LOS ANGELES -- For more than a decade, Janice Knowlton believed she knew the answer to a question that has long intrigued crime buffs: Who killed the Black Dahlia?
Ms. Knowlton was 10 years old and living in Westminster, Calif., when the nude body of Hollywood hopeful Elizabeth Short -- bisected at the waist and drained of blood -- was found in a vacant lot in the Leimert Park district of South Los Angeles on Jan. 15, 1947.
More than 40 years later, Ms. Knowlton inserted herself into one of the city's most sensational and gruesome unsolved murder mysteries with her claim that horrifying, long-repressed memories had convinced her that George Knowlton, her long-dead father, had murdered Short.
Janice Knowlton, a Boston native, one-time professional singer, and public relations business owner, said she witnessed her rage-filled father beat Short to death with a claw hammer in the detached garage of the family home in Westminster.
News of Ms. Knowlton's death in March, at age 67, was reported over the weekend.
Her father, Ms. Knowlton had asserted, had been having an affair with Short, and Short was staying in a makeshift sleeping room in their garage, where she had suffered a miscarriage. Ms. Knowlton further asserted that she was later forced to accompany her father when he disposed of the body.
In 1991, Ms. Knowlton persuaded skeptical Westminster police detectives to search for evidence of the Black Dahlia murder -- and that of another murder she believed her father committed -- by excavating a vacant lot, the site of her former home. Nothing to warrant a criminal investigation was found.
But appearances on "Larry King Live," "Sally Jessy Raphael," and other TV shows followed, as did the 1995 book "Daddy Was the Black Dahlia Killer" (Pocket Books), which Ms. Knowlton wrote with Michael Newton and which chronicles her lurid tale of incest, rape, and multiple murders.
Although she had since slipped from the limelight, Ms. Knowlton remained obsessed with the Black Dahlia, and over the years she continued offering her input into the bizarre murder mystery.
"Anytime we ran anything about the Black Dahlia case, she'd leave long, rambling voice messages on my answering machine at The [Los Angeles] Times," said Larry Harnisch, a Times copy editor who wrote about the Black Dahlia for the paper in 1997 and is now writing a book on the case.
But Harnisch did not hear from Ms. Knowlton after the 2003 publication of "Black Dahlia Avenger: A Genius for Murder," retired LAPD detective Steve Hodel's national bestseller, in which he makes a compelling but controversial case that it was his own father, the late physician George Hodel, who murdered Short.
Recently, Harnisch's curiosity was piqued by Ms. Knowlton's silence after a Nov. 21 Los Angeles Times Magazine article on Hodel. Harnisch began investigating and discovered that Ms. Knowlton had died March 5 in her home in Anaheim Hills, Calif. The Orange County coroner's office classified her death, which escaped public notice, as suicide due to the combined effect of five drugs.
Jolane Emerson, Ms. Knowlton's stepsister, told the Times earlier this month that she didn't believe Ms. Knowlton, who took various prescribed medications, had committed suicide. "I think what happened is she just overdosed accidentally," said Emerson.
She acknowledged that her stepsister's alleged memories, which included her claim that her father molested her as a child and that he sadistically killed others besides Short, strained family relationships.
"Her book was trash and it wasn't even true," said Emerson. "She believed it, but it wasn't reality. I know because I lived with her father for 16 years."
Emerson acknowledged that her stepfather, a foundry worker who died in a 1962 car crash with his young son Kevin, "could be meaner and ornerier than heck, but he wasn't a killer."
Police in Los Angeles and Westminster placed little credence in Janice Knowlton's Black Dahlia story when it surfaced.
"The things that she is saying are not consistent with the facts of the case," Los Angeles Police homicide detective John P. St. John told The Times in 1991.
Psychiatrists and experts on post-traumatic stress disorder who appeared with Ms. Knowlton during her talk-show appearances, however, found her story plausible.
Janice Knowlton, who moved from Lynn, Mass., to Westminster in 1945, already had been suffering depression, anxiety, and panic attacks for a number of years when she underwent a hysterectomy in 1985.
After a massive injection of estrogen, according to her book, her health deteriorated rapidly. At the same time, she experienced intensified feelings of terror and had persistent thoughts of suicide.
Jim Frey, Ms. Knowlton's therapist, who specialized in adults who were abused as children, told The Times in a 1993 story on Ms. Knowlton that in studies of those with post-traumatic stress disorder, it has been found that replicating the adrenalized state a person was in when first traumatized can trigger emotional responses or memories of the event.
In the Times story, Ms. Knowlton said that after her mother and stepmother died in the late 1980s, she began recalling memories that justified the terror she had been feeling: She recalled her father molesting her. She also remembered seeing him with a dismembered infant and burying a woman in a basement and saying he would throw young Janice in the coal furnace and kill her mother if she ever told anyone.
While in therapy, Ms. Knowlton also began recalling images of Short.
In "Daddy Was the Black Dahlia Killer," Ms. Knowlton is depicted as often accompanying her father to Short's apartment in Hollywood, where George Knowlton began bringing in "visitors" who raped his daughter.
After her father allegedly killed Short, whom Ms. Knowlton called "Aunt Betty," he had her accompany him to serve as a "cover" when he disposed of Short's blanket-wrapped remains, Ms. Knowlton wrote. She said he first tried dumping the corpse in the ocean by the Seal Beach, Calif., pier, but it didn't sink. She said he later disposed of it in Los Angeles.
Along with her memories, Ms. Knowlton and co-author Newton turned up circumstantial evidence, including the fact that police initially were seeking a suspect named George and a tan car. George Knowlton, his daughter said, drove a tan LaSalle.
The two co-authors also said Ted Driscoll, a now-deceased actor who claimed he dated one of Short's roommates, remembered meeting a man who introduced himself as Georgie at the apartment.
"The physical description he gave to several of his neighbors before he passed on fits George Knowlton to a T, right down to the fact of the compulsive deer hunting, the work in a foundry, and having come from a New England town near where Short was born," Newton told The Times in 1993. "To have another George who fit that description to me would be almost coincidental beyond the realm of possibility."
Ms. Knowlton, who was divorced, once sang professionally in New York City but moved back to Orange County in 1973.
Before starting her public relations company, she worked as an executive secretary at Disneyland and sang professionally on the side. "She had a magnificent voice, a Julie Andrews type voice," said Emerson. "Every time she hit high C, she got a standing ovation. She wasted so much. She could have had such a wonderful life if she had lived her own instead of a fantasy world."