The Missing Star Spangler Girl: Inside the chilling, still unsolved disappearance of Jean Spangler
There's a woeful, familiar Hollywood parable about the dark side lurking among the fragrant orange groves and endless sunshine: A young, talented woman seeks fame and fortune, only to find immortality through tragedy. Jean Spangler is one such amaranthine dame, a 1940s aspiring starlet whose unsolved disappearance has more noir twists and turns than an M. Night Shyamalan adaptation of a James Ellroy novel.
Working her way up as a dancer and an extra, Spangler was intent on making it in Hollywood when she vanished at the age of 27 on Oct. 7, 1949. Her purse, with a torn handle and a cryptic note, was found two days later in Los Angeles' Griffith Park, but Spangler herself was never seen again. In their efforts to find her, police considered every possibility: a botched abortion, an ex-husband battling for custody of their young daughter, the Mafia, one of the world's most famous actors, and — perhaps the most shocking, headline-grabbing option of all — the notorious Black Dahlia killer. More than 70 years later, Spangler's disappearance still haunts the City of Angels. Was she the victim of medical malfeasance, the rage of a jealous lover spurned, the diabolical plot of an ex-spouse to assume full parental control — or a killer far more prolific and sinister?
In fall 1949, Spangler had been eking out a living as a dancer at Hollywood's Florentine Gardens (infamous for its link to 22-year-old murder victim and aspiring actress Elizabeth Short, who was found mutilated Jan. 15, 1947 — a mysterious case that became connected to other unsolved murders of young women, possibly at the hands of the Black Dahlia serial killer) and nabbing bit parts in films such as The Miracle of the Bells and Young Man With a Horn. Only days before her disappearance, Spangler wrapped production on The Petty Girl starring Robert Cummings (Dial M for Murder), whom she'd befriended on set.
While enjoying modest professional success, Spangler was also working through some personal drama that began when she married plastics manufacturer Dexter Benner in 1942 in a whirlwind wartime romance. She filed for divorce just six months later, citing cruelty, but they continued an on-again/off-again relationship, and Spangler gave birth to the couple's daughter, Christine, in April 1944. Benner was originally granted custody of Christine in 1946, and he reportedly denied Spangler the right to see her daughter, leading to what the Los Angeles Times referred to as a "bitter" custody battle, which Spangler ultimately won.
All seemed well enough on the night of Friday, Oct. 7, 1949. At 5:30 p.m. Spangler departed her Park La Brea apartment on Colgate Avenue, leaving 5-year-old Christine with her sister-in-law Sophie for the evening. Spangler's mother, Florence, with whom she shared the apartment, was away visiting relatives in Kentucky.
"She came down the stairs and asked how she looked," Sophie later told reporters. "She smiled at me, and then her little girl, Christine, asked where she was going. 'Going to work,' Jean answered again, but she winked at me when she said it." It was not unusual for Spangler to go to work late in the afternoon, as a bit player involved in night shoots. But — Sophie and dozens of others were left to wonder later — did that wink suggest Spangler was using "work" as a cover for something else?
This theory was further fueled by the fact that the Screen Extras Guild confirmed to investigators that Spangler had no call for work that night (TV studios also had no record of her employment for that date). According to the Los Angeles Times, Spangler called the apartment about two hours after she left, to ask about her daughter and tell Sophie not to expect her home until the next morning because she would be working a full eight-hour shift. When Spangler hadn't returned by Saturday night, Sophie called the police.
On Sunday morning, a Griffith Park worker discovered a handbag police identified as Spangler's in the Fern Dell area of the park. The handle was damaged, and the bag contained a note written by Spangler that read, "Kirk, Can't wait any longer. Going to see Dr. Scott. It will work best this way while mother is away." Thus began a hunt for Spangler — and the mysterious Kirk and Dr. Scott.
Beyond the purse's contents, no trace of Spangler was ever found, despite her desperate mother begging the media for help in finding her daughter and offering a $1,000 reward. The LAPD told EW that her disappearance remains an unsolved missing person case (it was never officially designated a homicide). Retired LAPD homicide detective Rick Jackson fielded inquiries about the case during his years on the force, largely because of the interest in its possible Black Dahlia connection. But there was no formal case file, apart from a notebook he made of documents related to it.
His former partner Det. Elizabeth Camacho confirmed to EW that no case file remains. "Forensically, I don't think anything was ever uncovered," Jackson says, noting that a murder report was never filed. "It was always a suspicious missing person [case]." Because of that classification, any existing evidence was likely discarded over the past seven decades, including the purse and accompanying note, which Jackson never saw outside of in photographs.
