Issue 01: Fresh Facts for Rotting Cases

A new venture for Obscura begins with some strange details about two familiar atrocities.

Writer: Josh Lami

Welcome reader, I’m glad you’re here.

About half a year ago, I began working for Obscura as a writer and researcher. Justin hired me to pen some of the scripts for this ever-expanding true crime podcast. I wasn’t the show’s only writer, mind you, but I was here to help carry the load and increase the output for our loyal listeners. I didn’t know what to expect. This was far from my first writing job, but Obscura was my first professional venture into the curious world that is true crime. As a freelancer, you hear a spiel from every editor-in-chief, every blog-runner, every show creator about how their platform is “different.” How you, the writer, are going to be an integral part of helping this person create something huge. How, together, we are going to change the whole landscape of X industry. They’re not lying, they’re just not as committed to innovation at they believe themselves to be. Their sights are set on a level of success most will never attain without some serious vision. Writing for news sites, entertainment outlets, blogs, authors who want their books ghostwritten, or even publishing companies can be frustrating if you’re the creative type, because often, the people for whom you’re writing are not interested in a novel approach; they want tried and true. Instead of taking risks and experimenting, they look to others in their field who have been successful and try to mimic those methods. Sometimes it works, but usually not.

I’ve written millions of words and I’ve yet to work with a copycat who ended up breaking into major success, but it could still happen.  As a writer, once you’ve been in the game for half an hour, being told by a client to follow convention is what you’ll come to expect. Frankly, it’s discouraging. After a while, I got depressed and wondered why I started writing in the first place. This wasn’t something I needed to meditate on, the answer was glaring and had always been; I wanted to create. Hitting word counts for vapid writing projects while making a tenth of what I should have been was never part of my aspirations as a writer. Godspeed if you’re into that sort of thing.

So I did what many freelance writers tell you not to do, I said no to any project that felt like work. If I wanted to make a living doing something I hated, there were easier, more lucrative, and certainly more stable gigs to consider. Since then I only take the gigs I’m passionate about. Obscura was far outside my comfort zone, but I was up to the challenge.

 

Oh, the places I’ve been since January of 2019.

I’ve contributed scripts for around nine episodes, which is honestly a drop in the bucket, yet I already feel like I’ve been to hell and back. One thing I hear from time to time is that I have a “unique voice.” The first time someone says it about your writing, it’s flattering. It might even go to your head, but such words will wear thin in rapid fashion. Because as unique as a writer’s voice may or may not be, most editors or producers will look on in horror if you actually try to use it.

Obscura has been an entirely different experience. Justin never discourages me from going outside the boundaries of convention and he doesn’t just look to other true crime podcasts as a template for what his show ought to be. As a result, he’s developed something that is not only unique, but growing at a staggering rate. Most every other writing job I take, I’m working with a client, but Justin Drown isn’t a client, he’s a partner. Furthermore, Obscura isn’t just a job, it’s a passion. Not every risk I’ve taken in writing for the show has paid off, in fact a few have been downright bad ideas, but plenty have resonated beautifully. It’s called a creative process and I’m happy to say, at Obscura, we actually have one of those.

A new venture

Recently, Justin hired more writers for the main episodes and he approached me about starting a blog for the site. Something where we could explore more of the minutia, delve into more than one case per sitting, and really just do whatever we want within the realm of true crime, while giving our wonderful audience more of the macabre to digest. I loved the idea. Writing for the podcast has been great and I’m sure I’ll contribute some future episodes, but here on the page is where I shine best and I believe Justin has noticed that and—being a smart fella—wants to utilize my best strengths. Or maybe I’m reading too much into this, hard telling. I could belabor the motives of Obscura’s founder or I can focus on the important thing… we’re here.

Here, we can go in a number of directions. We can ask more questions, delve into speculation, entertain the notions of hair-brained conspiracy theories, look at photos and videos, posit alternate explanations, and just do all kinds of things we wouldn’t normally be able to get away with on Obscura’s main podcast. Some posts will be serious, some humorous, we can talk about murder or, if we so choose, look at other types of crimes. Hell, we can even revisit cases from older episodes and discuss what we might have missed, or even talk about behind the scenes information listeners weren’t privy to. The possibilities are endless and we’re all pretty excited. Furthermore, this is a better place for you to make suggestions about subject matter. That’s right, I’m going to read your request and suggestions for future blog material and the best submissions will appear in the official Obscura true crime blog. Not for every entry, but some.

