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6 of the Biggest Unsolved Celebrity Deaths, From Biggie to the Black Dahlia

On the 15th anniversary of the Notorious BIG's death, these cold cases still plague Los Angeles cops.
 
 
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This past weekend marked the 15th anniversary of the murder of one of hip-hop’s most enduring icons, Notorious B.I.G., and it also brought a shocker of an news byte: Complex magazine, talking to retired LAPD detective Greg Kading, revealed that Biggie’s killer is known, but the case will never be shut because the alleged assailant is deceased: 

According to the police detective who spent three years investigating the murder of Biggie Smalls, the man pictured above—Wardell Fouse a.k.a Darnell Bolton a.k.a. “Poochie”—was the triggerman who killed Biggie fifteen years ago today. His fee for murdering the greatest rapper of all time? $13,000. [...]

Kading is neither a journalist nor a conspiracy theorist. A retired L.A.P.D. detective, he was in charge of the special task force that investigated Christopher Wallace’s murder between 2006 and 2009. After Biggie’s mother Voletta Wallace filed suit against the City of Los Angeles and the L.A.P.D.—seeking hundreds of millions of dollars in damages—the department was highly motivated to solve the case. That’s when Kading got the assignment.

Kading was disgusted after he saw his case shelved despite obtaining two sworn confessions from those involved in the murder, and eventually quit the force. He’s about to publish his findings (and copies of his evidence) in the book Murder Rap: The Untold Story of the Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur Murder Investigations—perhaps clearing up some of the speculation on an investigation that for a decade and a half was thought of as an LAPD conspiracy to cover up the facts.

“I could not believe that we had taken the case to near conclusion and then I got removed,” Kading told Complex. “They just shelved the whole case after the Wallace camp retracted their lawsuits.” Kading says that Poochie was hired by Suge Knight and his girlfriend to murder Biggie, in retaliation for the death of Tupac Shakur. Poochie was shot in the back and killed in 2003 in Compton.

The Notorious B.I.G. murder is hardly the first high-profile investigation to be sitting in the cold-case files of the LAPD, and likely won’t be the last. In the case of the following celebrities whose deaths are as yet unsolved despite public demand, perhaps the most frightening question: if rich and famous Americans can’t get justice, then where does that leave the rest of us?

1. Tupac Shakur

The murder of Tupac Shakur is inextricably linked with that of the Notorious B.I.G., because the two rappers were embroiled in an East Coast-West Coast rivalry at the time which encompassed greed, money, power and street affiliation at the height of the gangland 1990s. However, Kading dispels the idea that the war between the two was as heightened as previously thought. He tells Complex, “Biggie was trying to suppress this whole conflict. Biggie wanted nothing to do with it. Biggie felt horrible that Tupac had gotten robbed and that Tupac believed that he had been behind it. In everything that we saw and read in all the interviews, Biggie was an innocent bystander in this whole thing.”

Tupac was murdered on September 7, 1996, six months before Big, and many believe it was at the hands of Orlando Anderson, a Southside Crip, over a gang war between his and Suge Knight’s affiliates, who were Bloods. Anderson was killed in 1998 in Compton. The deaths of Biggie and Tupac are not just about the loss of two of hip-hop’s greatest rappers, but about the tragic prevalence of gang violence in Southern California, whose rise dovetailed with racial segregation in the late 1960s and worsened with economic downturns throughout the 1980s and ‘90s, leading to a vast drug trade and horrific violence. (Recommended: the memoir of Crips founder Stanley “Tookie” Williams, Blue Rage, Black Redemption, which details his path from protector to killer to inmate to Nobel Peace Prize winner, before he was executed at San Quentin in 2005.)

2. George Reeves

The death of the original Superman from the 1950s television program “The Adventures of Superman” remains one of the most scrutinized in Hollywood history. In 1959, depressed from financial woes and the difficulties of finding work after having been typecast in an iconic character, George Reeves became drunk with a few friends, including his fiance, Leonore Lemmon. After an argument about the noise, he allegedly went up to his room and committed suicide with a single gunshot wound to the head.

Or did he? Friends believe Reeves would never have committed suicide, and to this day there’s debate as to whether he died by his own hand or whether Lemmon or one of the other people present might have been responsible. The lack of gunpowder residue on his hands, or fingerprints on the gun, have been cited as definitive evidence of his murder rather than suicide, though the LAPD didn’t check for gunpowder in ‘59 and apparently stated the gun had been oiled too recently for it to retain a fingerprint. (The controversy was the topic of the 2006 Ben Affleck movie, Hollywoodland, and a song by Don MacLean, “Superman’s Ghost.”)

There was speculation that Reeves’ married former lover, Toni Mannix, had him killed as revenge for ending their relationship—and supposedly confessed to it on her deathbed, though that account, by an LA publicist, has been refuted. But whether murder was the cause of his death or not, a major part of the public’s unwillingness to accept that he would kill himself certainly resides in the unwillingness to shatter our concept of an infallible American hero, particularly in the more innocent 1950s. That Superman could fall on hard times—and that booze and debt could be his kryptonite—was something a pre-cynical society was simply not ready to accept.

