St. Louis, Missouri / Los Angeles, California
October 1949—65 years ago. St. Louis, Missouri is not where one would expect to find answers to one of Hollywood’s most enduring mysteries of the 1940s, but don’t tell that to Sophie Spangler. She was there, on that October 7, 1949, when her beloved sister-in-law—showgirl Jean Spangler went missing in Los Angeles. [AUDIO] Her disappearance became to missing persons cases what the “Black Dahlia” murder of Elizabeth Short represented to homicides. In fact—for a while, police thought the two might even be connected. Sophie had been visiting the Spangler family at the time. A long-time resident of suburban St. Louis, Sophie had been married to Jean’s brother Edward Spangler. She was widowed in 1945, when Edward’s WW II bomber was reported lost over the seas of Japan. Born with the gift of “second sight,” Sophie’s sporadic ability to sometimes recognize forthcoming danger via her dreams was more of a curse than it was a blessing. In short, she had premonitions. She had no control over them. They would come when they happened, usually revolving around a deceased friend she had once known. Whenever she would dream about this friend, “something bad would always happen,” she told me, during a conversation we had in the spring of 2001. She was in her later years by then. But her mind was still sharp. She remembered names and places like it were yesterday. In the case of her missing sister-in-law, the remembrances went back well over fifty years. And aside from a few passing remarks about it privately with family members, Sophie had never talked about that day in-depth (since those days) with anybody—until me. I was in preparations for an upcoming episode about Jean’s disappearance for E! Entertainment Television’s cable series Mysteries & Scandals.
My research on Spangler had come about spontaneously. I got sidetracked on her possible connection to the “Black Dahlia” murder; by actor Paul Burke. He was not keen on discussing Spangler, as he felt she had “only achieved notoriety by disappearing.” Burke—a once familiar face on television (he died in 2009), had known both women during his early days in Hollywood. His first wife had been a dancer at the same club as Jean. Intrigued, I began researching the Spangler mystery further. The pieces finally started coming together after I uncovered documents relating to a long-forgotten child custody battle involving Jean and her ex-husband from 1948. The information contained in the documents seemed to suggest a growing “pattern of animosity” between the pair was fast moving in the direction of a “climatic conclusion.” These documents, former key witness Sophie Spangler—and the Mysteries & Scandals episode, re-captured the interest of the Los Angeles Police Department. Homicide commander Captain Jim Tatreau was especially sympathetic to “the cause” when it came to solving old cases. He would be instrumental in putting in place LAPD’s very first official “cold case” unit within the year (2001)—something that would unfortunately (by default) put the pending Spangler investigation on the “back burner” forever.
Tatreau (who would pass away in 2007 at age 58) assigned investigator Rick Jackson to revisit the Spangler matter. Unable to locate any of the original evidence or files, Jackson’s efforts to develop the case further became stymied. Spending additional time, money and resources seemed pointless. Had the case only evolved to a more “promising stage,” Jackson said the department could have dispatched investigators to Florida to re-question Jean’s ex-husband “in person.” Now it would never happen. Thus ended LAPD’s 2001 involvement with the case. The night Jean Spangler vanished, she had been planning to pay a visit to her estranged ex-husband. She needed fast money. Two days later, her purse was found laying by an entry gate in Griffith Park (Los Angeles’ large and densely wooded recreational area). An unfinished handwritten note found inside the purse implied that Jean was possibly pregnant, and “planning to pay a visit that weekend to a local abortionist,” while her mother was out of town. There was no date on the note and it wasn’t signed. Until Jean’s mother, Florence, could return from her trip, sister-in-law Sophie would remain front and center—trying as best as she could to assist investigators with whatever information she could remember.
“I have a bad feeling Jeannie,” Sophie told her, only hours before she left the apartment that day. Sophie had experienced a bizarre dream the night before. She had awaken in a cold sweat and was shaking. She had experienced similar dreams before—each revolving around her late friend. In the dream, the friend (a woman) was laying in a casket, in a funeral home. “I was looking down at her, lying there. Suddenly, she opened her eyes and raised up and looked directly at me. She said to me, ‘It’s not finished yet.’ Then she laid back down and closed her eyes,” Sophie told me. Regarding it as a “bad omen,” she told her sister-in-law about it. “Jeannie scoffed at the notion of it. She didn’t believe it and even mocked me.” Preoccupied with promises from her ex-husband about getting a “large sum of money” from him, all Jean could do was talk about that. But later that afternoon, she came back down the stairs with a look of concern on her face. “She had been thinking about what I said before,” Sophie said. Sophie could not elaborate on the dream any further, only to say, “Jeannie, I don’t like this. I feel something ‘bad’ is going to happen.”