That said, let’s start this off simple and look at the lesser-known asides from some true crime cases you’ve more-than-likely heard about. Nothing irks me more than seeing a clickbait headline such as: “10 Amazing Horror Movie’s You’ve Definitely Never Seen” as a precursor to a list of ten mediocre horror movies I’ve seen five or more times each. How do you know which movies I have or haven’t seen? With that thought in mind, I won’t presume to know what you, reader, have or have not read about the cases mentioned in today’s blog entry. You may-well be a full-on walking encyclopedia of true crime knowledge. I’ll just say the information we’re discussing today is likely to be a revelation to many.

 

Now, hop in. We’re going to California.

  

A Homicide Detective Named Steve Hodel Believes His Father Is Both the Black Dahlia Murderer and the Zodiac Killer

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Read that again, if it makes you feel any better, but you read correctly. The Black Dahlia Murderer and the Zodiac Killer. Both. George Hodel—Steve Hodel’s father—was also allegedly responsible for a number of other murders, completely unrelated to Black Dahlia or Zodiac.

It should be prefaced that the veracity of Steve Hodel’s claim that his father was the Zodiac Killer is, to say the least, questionable. It’s a far-fetched theory, unlikely to be true, though not implausible. Compelling if for no other reason than the fact that it’s a notion proposed by a bona-fide homicide detective who works for the Los Angeles Police Department. Then again, does an LAPD detective’s endorsement of such an unlikely scenario really lend credence to the possibility? Or does it speak more about the competence of law enforcement detectives in California? You can decide for yourself on that one. The big question on most people’s minds is how this theory it compares, in terms of likelihood, to claims that Ted Cruz could be the Zodiac Killer.

All I can think is that it’s definitely more plausible than a dream I had where my grandmother was trying to convince me that Bill Clinton’s father was the Greasy Strangler.

Now there is some genuine connection to Steve Hodel’s father, George, and the Black Dahlia. George Hodel was actually a suspect in the Black Dahlia murder. He was acquitted, but many believe he shouldn’t have been, especially George’s son. There were microphones placed in George Hodel’s apartment during the Black Dahlia investigation, reviewed by police and found to contain disturbing content.

Here are some selected excerpts:

 

“Realize there was nothing I could do, put a pillow over her head and cover her with a blanket. Get a taxi. Expired 12:59. They thought there was something fishy. Anyway, now they may have figured it out. Killed her.”

“Supposin’ I did kill the Black Dahlia. They couldn’t prove it now. They can’t talk to my secretary anymore because she’s dead.”

 

Here’s some food for thought: I’m not the Black Dahlia murderer and I know this for sure. Hell, I couldn’t be without a time machine. As one of the billions of people on Earth who didn’t commit the Black Dahlia murder, I think we can all agree that the thought of saying the words: “supposin’ I did kill the Black Dahlia,” while going on to point out the fact that the cops sure can’t prove it, in presumed privacy, is a highly unlikely scenario. Not that doing so necessarily makes one guilty; it just seems like such an easy thing to never say. Maybe I’m wrong. Perhaps he was rehearsing for a play.

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George Hodel was, as can be imagined, a suspect in the murder of his secretary. He was also accused of raping his daughter. However, he was convicted of neither crime. Posited at the time was a rumor that Hodel’s secretary was blackmailing him because she had damning information of patient mistreatment and misdiagnoses. This as a means to bill people for unnecessary medical expenses and then pocket the money. Elizabeth Short, AKA the Black Dahlia, was allegedly one of those patients. When investigated, it was discovered George Hodel possessed nude photos of Elizabeth Short. It certainly sounds like, on paper, Hodel could very well have been the guy, but that’s never been proven in a courtroom. Officially, like Zodiac, the Black Dahlia case remains unsolved. Some take Steven Hodel’s postulations as concrete evidence that the case is solved. Others have said it’s a laughable notion to even consider Hodel might as the Black Dahlia murderer.

