Griffith Park: Los Angeles’ Unofficial Graveyard
With its substantial parklands and varied landscapes, Griffith Park is often used in TV and film as jungle brush, desert and summer camps. Unfortunately, due to its expanse and rough terrain, the land is also the perfect dumping ground for bodies, suicides and accidental deaths.
The park, which sits on the eastern edge of the Santa Monica mountains, is one of the largest urban parks in North America, with attractions like the Hollywood sign, Bronson Canyon, the Los Angeles Zoo, Griffith Observatory, and an amphitheatre.
Used as housing for veterans during World War II, the camp became the Army Western Corps Photographic Centre and Camouflage Experimental Laboratory until the end of the war.
Griffith Park has seen significant fires in its history. In 1933, 29 civilians lost their lives trying to fight the fire, making it one of the deadliest fires in U.S history, with over 150 treated for injuries.
1933 fires via USC Libraries’ Los Angeles Examiner Collection
The 2007 fire burned over 800 acres, destroying the bird sanctuary, Dante’s View, Captain’s View, and forced the evacuation of hundreds of locals from their homes. The city announced a $50 million plan to steady the burned slopes to ensure there wasn’t a collapse.
Since its construction, Griffith Park has been seen as a backdrop in numerous films and TV episodes. In 2016, La La Land was filmed at the Griffith Observatory, making use of the country’s third oldest planetarium. Other screen mentions include The Terminator, Back to the Future, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? to name a few. It’s been used in music videos, too, including Simple Plan’s Untitled and Adam Lambert’s If I Had You.
The Park, that's hosted over 10 million visitors, is also home to many wild animals, including mountain lions, bears and more than 200 species of birds, making it a vital resting place for migrating flocks. Overall, the Park is an integral part of the Los Angeles community and lends itself to every activity, from horse riding, hiking, and family days out.
But there is another side to Griffith Park that keeps authorities busy; death.
Before Griffith Park was public, it held a curse that affected the landowners who held the deeds. Don Antonio Feliz was the owner of the 4,000 acres of parkland and died of smallpox in 1863. Before his death, his lawyer and Don Coronel had Feliz write a Will in his fevered condition, stating that the land would go to the Coronel family.
When Feliz’s niece, Dona Petronilla, learned that her uncle had left her nothing in his Will, she cursed the cattle and fields, vexing them to become diseased and for everything to die, so no one would profit from the land. Soon after, the Coronel family started to die from bad luck and disease, as did most of the owners who took over the land.
In 1882, Welsh mining investor Griffith J. Griffith bought the Rancho Los Feliz land and started an ostrich farm. He was shot by a business rival but survived to, in turn, shoot his wife, who he thought was trying to poison him. She survived but was blinded in one eye. For this, Griffith J. Griffith was sentenced to two years in prison and was treated for alcohol insanity.
Once he had served his incarceration, he was released from prison, still a rich man. The property rush had peaked in 1896, so Griffith donated over 3,000 acres to the city of Los Angeles, citing it as a Christmas present. In turn, the city named the park Griffith Park in honour of his generosity.
In 2019, police opened a new investigation for the homicide of a decapitated body near the intersection of Griffith Park Drive and Camp Road. Unsure whether the man, who was believed to be homeless, had simply died and had then been dismembered by animals, the investigation team looked into all possibilities. Earlier that same year, a woman’s body was found in the thick brush of the Park. Wrapped in a sleeping bag or blanket, the woman had been there for a few days due to her location.
An article written in 1990 in the Los Angeles Times showed Griffith Park beginning to become a dumping ground for bodies;
“During one 15-day period last year, six bodies turned up in the park… The stigma has grown as park visitors, employees and homeowners have become increasingly concerned over their own safety.” — David Ferrell and John H.Lee, L.A Times.
In the ’90s, only 17 unarmed rangers were patrolling the Park in shifts during the day. At night, there are no patrols due to concern over the rangers’ safety.
Peg Entwistle was a Welsh actress who emigrated to America in 1916 to embark on a theatrical career on Broadway. In 1932, Entwistle was starring in the Los Angeles play, The Mad Hopes, with Billie Burke and had landed a role in Thirteen Women. Peg was found by a hiker on the 18th September 1932, hanging from the H on the Hollywood sign in Griffith Park. Her suicide note read;
“I am afraid, I am a coward. I am sorry for everything. If I had done this a long time ago, it would have saved a lot of pain. P.E.”
Peg Entwistle via Vanity Fair
In October 1949, actress Jean Spangler kissed her daughter goodbye and left her Park La Brea apartment. Due at a night shoot, Jean was meeting her ex-husband to discuss child support beforehand but never made it to filming. Her purse was found near the Ferndell entrance of the Park, and Jean was never seen again. It’s rumoured that her body still lies in Griffith Park, undiscovered for decades. There are a surprising amount of theories around who killed her.
Jean Spangler via Wikipedia
Garene and Zabel Ghazelian
Garene Ghazelian was only 13 when her body was found in December 2000. Her mother, 40-year-old Zabel Paloulian Ghazelian was also found. Both had been shot, and authorities believe that the husband and father, Gabriel Ghazelian was to blame. His body was found in a riverbed shortly after the death of the two females.
Iola Lynn Simms
Iola Lynn Simms, 40, was discovered on E. Observatory Road in Griffith Park in June 2005, 10 days after her death. She had been stabbed, and according to the LA Times, the case is still unsolved.
Sally Menke, the editor of Quentin Tarantino’s films, including Pulp Fiction and Inglourious Basterds, was found dead in 2010 after hiking in Griffith Park. Sally had gone walking in the early morning of 27th September with her dog and a friend. Her friend left, and soon Sally began to feel unwell, and when she didn’t return home, the police were called. She was discovered at the bottom of a ravine, with her dog sitting beside her body. The coroner ruled her death as heat-related, and the weather was recorded at 113 °F (45 °C) in downtown Los Angeles that day.
Sally Menke via New York Times
2011 saw the slaying of 66-year-old Hervey Medellin, a retired airline worker whose body parts were scattered around the Hollywood sign. Two women found Medellin’s severed head in the Park, and the next day, his right hand and feet were found in a bag, buried six inches underground. Three years later, Gabriel Campos-Martinez was found guilty of his boyfriend’s death. He didn't report Hervey missing for three weeks.
These stories are only a fraction of the bodies found in Griffith Park. Even now, despite its beauty, family-orientated activities and ranger patrolled routes, Griffith Park remains a hotspot for suicides, accidental deaths and the unloading of remains.
The question will always be; how many people are occupying the unofficial graveyard that is Griffith Park?
“I tell my wife, there’s no telling how many bodies are out there. There’s no telling how many out there will never be found.” — Larry Horton via L.A Times.
Aerial view of Griffith Park via kcet.org