Specter of crimes past continues to haunt LA communities

On a sleepy August morning, a man sorting through a Buena Park Dumpster found a suitcase stuffed with the mangled remains of a female body.

Authorities identified her as Jasmine Fiore, a swimsuit model. They believed that the man she was last seen with — Ryan Jenkins, a contestant and finalist on VH1 reality show Megan Wants a Millionaire — had murdered her.

Criminal mind · Charles Manson is led to court after being arrested. He is one of the many notorious figures in LA’s gruesome crime history. - Photo courtesy of LIFE

Criminal mind · Charles Manson is led to court after being arrested. He is one of the many notorious figures in LA’s gruesome crime history. - Photo courtesy of LIFE

Jenkins was later found dead in a Canadian motel room after he hanged himself.

American historian and Cal State Fullerton lecturer on American Studies Craig Loftin, who earned his doctorate from USC, calls Fiore’s murder just another classic LA crime. The location of her corpse, how it was mutilated and how Jenkins subsequently hanged himself falls in line with the other tragedies that have made the LA area famous.

The first, and perhaps most infamous of these atrocities, the Black Dahlia murder, took place during the city’s postwar economic boom. A young Elizabeth Short — who, like many others, had come to Los Angeles to reinvent herself as an actress — was found cut to pieces and left in an abandoned lot in Leimert Park.

The crime remains unsolved.

Such grisliness was not just played over repeatedly in the newspaper headlines, but also by the noir of the LA crime reality, amplified and sensationalized by the media machine that existed at the birth of the city­ — and even more so now.

“LA has a real dichotomy,” Loftin said. “People come here to make it big. There’s this kind of ‘sunniness’ about the place … The reality is that … people don’t become celebrities. They find the city alienating.”

The inherent loneliness in LA’s surroundings to outsiders is seen in how filmmakers depict the city in films like Sunset Boulevard, LA Confidential and Changeling. They create what Loftin calls a “visual vocabulary” that reinforces the idea that things aren’t what they seem.

Loftin believes girls like the Black Dahlia are “the victim of these evil forces that seem to be lurking in the shadows of the city.”

To make matters darker, the police seem to be ineffective in the face of truly violent crimes like the Charles Manson murders and recent Fiore/Jenkins travesty.

“There’s a long history of lawlessness … the police are … just as bad as the criminals,” Loftin said. “If you can’t go to the police, who can you trust? That’s the noir world in a nutshell.”

In this melodrama of mistrust and mishap, there’s a sense of fatalism. Los Angeles’ landscape seems like the perfect place for murder; the open canyons act like gaping mouths ready to swallow the weak and wicked whole.

Loftin credits the city’s unique situation as a “celebrity factory” for the prominence of LA atrocities. Crimes such as the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson, countless celebrity overdoses and other strange deaths — not to mention the recently media-revived Roman Polanski crime — will inherently be magnified by the press that creates those celebrities.

“The media coats our mind with the idea that there’s this unspeakable evil here,” Loftin said. “With Jenkins … the mystery, the excess … taps into … this bizarre fascination with celebrities and their dark side.”

It’s even glaringly easy to find the addresses of the residences in which these crimes took place. Three such high profile, legendary cases are within 15-minute drives of each other.

The property where members of Manson’s “hippie cult” slaughtered Hollywood elites has since been rebuilt, but the same lonely, narrow road the murders traveled still remains.

No streetlights illuminate Cielo Drive, and in place of the original house is an estate covered by a towering wooden gate, the slats resembling ominous yellowing teeth.

Nearby in Laurel Canyon lies the original stucco house where the 1981 Wonderland Avenue murders took place. In this instance, someone brutally clobbered five people with a lead pipe, killing four of them — and left gallons of blood on the walls.

The other 1970s-era houses seem harmless enough with charming Halloween decorations and well-kept trees, but the notorious house leaves its garage open, like the gaping mouth of a cave with a dusty Jeep inside. Steep stairs lead up to a metal door with no doorbell.

West of Wonderland Avenue lies the site of the Menendez killings, where two brothers shot their parents and marred their mother’s face past the point of recognition.

The two had been known to engage in a lavish lifestyle, but, after their parents’ death, they immediately started to chip away at their $14-million settlement.

Though the two brothers still live in separate cells in different prisons — both, curiously enough, with prison correspondence wives — the mansion where they slaughtered their parents is being massively refurbished.

On a Friday night in the wealthy neighborhood, teenagers park their brand new sports cars to attend what appears to be some 11th-grader’s red-cup reception. One can’t help but wonder if these teenagers know that next door, two children of the same Hollywood royalty they belong to now once committed an unspeakable act.

At the end of a hidden Beverly Hills private driveway — eerily named Elm Street — is a gated property with politely taped public notices of demolition times. The property within, obscured by a chain-link fence and scaffolding, seems a massive black mass with unnervingly deep-looking ditches.

Even if Angelenos don’t believe in ghosts, they obsess over those memories and are haunted by the crimes of their fellow city-dwellers who seemed to have lost their humanity somewhere in the search for money and fame.

We all know, after all, what it’s like to gaze into the valleys below and see the darkness below — and within.

Clare Sayas is a junior majoring in public relations. Her column, “Lost & Found,” runs Thursdays.