Authorities Identify Bronson Canyon Murder Victim

January 20, 2012 § 1 Comment

According to, the owner of the head, hands and feet found earlier this week in Bronson Canyon has been identified. The police have not released his name.

The article also contains this tidbit:

The recent discovery of a severed head, two hands and two feet in the Hollywood hills is near the home of actor Brad Pitt, and authorities have interviewed his bodyguard for possible leads, police said Thursday.

“It’s standard procedure for us to have our detectives canvass the neighborhood,” Los Angeles Police Cmdr. Andrew Smith said. The bodyguard saw nothing unusual, he added.

In an unusual coincidence, Pitt starred in the film “Seven,” in which he plays a detective and a severed head is found in a box.

Apparently I’m not the only one who thought of “Se7en.” I didn’t mention the proximity of Brad Pitt’s house to the murder scene because I wanted to protect what little privacy he has left. So much for that antiquated idea!

Severed Heads: A Meditation

January 19, 2012 § 2 Comments

"What's in the box?!" Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman Face the Horror in "Se7en"/Courtesy New Line Cinema

Is there any more arresting image than that of a severed human head? As the search for additional body parts continues in Bronson Canyon, one has to feel particularly sorry for the two traumatized women–a professional dogwalker and her mother–who discovered the head on Tuesday afternoon. Conversely, everyone else in the Hollywood Hills is grateful their canine companions weren’t involved. (My own dog not only has a penchant for finding hidden objects–she once pulled an old bra out of a hedge–but for putting mysterious things in her mouth. Needless to say, she would have been all over a severed head.)

Perhaps because no additional body parts were discovered today, the LA Times blog has published a story memorably titled, L.A. has head, hands, feet; Arizona has body, but match unlikely. Yes, a headless torso was found in Tucson, but it’s not our torso.

Which brings us, naturally, to the movies. The strange and horrible cinematic quality of the crime in Bronson Canyon has been noted by journalists and interviewees alike. “My mom and I thought it was a movie prop,” said Lauren Kornberg, the dogwalker. Others have alluded to police dramas and “The Sopranos.”

Right after the discovery, a neighbor emailed me the following YouTube link to a clip from Roman Polanski’s “MacBeth,” which I hadn’t seen before. Apparently it’s considered the best cinematic beheading:

It brought back memories of David Fincher’s “Se7en,” which ends with the delivery of a box containing a woman’s severed head–Gwyneth Paltrow’s–to her husband, a police detective played by Brad Pitt. Although we (mercifully) never see the head, the moment is so horrifying that it’s as though we did.

Back at Bronson Canyon, the investigation is coming to a close. The park is due to reopen sometime tomorrow.

Searching for Body Parts in Bronson Canyon: Day Two

January 18, 2012 § 1 Comment

Investigators and search dogs combed Bronson Canyon today, finding a pair of hands and a pair of feet near the site of yesterday’s discovery of a severed head. According to a friend who tried to walk his dogs there this morning, Bronson Canyon Park–which includes the former quarry (aka “Bat Cave”) and trails leading to the Hollywood Sign–was closed to the public.

Police believe the murder was committed elsewhere and will use dental records to identify the victim. According to LAPD Cmdr. Andy Smith, “There’s no other evidence that this is anything besides a single, individual isolated occurrence.”

It would be sad if Bronson Canyon became known for this macabre event. A a regular visitor, I intend to return for a hike as soon as I can. I hope others will do the same.


Helicopters Over Bronson Canyon, and a Gruesome Discovery

January 17, 2012 § 3 Comments

Hiking in Bronson Canyon 1/1/09/Hope Anderson Productions

For the past 1 1/2 hours, helicopters have been circling and hovering overhead–an unusually long time for the Hollywood Hills. I soon learned why from a neighbor, who emailed me this link:

Those who hike in Bronson Canyon can attest to the ease with which they can leave the city and hit the trails. The last time I was there, on Christmas Day, my visiting sister was amazed at how quickly we reached wilderness from my house: 10 minutes by car and another 5 on foot. She remarked that it would take her more than half an hour to drive to a comparable area from her much less densely populated city on the San Francisco Peninsula.

