Thursday, January 14, 2010

Truth Is Scarier Than Fiction

Last summer, after nearly 15 years as a freelancer, I took on a new kind of project: one that had a "gag order" attached to it. All the editor could tell me was that it was a true crime story and that I'd have to sign a nondisclosure agreement. Of course I said yes, not knowing it would also be the first nightmare-inducing book I'd ever worked on.

Most Evil by Steve Hodel chronicles the detective-author's investigation into his own father's heinous activities. Thanks to Hodel's work, it is now believed that Dr. George Hill Hodel was a serial killer, responsible for the Black Dahlia Avenger, Zodiac, Chicago "Lipstick killer," and other murders. This information came to light after the doctor had died of congestive heart failure in 1999, at the age of 91, his ashes spread around the Golden Gate Bridge. Hodel writes of spending a lot of time with his father in his final years, but that he "didn't really know him."

George Hill Hodel was born in 1907, the only son of well-educated Russian-born parents who'd settled in Pasadena, California. Multilingual, a musical prodigy, young George had a genius IQ. In fact, at age 13, his scholastic scores were the highest ever recorded in California's history. He proved successful at everything he tried, from newsreporting, radio hosting, medicine, and, later, business. What's more, Hodel was smooth. He could work a room, was handsome and well mannered, well dressed, and charismatic.

But there was an underbelly to Hodel. At age 16, while attending Caltech, he impregnated a faculty member's wife and got himself ousted while the woman fled East and named her daughter Folly. In his twenties Hodel lived as a young bohemian, smoking hashish and visiting opium dens, and was charged with incest after having sex with his 14-year-old daughter in the presence of several adult witnesses. And, as remarkable evidence suggests, he killed at least 22 people throughout his life, including several women in Manila in what was called the "Jigsaw Murders."

For the sake of brevity, I won't go into all the murders or any of the evidence. Read the book; explore Hodel's Web site. But it's the Suzanne Degnan story spawned the nightmare.

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