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Crime novelist James Ellroy investigates his mother’s brutal murder.

Jean Ellroy

The suspected killer

CASE DETAILS

Jean was a single mother of a 10-year-old son

Novelist James Ellroy’s dark tales of sexual obsession and violence often top the best-seller list.  But few of Ellroy’s readers know how much truth there is just below the surface of his stories.  When James was 10-years-old, his mother was beaten, raped, and strangled:

“My mother’s crime scene to me is all crime scenes. The crime scene to me is—it’s primal.  It’s almost oedipal.  The moment of the discovery of her body is in many ways the moment of my birth, because it’s the genesis of my detectives’ obsessions with the murders that they ultimately become consumed by.”

At the time of her murder, Ellroy’s mother, Jean, was a divorcee in her early 40s.  She was a staff nurse at a Los Angeles factory and lived close by in the town of El Monte.  During the week, Jean had custody of 10-year-old James.  Every Saturday James would take the bus to stay with his father.  Sundays he would return by cab.  The custody ritual ran like clockwork until the afternoon of June 22, 1958.  Ellroy remembers the events of that day vividly:

“The yard was full of policemen in uniforms and plainclothesmen.  I wasn’t afraid, but I was anxious. I was apprehensive.  People were surprised that I wasn’t more overtly emotional right after I got the news that my mother had been murdered.  I think they expected me to cry or carry on or display some kind of overt histrionics, but I took the news internally.”

After his mother’s murder, the young James became obsessed with crime novels.  The books provided him with a temporary solace and he often read through several at a time.  But the comfort was short lived.  At the age of 17, Ellroy suffered yet another devastating tragedy—the death of his father:

“I went from bad to worse.  I was no choirboy before that time, but, boy, oh, boy, things got worse.  I drank, used drugs, broke into houses and stole things, drove around in stolen cars, shoplifted, and did spurts of county jail time from 1965 to 1977.  My life was going nowhere and I wanted a real life.  I hadn’t been with a woman in years and I wanted to write.  I wanted to write dark, evil, well-defined, perverted, powerful, compelling crime fiction.  I knew I wouldn’t be able to as long as I drank and used drugs.”

Jean and the suspect left the drive in by 3:00 AM

Ellroy sobered up and the words tumbled out.  His first novel was published in 1982.  More than a dozen followed.  Seeping between the lines was a dark legacy of his  mother’s rape and murder.  It bubbled to the surface in “The Black Dahlia,” his take on the 1947 slaying of Elizabeth Short, one of the most infamous unsolved murders of the 20th century.  Ellroy dedicated the book to his mother:

“It’s as if Elizabeth Short became a stand-in for my mother.  I wanted to feel the horror of my mother’s death and I used Elizabeth Short as a substitute.”

By 1994, James Ellroy was ready for the real thing.  Detective William Stoner of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department arranged for Ellroy to examine the official case file on his mother’s murder:

“This was the first time I’d ever been asked by a member of the family of the victim to actually see the crime scene photographs.  I was very hesitant to show those to him because they’re very graphic.  And so I warned him.”

James sees the evidence 30 years after the murder

Physical evidence from the murder scene had been stored in a paper bag, locked away for more than 30 years.  James held the nylon stocking used to strangle his mother and touched her silk dress:

“I started sweating, I started shaking.  It was locked down, revved in, right on the edge of shell shock. Truly an awe-inspiring moment.”

And then, a face stared back at him from the file—his mother’s suspected killer.  Because he had dark hair and an olive complexion, he had become known as “the swarthy man.”  Several eyewitnesses saw him with Jean Ellroy just hours before she was slain.  Around 10 PM, Jean and the swarthy man pulled into a local drive-in.  With Detective Stoner’s help, Ellroy tracked down Lavonne Chambers, the waitress who served the couple that June evening in 1958:

“She had this beautiful dress, pearls around her neck.  Her hair was done beautifully.  That’s what made me remember her so well because she was beautiful, and she had this dress on… She looked very prim and proper.  She was very pleasant.  He had no accent.  He didn’t talk with any, even a southern drawl.  He just talked very normally like you’d expect an average Californian to talk.”

James sees the evidence 30 years after the murder

Jean and the swarthy man were next seen at a bar called the Desert Inn.  They were with a blonde woman.  No one knows her name or how she fit into the evening’s plans.  She apparently knew both Jean Ellroy and the suspect and left the bar with them at around midnight.  At 2:15 AM, Jean and the suspect returned to the drive-in.  According to Lavonne Chambers, the blonde woman was no longer with them:

“This time she was not as neat and prim as she was when I waited on her the first time.  She looked like she had been necking or fooling around.  Her dress and her hair were kind of messed up. But they didn’t seem overly friendly together.  And he wasn’t saying anything.  He was just too quiet.”

Shortly before 3:00 AM, Jean and the suspect left the drive-in.  According to Detective Stoner, time eventually ran out for Jean Ellroy:

“I think the swarthy man decided that the evening wasn’t over for him.  He either knew about a secluded location or came upon it and stopped and forced himself on Mrs. Ellroy.”

For James Ellroy, the unidentified blonde woman may be the only person that knows who killed his mother:

“The blonde woman knows the identity of the swarthy man.  The blonde has told people.  There are people out there who know elements of this case, who know names, who’ve heard the story, and it’s just a question of tapping into those people.”

Though not a suspect, authorities consider the unidentified blonde woman an important material witness in this case.


Watch this case now on Amazon Prime in season seven with Dennis Farina and coming soon with Robert Stack. Also available on YouTube with Dennis Farina.

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5 Comments

  1. Jason Carter

    This particular episode of Unsolved Mysteries changed my entire life. It introduced me to someone who would go on to become not just my favorite writer, but eventually, my greatest teacher… James Ellroy. I just published a piece about this episode–and specifically Robert Stack– on the Ellroy-dominant UK Blog “Venetian Vase”.
    Take a look: https://venetianvase.co.uk/2017/05/07/the-man-who-introduced-me-to-james-ellroy/

    Reply

  2. Steve

    The guy over her shoulder in the top left of the photo fits the Identikit image of the killer almost perfectly, and I’ve painted portraits for a living.
    Who is he?

    Reply

  3. Mitchell

    I think the important lesson here is for one to ask oneself, “Would my present company have the decency to cooperate with an investigation if I were murdered” or “Would my friends care if I were murdered”?

    If no, find yourself some new company because your present company is comprised of ladies of ill repute and/or low men in yellow coats. You also need to take a look in the mirror and reassess as you have probably made some poor life choices.

    Reply

  4. Barbara

    They are probably all dead by now. The murder happened more than 50 years ago.

    Reply

  5. Anonymous

    Why can’t people come forward…stop being silent because of their silence this man has gotten away with murder. Poor lady. She probably just wanted a good evening out and to be treated nicely. So horrible it ended in tradgey. I hope she is at peace now. I hope that sick person who did this is rotting in hell. Good luck to her son may he find the answers and get the closeur he needs.

    Reply