Since moving to Beachwood Canyon, I’ve experienced two other incidents of prolonged helicopter surveillance. The first occurred around 2007, when two hikers got stuck on one of the steep trails near the quarry. One was injured, and both required rescue. The second incident, in 2010, was the tragic death of Sally Menke, best known as Quentin Tarantino’s film editor, who collapsed in Bronson Canyon while hiking in record-breaking heat. 

According to the latest report, today’s emergency began when a dog discovered a human head in a bag. Leaving aside uncanny similarities to the work of Tarantino (and David Lynch), I have to wonder at this sentence from a press release I just received: The detectives are treating the case as a possible homicide. Possible?

According to breaking news on the LA Times blog, the head is believed to be that of a recently murdered Armenian man in his 40s. Police are looking for “additional body parts in the area.” Hikers–and their dogs–beware.

Update, 12:40am: The search was suspended at 8pm and will resume at sunrise on Wed., January 18th. Better hike elsewhere today.

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Beachwood Canyon from Above, Circa 1925

December 31, 2010 § Leave a comment

Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library, Security Pacific Collection

This aerial photograph shows Beachwood and the original Hollywood Sign, along with its searchlight–the dot below it. Taken around 1925, it shows a canyon in transition. While houses are plentiful in lower Beachwood, the Hollywoodland tract is still being built, with only a few houses visible. The roads have been cut and are the same roads we use today. Though not obvious, the network of retaining walls and steps are moving towards completion. Within four years, Southern California’s first hillside tract community will boast scores of new houses, its own country club and a distinct identity.

The biggest surprise in the photo is Burbank, stretching beyond Mt. Lee. Still largely farmland, it shows little sign of its future as a studio town and densely populated suburb.

The H to the left of the Hollywood Sign is not, as an English visitor assumed, a spare for the H in the Sign. It was placed on the hillside by Hollywood High School, and vanished long ago.

Remembering Anita Gordon

October 27, 2010 § 1 Comment

Interviewing Anita Gordon at the Bronson Caves, November 2006. l-r: Tjardus Greidanus, Hope Anderson, Anita Gordon, Ken Pries/All photos Hope Anderson Productions

I met Anita Gordon soon after I moved to Beachwood Canyon in late 2005, on the street outside my house. Like me, she was walking her dog, so we spoke about dogs and the neighborhood, whose history she knew in great detail. More conversations followed, and we quickly became the sort of neighbors who would see each other  frequently, but always by chance. Invitations to see my house were refused because our dogs complicated matters, but Anita was always available to chat and answer questions. It was she who first told me the Canyon’s name–so often misspelled “Beechwood”–came from its developer, Albert Beach, and that the Bronson Caves were actually  tunnels excavated in the old Union Rock quarry so that trolleys could transport the granite out of the Canyon. Much of the stone traveled only as far as Hollywoodland, where it was used to build the Canyon’s massive retaining walls and staircases as well as the chimneys, garden walls and terraces of the new development’s houses. Anita also surmised that the Castillo del Lago-Wolf’s Lair trail was built as a continuation of  Mulholland Highway, as evidenced by its paved portions, and then abandoned.

Naturally, Anita was the first person I asked to be an interviewee for “Under the Hollywood Sign.” Because she immediately agreed to participate, I gave her a choice of interview locations, and Anita chose the Bronson Caves. On a beautiful early November day, we trooped up into the remains of the quarry for a long chat about the Caves’ history, the Hollywood Sign, the significance of holly (both native and English) and, of course, the trails. A cardiac intensive care nurse at St. John’s, Anita overcame the stresses of her job by hiking in Bronson Canyon with her dog, Sadie. She particularly loved the quiet of the Caves, which she called “my cathedral.” 

