The Disappearance of Jean Spangler
The Hollywood actress’ case is still unsolved seven decades later.
Jean Spangler via Wikipedia
On the 7th of October 1949, Jean Spangler said goodbye to her daughter, walked out of her apartment door in Park La Brea, and vanished. This would be the last time Christine would ever see her mother alive. What followed was one of the biggest manhunts in Los Angeles history.
Jean Elizabeth Spangler was born on 2nd September 1923 in Seattle, Washington, to Florence and Cecil Spangler. Jean was a dancer, model and actress, and when she graduated from Franklin High School in Los Angeles, she started modelling professionally. Jean also danced at Florentine Gardens and the Earl Carroll Theatre in Los Angeles, notorious for their clientele.
In 1941, Jean started to win bit parts in Hollywood movies, such as When My Baby Smiles At Me, Chicken Every Sunday and Young Man With a Horn. In total, she had 8 screen credits, but she went mainly uncredited for a lot of work.
A year later, 19-year-old Jean married Dexter Benner, a plastics manufacturer who was two years older than her. The marriage only lasted a few months, with Jean filing for divorce, citing Benner of mental cruelty. However, the relationship continued, and soon Christine was born. The couple eventually divorced in 1946, and a custody battle over their daughter started, with Benner stating that Jean “preferred parties to priorities”.
Dexter Benner via Calisphere
Benner eventually won custody of Christine, however, he denied Jean visitation rights, and the judge revoked his custodial agreement, placing the daughter back with Jean. Shortly after, she and her daughter moved into a two-bedroom apartment in Park La Brea in the Wilshire district of Los Angeles. She moved in with her mother, Florence, her brother and his wife.
The timeline of her disappearance
7th October — 5 pm
Jean had told her sister-in-law, Sophie, that she was going out. Her mother was out of town, visiting family in Kentucky, so Sophie agreed to watch Christine. Jean said she was meeting Benner to discuss child support payments that she was waiting to receive. After this meeting, she would attend the night shoot of a film she was working on.
A witness saw Jean at the farmer’s market, a short walk from her apartment. The salesman recalled her taking her time in the store as if she was waiting for someone.
Jean called Sophie back at the apartment to tell her that the night shoot would likely run all night and that she wouldn’t be home that evening. Jean may have called Sophie from the farmer’s market rather than from the movie studio.
This was the last time Sophie spoke to Jean.
Jean was seen by witnesses at the Cheese Box restaurant on Sunset and Laurel Canyon Blvd. She was in the company of a tall, dark man, and they were seen to be arguing. She was still at the restaurant at 2.30 am.
8th October — Early morning
A gas station attendant spoke to a couple in a convertible on their way to Fresno. As they drove away, the woman yelled to the attendant;
“Have the police follow this car.”
The attendant later called the police to report the incident.
When she realised Jean hadn’t returned home, Sophie reported Jean’s disappearance to the Wilshire division of the LAPD. However, because of Jean’s profession and age, the police didn’t immediately take her disappearance seriously and failed to put her status as ‘missing’ on the teletype.
Griffith Park is 4,310 acres of land, ensuring its status as one of the largest urban parks in North America. The park is in the Los Feliz neighbourhood, at the eastern end of the Santa Monica mountains. The park includes an observatory, a zoo, museums, and an amphitheatre, open for tourists and explorers, but the park has a more sinister side. Griffith Park was and still is a common dumping ground for bodies because of its size and rugged aesthetic.
An employee at Griffith Park eventually found Jean’s purse near the Ferndell entrance. Inside her purse was her identification and a handwritten note:
Jean Spangler’s handwritten note found in her purse via news.au.com
The note read;
“Kirk, can’t wait any longer, Going to see Dr. Scott. It will work best this way while mother is away.”
Jean’s purse handles had been ripped at one end of the bag, but none of her valuables had been taken. Sophie confirmed that Jean didn’t have any money, so the purse wasn’t dropped in a robbery.
Police had started to take Jean’s disappearance seriously once her purse had been found. 60 police and volunteers congregated in the park to begin searching for Jean, dead or alive. In the meantime, investigators had begun to reconstruct her whereabouts.
Jean had told Sophie that she was taking part in a night shoot of a new movie when she went missing, so the police investigated that avenue. However, the Screen Extras Guild had no record of Jean working that night, nor a film being shot on the night in question.