Sophie declined E!’s offer to appear on the Jean Spangler episode of Mysteries & Scandals.” She said she was still “in fear” of Jean’s ex-husband. At the time, in 2001, he was still alive and well—retired and living comfortably in Florida. He likewise declined to be interviewed for the episode. He would then pass away in 2007. His ashes were scattered at sea. He had loved the sea. In fact, at the time his ex-wife went missing, police were supposedly in possession of a “boating document” indicating Jean’s ex had taken his boat out that night (improbable, it seemed, because the ocean waves that night were rough…and his boat was small). Sophie preceded the man in death by some seven months, passing away herself on Halloween night, in 2007. A former bank teller for Hampton Bank in St. Louis, Sophie would never remarry after the death of her husband, Edward Spangler–Jean’s brother. Sophie did have a marker erected (posthumously) in his honor at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery. Following her death, Jefferson Barracks removed Edward’s original marker from the location where it had originally been, remade it (to include Sophie’s name and information on the reverse side), and then moved it to another part of the cemetery grounds.
Personally, I believe the answer to Jean Spangler’s disappearance lies somewhere between “intentional murder and accidental death.” And her relationship with the mysterious “Kirk,” (who the purse note was addressed to) and her “plans” to visit a doctor named “Scott” (also mentioned in the note). Police tended to believe Spangler died during an “illegal abortion”—but why would an illegal abortionist throw away a purse with a potentially incriminating note inside with his name written on it?. “I saw his name (“Dr. Scott”) written in her address book at the apartment,” Sophie told me. “But later, after she didn’t come home, I tried to find it for detectives, but it wasn’t there any longer. I don’t know what happened to it?” Sophie also regretted not letting Jean’s ex-husband come up to the apartment’s door the following morning—Saturday; October 8, 1949. Ironically, he had plans to pick up he and Jean’s 5-year-old daughter (for a court-allowed weekend visitation). One particular angle that I favor to consider (since Jean had not left the note for her intended party—i.e. “Kirk”), was that she was “interrupted” before she could do so–perhaps heading out that night “to leave the note for Kirk” (and/or later…see the “doctor”) but never made it to either place because she took a fatal “detour” just prior to doing so—to confront her ex-husband about his over-due child support check?
Required by law to return the little girl, given Jean’s “missing status,” he kept the girl. He would later flee to Florida—out of reach from local authorities and California courts. Upon their divorce (in 1946), he had tricked Jean into giving up custody of the child. She later challenged him in court, in a bitter custody battle in 1948. The presiding judge in the case sided with Jean, giving full custody of the daughter to her–enraging Jean’s ex-husband. Some say Sophie’s premonition of forthcoming doom was “just coincidence,” as was Jean’s ex-husband’s coming by the apartment the very next morning to pick up the daughter (which he would then never return, and from there on out…vindictively block the Spangler family from ever seeing the child again). “I let Christine run out to meet him on the sidewalk. I wished I hadn’t,” Sophie reflects. “I wish I had let him come all the way up to the door that day,” Sophie said. “Then I would have seen the scratches on his face.” [AUDIO] She had never repeated this detail—not in the fifty-plus years that had followed that day. But she told me. She wanted “someone else” to know… that the detectives had questioned her about the ex-husband coming over,
and that Jean’s ex-husband had fresh scratches on his face (he claimed, however, he got the scratches after “dropping a case of glass bottles at work”). They didn’t believe him and later excavated part of the floor in his garage, looking for evidence. But they found nothing.
Jean had social ties to virtually everyone. Ronald Reagan was a close friend (their families attended the same church together). She had (allegedly) been dating actor Kirk Douglas. Her daughter went to school with Lloyd Bridges’ son, Beau. Previously, she had dated at least two of mobster Mickey Cohen’s henchmen—and hoodlum Johnny Stompanato (later stabbed to death by actress Lana Turner’s daughter). She had also been keeping company with local millionaire Thomas Lee—who committed suicide a few months later by jumping to his death from the 12-story Pellissier Building in Los Angeles. Actor Robert Cummings was also a close personal friend.
And so was Robert Stack. Stack (by then an established actor), was on his way home the evening before Jean went missing. According to Spangler family sources, upon passing Jean’s apartment that night, Stack later remembered observing someone lurking outside. It was dark and it was late. Stack could not identify whether the person was a man or a woman, but felt they “may have been trying to gain access to the apartment through one of the windows.” Tired and wanting to get home, he shrugged off his suspicious thoughts…thinking it was “probably nothing.” He later contacted the Spanglers with the information, after learning of Jean’s disappearance.