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Southern California's thirteen most infamous unsolved murders

By
Kate Wertheimer
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There's a seedy underbelly to every city, but Los Angeles and the surrounding area tends to mix Hollywood glamour with its urban horrors, making for tragic yet salacious mysteries that we just can't get enough of, even decades later. Just in time for Halloween, we've collected 13 of Southern California's most infamous unsolved mysteries—the suspicious deaths that still haunt the city to this day.

Warning: Some of the stories below are a bit sexually and violently graphic—if you're in the mood for some lighter fare, check out the best places to go trick-or-treating with the kids, or get your topical Halloween costume in order. Can't get enough of the gory stuff? Check out our list of the 18 most notorious L.A. serial killers.

1921: The death of Virginia Rappe  

Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, one of the most well-known silent movie stars of the time, was accused of murdering actress Virgina Rappe, 30, at a Labor Day party in 1921 held to celebrate Arbuckle's signing of a million-dollar contract with Paramount. He allegedly ruptured her bladder during a violent sexual encounter, which caused her death. Arbuckle was on trial three times, and though he was never convicted, his acting career was ruined. Other possible causes of Rappe's death include cystitis exacerbated by alcohol consumption, a botched abortion or even a potential venereal disease.

 

1922: The murder of William Desmond Taylor

Successful silent film director William Desmond Taylor was found dead, shot in the back, in his bungalow on February 2, 1922. He had last been seen the night before, around 7:45pm, by his friend Mabel Normand. Though there were multiple suspects with convincing motives, a crowd gathered in the house before the police arrived, making evidence collection nearly impossible. No one was ever convicted of the murder.

 

1924: The murder of Thomas Ince

Thomas Ince, the silent film mogul known as "the father of the Western," died on November 19, 1924 aboard the yacht of newspaper mogul Wiliam Randolph Hearst. The official cause of death was listed as heart trouble, but sordid rumors about Hearst's mistress, actress Marion Davies, surrounded Ince's death for years. One tale says that Hearst, suspicious that Davies was having an affair with Charlie Chaplin, found the two below deck together and shot at them, with Ince taking the bullet in place of Chaplin. Another tale says Hearst simply mistook Ince for Chaplin and shot him outright.

 

1944: The murder of Georgette Bauerdorf

On October 12, 1944, 20-year old Georgette Bauerdorf was found dead, face-down in her bathtub with a washcloth stuffed into her mouth. At first, police had the audacity to suggest that Bauerdorf, an aspiring actress and the daughter of a wealthy oil tycoon, simply slipped and drowned, but autopsy reports confirmed she had been beaten, raped and suffocated. Bauerdorf's car and $100 were missing, though the car showed up 12 miles from her apartment the next day. Bauerdorf was a hostess at a nearby gentlemen's club and supposedly had a serviceman caller whose feelings for her were unrequited; authorities tried to find the man but had no luck.

 

1947: The Black Dahlia murder

On January 15th, 1947, a 22-year old woman named Elizabeth Short (a waitress and young Hollywood hopeful) was found dead in Leimert Park. Short had been cut completely in half, most of the blood drained from her body, with lacerations on her face from her mouth to her ears. She also had lacerations and bruises on her wrists, indicating that she may have been tied up and even tortured. She was given the nickname "the Black Dahlia" and despite multiple investigations and much media attention, her assailant was never apprehended. To this day, people still theorize about who committed the crime; former LA police department detective Steve Hodel spent 15 years putting together evidence suggesting his father was the murderer—just one of many theories that persist, still capturing Angelenos' morbid imaginations.

 

1962: The murder of James Gilmore, Jr.

"Jimmy" Gilmore was a delinquent 14-year old child from Baldwin Park who wreaked havoc with a local motorcycle gang and didn't get along with his mother. On January 7, 1962, Jimmy and his little brother Wayne were home alone when they heard a knock at the back door. Jimmy went outside and never returned. After three days, his mother filed a missing persons report, but told the police her son had probably just run off with friends. In March of 1985, over a decade after the Gilmores had moved out of the house, Jimmy's skeleton was found buried in a shallow grave under the house by a worker doing renovations. Though his remains had been under the house for over two decades, neither the Gilmores nor the family who moved in afterward complained of a smell. Jimmy's entire family was given a polygraph test, and all three passed, leaving no suspects in the case.