Though Spangler's mother always hoped her daughter was still alive — and tips came in through the years, with alleged sightings of the actress everywhere from Salinas to Long Beach — it seems most likely to authorities that she was murdered. "Nothing I've ever read would indicate [she skipped town]," Jackson reflects. "People generally don't do that kind of thing unless there's a motive or a unique set of reasons. Obviously, she cared for her daughter enough to get custody back. It just makes sense that she met foul play. There's no doubt she was dead, and that's why she never surfaced."
Hollywood's film sets, parties, and social scene all brought individuals into — and out of — Spangler's life. Looking more closely at those relationships, romances, and interactions could give insights into potential motives, as well as opportunities, for committing murder.
SUSPECT 1: THE MOVIE STAR
After examining the note in Spangler's purse, investigators turned to the best-known Kirk in the country, movie star Kirk Douglas, who'd worked with her. Douglas spoke with police over the phone while vacationing in Palm Springs. "I told Detective Chief Thad Brown that I didn't remember the girl or the name until a friend recalled it was she who worked as an extra in a scene with me in my picture Young Man With a Horn," Douglas (who died in 2020) was quoted as saying in the Oct. 13, 1949, issue of the San Bernardino Sun. "Then I recalled that she was a tall girl in a green dress and that I talked and kidded with her a bit on the set, as I have done with many other people. But I never saw her before or after that and have never been out with her."
Spangler's mother remembered her daughter mentioning a Kirk she met on set, but she had no recollection of what studio he might have worked at because of the transient nature of her daughter's day-player work. Meanwhile, Robert Cummings informed police that Spangler had told him a week prior to her disappearance that she was involved in a new romance. "I asked her if it was serious," he told the Los Angeles Times. "She said, 'Not exactly, but I'm having the time of my life.'" Could "Kirk" be the new beau she alluded to? The true identity of Kirk remains a mystery.
SUSPECT 2: THE DOCTOR
Spangler's note referenced a Dr. Scott, but her sister-in-law didn't recognize the name. At a press conference, Det. Lieut. Harry Didion confirmed the existence of a physician named Scott, saying he was "known to Miss Spangler and her coterie of nightclubbing friends." Yet police never located a Dr. Scott, with every Los Angeles County doctor answering to that name claiming to have no knowledge of Spangler. The only "Scott" identified in her life was an Army Air Corps lieutenant dubbed Scotty, though it's unknown if that was his surname. Spangler allegedly had an affair with the man while her husband was stationed overseas. She did tell a friend "Scotty" threatened her when she left him. But there was no evidence she ever saw him after breaking things off in 1945.
SUSPECT 3: THE MOB
The late 1940s was the age of mobster Mickey Cohen and his criminal enterprise's reign over Los Angeles, making him a flashy, if unlikely, suspect. One theory suggested Spangler disappeared with Cohen's henchmen, "Little Davy" Ogul and Frank Niccoli, who vanished around the same time. The press even investigated reports Spangler had been seen with them in Palm Springs a few days before she went missing. The two men were under indictment for conspiracy, but evidence indicates that they were the victims of a Mob hit.
SUSPECT 4: THE HUSBAND
Statistically, murders are most often committed by a person close to the victim — a partner, lover, spouse, or ex-spouse. For many, "the husband did it" is a true-crime maxim. In the case of Spangler, the person with the most to gain from her disappearance was her ex-husband, Benner, who once had primary custody of their daughter — and by all accounts wanted it again. Jackson believes Benner is the strongest suspect. At the time of Spangler's disappearance, police apparently questioned Benner, who said he hadn't seen Spangler for weeks.
By late October, Benner had already been awarded temporary custody of his daughter in a court battle with Spangler's mother. Remarried, he left California with the girl. Benner died in 2007, but Christine and his other children are still living. They did not respond to EW's attempts to contact them.
SUSPECT 5: THE SERIAL KILLER
Former LAPD homicide detective Steve Hodel thinks he knows who killed Spangler…his own father. Not only that, Hodel also says that Spangler was merely one of his dad's victims, because he believes his father, Dr. George Hodel, was the Black Dahlia killer. It's a case the younger Hodel laid out in his 2003 book Black Dahlia Avenger, and some of the evidence is compelling.
Spangler bore a striking resemblance to Black Dahlia victim Elizabeth Short, and both young women shared silver-screen aspirations. According to Hodel, district attorney documents and logs indicate police were attempting to tie the Short killing to Spangler's disappearance as well as to the murders of Jeanne French in 1947 and Gladys Kern in 1948.
