While Los Angeles is known for plenty of glitz and glamour, there’s also plenty of grit and danger hidden in darker corners of the city. From crimes of passion and gang violence to infamous serial killers and cult leaders, LA has a long history of headline-grabbing crimes—as well as countless cases that have been forgotten over the years.
Kim Cooper has dedicated herself to shining a light into those dark corners. As an author
, historian, preservationist
and co-founder of the popular Esotouric
crime bus tours with her husband, Richard Schave, Kim has dedicated herself to help us better understand these terrifying and grisly crimes—while also preserving the memory of the victims.
“I got hooked on reading vintage newspaper crime reports in the early 1990s, when I worked at The Oakland Museum researching an exhibition on the Arts and Crafts movement in California,” Kim tells us. “I was supposed to be reading the papers for stories about pottery guilds and metalworkers, but kept getting distracted by things like the girl pirate who preyed on necking couples on the shores of Lake Merritt. These weird and colorful crime stories changed the way I saw the city.”
Years later, Kim returned home to Los Angeles where she found herself on an exploratory path that led deeper and deeper into the city’s shadowy past. “I was inspired to look for crimes around the time of the Black Dahlia murder, with the idea of writing a true crime history of postwar LA,” she explains.“My research blog unexpectedly took off and soon evolved into Esotouric's crime tours, so that book still hasn't happened, but a lot of other things did. It's been a wild ride.”
Far from the typical Hollywood sightseeing tours that glorify touristy landmarks and the homes of stars, Esotouric uncovers forgotten histories of the city. Kim’s routes range from Literary Tours, in which guests visit the favorite haunts of writers like Charles Bukowski and Raymond Chandler, to True Crime Tours, which take guests back in time to the final weeks leading up to the infamous murder of Elizabeth Short (AKA “The Black Dahlia), among others. The tours offer a one-of-a-kind experience, exposing a lesser known side of the city with vivid stories from Kim, Richard and occasional guest guides.
We caught up with Kim Cooper to learn more about the most notorious crimes from Los Angeles’ past —many of which are featured on the tours—and her responses are bound to give you the chills.
What were some of the most notable or unusual crimes that really stood out for you in your research?
Kim Cooper: My favorite crimes are ones where the perpetrator is demonstrably and completely nuts, but where it's possible through trial transcripts and news reports to get into his or her head and understand not just how these terrible things happened, but why played out the way they did.
One example: Erwin "Machine Gun" Walker, a nice Glendale kid with an interest in electronics and a civilian police job who came home from the Pacific Ocean theater in WWII with an epic case of PTSD. Having discovered the beheaded body of his best friend and blaming himself for his death, Walker spent weeks talking with the friend's spirit, planning what he'd do after the war. On his return to LA, Walker became a big time burglar, flipping loot to raise money for the lab equipment to build a ray that would end war forever by disintegrating the metal in tanks, bombs, ships and planes. To make an omelette (or end war forever) you gotta break a few eggs; Walker ended up killing a highway patrolman who saw him breaking into a market in Los Feliz, and was captured at home in Hollywood while cradling his machine gun (hence the nickname). His weird spree, with colorful escapes through the sewers, was made into the film "He Walks By Night," in which a young Jack Webb played a police forensic scientist and was inspired to create "Dragnet." Walker, meanwhile, was sentenced to death, but his sentence was commuted after he attempted suicide in his cell. I'm fascinated by him.
Are there tons of crimes that the general public has forgotten over time?
Kim Cooper: Hundreds of them. What immediately struck me while researching the "crime-a-day" stories for 1947project was that there were so many incidents that were as strange, compelling and poignant as the relatively small handful of historic crimes that have become iconic. Sometimes, in the course of a hundred words, one of the talented reporters would sketch out a narrative that could be expanded into a three-act opera. Now I can't move through the city without associating anonymous streets and houses with the dead, and we do what we can with our tours of lesser-known crime history to bring these lost dramas back into public consciousness. Nothing makes us happier than when a passenger says they've shared what they learned on the bus with friends, or gone off to do more research on their own.
Barclay Hotel from Hotel Horrors tour. Image by Derek Hutchison
Based on the 1947project, it seems that certain time periods stand out for being particularly crime-riddled and violent. Do you think there are certain societal factors that contribute to those heightened moments?
Kim Cooper: Although the VA denied it, there was definitely a problem in postwar Los Angeles with untreated war trauma manifesting itself in assaults and murders. But I think the perceived crime explosion of 1947 was amplified by the existence of multiple newspapers competing for readers by highlighting shocking subject matter. When you look at crime statistics, there isn't always a match with public perception.
In the case of the Black Dahlia murder, which objectively was not one of the more significant crimes impacting the population of Los Angeles, the tabloid press certainly sensationalized it and dragged their reporting on for months. Would Beth Short's name be remembered now if her death hadn't been used to sell millions of newspapers in 1947?
