On June 20, 1947, an unknown assailant sprayed bullets through the living room window of a Beverly Hills home, killing gangster Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel as he sat on his lover’s couch reading the evening paper. Almost 70 years later, the lushly landscaped Spanish home blends in with its posh surroundings, except for the buses that pull up daily to disgorge tourists eager to experience L.A.’s dark past. It’s a busy itinerary for those on the murder circuit, because L.A. is a city of ghosts, a spectral landscape teeming with invisible gravestones. It’s only if you know where to look that these anonymous sites and their sad stories snap into focus.
Even in a metropolis built on fame, murder is the great leveler. It can bestow the same notoriety on actor Sal Mineo—stabbed to death in a West Hollywood alley in 1976—as it can on retired airline clerk Hervey Medellin, whose head was found last year by dogs below the Hollywood sign. I can’t run in the Hollywood Hills without thinking of him—or about all the people who pass through the area without being any the wiser.
The dead are lost amid the sheer size of the city, an ever-expanding geography of violent endings. Here’s the Pyrenees Castle in Alhambra where Phil Spector shot actress Lana Clarkson. There’s Wonderland Avenue in Laurel Canyon where four people with drug ties to porn star John Holmes were massacred. Shall we order gnocchi tonight at Vitello’s, the Studio City eatery where Robert Blake took his wife, Bonny Lee Bakley, the night she was killed just around the corner? Is that the Beverly Hills intersection where Hollywood publicist Ronni Chasen was gunned down late one night in 2010 in her Mercedes, a scenario that reads more like the opening of a film noir than a news story? In L.A. it’s usually only the poor and unlucky who die on the streets. Unlike in Chicago or New York, much of our violence unfolds behind tall gates and closed doors.
Not long ago I visited a Crenshaw neighborhood of tract homes and visualized the fields that sprawled here when the Black Dahlia’s severed body was discovered in 1947. The sidewalk is clean; the parkway, green. The tidy homes reveal no secrets. I seek a moment of stillness to feel whether Elizabeth Short’s presence lingers, but the nearby traffic distracts me and everything looks so eerily…normal.
As a crime novelist and reporter, I’m often haunted most by the anonymous victims—the ordinary folks like me and my kids and the people we know. Consider the 18-year-old boy killed while eating at a food truck on Alvarado, the 17-year-old girl allegedly hit by a gang bullet outside Carson’s Bistro 880, the man beaten to death and buried in sand at Venice Beach. Once I stood outside a boarded-up, condemned building in Santa Monica where a 14-year-old chronic runaway was found murdered by her Satanist street kid boyfriend in a basement of overflowing toilets, pentagrams, and damp earth. And I wondered, Do bricks and mortar retain memories of crimes committed in airless rooms? Can violence sear a pattern into walls that no layers of paint can cover? Is this small patch of earth forever cursed?
With every life taken, police tape goes up. Investigators dust surfaces. Loved ones leave flowers, candles, photos, and mementos at sidewalk shrines, but the sun bleaches everything of color—even bloodstains—and nocturnal fog smears the ink on good-bye notes. It’s only when the Santa Anas blow their devil winds and scatter the tatterdemalion offerings that the voices of the departed wail in the alleys and fancy boulevards, the tenements, mansions, and street corners, saying, “Don’t forget us. We, too, lived and laughed.” If we lit a candle for each victim back to the pueblo days of shoot-outs and lynchings, L.A. would be engulfed in flames.
A former reporter with the Los Angeles Times, Denise Hamilton recently published her seventh book, Damage Control (Scribner).