            Steve Hodel runs a website (https://www.stevehodel.com) where he still updates evidence he says links George Hodel to the Black Dahlia murder. He has also written a number of books on the subject.

            As for being the Zodiac Killer, that’s harder to swallow. George Hodel apparently lived in the Philippines between 1950 and 1990, so most researchers don’t consider him a possible suspect, as he would have been outside the country during the Zodiac murders. Granted, he could have been making trips back and forth under a false identity.

            Steve claims the evidence against his father in the Zodiac case is all but iron clad, though mostly it’s based on handwriting analyses and Zodiac’s “radian.” That is to say, the area of California where Zodiac did his business intersects with where the Black Dahlia was discovered, and thus, links George Hodel to the Zodiac Killer. When I think about the phrase “grasping at straws,” this is the kind of shit that comes to mind. Still, just the suggestion makes one wonder if Steve is right. Such theories may never be provable. Hell they might even be debunked (https://zodiackillerfacts.com/zodiac-theories/the-accused-the-accusers/george-hodel-most-evil/steve-hodel-most-evil-debunked/), but thinking about it and wondering ‘what if?’ never ceases to be a fun thought exercise.

It’s the mark of an intelligent person to consider another point of view without necessarily accepting it as fact. Steve’s assertions about his father’s involvement with the Black Dahlia murder seem to be in earnest, even if misguided. His Zodiac theory, on the other hand, sure seem like an incredibly marketable angle to sell more books.

Henry Lee Lucas May Not Have Been A Legitimate Serial Killer, As His Unknown Number of Victims Falls Somewhere Between 3 and 3,000.

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For the podcast, we usually avoid especially famous crimes. Hence the name “Obscura.” That’s the best approach, because who wants to hear the same cases repeatedly? Even still, sometimes true crime writers have pet cases they wish they could delve into from a different angle. Thankfully, we now have a blog where we can do exactly that. Henry Lee Lucas or the aforementioned Black Dahlia murderer, for example.

When people ask what I do for a living, I never tell them I’m a project analyst for an IT company, because that sounds boring (and for the record, yes, it is extremely boring). I always just say I’m a freelance writer. It’s not a lie, because I do that for a living too, it’s just not my sole source of income. When I came to Obscura, I changed my answer. Now I just say “I’m a true crime writer.” Still not technically a lie. Now ‘true crime writer’ is a job that sounds cool (and for the record, yes, it’s extremely cool). After I reveal my ultra-cool line of work, eyes widen and people often say something like “wow I’ll bet you’ve seen some crazy shit.” Yes, yes I’ve see things that would leave most people in the floor, curled up in the fetal position, calling out to whichever God they believe in. But that was true long before I came to Obscura. What can I say? My twenties got a little wild.

Their first question is always “who is your favorite serial killer.” I so despise this question, because like most reasonable people, I don’t have a favorite serial killer. I hope no one does. Serial killers are interesting to try to understand, to learn about and to study, but they’re not people to be revered. They’re violent people who end the lives of the innocent and ruin the lives of a victim’s friends and family. Fuck every single serial killer that ever walked the earth. Being something of a smart ass, I usually give a response to the tune of “um… I don’t really like any of them.”

After I give mister tactless a moment to rephrase his question to something a little less mortifying, like “Well which serial killer do you find the most interesting?” my answer is always Henry Lee Lucas. Something about his status as a drifter, his relationship with Ottis Toole, and that thing on his upper lip resembling one of those novelty mustaches from Dollar Tree just creeps me right the hell out. More interesting than even the mustache is his number of victims. Convicted of nine murders, officially, authorities confirmed Lucas had committed more than 200 murders shortly after his apprehension. Personally, I find that number suspiciously high for one human being, short of a military official who has spent their life fighting on battlefields, but I suppose it’s possible. Still, to pull off 200-something murders (the official number isn’t hard to find, it just flat out doesn’t exist) you’d have to be extremely intelligent. Cunning, stealthy, unassuming, charming… Ted Bundy was all of those things and even he couldn’t clear the double digits. Thing is, Henry Lee Lucas wasn’t what you’d call a bright fellow. In fact his IQ was reportedly below average and may have even been as low as 76. For comparison, Forrest Gump had an IQ of 75. Granted, Forrest was a fictional character, but I’m not bringing up Andy Warhol. His crimes against art are too heinous for Obscura. Ted Bundy, on the other hand, reportedly had an IQ of 136, while Jeffery Dahmer was sitting around 145. This isn’t to suggest that IQ is the epitome of what determines a person’s potential. I know many people with brilliant minds who are total under-achievers, and likewise, people with low IQs that have been successful. Having said that, there’s a reason organizations like the FBI screen for intelligence.

