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

Smirking Jean Ellroy

Jean Ellroy

Composite sketch of a caucasian man with big ears

The suspected killer


Smiling Jean Ellroy in frony of palm trees

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 talking to a man from the passenger side window of a car

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.”

Police investigators crowded around an opening off the side of the road

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 holding the evidence from the murder

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 eight with Robert Stack and in season seven with Dennis Farina. Also available on YouTube with Dennis Farina. Various seasons available now on Hulu.



  1. Mrs. Williams then

    Another victim:
    The best description of the killer was from a male witness who said something like he had a weak jawline. He had more like a diamond shape face with a small mouth. His teeth were very narrow as well. The observer wondered if he had any teeth until he smiled. I was another of his victims. He had bulbous blue eyes that protruded from his eye sockets. You could see the sides of hi eye lids from either side. His ears stuck out from the back view, but not from the front. He was neither Mexican, Italian nor Greek. He was 1/4 Choctaw, 1/4 Irish, some part Dutch and Anglo Saxon in origin. He had been playing in westerns as an extra in movies and TV series so he was seriously tanned. He tended to wear long sleeved shirts but with the sleeves rolled to the elbows. His blonde wife was not able to conceive a child because her womb was diagnosed as infantile. She had fair skin and wore a lot of white clothing. She may have worked at the plant or a nearby restaurant. Her name as Wilma and she had a fairly well repaired hair lip. Since Jean was a nurse the blond may have been examined by James’ mother. The killer was actually born curly blond as well. He had been dressed as a girl for five years until discovered in kindergarten as male.Jean was prettier than the killer’s mother but bore a slight resemblance to his mother facially.
    He killed his father in 1960 next to the Green and white 1954 Buick to avoid being turned in for Jean’s murder when Daddy found the unstrung pearls, broken string.and twisted nylon on the back floorboard of the Buick hidden in his barn in Ridge way, Colorado. A dear friend of the killer’s father told me years later that his father died believing that his son and his wife were being intimate with each other for some time in 1960. His mother and Jean were about the same general age when he attacked her. The car is still part of the river fill used to build the earthen dam along the Uncompounded near there. He continued to rape but did not kill all of his victims. When this happened to Jean she was used to make both young drunks pass as older than they were so they could drink with her. He had married Wilma hoping to inherit her family’s substantial ranch lands near Lake City is southwest Colorado–no child no inheritance for him to steal from her–unacceptable bad news. He killed Jean and left his wife in California. He drove back home without stopping. His black hair that night made a costume so he could do Elvis impersonations at open mike places or even piano bars. He had an excellent singing voice but could not dance or play guitar at that time. The boots he wore may have lent to the impression as Mexican. He had been a golden gloves fighter as a teen and had a too good narrow nose that may not have been the original version. normally he had a visible widows peak but if the sketch is correct he may even have shaved it or just combed it straight back with a lot of grease. I wanted to think this was promptitude sexual excitement but the more I thought about the deceptive hair the more I questioned that assumption on my part. He was over six feet tall and slim. He had long legs so my five foot frame with too short legs when we sat sat by side looking like we were near the same height.
    I developed temporary amnesia after a t-boned car wreck in January of 1979 and did not remember these facts until I as struck again on the same side of my skull and began to remember after being hit over my head with an iron broom handle that caused a severe brain bleed to the same general area above the left temporal lobe where the door frame contacted my left temporal lobe at the car wreck. I only knew I lost my higher math skills at the time. I knew most of the things about my over all life after the car was totaled but did not remember these facts until after the COVID-19 Pandemic hit after 10 days in near coma to recover from the later more deadly attack. This was followed by 30 days in rehab. And then it took me time to remember that assault and the long past memories again. I began to record the earlier memories but my daughter erased my Chrome book to protect her father–the killer–and she eliminated my emails as well.


    • curious

      i just reread my dark places by james elroy and he wrote the pearls were found by her body so how could they have been in the car for his father to find? not doubting the story but that doesnt match, did you try to notify james this info or call into a tip line, this gives me the creeps i am familiar with Wilma from the book


  2. DukeKaboom

    Maybe the son did it. He hated his mom for drinking and sleeping around. He was Ted to live with his father but his mom would not allow that. He was into drugs,sex criminal activities after her death. Yes he went on to become an acoomplished writer. I think Jean went out and partied slept with a guy. Her son possibly killed her which would explain no emotions and still a hate for her to this day


  3. Jarvis

    Fred séxton,and jean ellroy meeting at that bar was they first date,but was not the first time they met..Fred sexton was in and all around El Monte doing that time considering his friend the man who long been expected of killing Elizabeth Short George hodel had a still had a office A few miles from the desert inn bar,and tho George hodel was in the Philippines in 58.i believe strongly that Fred sexton used that same office as a cover front to exhibit some art,and used that same office as temporarily hide out and black hole until he fleds to Mexico in which was his safe haven to escape expedition,as law enforcement doing that time had no expedition agreement with the Mexico gov to bring any criminals to justice who committed crimes on they us soil..I believe Fred sexton used this mexico code of law to his advantage. And therefore are the reason he was never identified as the swarthy man who was seen with Jean ellroy at that desert inn bar in El Monte in 58..he fled the country and the Mexico laws protected him.


