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Black and Blonde: The Hideous Sorority of Hollywood’s Black Dahlia and Boston’s Swedish Nanny

Posted October 17th, 2013 in Archives, Field Reports by Bill Jensen

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I published this story in 2006 when I was editor of the Boston Phoenix. I recently went back to Boston and walked to the site where pieces of Karina Holmer’s body were dumped. With all of the new buildings going up around the Fens, the area is still intact. The alley behind the building is also the same: the Mass Pike below still humming, the sign reading “No Dumping: Police Take Notice” still posted, the bright safety light still shining. 

 

She didn’t need an excuse to go out that night.

 

For the four months she’d been in America, she went out most every weekend night.

 

But June 21 is Summer Solstice. The Americans might think nothing of it. But back in Sweden, the sun is as high in the sky as it ever gets. The day is a robust 18 hours long. Tradition calls for celebration. Party harder. Drink heavier. Dance longer.

 

SolsticeFeast of EponaLithaVestaliaMidsommer. When the little girls in Skillingaryd dance around the Maypoles, pick flowers in the meadows, and put them under their pillows so they can dream that night about the man they will one day marry.

 

For the first part of that night back in 1996, 20-year-old Karina Holmer, who had come to Boston from Sweden to work as a nanny, donned a shiny gray sweater and tight shiny-silver pants, and went to Club Zanzibar on Boylston Place.

 

There she drank. She danced. She sang. She passed out on the bathroom floor. That was the first half of the night.

 

The next half of the night she was tortured, killed, and sawed in two. The top half of her body left in a dumpster in the Fenway. The bottom half deposited god knows where.

 

Karina Holmer came to Massachusetts for a better life and a better party. She wound up in two pieces.

 

Forty-nine years earlier, Elizabeth Short left Massachusetts for a better life and a better party in Hollywood. She wound up in two pieces too.

 

Elizabeth Short’s tale is by far the more famous. That’s because Short was the Black Dahlia, titular subject of James Ellroy’s noir classic, of “true Hollywood stories” and “unsolved mysteries.” Dahlia gets fan Web sites, videogames, and an Australian swing band named after her. This week, she’s getting a feature film directed by Brian DePalma with the tagline: “Inspired by the most notorious unsolved murder in California history” (presupposing that we all know OJ killed Nicole and Ron). She gets commercials airing in prime time and a wide release. She gets the fame she was looking for when she first went to Hollywood.

 

All Karina got was an answer on Jeopardy: “Boston cops were baffled by the murder of Karina Holmer, a Swede working as this French-named type of domestic.”

 

Stick around and I’ll give you the question.

 

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Elizabeth Short

From Hollywood
The murder of the Black Dahlia put a chokehold on the darker imaginations of Los Angelenos, who in the late ’40s were just starting to realize that Gary Cooper, Jimmy Stewart, and Jack Webb were not going to save them from the sprawling dystopia their city had become.

 

An unremarkable woman, with just-this-side-of-movie-star looks, Dahlia was a lazy, sickly soul who always dressed in black, hung out in bars and drugstores, and earned her living getting handouts from friends and strangers. She wasn’t a whore (as early accounts portrayed her), but she would bed down with strangers. And if they gave her a few greenbacks, so be it. But in death, she became a legend. The original cautionary tale of Hollywood’s busted dreams (leaving aside the Fatty Arbuckle scandal).

 

James Ellroy, whose own mother was killed in LA a decade later, calls the Dahlia case “the greatest single unsolved murder in American history” (presupposing that we all know Oswald killed Kennedy).

 

“Of course we know that such things can happen over there,” Karina Holmer’s sister Johanna told a TV station after the nanny’s murder in 1996, “but it’s nothing that you expect.”

 

And while Karina’s is certainly not the first cautionary tale of a young European woman going “over there” and getting herself killed (don’t go to Boston, or you’ll end up like that Holmer girl!), her death, followed soon after by the Louise Woodward shaken-baby homicide trial, exposed for a time the lives of young women shipped over to America to care for our children.

 

Dahlia and Karina belong to a hideous sorority of women who were not merely murdered, but destroyed in such a way that makes rubberneckers slow down traffic for miles. They stand out, searing the collective memory as though the magician’s showstopping trick involving a box, a saw, and “a beautiful girl” had gone horribly wrong.

 

When their bodies were found, both women had ligature marks on their wrists, suggesting they had been trussed up for torture. Both were washed clean — Karina’s top half was found without the makeup she usually wore out clubbing; Dahlia’s hair was shampooed, washing out her trademark black die to reveal red. Both women’s cuts were quite precise — Dahlia’s sliced neatly between the second and third lumbar vertebrae, Karina’s with only a hiccup at the hip bone.

 

But the similarities end there.

 

The mutilation of Karina seemed far too utilitarian. It’s widely thought that she was cut in two not in some sadistic ritual, but to get rid of any DNA evidence left in her lower cavities after a sexual assault. Her upper half was placed in two plastic bags and disposed of with the trash. Other than the strangulation marks around the neck, the 48-pound torso contained no bruises, no defensive wounds. Her murderer was not looking to make a statement. Once he (not likely a she) had had his way with Karina, he just wanted her to disappear. It was a Boston crime: do the deed, then get back to work and pretend it didn’t happen.

 

Dahlia’s murderer was from Hollywood (via hell). His demons led him not only to commit the act itself, but to present the post-mortem: he (not likely a she, although there have been female suspects over the years) displayed her two naked halves on a patch of grass and weeds in the expanding suburbs of Los Angeles. (“Look what I did!”) Her right breast was missing a chunk of flesh. Her left breast was missing entirely. Her mouth was sliced open at the corners, making her look like a precursor to Batman’s Joker. A diamond shaped incision was located on her thigh (later revealed to be the spot where Dahlia hid her rose tattoo). Her head was sliced and battered beyond recognition — so much so that newspapers actually retouched her face (as well as painted a blanket over her naked body) for the gentle readers of the morning edition.