While two-hundred or more victims might be hard to swallow, his later claims were downright ludicrous. After his initial confessions, authorities from other states started questioning him about other murders and he confessed to virtually all of them. In the end he'd confessed to something like three thousand murders. At this point, you could make an argument that he was committing genocide in America. Thing is, he was full of shit. It goes without saying he didn't kill thousands of people, but he didn't even kill the initial two-hundred. Get this; even the nine he was convicted of murdering was inaccurate. One victim included on the list of people Lucas was convicted of murdering—an unidentified person often referred to in the media as "Orange Socks”—was not killed by Henry Lee Lucas at all. Authorities confirmed this after Lucas' conviction.

Henry Lee Lucas was given the death penalty, but that sentence was later commuted to life in prison. In Lucas' later years he stated that he'd actually only murdered three people, one of which was his mother. Not that we can take Henry's word for it, it seems he's quite the fibber, but what's perhaps most interesting is why so many murders were pinned on him in the first place. We already know that he was getting special treatment while in jail for providing confessions. Every time he gave detectives another statement of confession, he'd swindle another favor. That's typical in our... less than perfect Unites States Justice system. What many people don't know is why any of these detectives would believe them in the presence of obvious contradictory evidence. There were mountains of it. Little things like Henry being in a completely different state at the time of the murder to which he was confessing.

It turns out, the police weren't gullible or incompetent, they were opportunistic. See, at any given time, in any given police department, there are piles of unsolved murder cases. These departments are always under pressure to close said cases. In the end, Henry Lee Lucas' honesty wasn't the point. The point was to pacify higher ups by closing as many cases as possible. Word got out that Lucas was a goldmine of confessions. The cheat-code police departments had been waiting for to close cases without having to do any real investigating. News crossed state lines and everyone wanted in on that action. Henry Lee Lucas' status as a drifter who had traveled to many states made his involvement plausible. In some cases, Lucas received incriminating evidence from open murder cases to use during a confession, thus lending more credibility to his confessions.

The first time I heard this, it sounded like a bold claim. Outlandish. Maybe even like a conspiracy theory. I was naive, because this aspect of the Lucas case isn't the work of some hack journalist writing for a gossip column, it was confirmed in The Lucas Report (https://lrl.texas.gov/scanned/archive/2009/8145.pdf) by Attorney General Jim Mattox. In the report, he stated:

"We have found information that would lead us to believe that some officials 'cleared cases' just to get them off the books”

Such a staggering display of behavior, transcending unethical and veering right into abject corruption by not just one, but numerous police departments, should be more troubling to the general public than it is. Henry Lee Lucas wasn’t special. Any reasonable person reading the report has to know such disregard for truth and justice isn’t exclusive to the Lucas case. If you have doubts, go talk to the West Memphis Three, they have stories to tell. The “bad apples” argument doesn’t work in the case of Henry Lee Lucas’ exploited confessions. In fact, it suggests systemic problem and brings about a litany of questions regarding trustworthiness of law enforcement and the justice system general. Granted, perspectives vary from person to person, but for me, instances of corruption like this have led me to the conclusion that N.W.A.’s 1988 reporting of problematic law enforcement hit the nail on the head.