The police spoke to Dexter Benner, who said he hadn’t seen his ex-wife for weeks. His new wife, Lynn, who he’d been married to for a month, had also given him an alibi. Benner was behind on his child support payments, and according to the sister-in-law, Jean was supposed to meet him that night to discuss this further.
After the disappearance, Benner and Jean’s mother, Florence, began a brutal custody battle for Christine. Benner eventually won custody of the child.
Two years later, Benner started adoption proceedings so that his new wife could become Christine’s mother on the grounds of abandonment by Jean. The judge ruled that there was no proof of Jean’s death and blocked the request. Benner eventually fled to Florida with his family, including Christine, and never returned to California again.
A new lover
Some of Jean’s colleagues came forward after her disappearance to tell the police about her life. Robert Cummings, who would later star in Dial M For Murder and The Love Boat, told police he’d worked with Jean on Pretty Girl (also known as Girl of the Year). He told police that two weeks before her disappearance, Jean had told Robert that she was having the “time of her life” in a new relationship that she said wasn’t serious.
Jean’s mother, Florence, told police that she heard her daughter talking about a Kirk, who she knew from work. She also told police that someone called Kirk had picked Jean up from the apartment a few times but always stayed in his car rather than coming into the property.
A 13-year-old witness, who knew Jean, said that she had seen her drive by in a car in North Hollywood with an older man and that she looked nervous. Because the witness knew Jean personally, the police took her account seriously, but the lead came to nothing.
Actor Kirk Douglas even called the police, despite not looking at him as a person of interest yet. He told police that he had worked on Young Man with a Horn with Jean, but he barely remembered her.
A botched abortion
In the book Black Dahlia Avenger: A Genius for Murder, private investigator Steve Hodel speaks about the case of Jean Spangler.
“I believe that ‘Kirk’ is not a first name, as LAPD chief of detectives Thad Brown tried to suggest when he personally interviewed actor Kirk Douglas, but a surname. Kirk, I submit, was Dr. Eric Kirk, Sergeant Stoker’s chiropractor, abortionist, and informant.”
Shortly before Jean’s disappearance, Dr. Eric Kirk had been arrested. However, L.A.P.D Captain Ed Jokisch has since penned an open letter to the author, Steve Hodel.
“Your book is filled with so much baseless innuendo, misinformation and faulty logic that it would be impossible to address it all in a letter.” — Ed Jokisch, former policeman.
One of Jean’s friends eventually came forward and told police that Jean was three months pregnant, and it resulted from an affair. The investigators caught wind of a name, 'Dr. Scott' and started to question all doctors in the Los Angeles area.
They had heard of an ex-medical student known as “Doc”, who came from a wealthy family and performed illegal abortions for a fee, and they were told he spent time around the strip, offering his services to sex workers. They never found him.
Meanwhile, investigators had found out that Jean had been having an affair whilst Benner was in the army. He was an Aircore Lieutenant who had beaten Jean whilst they were together. He had also threatened to kill her if she ever left him. His name was Scotty.
The police travelled to Palm Springs, as Jean frequented the area and had been seen there recently. She would socialise at the Dunes, the Dollhouse and the Saddle and Sirloin. Here police found out that Jean had been seen in the company of Davy Ogul and Frank Niccoli, employees of mob boss Mickey Cohen, just before her death.
The henchmen were both under indictment and had gone missing just days before Jean. The police had it on good authority that Niccoli’s body was at the bottom of the Cucamonga Vineyard lime pit. Neither body was ever found.
Mickey Cohen via historybyday.com
However, four months later, a US customs agent in El Paso claimed they saw Jean in the company of Niccoli and Ogul. Another witness told police she’d seen the trio at a nearby hotel and confirmed their identities in a photo.
Various other witnesses came forward, but because the search for Jean was one of the biggest manhunts in Los Angeles’ history, to date, there were many false claims. Jean was seen by witnesses as far away as Stockton.
Police continued to circulate Jean’s picture in the hope of witnesses coming forward with new information. Louella Parsons, a celebrity columnist, went on TV offering a reward of $1,000 (over $10,000 in 2020) for any information on Jean’s whereabouts.
For a seemingly small-time girl, there were a lot of motives for her disappearance.
It’s been over 70 years since Jean Spangler vanished. The LA Times continued to run stories on Jean for years after her disappearance, but nothing ever came of it. One day, she simply just disappeared.