 

And while Karina’s killer vanished, Dahlia’s stuck around, taunting the police with letters and eventually mailing them the contents of Dahlia’s missing purse.

 

 

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Scratched then itched
Karina’s American dream began with a lottery ticket. She won 10,000 Krona (about $1500) on a scratch-off card, and used the money to come to America.

 

She was placed in the Dover household of Frank Rapp, a commercial photographer, and artist Susan Nichter, and charged with caring for their two children. (Both refuse to speak to the media while the murder investigation is ongoing.)

 

Before her death, Karina had written a letter to a friend complaining about the housework that came with her new job. “There is always so much cleaning and I think I am stressed all the time. So this is not exactly what I thought it would be.”

 

But Cinderella’s weekends were free. And she had a place to crash in the city — a loft apartment on A Street in the South End that Rapp used during the week as a studio. There were drinks (thanks to a fake ID), dancing, and “The Macarena.”

 

When Sladjana Dobricic, a nanny from Serbia working in Boston, went missing in September of 2002, Middlesex DA Martha Coakley was quick to point out to the Globe that Dobricic was “a bookworm, not a party-type au pair,” consciously or not damning that party-girl nanny Karina who had died six years earlier.

 

On the night of Summer Solstice, Karina and three friends went to Club Zanzibar.

 

At around 3 am, she found herself in the Alley, the strip that connects various bars off Boylston. She thought her friends had left her. Turns out, they hadn’t. But Karina was so wasted she’d lost contact with them: after passing out in the bathroom and coming to enough to go outside, she tried to get back into the club after closing, but the bouncer refused. So Karina created her own club in the Alley — drunk, singing and dancing around with a panhandler.

 

She also had a conversation with Herb Whitten, a 49-year-old man from Andover who would drive to the city on weekends with his Great Pyrenees, man and dog both wearing Superman T-shirts as a device to pick up women.

 

Her walk back to the loft on A Street would have taken her through the Combat Zone. On the Boston Police Department (BPD) Web site, they claim Karina was caught on security cameras near the Store 24 on Mass Ave near the Berklee campus (a stone’s throw from where she was dumped). But a source close to the case once told me that that tape simply doesn’t exist. The Alley at 3 am — that’s the last time anyone, other than her killer, saw her alive.

 

The day after her body was found, the BPD located Karina’s panhandler on Kingston Street. Whitten, the man dressed as Superman, lawyered up. He had gotten a speeding ticket driving back to Andover early that morning, giving him a fairly tight alibi. He killed himself a year later. They also interviewed John Zewizz, frontman for the industrial/goth/erotica band Sleep Chamber, who lived two blocks from the dumpster where Karina’s body was found; a cop Karina may have been dating; and her employers. All turned up nothing.

 

Over the years, whenever a body has been found sawed in half, Karina bells have gone off. In 1999, Boston detectives flew down to Hollywood, Florida, when the body of 34-year-old prostitute Delia Lorna Mendez was found inside a trash bin, severed in two. Nothing. When two boys found a suitcase full of human bones behind a Weymouth bar that same year, they thought of Karina again. Nothing. When police arrested a man in 2002 for picking up a woman at a bar in Quincy, stabbing her and cutting off her fingers before killing her, eyebrows were raised with Karina in mind. Still nothing.

 

Men and dogs dressed as Superman? Rockers who dabble in S&M and magick? As wild as the list of potential suspects was in Karina’s case, Dahlia has our nanny beat again. Orson Welles. Bugsy Siegel. Woody Guthrie. A well-known surgeon who lived a block from where Dahlia’s body was left. Norman Chandler, publisher of the LA Times. Two people have published books — one a New York Times bestseller — outing their own fathers as the killer. More than 22 suspects have been seriously bandied about, none of them charged with the crime.

 

Most people agree that the last place Dahlia was seen alive was in the lobby of the Biltmore Hotel in downtown LA. You can still go there today. Order the Black Dahlia martini at the hotel bar. Then you can visit the space where her body was discarded at South Norton and 39th Street in Crenshaw. The spot sits in a residential neighborhood now. You can find it on star maps.

 

You won’t find the place where Karina met her end on any trolley tour maps. The dumpster in the alley where she was found, near the Mass Pike just off Boylston Street, is still there. The smell of fabric softener fills the space, seeping out of a vent from a laundry room in the adjacent apartment building. The site is unremarkable, save for the sign posted above the dumpster. You’d think nothing of it if you didn’t know what had been left there ten years ago. But armed with that knowledge, the sign reads like a sarcastic jab at those who could never solve the crime, as if it were placed there by the killer himself, taunting the police the same way Dahlia’s killer did 49 years earlier. NO DUMPING it reads in big letters, POLICE TAKE NOTICE.

 

You stuck around, so I’ll give you the response to that Jeopardy clue.

 

“What is au pair?”

 

Contestant A.J. Monaco, a law student from Newark, earned $1600 for getting that right on January 9, 2004.

 

Earlier in the same episode, Monaco got another question right.

 

The category was called “Ah, Sweet Mister ‘E’ ”

 

“George Jetson might like this author of  L.A. Confidential,” said Alex Trebek.

 

“Who is James Ellroy?” A.J. responded.

 

I’ll take “Some Real Eerie Shit” for 400, Alex.

 

 

Originally published in September 16, 2006 in the Boston Phoenix.

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The alley where pieces of Karina Holmer’s body was dumped, as it stands today. 
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