate for the Jigsaw Murders in the Philippines. Dr. Hodel Jr and his wife did move to the Philippines shortly after the murder of Elizabeth Short. The Jigsaw Murders are not widely known in the US, but they were carried out in the 1950s. In each case, a woman was found mutilated and dismembered (hence the moniker of Jigsaw Murders as someone remarked that putting them back together was like assembling a jigsaw puzzle). This would line up with what we know about Dr. Hodel Jr.’s skills as a surgeon/physician and his involvement in the bisection of Elizabeth Short. In fact, Dr. Hodel would be an excellent suspect in these murders and I believe him quite likely to be guilty as they stopped when he returned to the US. Despite the fact that these are the most believable murders to associate with Dr. Hodel Jr. aside from the The Black Dahlia murder, Steve Hodel spent what I felt was very little time making his case for his father being involved in them. His arguments are even less persuasive regarding the Jigsaw Murders than the Zodiac murders.