  4. Jarvis

    I am back and it’s something else u would love to add to this case. Are that I feel that jean ellroy met the swarthy man every since she had that job at that aircraft parts- plant in downtown LA.and I do feel like that swarthy man was Fred sexton,the painter and the creator of the Maltese falcon.i feel like he was her killer,and he met jean ellroy at her job.what ppl needs to understand is that he was a LA painter,plus he have exhibited his painters around the whole country mainly in LA, since the late 30,s to the 50, jean ellroy job was located in downtown la in 58.fred sexton had alot of art exhibition in downtown LA at that time, could had easily met jean ellroy if you study the little bio on Fred sexton,he operated a import business, where they carries out activities of buying goods directly from a domestic or foreign mancfacturer .they packs,ships,and resells the goods on his own.that could had been the reason Fred sexton could had been at aircraft parts plant, depending if he was still dealing in the import business as it ain’t any evidences that says he ever stopped even if he did become a full time artist..that could had been the reason to be at the aircraft factory,and that could had been how he met jean ellroy as well .and the aircraft factory had business with the import business as that’s what they did and sell goods from domestic or foreign…so I would estimate jean ellroy killer did not work at her job,he only came there in regards to whatever business he had with the company as far as his dealing in the import as that became his source of income when his art won’t selling..or he didn’t have any woman to juice money from. Just my opinion it do make sense,but I believe jean ellroy met the swarthy man when she got that job at that aircraft factory in what 57 they could had met each other the whole. Time she had that job, considering he did not or was not living or even from el Monte as he was my opinion Fred sexton..jean met the blonde either that same night,or a month back from the first time jean went out learning where to go to drink,I don’t believe she knew the blonde the whole time she was in El Monte,or she would already had full knowedge of where the bars was in the first place,as she was clueless before she went out to one damn near the whole time she lived there,and my opinion the blonde lived in El Monte,and she met the swarthy man before she met jean ellroy…


  5. Jarvis

    That blonde woman couldn’t be tracked down after the murder for the fact that I believe her name was Bobbie long and she was killed one year after jean ellroy..a few miles from where Ms ellroy was I believe now that possibly the only hopes in solving this case will be testing whatever semen that was founded from the victims virginity that won’t hers in the hopes of seeing do it match the late Fred Sexton. And since arrest won’t be likely at all in this case due to the fact if and I believe if it could connect sexton to ellroy it won’t matter because Fred sexton died back in Sept of 95 in Mexico. It would by all means close this 63 yrs old case and give the Mr James ellroy some type closure


  6. Jarvis

    The guy in the picture with Jean ellroy is James ellroy German grandfather and not the swarthy man that was seen with her in the desert inn bar and plus I believe that the swarthy man who was seen with her in that bar and who killed her was a painter name Fred sexton the man who created the black falcon for the Humphrey Bogart movie Maltese falcon for those who what alittle futher info then type in Fred sexton and Steve hodel name he would give you clues on who he believed killed the black dahlia and Jean ellroy.. drawing of Ms jean ellroy suspected killer matches Fred sexton to the tee.


  7. Michael Santana

    Here is an interesting Podcast covering the Jean Ellroy case. The key locations of the case are visited in present day as well. Give it a look.


  8. Zach hardy

    This is to unsolved mysteries I have read the steve hodel book about the black dahlia murder and he brought up the jean ellroy murder in which he mentioned a painter by the name fred sexton who fits the composite sketch of mss jean ellroy killer in el monte In 1958 have anyone ever check into Steve hodel and checked into where fred sexton was in 1958 when jean ellroy was raped and murdered


  9. solv3d

    Alot of these cases I find myself asking why they don’t present day test for DNA. If the guy touch/assaulted/kissed her, there’s got to be DNA on her clothes.


  10. BK

    Hi, hulu season 8 episode 14


  11. Michael Santana

    Hello all. I am looking for the entire Unsolved Mysteries episode covering this case. Ive been unable to find it, even on Youtube. If anyone can, please leave the link. Thanks



  12. Sheri Barker

    Since I grew up in el Monte .ca. graduating from Arroyo high school in 87. Married at trinity church lost, 17 years later my husband was in a car accident on lower azusa & mason head on in 1998. My cousin who we both graduated in 87 was found raped murdered in the lake peck rd. Pit which is located behind Arroyo high school in December 2006 or 2007 . Her death was unsolved . I wish that they would more hours into maybe getting clues. I heard that she had gotten dropped off by a cab or taxi, not sure. I say prayers that ur mom’s killer is still alive .


    • Michael

      Hi Sheri. I’m just reading My Dark Places now, and I see where King’s Row is along the south side of the school. The book references that King’s Row and Tyler Ave intersected back then. Now it doesn’t interest near the school. Do you know if Santa Anita Ave used to be Tyler? Thanks


  13. William

    None of the Ellroy clips are included in the referenced Amazon videos.


  14. 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:


  15. 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?


  16. 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.


  17. Barbara

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


  18. 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.


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