Blogging the Wolfe Book, Missing Man Formation

Our story so far: I am blogging—in real time—as I read Donald H. Wolfe’s “The Black Dahlia Files.” It’s been slow going and this is an especially tedious part because I’m examining Wolfe’s treatment of Elizabeth Short’s autopsy. I’m not through and I’ve turned up some outright literary fraud, so it’s prudent to be particularly careful.

Page 33

Let’s pick up where we left off yesterday:

“Yet there is not another cold-case homicide on record in Los Angeles in which the autopsy report has not been made available to the public.”

This statement makes it sound as if autopsy reports are on file at the public library or some reading room, where the curious can simply browse at will.

Let’s take a famous cold case. How about the murder of Geneva Ellroy in 1958? I have an autographed copy of James Ellroy’s “My Dark Places” that deals with his mother’s death, so let’s see. (Bonus fact, James signed every copy of this book in a brilliant publicity stunt—if you call a scrawled “JE” an autograph—so it’s nothing for an ebay dealer to say he has one. What would be rare is to have one that isn’t autographed).

Unfortunately, the curse of having too many books is that you know you own it but don’t know exactly where it is. Luckily, thanks to Google’s search engine on, we can delve through the text. (Which is preferable anyway, since “Dark Places” isn’t indexed). Did James get a copy of his mother’s autopsy? Indeed he did. Ah. But did he get it from the Los Angeles County coroner’s office?


He got it because it was in the sheriff’s reports. For the record, retired Sheriff’s Detective Bill Stoner, a wonderful man who worked with James on “My Dark Places,” told me he was extremely unhappy that the polygraph keys were disclosed in the book, even though the murder was decades old at that point. Note particularly that the Ellroy case was a sheriff’s investigation, not the LAPD. Had Geneva Ellroy been killed in the city of Los Angeles instead of El Monte, I doubt very much if James would have gotten access to his mother’s files.

How about closer to home? If the Los Angeles County coroner routinely hands out autopsy reports like the fliers for landscaping and tree trimming hung on the front doors on every home in Los Angeles, I have to assume Wolfe is going to give us the Bugsy Siegel autopsy.

Well, gosh, I broke my vow of not reading ahead to thumb through the section on the Bugsy Siegel murder.

Guess what.

No Siegel autopsy.

(I hope you’re not surprised by that. I’m certainly not). For the record, even the coroner’s own book, “Death in Paradise,” was written based on newspaper clippings rather than official reports and has no bibliography. For the Elizabeth Short autopsy, writers Tony Blanche and Brad Schreiber used newspapers and—incredibly, “Severed,” which is, as I’m fairly sure I’ve said, 25% mistakes and 50% fiction.

What’s this? A search inside “Death in Paradise” doesn’t have a single reference to Dr. Frederick Newbarr, the chief autopsy surgeon in the 1940s. Hm. Well there is a reason I don’t even own this stinker. There are some books I won’t even let in the house and this is one of them.

But here’s a bigger mystery about Wolfe’s book.

Where’s my old pal, Detective Herman Willis? We haven’t gotten to him yet, and we’re nearly done with Elizabeth Short’s autopsy.

For the uninformed, Detective Herman Willis is John Gilmore’s leading source in “Severed” for the Black Dahlia autopsy. It is Herman Willis who provides lots of gruesome details about the coroner’s office, with descriptions of bodies stacked like cordwood. And it is Herman Willis, who in “Severed” provides the key details on Elizabeth Short’s purported “infantile genitalia.”

So where’s Herman Willis in Wolfe’s book? Missing. And why would that be?

As I have pointed out many times, Detective Herman Willis doesn’t exist. The name Herman Willis does not appear in the Los Angeles Times in any relation to the Los Angeles Police Department, he doesn’t appear in phone books or city directories of the period, he doesn’t appear in the ranks of police officers, nor in the directories of deceased or retired officers.

And no retired Los Angeles police officer has ever heard of him.

Years ago, I issued a challenge on this key source of “Severed’s” claims about Elizabeth Short’s purported “infantile genitalia”: What was his serial number? When did he graduate from the Police Academy? When did he make detective?

No attempt has ever been made to answer those questions. Instead, John Gilmore says he changed the man’s name.

Real journalists don’t do this except in rare occasions and they certainly never offer a false name without telling readers that it’s fictitious. Of course the threshold is far lower for a “true” crime book published by Zanja Press and picked up by Amok—if, indeed, these publishers can be said to have any threshold whatsoever.

Of course, the district attorney’s files list everyone who actually attended the autopsy of Elizabeth Short and all people are accounted for without any extra detectives. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Did I mention that “Severed” is 25% mistakes and 50% fiction? Did I mention that John Gilmore wrote a book jacket blurb calling the Wolfe book “destined to become a true-crime a classic” but has since dismissed it as “crap”?


Shout out to:

Kddi Corp. (

Hurry back!

About lmharnisch

I am retired from the Los Angeles Times
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply. Note: Your IP is logged with your comment so a fake name and email address are useless.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s