Though Considered One of History’s Most Horrifying Serial Killers, Albert Fish’s Crimes Were Worse than Most People Realize

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At this point, it seems like everyone already knows about the letter Albert Fish sent to the parents of one of his victims. If not, here's the cliff's notes:

 Albert Fish came to their farmhouse seeming well intentioned enough. He did some work for the family and then offered to take their young daughter to a birthday party. I can't imagine why, but for one reason or another, they didn't think that sounded like the worst idea of all time, and said yes. Needless to say, her parents never saw or heard from their daughter again, because Albert Fish murdered, cooked, and ate her. They did, however, hear from Albert again, and he wasn't speaking in a courtroom.

 Because murdering and eating a child wasn't evil enough for Albert, he decided to ice that cake of horror by mailing a letter to the parents, detailing exactly what he'd done. Here is an excerpt from a transcript of that letter: (https://murderpedia.org/male.F/f/fish-albert.htm)

“On Sunday June the 3 --1928 I called on you at 406 W 15 St. Brought you pot cheese -- strawberries. We had lunch. Grace sat in my lap and kissed me. I made up my mind to eat her. On the pretense of taking her to a party. You said Yes she could go. I took her to an empty house in Westchester I had already picked out. When we got there, I told her to remain outside. She picked wildflowers. I went upstairs and stripped all my clothes off. I knew if I did not I would get her blood on them. When all was ready I went to the window and called her. Then I hid in a closet until she was in the room. When she saw me all naked she began to cry and tried to run down the stairs. I grabbed her and she said she would tell her mamma. First I stripped her naked. How she did kick -- bite and scratch. I choked her to death, then cut her in small pieces so I could take my meat to my rooms. Cook and eat it. How sweet and tender her little ass was roasted in the oven. It took me 9 days to eat her entire body. I did not fuck her tho I could of had I wished. She died a virgin.”

             Can it really get anymore depraved than… whatever the hell that was? I’m afraid so. See, either the collection of needles in his groin or the above letter are usually what people bring up when discussing Albert Fish, but these details represent a small fraction of his depravity. He was convicted of three murders, but suspected of nearly one-hundred. For today’s entry, we’re going to look at what he did to a little boy named Billy Gaffney.

After kidnapping him, Fish took him to an abandoned house, stripped him naked, tied him up and burned the child’s clothing. According to Fish, Billy was gagged with a dirty rag he’d found in a dumpster. After that, Fish left. Yes, that’s right, Albert Fish tied this child up, left, and took a trolley back home. The next day he came back around two o’clock with a makeshift cat of nine tails, which he had fashioned out of a couple of belts and a short wooden handle. Then he whipped Billy Gaffney’s bare bottom mercilessly and relentlessly. According to his own confession:

“I whipped his bare behind till the blood ran from his legs”

          After that, he cut the child’s nose and ears off, slit his mouth from ear to ear, and gouged out his eyes, finally killing him. Once Billy was dead, Albert cut a hole in his stomach, put his mouth to it, and sucked out the blood. He detailed further cannibalism and dismemberment, confessing to police:

 

 "I picked up four old potato sacks and gathered a pile of stones. Then I cut him up. I had a grip with me. I put his nose, ears and a few slices of his belly in the grip. Then I cut him through the middle of his body. Just below the belly button. Then through his legs about 2 inches below his behind. I put this in my grip with a lot of paper. I cut off the head -- feet -- arms-- hands and the legs below the knee. This I put in sacks weighed with stones, tied the ends and threw them into the pools of slimy water you will see all along the road going to North Beach." I came home with my meat. I had the front of his body I liked best. His monkey and pee wees and a nice little fat behind to roast in the oven and eat. I made a stew out of his ears -- nose -- pieces of his face and belly. I put onions, carrots, turnips, celery, salt and pepper. It was good.”

             Albert Fish is discussed far less often than people like Jeffery Dahmer or Ted Bundy because his crimes are—I personally believe—somehow harder to stomach. We could do an entire blog just on Fish’s atrocities, but the violence is so prevalent and sickening, it would become redundant after about ten minutes of reading. Still, he was absolutely one of America’s worst. One of the few serial killers whose crimes are not only not exaggerated, but rather, downplayed.

            With that, we conclude the first Obscura true crime blog. We hope you enjoyed it, learned something, and maybe even got a chuckle at one point or another. If you liked what you’ve read, you’re in luck, because there’s a lot more to come. Thanks you for reading… and keep the fire burning.

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