One of the “Tragic Mysteries in Local History” Has Been All But Forgotten

The 1940 murder of 9-year-old L.A. girl Dorothy Lee Gordon remains unsolved today

It was around 5 p.m. on March 5, 1940. Nine-year-old Dorothy Lee Gordon and her friend Christine Pollard were walking home from L.A.’s Cornerstone Baptist Church, where they’d been rehearsing f0r the upcoming Easter play. It was a perfectly normal L.A. evening in the friendly, then-predominately black neighborhood, with school children and adults all around. Then a man in a grey sedan pulled up alongside Dorothy and Christine at the intersection of 17th Street and Hooper Avenue. He stood out in L.A.’s Central-Alameda neighborhood—he was middle-aged, bareheaded, and white.

“Get in the car, Dorothy,” he’s said to have commanded. “I’m going your way.”

Dorothy did as she was told. “My wife had told her never to go with any strange man, and if accosted, to call for help,” her father, Willie, later told the L.A. Times. But Dorothy didn’t seem scared, and the man knew her name. In the calmest, most insidious way, Dorothy had been kidnapped.

L.A.’s black community sprang into action. Together with local women’s clubs, the Reverend D.C. Austin of  Cornerstone Baptist formed the Eastside Citizens Committee to help find Dorothy. Collecting “pennies, nickels, and dimes,” they were able to put together a reward of over $200 for information. The NAACP and the Los Angeles Sentinel also offered rewards, as did local business owners. But it was not enough. As one week turned into two, the Reverend Austin issued a plea:

“A human life is at stake. We are asking for human assistance…not gossip, not personal opinions, but action. An innocent child has disappeared, a mother’s heart is broken. Her words…echo …through my mind. ‘Is my baby alive? If so is she hungry or cold; is she in pain, crying for mother?’…We must keep fighting for Dorothy’s return dead or alive. We must show the world that our children must be protected. Our women must be shielded. Our American citizenship must be recognized.”

At a contentious City Council meeting the week prior, a fight almost broke out when council members refused to offer a reward. Leaders of the black community then appealed directly to Governor Culbert Olson, who on March 21 offered a $1,000 reward on behalf of the state.

The LAPD conducted an exhaustive manhunt, the likes of which had seldom been seen since the kidnapping and murder of 12-year-old Marian Parker in 1926. Based on what may have been prejudice, scores of officers “searched Gypsy camps and hobo jungles” and migrant camps in the San Joaquin Valley. Garages were searched for the suspect’s car. On March 23, the Los Angeles Times reported:

“On the theory that Dorothy…may have been killed and her body thrown in some isolated field, detectives today will make an extended flight in the Goodyear blimp over the county’s more remote sections. They expressed the belief that if the body were in such a location it could be more readily seen by use of binoculars from the airship that by search parties on the ground.”

As the weeks dragged on with no sign of Dorothy, even the white media—which usually ignored L.A.’s black community—breathlessly covered the case. In an age before Amber Alerts, radio stations broadcast descriptions of Dorothy and her captor. A drawing by an L.A. Examiner artist of the kidnapper and his victim were distributed in newspapers and circulars all over the Southwest and beyond.

The mysterious white perpetrator became the new boogey man of Southern California. Residents called in tips from as far away as San Diego, and countless men were brought in for questioning. On March 31, that L.A. Times reported that a cook named Frank Moreland was almost assaulted by an angry mob in downtown L.A.

“Moreland was arrested after he assertedly seized a 10-year old girl at 761 Wall St. when she refused his offer to go ‘to a movie’ with him. The child jerked out of his grasp and ran and ran. Pedestrians chased Moreland to Sixth and San Pedro Sts., where he was captured and held until police arrived in time to save him from threats of the crowd to ‘beat him up.'”

“You haven’t got anything on me on the Gordon girl case,” he cried to the police. “I’ve got an alibi. I wasn’t here.” Indeed, the police did not have anything on him, and were forced to let him go.

