Missing: Jean Spangler

On October 7, 1949, actress Jean Spangler told her sister-in-law that she was off to meet her ex-husband to discuss missed child support payments, and would head to a movie set from there. She was never seen again.

Two days later her purse was found, with the strap ripped and a cryptic unfinished note inside, which read: “Kirk, Can’t wait any longer. Going to see Dr. Scott. It will work best this way while mother is away,”

Police followed many leads. 

First, they checked in on her ex-husband, Dexter Benner, who stated he had not seen Jean for weeks. His new wife corroborated his alibi that he was with her at the time of Jean’s disappearance. Benner had originally won custody of the couple’s daughter, Christine, but Jean got custody in 1948, a year before her disappearance. Benner stated that Jean “preferred parties to priorities”. Years after Jean’s disappearance, Benner kept Christine from her maternal grandmother, Jean’s mother, despite a court order granting visitation rights. He eventually moved out of state and took Christine with him, never to return.

Jean stated she was going to work at a studio after her meeting, but police found that none of the studios Jean worked with were even open that night. A clerk at a nearby Farmers Market, recalled seeing Jean in the shop for a while that night, and stated that Jean seemed to be “waiting for someone.”

From the note, neither ‘Kirk’ not ‘Dr Scott’ were located. An abusive ex was named Scotty, but Jean had apparently not seen him for years. Spangler had recently completed filming a bit part in the film Young Man with a Horn starring Kirk Douglas. Douglas told law enforcement he knew Jean’s name but had never met her. What is strange about this call, is that Douglas actually called law enforcement proactively to tell them that Jean had a part in his movie but he did not know her. He called before law enforcement ever thought to question him, to get himself out of the investigation. Douglas was married at the time and got divorced two years after Jean’s disappearance. Jean’s mother said Jean had been picked up from her house a few times by a man named Kirk, but he always stayed in the car and the mother never saw his face.

(Kirk Douglas in Young Man with a Horn)

Jean’s friends told law enforcement that she was three months pregnant at the time of her disappearance, which led to rampant speculation that Jean was accidentally killed in the process of getting an abortion, which was illegal at the time. It would explain why she wanted to see a Doctor, and while her mother is away.

Jean had been seen out on the town with Davy Ogul, an associate of the infamous mobster Mickey Cohen. Two before after Jean’s disappearance, Ogul disappeared. It has been speculated that the two ran away together, and Ogul was running from prosecution for conspiracy charges. There was reported sightings of the pair in Mexico.

My thoughts:

It seems to me like two people had a lot to gain from Jean’s death: her ex-husband Dexter Benner and the father of her unborn, unwanted child. 

If Kirk Douglas, famous, married, actor had knocked up Jean, certainly he would not want this information coming out. Back in those days, many women died from illegal abortions, which were extremely unsafe. Estimates of the number of illegal abortions in the United States during the 1950s and 1960s range from 200,000 to 1.2 million per year. If Jean was planning an abortion, it may explain why she told her sister-in-law that she would be on set the night of October 9 after meeting with Benner, which did not seem to be true. The contents of the note may also point to an abortion: the mention of a Doctor, and the desire for her mother to be away. It’s possible that Jean did indeed go for an abortion, and was accidentally killed, after which Doctor Scott, not wanting to be locked up for performing illegal abortions, disposed of Jean’s body. But this theory leaves the following questions unanswered: why would Doctor Scott leave Jean’s purse in public, with a note that could identify him, and why did Kirk not yet have the letter that Jean intended for him, surely Jean would have given Kirk this letter before undergoing the procedure.

Alternatively, maybe Jean really was meeting Dexter Benner that night. I do not hold a lot of stock in an alibi provided by his wife, as these can be compelled. Benner seemed to hold contempt for his ex-wife Jean and her family. Even after Jean’s disappearance, he kept their daughter Christine away from her maternal grandmother. He could have taken Jean, and in the struggle, left behind Jean’s purse.

The Davy Ogul connection seems to be a red herring. Jean was only seen out with him once, and he certainly is not the Kirk mentioned in her letter. Addressing these rumours, and that Jean would leave of her own accord, Jean’s mother stated “I am sure she would have communicated with us if she is alive and free. And nobody can tell me that she would have left her baby unless she was forced to do so; she loved her too much.” And why would Jean have fought so hard to get custody of her daughter, only to skip town not much later?

I think Jean went out that night to see the Kirk from her note, possibly to discuss an abortion. Perhaps she was planning on staying the night at Kirk’s, hence the cover story about the movie set. She waited for a while, as corroborated by a clerk at the Farmer’s Market. After waiting, she was going to turn back. She started writing the note to Kirk, saying that she could not wait any longer and that she would go see Dr Scott while her mother was out of town. Perhaps Jean was planning on leaving the note near the meeting place or a predetermined spot. Jean was then interrupted in the middle of writing the note, perhaps Kirk himself finally made it to meet her. A struggle with this individual, either Kirk finally showing up or a predator who spotted a woman alone, ended in Jean’s purse handle being ripped and the bag left behind. From there, I expect Jean was murdered that night and her killer is still out there.

One thought on “Missing: Jean Spangler

  1. My mother, Lorraine Carter, was Jean Spangler’s best friend in high school. She often spoke of “the tragedy”. She told me that Dexter was furious because he thought Jean was going to name him as father of her baby, but that she was not going to have it because she wanted her career. She said the police never contacted her.

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