3. Natalie Wood

The death of the beautiful and talented Natalie Wood at 43 has always been tragic: terrified of boats, she perished from accidental drowning and hypothermia after mysteriously falling off a boat during a vacation on Santa Catalina Island. Yet her body was covered in bruises, and her system was tainted with alcohol and the prescription painkiller Darvon. No one on the boat—her husband Robert Wagner, actor Christopher Walken (who was her alleged lover), or captain Dennis Davern—knew how she fell off the ship. The circumstances surrounding her death have been a mystery since 1981. The LAPD shelved it as a cold case.

However, late last year, new evidence emerged: Davern, the boat captain, made comments that encouraged the LAPD to reopen the investigation. As detailed on “Good Morning America,” Davern said he had initially lied and that now, 30 years after her death, he wanted to come clean. "I made some terrible decisions and mistakes," he said. “I did lie on a report several years ago." It was known that Wood and Wagner had fought before her death, but this was the first testimony that definitively pointed the finger at the deceased actress’ husband. By January, however, LAPD had once again ruled out foul play, classifying Wood’s death as an accident. But the ongoing public fixation on the case in a way parallels that of Reeves’: it was hard to accept that such a beloved figure could die at such an untimely age.

4. Marilyn Monroe

Is there any bigger trap for conspiracy theorists than the tangle of deaths related to Jack and Bobby Kennedy? Oliver Stone deftly put his own thoughts forward in his 1991 film JFK, but distinctly omitted was the figure of America’s most enduring sex symbol, Marilyn Monroe, who died on Aug. 5, 1962, from an overdose of prescription pills.

It was not far-fetched that Monroe would commit suicide, as the coroner ruled—she had struggled to be taken seriously by a world that alternately objectified and infantilized her, and she had fought the demons inflicted upon her by childhood sexual abuse and a family history of mental instability. Classically, her abuse led to the confusion of sex for love; as Gloria Steinem wrote in her biography Marilyn, “She seemed so hungry for the love and approval she had been denied in childhood, particularly from a father, that she submerged her own physical pleasure, and offered sex in return for male support and affection.”

And yet, as the country began to roil around the subsequent assassination of President Kennedy and his presidential-hopeful brother, the confusion surrounding the deaths enveloped Monroe as well. (She was allegedly having an affair with either one or both of said Kennedys, and JFK was the last person she phoned before her death.) As long as the circumstances surrounding the assassination of JFK are considered a mystery, Monroe will be embroiled in it, too. Were the Kennedys involved? The CIA? The mafia? Someone else? It’s likely that Americans will always speculate. But at the very least, she remains an example of a woman who could have been empowered by feminism had she lived a few years longer, and therefore a tragic woman whose death we will always regret.

5. Black Dahlia

The gruesome case of the Black Dahlia has been a cold case for over 60 years, and it is so horrific it has continued to compel our imaginations. In 1947, the body of aspiring actress Elizabeth Short was discovered in Los Angeles’ Leimert Park dismembered, mutilated and totally drained of blood. She was not only posed with her hands above her head, her mouth had been slashed from ear to ear, creating the horrifying illusion of a smile. Shortly after her death—and the subsequent media sensationalization of it—the killer began phoning and writiing letters to the Los Angeles Examiner, sending evidence including a birth certificate and an address book to the paper. But because of the media’s hunger to scoop the story, the investigation was delayed, and hundreds of tips and confessions came in that ultimately led nowhere.

Clearly, the unsolved and astonishing nature of the murder has rendered it ripe for fiction: the best representation was a novel by James Ellroy from 1987, which was subsequently turned into a film in 2006. But there remains a long list of once and current suspects, including, fascinatingly, Woody Guthrie—who was looked at for writing a woman dirty letters, and subsequently cleared—and Orson Welles, because of Short’s connection to the movie industry (Welles was never an official suspect).

Perhaps the most fascinating theory I’ve read was put forth in the book Exquisite Corpse: Surrealism and the Black Dahlia Murder, which posits that the strange positioning of the body postmortem was influenced by surrealist art movements at the time. It connects Los Angeles surgeon George Hodel—the LAPD’s prime suspect in the murder, and the one cited by Ellroy as well—to the surrealist art movement, including relationships with Man Ray. It’s not definitive, but it’s certainly more interesting than six decades of dead ends... and it makes a good case for Hodel as an artist who wanted to be accepted among the Marcel Duchamps and Denise Bellons of the time.

Julianne Escobedo Shepherd is an associate editor at AlterNet and a Brooklyn-based freelance writer and editor. Formerly the executive editor of The FADER, her work has appeared in VIBE, SPIN, New York Times and various other magazines and websites.