One of the most well-known unsolved homicides in Los Angeles history is the murder of Elizabeth Short—known as the Black Dahlia—whose bisected body was found in a vacant lot in 1947. Her trunk and lower half were arranged in a gruesome tableau for anyone in the Leimert Park neighborhood to find. Though shocking, this was not the first time a woman’s torso had been disposed of in Los Angeles. Almost 20 years earlier, the torso of Laura Sutton was found along the banks of the Los Angeles River. 

Dolly Stolze

The Los Angeles River is 51 miles (82 km) long and runs from the San Fernando Valley, past downtown Los Angeles, and flows into the Long Beach harbor. The river, now encased in concrete, used to have a free-flowing channel surrounded by marshland, woods and rocks. The decision to pave its riverbed was made after a devastating flood in 1938 that killed 87 people. Though the Los Angeles River has killed many times, its murky waters have been used countless times to hide evidence of murder.

In April 2017, the body of 17-year-old Leslie Hernandez was found near the river in Long Beach. Although the medical examiner concluded that she died from a drug overdose, her death was considered suspicious and, as far as I can tell, the Long Beach Police are still investigating the case. In December 2016, the body of 29-year-old Samantha Lang was pulled from a flood control basin. Lang’s ex-boyfriend was later arrested for her murder.1

But the strangest murder investigation involving the Los Angeles River happened in 1929. At this time, the river still had its natural bottom and was easily accessible to everyone, even children. That is why, on the night of April 4, 1929 a boy was able to find a woman’s torso as he walked along the riverbank near Compton. 

Captain William J. Bright, then-head of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s homicide department, was tapped to lead the investigation into the death of the unidentified woman. Police searched the river for miles in each direction but did not get any more clues in the case for six more weeks. Then on May 18, 1929, some boys poking the riverbed with sticks found the woman’s head.

The medical examiner estimated that the head belonged to a woman between 40 and 60 years old. Because the vertebrae from the head and torso fit together like puzzle pieces, the medical examiner was confident they were from the same person. He also determined that she died from blunt force trauma to the back of the head because of a depression in the back of the skull near her left ear.2 Captain Bright was optimistic that the skull’s teeth and dental work would help with identification once they had a dental chart or X-rays with which to compare.2 

Since the police could not find any clues to the woman’s identity, they appealed to the public for help and scoured missing persons reports for leads. Detectives got a break in the case when Emerson De Groff contacted police because he thought the Jane Doe might be his missing sister, 40-year-old Laura Sutton. De Groff said he had not seen Laura since March 28, and that she seemed anxious and feared for her life in the days before she vanished.

Laura’s dentist, Dr. Edwin Hyde, examined the skull and compared the dentition with her charts and X-rays. Hyde was confident the skull belonged to Laura Sutton.
Laura had lived with her husband, Eugene Sutton, in Ventura until 1928. Their relationship ended when Eugene fell in love with Laura’s sister, Ida, and started an affair. The two divorced and she moved into a house in Los Angeles.

It was at this vulnerable time that Laura rekindled a friendship with Dr. Frank Westlake, a 57-year-old retired army surgeon. Laura had some savings and alimony that she wanted to invest so she asked Westlake to help with her business affairs.

During his initial police interview, Westlake said he saw Laura the day she disappeared. He claimed that he drove her to the train station so she could go to Ventura to confront her ex, who was late on alimony payments. On the way there his car broke down, so she got out to find another way to the station. Westlake said that was the last time he had seen her alive. He also insisted that Laura was still alive because she sent him letters and had left flowers at her mother’s grave.3

Sheriff’s investigators went to the train station to look for witnesses who had seen Laura, but could not find anyone. They also interviewed Eugene Sutton and Ida but they said they had not seen her either. When police went back to Westlake to see if he could remember anything else about the last time he saw Laura, he changed his story.

It was probably about this time that Westlake became the prime suspect and police started to follow him. One night, they tailed Westlake to his son’s house and watched as he tried to hide a box in the garage. When police confiscated the package they discovered it contained bank books for a joint bank account he shared with Laura.3,4 Westlake also admitted that he had deeds to property owned by Laura, her Liberty Bonds, and was the beneficiary in her will and her life insurance policy.3,4

 When investigators searched Westlake’s home, they found coagulated blood in his bathtub water trap and knives missing from his surgical kit.

Westlake was arrested and the case was brought to trial in September 1929. The prosecution argued that Westlake killed Laura for her money, dismembered her body, and threw her remains into the Los Angeles River. To maintain the illusion that Laura was still alive, he forged letters from her and left flowers at her mother’s grave.

The defense tried to cast doubt on the identification and Westlake even took the stand in his own defense. In the end, it was not enough and Westlake was found guilty of first degree murder. 

 Although he was sentenced to life in San Quentin prison, Westlake was paroled in 1944 after serving only fourteen years.6 When he was released, he reportedly proclaimed, “Laura is still alive and will come forward to vindicate me.”7

Frank Westlake died on Jan. 30, 1950 in northern California.

I could not help but see some similarities to the famous Black Dahlia case. Both women suffered blunt force trauma to the head, had their blood drained, and torso separated from the lower half of their body. I got interested for a moment when I realized Westlake was paroled a few years before Elizabeth Short’s body was discovered on Jan. 15, 1947. 

But there are conspicuous differences between the two murders: Laura was beheaded and dismembered, Elizabeth Short was not. There is no evidence that Laura’s body was posed in the same way that Short’s was. Westlake would have been 76-years-old at the time of Short’s murder and likely not in the best physical condition to dismember another body on his own. I also cannot find any evidence that he was in Los Angeles at that time. 

Laura’s remains were returned to her family after the trial and she was buried at Mountain View Cemetery in Alta Dena, near Pasadena, Calif. Police never recovered Laura’s arms and legs. ●

Works Cited
1.    Campbell, J. (2016, December 19). Samantha Rae Lang, 29. Retrieved from:
2.    Head of “Torso Murder” victim discovered in Los Angeles River quicksand near Bell. (1929, May 19). The Los Angeles Times, pp. 49.
3.    Doctor held on suspicion of murder in torso mystery. (1929, May 30). The Los Angeles Times, pp. 22.
4.    Bloodstains in house of Edendale District connected by officers to torso mystery. (1929, May 31). The Los Angeles Times, pp. 22.
5.    Dr. Westlake accused. (1929, June 2). The Los Angeles Times, pp. 54.
6.    Dr. Westlake will be paroled. (1944, Mar 4). The Los Angeles Times, pp. 3.
7.    When justice triumphed. (1950, Aug 6). Press and Sun Bulleting, pp. 36.