Old Hollywood Starlet Jean Spangler’s Mysterious Disappearance Is An Open Police Case

Emma Smith | Wed May 31 2023

Aspiring star Jean Spangler was only 27 years old on the night of her disappearance in 1949. She was a familiar face on the Hollywood party scene, working her way up the showbiz ladder and raising her daughter before vanishing into the night with nothing but a mysterious note left behind.

Several individuals were connected with the emerging actress and suspected of foul play, but no one was ever convicted. The disappearance of Jean Spangler remains an unexplained mystery with several intriguing leads, some of which have only come out recently. We’re revisiting the 73-year-old Hollywood police case that’s still open to this day.

Jean Always Had Movie Star Looks

Jean was born on September 2nd, 1923, in Seattle, Washington, and it was clear to those who knew her that she was going to grow into a beautiful woman. From a young age, she started modeling, and by the time she was a teenager, she had already been encouraged to pursue the performing arts.

Jean was a student at Franklin High School in Los Angeles when she danced with the Earl Carroll Broadway Theatre of New York City. After she graduated from high school in 1941, it didn’t take long for Jean to fall in love, although it’s possible that her first real relationship is what lead to her early demise.

Jean’s Whirlwind Romance Turned Into a Tumultuous Marriage

It was only a few months after Jean graduated from high school when she fell in love with Dexter Benner, a plastic manufacturer who was three years older than her. By 1942 the wartime lovers eloped, but the honeymoon period was short-lived. Jean filed for divorce just six months after the wedding, citing cruelty as her reason.

Despite filing for divorce, Jean and Dexter maintained an on-again-off-again relationship, culminating in their first and only child together in 1944. Jean gave birth to a daughter who they named Christine on April 22nd, but their married life wasn’t going to get any easier. Things just got worse for the Spangler-Benner household.

A Long and Drawn-out Custody Battle Leaves Jean Victorious

In 1946 when Christine was only two, Jean and Dexter officially divorced and he was the one who walked away with full custody of their daughter. But troubles were still ahead as he allegedly denied Jean the right to see her daughter, and what ensued was a long and, as the Los Angeles Times referred to it, a “bitter” battle for custody.

The long custody battle wasn’t a quiet affair either; it was highly publicized but ultimately ended favorably for Jean. Jean won full custody of their daughter in 1948, which should have been the end of it. Even though the custody battle had been settled, communication between Jean and Dexter didn’t improve.

Jean Was Busy Trying To Make It In Hollywood

Before her suspicious disappearance, Jean had a promising Hollywood career ahead of her. She was working on Hollywood Boulevard at the Florentine Gardens in 1949, which, strangely enough, had recently been linked to the mysterious murder of a young up-and-coming starlet. Elizabeth Short was 22 years old when she was killed close by in 1947.

Elizabeth, famously referred to as Black Dahlia posthumously, had been renting a room behind the Florentine Gardens nightclub before her untimely death. Aside from working as a dancer there, Jean had taken small acting roles for films like The Miracle of the Bells and Young Man With a Horn and The Petty Girl.

Everything Seemed Normal on the Night of Her Disappearance

There was nothing so out of the ordinary on the night of Jean’s disappearance. She was living on Colgate Avenue with her daughter Christine and her mother Florence, but Florence had been in Kentucky at the time seeing family. Jean needed to work that night, so she called in her sister-in-law for babysitting duties.

Sophie, the sister-in-law, later recalled her interaction with Jean on the night of her disappearance: “She came down the stairs and asked how she looked.” Nothing seemed out of the ordinary at this point. Sophie continued, “She smiled at me, and then her little girl, Christine, asked where she was going.”

Jean Gave Sophie Reason To Doubt Her Plans

That’s where Jean did something a little bit strange. Sophie said, ” ‘Going to work,’ Jean answered [Christine] again, but she winked at me when she said it.” Working in the evening wasn’t so out of character for the up-and-coming actress, who often took jobs that would take place at night.

But that little wink that Jean gave Sophie might have meant something different. In hindsight, Sophie wondered whether Jean was suggesting that she wasn’t going out for an evening job. If that was the case, what did she have planned for that night, the night of her disappearance?

The Studio Claimed Jean Didn’t Work That Night

Jean had told Sophie that she had been called by her employer and asked to come to the studio that night. A couple of hours after she left her home, she called Sophie to check on Christine and to let her sister-in-law know that she’d be working an eight-hour shift, so she wouldn’t be back home until the morning.

But when morning came, there was no sign of Jean. There was also no word from her all throughout the day, and by the time it was evening again, Sophie called the cops. When the police called her employer, they informed them that she hadn’t been on call for work that night and as far as they were concerned, she had been by.

