By Patrick Healy, NBCLosAngeles.com
It was one of those cases that seemed straight out of pulp fiction, a noir mystery written by one of those hard-boiled scribes who liked to surround damsels in distress with mobsters and movie stars.
Yet it was real life. And it defied solution.
Not because there were no clues. Perhaps because there were too many–all pointing in different directions.
The damsel was aspiring actress Jean Spangler, 26, whose mysterious 1949 disappearance is still considered an “open case” by LAPD’s cold case unit.
“It’s absolutely a classic noir mystery,” said Denise Hamilton, a former LA Times reporter turned novelist. She reveals that her mystery, “The Last Embrace,” was inspired by the Spangler case.
“You have a beautiful, young starlet. Brunette. She’s sultry. She’s tall. She’s leggy. And she’s trying to make it in Hollywood,” Hamilton said.
Black and white images from the Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection reinforce Hamilton’s description of Spangler, who appeared in half a dozen movies, just bit parts.
The late 1940s was a time when the studios still reigned over Hollywood, the mob ruled the Sunset Strip, and crooked politicians and police brass ran Los Angeles.
‘She’s a Party Girl’
A divorced mother of a five-year-old, Spangler was still looking for her big break, and making time for an active social life.
“She’s a party girl. She goes out with a lot of people: gangsters, movie stars, Hollywood executives. They found her little black book after she disappeared, and there were a lot of prominent names in it,” said Hamilton.
She was last seen near her Park LaBrea area apartment on the Friday evening of Oct. 7, 1949.
Over that weekend, a Griffith Park Ranger found a purse near the entrance to Ferndell. Inside was Spangler’s ID, and also a cryptic note addressed to someone named Kirk.
“Kirk: Can’t wait any longer,” it began. “Going to see Dr. Scott. It will work best this way while mother is away.”
Perhaps it was written in a hurry. It was not signed.
“Well, the supposition was that she was pregnant by this Kirk and that she was going to have an abortion,” said Hamilton. One acquaintance said Spangler was coming to the end of the first trimester.
The most famous Kirk then in Hollywood was the actor Kirk Douglas, who had just finished filming, “Young Man with a Horn,” in which Spangler had a small role.
Douglas spoke twice with LAPD investigators, insisting there was no personal relationship. Detectives believed him, and Douglas was cleared. Since abortion was then illegal, it was assumed that Dr. Scott was a phony name, and who he might have been was never pinned down.
Hamilton speculates there may have been a medical complication, perhaps it was fatal, and perhaps Dr. Scott–whoever he was–decided to hide the remains.
This was less than three years after the infamous Black Dahlia murder. The remains of victim Elizabeth Short had been surgically severed.
The Black Dahlia case has never been solved officially. And the possibility Spangler died during an illegal abortion remains a possibility never proven.
The discovery of the purse did prompt a massive search of Griffith Park. But no other clues were found. How the purse got there remains just one of the mysteries.
Detectives at the time pursued other leads. Shortly before her disappearance, Spangler had been seen partying in Las Vegas with two hoods named Frank Niccoli and Davey Ogul, henchman for LA mob boss Mickey Cohen.
They also disappeared about the same time. Like Spangler, they were never found. Perhaps Spangler got caught in the wrong place with the wrong people at the wrong time.
Possible, But Never Proven
Spangler had spoken of expecting to come into some money, prompting speculation that perhaps she was planning to blackmail someone. Perhaps that someone responded by killing her. Again, possible, never ruled out, but never proven.
Finally, there were ongoing tensions with her ex-husband, Dexter Benner. After their divorce, the child custody dispute over their daughter had been fierce. Benner accused Spangler of being an “unfit mother,” and the sensational headlines in the local papers gave her more name recognition than she had gotten for her budding movie career.
Spangler’s sister-in-law recalls that on that fateful final Friday evening, Spangler said she was going to meet with Benner to discuss overdue child support. Detectives contacted Benner and his new wife.
They said they had been together all evening, and they never saw Spangler. Detectives believed them. Not long after, Benner moved his family out of Los Angeles to the other side of the country, re-settling in Florida. Benner lived to the age of 87. He died five years ago.
In the years that followed Spangler’s disappearance, reported sightings popped up in the media–as would happen later with Elvis. But none proved out.
“We never get to the bottom of it,” observed author Hamilton, while re-visiting Ferndell, where Spangler’s purse was found. “At every step along the way in this case there are more questions.”
Hamilton suspects we may never learn what happened to Spangler. That of course, is part of the enduring fascination.
“The Jean Spangler case is a cautionary tale for all of us,” Hamilton said. And we’re drawn to the darkness like moths to a flame.”