 

1977: The murder of Christa Helm

Christa Helm was a young party girl and aspiring actress who would meet and then seduce the big names in Hollywood, supposedly in an attempt to further her career. Helm was found beaten and stabbed to death outside her agent's home in West Hollywood in 1977. Helm took so many lovers, both male and female, that the potential suspect list was incredibly long, but the police never had any promising leads. Those close to her insisted that Helm kept a diary of all her sexual exploits, and that someone may have harmed her in order to keep the diary's contents a secret, but no diary was ever found. 

 

1978: The bludgeoning of Bob Crane

Hogan's Heroes star Bob Crane had the nefarious habit of filming his sexual exploits, sometimes with the help of friend John Henry Carpenter (not to be confused with the horror film director). On June 29, 1978 Crane was found bludgeoned to death, potentially with a tripod. The authorities suspected Carpenter, though it could also have been a jealous boyfriend or husband, or even a former lover of Crane's who didn't want to be taped. Carpenter was eventually charged with the murder in 1994, then subsequently acquitted due to insufficient evidence.

 

1981: The drowning of Natalie Wood

Natalie Wood (of West Side Story and Rebel Without A Cause fame) had a rocky marriage with actor Robert Wagner—they divorced in 1957 and remarried in 1972. On November 28, 1981, Wood's body was found bruised and floating in a cove off Catalina Island, where she, Wagner and their friend Christopher Walken had spent the night on a yacht. Though authorities concluded that she simply slipped off the dock while taking the dinghy to shore, Wagner and Walken were seen fighting the night before—potentially over Wood's, er, closeness with Walken. To further complicate things, Wood was afraid of water, making the likelihood of her taking a boat ride alone and at night very slim. Wood's case was reopened by the LAPD in 2011, but neither Wagner nor Walken are suspects, though boat captain Dennis Davern came out to say that he'd seen Wood and Wagner fighting on the night she died.

 

1983: The murder of Peter Ivers

Peter Ivers was a well-known musician in the '70s and '80s; he wrote part of the score for David Lynch's Eraserhead and hosted the variety show New Wave Theatre, which featured punk and new wave acts. Ivers was found bludgeoned to death in his apartment in 1983. A large group of his friends gathered in his apartment soon after his death, and may have destroyed important evidence. Ivers had so many friends and acquaintances, in fact, that the pool of suspects was overwhelming—the possibility was also considered that Ivers' death may have simply been a robbery gone wrong.

 

1994: The death of Michelle Von Emster

On April 15, 1994, the naked body of a woman later to be identified as local transient Michelle Von Emster was found floating in the water off a Point Loma beach. She was horribly mutilated: missing her right leg, with chunks of flesh either missing or covered in bruises and bite marks. She was apparently alive at the time she was attacked, and suffered cracked ribs and a broken neck in addition to her other wounds. Although the San Diego medical examiner at the time, Brian Blackbourne, ruled the bites and mutilation to be the work of sharks, he later confessed that he knew nothing about sharks. Most of the bite marks on Emster's body were too small to have come from a great white, and were most likely made by smaller blue sharks after her death. But questions remain: Emster's clothing was never found; it was only 60 degrees the night she was last seen, too cold for a night swim; she also had a large amount of sand in her lungs. There is much speculation that Emster was attacked and thrown into the water to die.

 

1997: The shooting of Biggie Smalls

The famed rapper, 24, real name Christopher George Latore Wallace, was killed in a drive-by shooting on March 9, 1997 by an unknown suspect dressed in a blue suit and a bow tie driving a Chevy Impala. Many believe that Biggie's death was somehow related to that of his rap rival Tupac Shakur, who was killed in a drive-by shooting in Las Vegas six months prior, but the LAPD never solved the case. 

 

1998: The murder of Stephanie Crowe

On the morning of January 21, 1998, 12-year old Stephanie Crowe was found dead in the doorway of her room. Though she had been stabbed nine times, police could not gather sufficient DNA evidence, nor did they ever find the murder weapon. Stephanie's family members all claim they did not see or hear anything out of the ordinary during the night. Eventually, Crowe's brother Michael admitted to the murder under extreme coercion and manipulation by local authorities. He was initially charged but never prosecuted, as his confession was forced. Schizophrenic drifter Richard Tuite was another suspect; he'd been seen in the Crowes' neighborhood the night before Stephanie's death, banging on doors looking for a girl named Tracy. He was convicted for the murder in 2005, but acquitted after a trial in 2013 due to lack of evidence.

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