Jean Was Last Seen Buying Groceries By Her Home

Sophie told the police exactly what Jean had told her about her plans on the evening of October 7th, 1949. Apparently, Jean said that she was going to meet with her ex-husband Dexter Benner before making her way to the studio to work as an extra on the set of a movie. Jean had supposedly called the house after her meeting with Dexter.

Instead of going to her workplace, someone had reported seeing her only a few streets away from her home at a local farmer’s market at around 18:00. It was said that she looked as though she was “waiting for someone,” but who exactly she may have been waiting for remained a mystery to the police department.

Jean’s Purse Is Discovered Two Days Later With a Note

Two days later, Jean’s purse was found nearly six miles from her home near the entrance of Griffith Park. Her cigarettes were found inside the purse, along with a hair comb and a small note. Interestingly, the purse was in ragged condition – it seemed as though it had been taken by force and damaged in the process.

Naturally, the police looked to the handwritten note for clues. On it was scribbled a message directed to a person called Kirk, and it stated that Jean quickly needed to see “Dr. Scott.” Scrambling to find someone in Jean’s life called Kirk, the cops stumbled upon actor Kirk Douglas, who she had met on the set of Young Man with a Horn.

Kirk Douglas Was Suspected But He Had An Alibi

The exact note read, “Kirk, Can’t wait any longer, going to see Dr. Scott. It will work best this way while mother is away.” This ominous note did little to help the LAPD find where she was. They ended up getting in touch with Kirk Douglas, but frustrating, the trail soon went cold.

Kirk had an alibi for his whereabouts that night, so police had to look for another Kirk who knew Jean. The actor cleared his name with the cops by informing them that he had been in Palm Springs on the night of her disappearance, so he couldn’t have been involved.

Some Claimed To Have Spotted Her About Town

The LAPD was on a full-on hunt for the whereabouts of Jean. Other than the note mentioning people called Kirk and Dr. Scott, the police had little else to go on. And when it came to looking for a Kirk or a Dr. Scott, the police didn’t know where to turn. Jean’s family members and friends claimed not to know of anyone by those names.

Some people reported spotting the actress in town, with one witness claiming that they saw her having lunch with random men, while another claimed they saw her in a black Sedan. But these leads didn’t help the cops find her. When Jean’s mom finally arrived back in town, she gave the cops something more to go on.

Jean’s Mom Said a Scott Had Come By the House

When Jean’s mother Florence arrived back on the scene, she was devastated to hear news of her daughter’s disappearance. But she had a bit more information about the names in her daughter’s handwritten note. She claimed that a man named Kirk had dropped by the house a couple of times, but he never came inside the house. Instead, he stayed in his car.

But that didn’t prove all too helpful in giving the police a lead. Aside from that, the LAPD searched every doctor with the surname Scott who lived in Los Angeles at the time, but no one claimed to have a patient by the name of Jean Spangler or even Jean Benner (her ex-husband’s last name).

200 People Volunteer For a Search Party

Aside from trying to understand who Kirk and Dr. Scott were, the best bet the LAPD had was to search as much of Los Angeles as possible. Every inch of Griffith Park was combed over by the police and 200 volunteers, in which one mysterious item was discovered. One of the volunteer’s dogs had uncovered a buried Los Angeles County Jail uniform, but aside from that, nothing else related to Jean was found.

Part of what made it so difficult was the nature of Jean’s work on Hollywood film sets. She came into contact with actors and crew members all the time, and it wasn’t helped by the fact that she was on the party scene thanks to the Florentine Gardens nightclub. There were just so many people that Jean could have come into contact with.

Dexter and Grandmother Florence Were at War With One Another

Since Jean was missing, there was doubt as to where Christine would end up. Her father, Dexter, and her grandmother, Florence, wanted full custody. Dexter ended up getting temporary custody as the panicked search for Jean continued, but Florence took him to court. And things only got uglier from there.

The court ordered Dexter to allow Christine’s grandmother visitation rights, but he refused to grant her any access whatsoever. As punishment, Dexter was ordered to serve a 15-day jail sentence for being in contempt of court, but he had other plans. He ended up fleeing to California and taking Christine with him.

Movie Star Kirk Douglas’ Statement To Police

The police had good reason to suspect actor Kirk Douglas of foul play. He had worked with Jean on film sets, but after her disappearance, he denied having any immediate memory of her. While on holiday in Palm Springs, he stated: “I told Detective Chief Thad Brown that I didn’t remember the girl or the name until a friend recalled it was she who worked as an extra in a scene with me in my picture Young Man With a Horn.”