But it's interesting when crimes synch up with changes in culture and can be used as a lens to view a wider shift. So you have a wave of peculiar religious crimes in the 1920s, when Los Angeles was awash with transients and spiritual seekers—one of these cases inspired by mystery novel, "The Kept Girl"—and then again in the 1960s, when some similar cultural ideas re-emerged, and are manifested in the Manson murders. Crime can be a mirror showing us who we are as a culture.
Esotouric Black Dahlia tour co-host Joan Renner and passengers walk to body dump site. Image by Kim Cooper
What do you think distinguishes LA's relationship with crime from other big cities like New York and Chicago?
Kim Cooper: A lot of large American cities have a history of organized crime, which is newsworthy, but I think fairly boring, because at the root it's just about money and power. But LA didn't have an obvious mob presence until the criminal consortium centered in City Hall and Police Headquarters was broken up in the late 1930s, after cops were caught planting bombs at the homes of citizens. Our tabloid press focused more on crimes of passion or psychosis, and it's these types of cases that continue to intrigue Angelenos, whether they're tuning into a vintage crime on our bus or blog, or catching up on a current tragedy.
Why does the public find major crimes and criminals so fascinating?
Kim Cooper: Humans have been whispering to one another about the boogeyman for as long as we've had language. I think there's a visceral part of the brain that's stimulated by extreme stories; it makes you feel more alive to be able to virtually experience someone else's darkest moments. And crime stories can also be very funny, when things don't go as planned, which they almost never do.
Unfortunately, we no longer have the deep journalistic bench that covered the crime beat in previous decades, with a team of reporters who delivered facts back to the newsroom for the star rewrite men (and women) to put a polish on them. So today's dedicated crime fans end up doing a lot of their own sleuthing: digging into social media, listening to police scanners, pulling legal documents and generally trying to do the work that professionals used to provide.
I find it sad to think that someone could suffer the indignity of being murdered, and their story not even be told. When a story is left behind, a person isn't really ever gone.
Some say that talking about criminals is problematic because it can sometimes give them the notoriety they seek or can inspire copycats. What are your thoughts on that?
: With the exception of intelligent serial killers, who are a very tiny subset of the population, I believe most people who are interested in crime are law-abiding folks. But I do always make a point on our Pasadena Confidential tours, when describing the ignition device that crazed arson investigator John Orr used to set his fires, to remind listeners that leaving the device is what led to Orr getting caught. The subtext of our crime tours is definitely: "Don't try any of this at home."
What current projects do you have in the works?
Kim Cooper: 2017 will be Esotouric's tenth anniversary, and we have a bunch of special events and publications in the pipeline. You can look out for an Esotouric guidebook to the influential sites and people that every self-respecting Angeleno needs to know, and some one-off tours and lectures. We just published our guide to Charles Bukowski's LA, a wider-ranging companion to the bus tour. And next month, my new book "How To Find Old Los Angeles" will be released by Herb Lester, featuring approximately 150 time capsule restaurants, bars, museums, gardens and businesses across the Southland. Our free monthly LAVA Sunday Salon and historic walking tours are now based at Grand Central Market, starting at noon the last Sunday of the month. We're also active historic preservationists. Current campaigns are to get Angels Flight Railway running again, to convince the city to restore (rather than redesign) Pershing Square and seeking to protect several important mid-century William Pereira buildings from demolition. For announcements about Esotouric happenings, including free and one-off events that will fill up quickly, sign up for the newsletter.
LA's Most Notorious Crimes:
The Manson Murders
Location: Cleo Drive, Hollywood Hills
Kim Cooper: An acid-soaked commune taking murderous orders from their leader in order to trick the press into reporting clues that would spark a race war, during which the instigators would hide out in Death Valley. It all sounds too weird to be true, but unfortunately, for at least nine unlucky people, it was.
The Night Stalker
Location: Cecil Hotel, 640 S Main St
KC: After burglar Richard Ramirez got hooked on IV cocaine, his crimes escalated into one of the southland's most terrifying serial murder sprees: seemingly random home invasion rapes and murders with a Satanic subtext. Although Ramirez died in prison, there are still bars on windows all over LA because of the crimes he committed during that hot and awful summer of 1985.
Featured on: Esotouric's Hotel Horrors & Main Street Vice and Eastside Babylon tours.
Hotel Cecil in the mist. Image by Kim Cooper via Esotouric Instagram
The Black Dahlia
Location: Leimert Par, Norton Avenue between 39th and Coliseum
KC: The still-unsolved 1947 murder of Massachusetts drifter Elizabeth Short remains LA's most notorious crime, and the subject of our flagship and most popular crime tour. The LAPD considers it an open case, but it would be a small miracle if her killer was ever identified. Featured on: Esotouric's Real Black Dahlia tour.
