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Crime novelist James Ellroy investigates his mother’s brutal murder.
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
Shortly before 3:00 AM, Jean and the suspect left the drive-in. According to Detective Stoner, time eventually ran out for Jean Ellroy:
For James Ellroy, the unidentified blonde woman may be the only person that knows who killed his mother:
Though not a suspect, authorities consider the unidentified blonde woman an important material witness in this case.