His alibi pretty much resolved him of any suspicion or involvement in the crime. He contined, “Then I recalled that she was a tall girl in a green dress and that I talked and kidded with her a bit on the set, as I have done with many other people. But I never saw her before or after that and have never been out with her.”

Jean Had Mentioned a New Relationship On the Horizon

Movie state Kirk Douglas may not have easily recalled the actress, but Jean’s mother Florence remembered Jean talking about working with Kirk on a film set. Actor Robert Cummings came forward with a piece of information, however, which may have been significant, about Jean’s love life.

He told the police that Jean had told him she was in a new relationship only a week before her disappearance. When talking to the Los Angeles Times, he stated, “I asked her if it was serious,” to which she replied, “Not exactly, but I’m having the time of my life.” Some speculated as to whether Kirk Douglas was her budding new romance, but it was never confirmed.

Was Dr. Scott An Ex From Years Before?

The identity of Dr. Scott still posed a mystery. Those who knew Jean admitted not to know of any Scott in her life, but a press conference saw Detective Lieutenant Harry Didion confirm that a physician by the name of Scott did exist on the Hollywood social scene. According to him, this doctor was “known to Miss Spangler and her coterie of nightclubbing friends.”

Despite this revelation, the police never found him. However, there had been a gentleman called “Scotty,” an Army Air Corps lieutenant, in Jean’s life years before. She had had an affair with him while her then-husband Dexter was working abroad, and she had mentioned that “Scotty” had a violent temper. But no evidence suggested that they were in communication after 1945.

Jean Had Loose Ties With the Mafia

Police started to explore the possibility of Jean’s involvement with the mafia. Just a day after Jean went missing, another person known as “Little Davey Ogul” was reported as missing. Jean had known some mafia associates thanks to her work as a dancer at Florentine Gardens, and “Little Davey” was a part of the mafia.

“Little Davy” had actually been one of infamous mobster Mickey Cohen’s henchmen, and rumors persisted that Jean had been seen with him Palm Springs shortly before her disappearance. But there was no concrete evidence that they had anything to do with her, and the trail ran cold.

Ex-husband Claims He Never Met With Jean That Night

Considering the bitter relationship between Dexter and Jean following their divorce and custody battle, many suspected him of being behind the disappearance. Jean had full custody of their daughter Christine, and Dexter, who had once had custody himself, wanted it once more. He may have had more reason than most to want Jean out of the picture.

When questioned by the police, Dexter claimed not to have seen Jean for several weeks, despite being behind on his child support payments. He had remarried only a month earlier to someone called Lynn, who had provided him with an alibi on the night of Jean’s disappearance.

A Former Detective Claims His Dr. Father Is Guilty

In a bizarre turn of events, former LAPD homicide detective Steve Hodel came forward and claimed that he believed his own father was behind Jean’s disappearance. He claimed that his father, Dr. George Hodel, was actually the one behind the murder of Black Dahlia, and he published his reasons for believing it in his 2003 book, Black Dahlia Avenger.

For one, Jean shared more than a few physical similarities with Elizabeth Short – in fact, they looked incredibly similar. Dr. George Hodel had been suspected of foul play in the suspicious murder of his secretary and had even been arrested for crimes committed against his daughter. On top of that, “He was performing abortions for the rich and famous – and a lot of [police] officers if their girls got in trouble,” Steve Hodel stated. “The LAPD was a real-life L.A. Confidential back then.”

His Dad Was Dating An “Actress-type Named Jean”

Steve Hodel has more reason to believe that his father is behind Jean’s disappearance. He believes that “Dr. Scott” is someone who was part of an illegal Hollywood abortion ring, of which his father was a part of. He also suggests that the “Kirk” may have been someone called Dr. Eric Kirk, a doctor who had undergone arrest for an illegal abortion a few days before Jean’s disappearance.

Interestingly, Jean’s purse had been discovered only a quarter of a mile away from where Dr. George Hodel was staying in the neighborhood of Los Feliz at a place called Sowden House. And, to make matters more damning, he remembers his older brother telling him around this time that their father had started seeing a “gorgeous actress-type named Jean.”

A Gas Station Employee Speaks Out

There’s Further evidence to suggest that Dr. George Hodel was the perpetrator. A gas station employee recalled a woman who matched Jean’s description coming by in the early hours of the morning. He claimed that she called for help after getting into the passenger seat of a Black Sedan where she “shrank down.”

The employee claims that this woman shouted out “Have the police follow this car!” after which he called for the cops. But they too arrived late onto the scene and the Black Sedan had already driven off. As far as Steve Hodel is concerned, this has to have been his father and Jean. After all, his dad had been driving a similar-looking 1936 black Packard sedan at the time.

