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01.18.12

Human Head, Hands Found Near Hollywood Sign

First the human head was discovered by a pair of dog walkers. Now two hands have been recovered not far from Hollywood’s iconic sign—and police are racing to identify the gruesome remains.

Los Angeles police are working to determine the identity of a man whose head, feet, and hands were found along a popular walking trail in the rugged hills near the Hollywood sign, with close to 50 investigators scouring the rough terrain for additional body parts.

The remains were discovered at about 2:30 p.m. on Tuesday, when two women walking nine dogs spotted a human head in Bronson Canyon Park after it flopped out of a plastic bag two of their dogs were playing with.

“One of the dogs took off into the brush and started shaking the bag,” said Andy Smith, a commander with the Los Angeles Police Department.

The following morning, a coroner’s cadaver dog named Indiana Bones found the first severed hand in a pile of brush by trees just off a dirt trail, about 50 feet away from where the head was discovered. A few hours later, the second hand and feet were found in a deep, rugged canyon nearby.

The body parts were discovered near a concrete ramp frequented by skateboarders.

Police suspect the remains belong to a man of European or Armenian descent in his 40s or 50s, with salt-and-pepper hair. Police also believe he was killed elsewhere and dumped within the last couple of days, as there is little sign of decomposition.

The killer most likely scattered the body parts to avoid detection, said Craig Harvey, chief of the Los Angeles County coroner’s office.

“Clearly they didn’t want the person to be identified,” said Harvey. “You are trying to prevent identification or discovery. It is easy to get a handle on it if you dismember your victim. You can throw stuff away inconspicuously. But obviously he didn’t throw it far enough away, or maybe a coyote dragged it up from the depth of the floor of the forest.”

Meanwhile, police are scouring through missing persons reports, surveying nearby garbage containers, and knocking on doors along Canyon Drive in an effort to find a resident who may have noticed anything unusual in the last few days. Police also are hoping to pull fingerprints from one of the hands and determine the identity of the head.

“You are trying to prevent identification or discovery. It is easy to get a handle on it if you dismember your victim.”

As detectives continue with their investigation, the grisly finds are prompting speculation that the man could have been killed by one of Mexico’s drug cartels, which are known to decapitate their victims.

“People have mentioned a drug cartel, but they try to make a splash,” said Smith. “I don’t think that is the case here. I think it is an isolated incident.”

Bronson Canyon Park, which closes at sunset, is a popular spot for local dog walkers, joggers, horseback riders, and tourists. On the weekends, the park is filled with families who host birthday parties and yoga instructors who give free lessons. The nearby trails are several miles long and wind toward the Griffith Observatory and the Hollywood sign. Park rangers are regular fixtures along the trails on the weekends, but the park is relatively empty during the week, which could have provided the killer with an opportunity to dispose of the remains without being detected. 

The park is also home to the Bronson Bat Caves, which have been used over the years in a number of films and television shows, including the Batman television series.

The body parts were discovered just over two weeks after a series of arson fires put Hollywood residents on edge over the New Year’s weekend. Harry Burkhart, a German national with travel papers from Chechnya, was arrested on Jan. 2 for allegedly setting more than 50 fires in Hollywood and nearby communities.

“A few weeks ago we were afraid of the arsonist, and now we have this,” said Steve, a local man who declined to give his last name. “It is a little scary but I won’t lose sleep over it.”

According to TMZ, a photo of the human head is being shopped around to local tabloid newspapers. The website reported that photo was snapped by a man who came across the dog walkers and allowed them to use his phone to make a 911 call. He took the photo with the phone after the women hung up with the police.

Finding human remains is a relatively common occurrence in L.A. county’s remote mountainous regions. Most of the time, the killings occur elsewhere and the bodies are discovered badly deteriorated several weeks later. Chief coroner Harvey said the cadaver dog, Indiana Bones, is called out at least 15 times a month to parks, forests, and Dumpsters. About 50 or 60 percent of the time the bones turn out to be human, he said.

In February 2010, a hiker discovered a skull in Griffith Park, a rugged 4,000-acre area that straddles the mountains separating Hollywood from the San Fernando Valley. The following year, the skull was matched through DNA evidence to body parts found in 2007 more than 50 miles away in San Bernardino County.

With its twisting trails and plunging canyons, the Angeles National Forest has long been considered a favorite dumping ground for killers. The body of Hillside Strangler victim Cindy Lee Hudspeth was discovered in 1978 in the trunk of her Datsun, which was pushed off a cliff on Angeles Crest Highway. Former Los Angeles Raiders cheerleader Linda Sobek was found strangled in the same area in 1995, as was model Kimberly Pandelios, whose skeletal remains were discovered by two hikers who stumbled across her skull in March 1993.

The corpse of con man Ron Levin, who allegedly was killed by members of the Billionaire Boys Club in the 1980s, is thought to be buried somewhere in the Angeles National Forest.

“People who commit murder are always looking of ways to avoid detection,” said Glynn Martin, executive director of the Los Angeles Police Historical Society. “Over the course of Los Angeles history, people have tried to conceal their misdeeds, and that is just part of it.”