In the 1940s, Dr. Hodel faced several run-ins with the law, including as a suspect in the murder of his secretary and an arrest on incest charges. The LAPD bugged his house in 1950, and despite indications of wrongdoing on those recordings, Hodel was never further charged. "He was performing abortions for the rich and famous — and a lot of [police] officers if their girls got in trouble," Hodel says. "The LAPD was a real-life L.A. Confidential back then."
Was Dr. Hodel the shadowy "Dr. Scott" in Spangler's note? Steve Hodel suspects Scott was another member of his father's active abortion ring, which was headed by a Dr. Audrain and populated with physicians who paid hush money to the LAPD. In his book, Hodel lays out the possibility that the "Kirk" in the note was Dr. Eric Kirk, a physician arrested for performing abortions just days prior to Spangler's disappearance. Hodel suggests the note was written after Kirk's arrest, signaling Spangler's urgent need for a new doctor. If an abortion ring connected to authorities was operating as they turned a blind eye, could the man in the note have been hiding in plain sight?
Additionally, Spangler's purse was found approximately a quarter of a mile from Dr. Hodel's residence, the Sowden House in the Los Feliz neighborhood. And Steve Hodel remembers that his older brother Duncan noted that their father was dating a "gorgeous actress-type named Jean" around this time.
Newspaper accounts (including California's Colton Courier and the Oakland Tribune and Wisconsin's News-Record) of the final sightings of Spangler in the wee hours on Oct. 8 also match Dr. Hodel's description. A popular radio DJ of the era, Al "The Sheik" Lazaar, who conducted tableside interviews, reported seeing Spangler at a Sunset Strip restaurant at about 2:30 a.m. She appeared to be arguing with two men, and when Lazaar approached the table, the men waved him away. The proprietor of the restaurant, Terry Taylor, also reported seeing Spangler earlier that evening, at a front table with a "clean-cut fellow about 30 or 35."
Spangler may have called for help later that night at a gas station near the Sunset Strip. A station attendant named Art Rodgers told police that a man and woman matching Spangler's description came to the station in a blue-gray convertible early that morning. The man bought gas and told Rodgers they were headed to Fresno, but as they drove off, the woman, who "shrank down" in the passenger seat, cried out, "Have the police follow this car!" Rodgers called police, but by the time they responded, the trail was cold.
Hodel believes his father was this man spotted with Spangler. He fits the description, and he drove a 1936 black Packard sedan resembling the one Rodgers described. The vehicle also matches descriptions of cars seen leaving the Short crime scene — in 1947, as investigators struggled to crack the Black Dahlia case, the Los Angeles Examiner printed a map with the headline "Black Sedan Hunted in L.A. as Death Car." Was this the same car?
Hodel thinks so. "It's my belief she started dating Dad either late September or early October," he says. "He gets arrested for incest [on Oct. 6] and bails out the same day. Then the night of her disappearance she's seen talking to this guy in the restaurant, and they're arguing. She knew something." His father was possibly driven to kill Spangler following an argument over charges of incest filed by his daughter Tamar. "Though [Dad] didn't necessarily need a reason," he adds.
Determined to find definitive evidence of his father's crimes, Hodel got clearance to look for forensics at the Sowden House in 2012. He hired retired police sergeant Paul Dostie to walk the property with his dog Buster. During two searches, in November 2012 and September 2013, Dostie recovered soil samples from the basement and the slope behind the house, where Buster indicated the smell of human remains. Forensic anthropologist Arpad Vass tested the samples and identified the presence of human remains in the soil. Based on chemical distribution, Vass believes human remains most likely could be found in an area adjacent to the Sowden House lot.
In an only-in-Hollywood twist, that home belonged to That '70s Show star Laura Prepon at the time. Hodel says the LAPD brushed off the discovery, but he reached out to Prepon via her attorney, requesting permission to conduct a noninvasive sweep of her property. His request was denied, says Hodel, who adds that he has not followed up on searching that space since the fall of 2013 but intends to "down the road." (Prepon's spokesperson declined to comment to EW, stating the actress no longer owns the property in question.)
Still, Hodel suspects that answers are hidden in that soil. "It could well be the body of a Jane Doe whose body was never found…or Jean Spangler," he asserts.
It's an open-ended question that few alive are still asking. This question mark that has stood at the end of Spangler's story for 70 years could one day be replaced with a more finite piece of punctuation. But like any noirish tale, Spangler's story ends, for now, with a twisted bit of cynical moral musing: Hollywood may boast more stars than the heavens, but sometimes you have to get down in the dirt when looking for the truth.