Dr. Hodel and Elizabeth Short AKA Black Dahlia Used To Date

Steve Hodel believes that his physician father was responsible for more than just the disappearance of Jean – he also believes his father was the one who murdered the infamous Black Dahlia. Not only did Elizabeth Short bear a striking resemblance to Jean, but eight witnesses came forward and claimed that the pair were dating.

When Elizabeth was found two years before Jean’s disappearance, she had been dissected skillfully by what appeared to be an experienced surgeon. Steve also believes to have found photographs of Elizabeth in his father’s possessions, which he only discovered after Dr. Hodel’s death. However, some have refuted claims that the photos show Ms. Short.

Three Weeks Into the Investigation And Still No Lead

The LAPD still didn’t have a strong enough case against any of the people in Jean’s life having something to do with her disappearance. They made a statement at a press conference in which they admitted that the hunt for who was responsible was running out of steam, as all their leads had reached dead ends.

One of the detectives stated, “The only thing we’ve been able to find out is that this girl really got around,” one detective wearily admitted to the press.” At that point, Jean had been linked to a movie star, a nightclub tycoon, gangsters, doctors, and playboys. It was clear that she came into contact with a lot of people.

Steve Found Receipts For Cement Among His Father’s Possessions

It was only after Dr. Hodel passed away that Steve had access to his father’s possessions, and where the idea that his father was responsible for the disappearance of these women started to make sense. Among his father’s possessions, Steve also found a series of receipts that he believes make his assertion more credible.

Steve found receipts for store-bought cement bags – the same type of cement that was found at Elizabeth’s crime scene. As well as that, he found proof that the doctor’s wife and children had been out of the family home during the period of time that Black Dahlia’s murder took place.

The Police Bugged Dr. Hodel’s House During the Black Dahlia Case

Dr. Hodel had been an official suspect in Elizabeth’s death at the time. They decided to bug his residency in the hopes of catching him out. It seemed to work, as they collected voice recordings of him talking about bribing Los Angeles police officers and giving abortions. But Dr. Hodel was one step ahead of them.

Hodel knew he was being bugged and therefore attempted to taunt the eavesdropping officers by talking about what they wanted to hear. On top of that, many of the recordings were of too low a quality to make it exactly what the doctor was saying. In the end, the LAPD wasn’t able to use it as evidence of his involvement.

Dr. Hodel’s Secretary Had Passed Away Under Mysterious Circumstances

One of the DA tapes recorded Dr. Hodel saying: “Supposin’ I did kill the Black Dahlia. They can’t prove it now. They can’t talk to my secretary anymore because she’s dead. They thought there was something fishy. Anyway, now they may have figured it out. Killed her. Maybe I did kill my secretary.”

Dr. Hodel had a secretary called Ruth Spaulding, who died suddenly one evening under mysterious circumstances. She appeared to have suffered an overdose, but Hodel had been in the building with her at the time and was also found to have burned a bunch of papers before he alerted the police on her condition.

What Was On The Papers That Dr. Hodel Burned?

Despite the suggestions that there had been foul play, the doctor was never charged with having anything to do with his secretary’s death. It is thought that the papers which Dr. Hodel burned had damning evidence that he had committed various fraud-related offenses.

Some of his deceitful acts are thought to be overcharging patients for examinations and procedures that never took place. Other fraudulent transgressions may have included things to do with abortions or bribing Los Angeles police officers. Some believe that his secretary knew too much and had the evidence to back it up.

Jean’s Mother Tried To Track Down What Really Happened

The police department may have dwindled in their efforts to find who was responsible for Jean’s disappearance, but her mother, Florence, stayed determined to find out what happened to her daughter. She gave the authorities all the information she could to help them piece the jigsaw puzzle together.

Aside from that, she utilized the media. Florence spoke to newspapers and television channels, giving them interviews and public appeals for anyone with information that could aid the investigation. She let the media outlets take photos of her with photos of Jean, hoping that the increased exposure would help bring her answers about Jean’s whereabouts.

Florence Worked Tirelessly With Private Investigators

Since the police department wasn’t coming to any conclusions, Florence decided to take matters into her own hands. She chose to employ private investigators to look into her daughter’s mysterious disappearance, hoping they would at least be able to shed more light on Jean than the LAPD had managed to.

Working with private investigators, Florence interviewed people and hunted down potential leads. But she still didn’t get the answers she was looking for. “I am sure she would have communicated with us if she is alive and free. And nobody can tell me that she would have left her baby unless she was forced to do so; she loved her too much,” Florence explained to a media source.