The body of murder victim Elizabeth Short, AKA“The Black Dahlia,” found in a field in Leimert Park. Image courtesy of Delmar Watson Archives
The O.J. Simpson Case
Location: 875 S Bundy Drive
KC: The public was fascinated by this violent double slaying of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman and the incongruity that the killer was almost certainly the charming football-legend-turned-actor, O.J. Simpson. It's a case that continues to fascinate two decades later, as demonstrated by the recent success of the five-part documentary and docu-drama series.
Location: El Mirador Apartments, 1302 N Sweetzer Ave
KC: A sexual sadist who took advantage of the 1950s popularity of photo-illustrated true crime magazines to trick models into letting him tie them up. He photographed several of his ritualistic strangulation murders, and was caught when one of the models kicked his ass before he was able to subdue her. Featured on: Esotouric's Hollywood! Tour.
El Mirador Glatman crime scene. Image by Kim Cooper
Skid Row Slasher
Location: The Los Angeles Public Library (Hope Street steps)
KC: Vaughn Greenwood targeted elderly Skid Row alcoholics, sometimes drinking with his victims until they passed out, then slashing their throats and performing rituals with their bodies. His two-month spree in winter of 1974 terrorized the city's most vulnerable population, and revealed the limitations of police profiling.
Featured on: Esotouric's Hotel Horrors & Main Street Vice tour
Location: Echo Park Ave & Landa St
KC: The “Hillside Strangler” is actually two people—cousins Angelo Buono and Kenneth Bianchi. They preyed on prostitutes and young women who were easily tricked into getting into a car when shown a fake police badge. They left their naked victims posed on hillsides and public streets in a 1977-1978 crime spree that generated hysteria reminiscent of the Black Dahlia case, and inspired feminist performance artists to demand action on the steps of City Hall.
Featured on: Esotouric's Echo Park Book of the Dead tour.
Esotouric's Echo Park Book of the Dead tour
The Grim Sleeper
Location: S Western Ave & W Florence Ave
KC: Recently convicted Lonnie Franklin is a prolific killer of prostitutes in South Central Los Angeles who got his creepy nickname because of the long break between known murders (1988-2002). He was identified with the novel (and controversial) use of familial DNA to track down close relatives of an unknown assailant.
Trash Bag Killer
Location: Selma Avenue in the center of Hollywood or MacArthur Park (gay cruising locations; some victims were supposedly kidnapped from these locations).
KC: Patrick Kearney was a necrophile who committed perhaps as many as 43 murders in the 1960s and 70s in order to have access to corpses. Many of his victims were hitchhikers or young men he met in gay bars. He pleaded guilty and is serving 21 life sentences.
Location:Bellevue Arms Apartments, 1168 Bellevue Ave
KC: In 1927, schizophrenic Edward "The Fox" Hickman kidnapped 12-year-old Marion Parker from school, demanding a small ransom. Her father paid, only to receive a mutilated corpse in return. The subsequent manhunt and trial were sensational; Hickman hung.
Featured on: Esotouric's Echo Park Book of the Dead tour.
Location: 858 N. LaFayette Park Place, Echo Park
KC: Once upon a time in Echo Park, a funny little man named Otto Sanhuber lived in the Oesterreich's attic, and frolicked with wife Dolly while husband Fred was away. When Otto shot Fred, believing Dolly in danger, she covered up the crime and hid Otto for years. By the time it went to trial, the statute of limitations had expired.
Featured on: Esotouric's Echo Park Book of the Dead tour.
The Oesterreich's house, Echo Park
Location: Santa Monica Pier
KC: When serial killer Stephen Nash was preying on hobos and homosexuals, nobody noticed. But after he killed a child, stabbing 10-year-old Larry Rice beneath the Santa Monica Pier in 1956, he got his 15 minutes of evil fame. His wisecracks to reporters ended with a trip to the gas chamber.
Featured on: Esotouric's Wild Wild Westside tour.
Location: Orchard Supply Hardware, South Pasadena (formerly Ole's)
Kim Cooper: Believed to be the most prolific arsonist in American history, John Orr hid in plain sight as a Glendale arson investigator, with a reputation among peers as an oddball with a gun fetish. He was trying to sell a "novel" about his crimes when caught and tried for his torching of a South Pasadena hardware store where four died.
Featured on: Esotouric's Pasadena Confidential tour.
Danny Jensen is an LA-based writer and photographer covering food, culture and travel. You can follow him into the shadows on Twitter and Instagram @dannyseamus.
Featured image of Esotouric Eastside Babylon tour through Boyle Heights Cemetery courtesy of Esotouric