One of the most promising suspects was British-born Percy Hicks, a laborer accused of attempting to lure three East L.A. schoolgirls into his car on the same day Dorothy disappeared. Dorothy’s friend Christine Pollard—upon being shown Hicks in a line-up—said that he looked like the man who had taken her friend.

The LAPD’s suspicion rose when they found a shack behind a junkyard where Hicks claimed to “take a sleep” occasionally. In the shack were “a bloodstained newspaper, a paring knife, a large amount of black hair,” and a child’s sandal. However, it seems the evidence was not sufficient to hold Hicks, and he was released.

As March rolled into April, the LAPD was getting desperate. Working on a tip, they flooded miles of storm drains around Slauson and McKinley avenues in an attempt to find Dorothy’s body or uncover a clue. But nature would soon give up Dorothy in a horrifying and heartbreaking way.

According to the Los Angeles Times:

“Hidden by grass and wildflowers, the body of little Dorothy Gordon, 9-year-old schoolgirl missing for more than a month, was found yesterday. The discovery, which ended a search in which authorities and volunteer workers had combed the Southland, was made by Frank Roman, Paramount property department worker, and two assistants in county territory near Del Rey.”

The men had been collecting moss and grass for the set of the movie Northwest Mounted Police. Dorothy’s body, clad in a brightly colored dress which had been slashed repeatedly with a sharp object, had been buried in a two-foot-grave in a semi-seated position. Recent rains had exposed the body. Upon preliminary examination, the county’s autopsy surgeon was unable to determine whether Dorothy had been “mistreated,” but was confident she had been murdered. An official cause of death was never determined, although it was later reported that she had been raped.

Angelenos were horrified and banded together across color lines. In an editorial entitled “This Killer Must Be Caught,” one reporter wrote; “Let it not be said that there is any less vigor and determination back of the pursuit of the Gordon girl’s fiendish slayer than there would have been had the little victim been white.” Another editorial sounded an alarm to parents:

“No child is safe as long as the slayer of Dorothy Gordon is alive… Every parent should warn his child to have nothing at all to do with any stranger. Tell the children to report any case of molestation to adults immediately. In addition, local residents should keep a sharp lookout for any strangers who are seen near schools or playgrounds and who are loitering there.”

The usual suspects, including known “morals offenders,” were rounded up, but the case remained unsolved. In 1941, Christine and another witness identified a mattress-maker named James McPherson as the kidnapper in a line-up at Central Jail, but he was eventually released.

And so, the years went on. So ingrained in L.A.’s collective memory was the story of Dorothy Gordon, that in 1949 a mentally-disturbed man named Robert Stewart Cox confessed to killing Elizabeth Short, “the Black Dahlia,” and a “small negro girl” many years before. He was booked on suspicion for the murder of Dorothy but was soon released.

Dorothy’s brutal murder tore her family apart. According to a 1951 article in the Los Angeles Sentinel, her parents divorced, her mother fell “quite ill,” and her father remarried and moved away. The same article offered a fresh reward for leads in the case, referring to it as “one of the tragic mysteries in local history.” Those who remembered knew that time was not on their side:

“It’s been more than 11 years since all that remained of the little Eastside girl was found in a Del Rey area field. More than 11 years and the man who raped and killed her hasn’t been apprehended. Some two dozen suspects have been questioned, re-questioned, and released in connection with the Gordon slaying. As the dust of time grows heavier and heavier in the case, and people who were associated with it die out, retire, or move elsewhere, the chances of the killer ever being brought to justice grow slimmer and slimmer.”

With no resolution, Dorothy’s fate became a murky cautionary tale in L.A.’s African-American community. “Will your child be an Easter Week Victim?” one headline read in 1957. Occasionally, Stanley Robertson of the Los Angeles Sentinel would write about Dorothy’s case in his column, “Do you remember?” But by the late ‘80s, these mentions had ceased.

As of the reporting of this story, neither the LAPD nor the L.A. County Sheriff’s office was able to locate Dorothy Lee Gordon’s case file.

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