The East Entrance to the Caves

After several months of shooting, I put an early preview of the documentary on YouTube that prominently featured Anita’s interview. She seemed pleased when I told her, but not particularly eager to see it. Because Anita didn’t use a computer, I offered to show it to her; still, she demurred. Meanwhile, I kept going on the documentary, eventually amassing more than 40 hours of footage. I made a short black-and-white re-enactment of Peg Entwistle’s last hour, which I turned into a short silent film and put on YouTube. I interviewed 34 others and did a helicopter shot of the Sign and the surrounding area. And I kept writing and researching, until the little neighborhood documentary I’d set out to make grew into a 2 1/2-year project, on which I worked seven days a week.

Whether Anita ever saw any of it, I’m not sure. Though I’m told she was proud of her interview, watching it obviously was beside the point. Anita never saw the finished documentary, either: she died unexpectedly in October of 2008, less than three months before I screened the first cut for neighbors, crew, family and friends. There was a memorial service in the Village and another on Larchmont, where her various circles–Beachwood, St. John’s and family–came together for the first–and last–time.  

Anita was much mourned; she still is. Two years later, I regularly have to remind myself there’s no chance I’ll run into her outside my front gate, and that we won’t talk about Beachwood, or anything else, ever again.

Hope Anderson and Anita Gordon at the Bronson Caves

Beachwood’s Wildlife, Part 3: Deer, Owls and a Hard-Shelled Surprise

October 18, 2010 § 3 Comments

A Mule Deer/Courtesy

Until houses were built over them, there were five springs in Beachwood Canyon, an unusual amount of water for such a small, arid area.  Because of them, the Canyon once teemed with wildlife. The springs drew deer, raccoons, skunks and possums; there also were foxes that disappeared as the human population grew denser.

Following in their footsteps are Beachwood’s deer, victims of a shrinking habitat, speeding cars and, in at least one incident, illegal hunting. Not long ago, deer were as common here as coyotes. A friend who lived here  in the early 90’s told me her neighbors left their garage door open when they went out to dinner one night and came back to find a deer inside. Another neighbor was startled by a buck running through the Village one morning. Though I’ve seen deer on Ledgewood, Mulholland Highway and Canyon Lake Drive, in the past two years I’ve seen none.

Burrowing Owl/Courtesy

When I moved to the neighborhood in the fall of 2005, I was enchanted by the owls I heard hooting in the tree across the street. There were two that would call to each other late at night, one low-pitched and the other high-pitched. When I was editing “Under the Hollywood Sign” and wanted to record their sounds, however, the owls were conspicuously absent. I had heard one in Bronson Canyon and hiked up into the quarry to record it, but by the time I set up the equipment and turned it on, the owl had stopped calling. All I captured was the cawing of crows.

Though I didn’t know it that first year, owls only come to my part of Beachwood in the fall. For the last couple of years, I’ve heard only one, but recently a pair have taken up residence in my neighbor’s tree. Their high-low duet lulls me to sleep at night. (Here’s a link to a similar call:

That same neighbor recently discovered an unusual visitor in his garden: a tortoise that landed upside down in a flower pot during the first rains of the season. He righted the tortoise, took this picture and sent it on its way.

Extreme Heat–and a Death–in Bronson Canyon

September 29, 2010 § 1 Comment

Bronson Canyon from the Hollyridge Trail Today/Hope Anderson Productions


The thing about up here was that it didn’t feel like I was in the city anymore….I felt like I was in a national park, in the middle of some great wilderness.  –Artist Jesse Vital, in “Under the Hollywood Sign” 

On Monday at 12:15pm, the temperature in downtown Los Angeles reached 113 degrees, the highest of any day since record-keeping began in 1877. Here in Beachwood, always slightly cooler because of its higher elevation, the temperature reached 110. In my house, the air conditioner was unable to cool the upstairs below 91 degrees; downstairs, where I work, the atmosphere was somewhat better, around 85 degrees. Though I kept my dog and bird indoors rather than expose them to stroke-inducing heat, I ventured out in my much cooler car to run a few cross-town errands. Traffic was nonexistent due to the temperature, and I got home in record time. 

As night fell and temperatures dropped to bearable levels, I gave up on air conditioning and threw open the windows. Helicopters circled overhead, and as the evening wore on I began to wonder if a fire had broken out in Griffith Park. Eventually came word that the helicopters were assisting in a search for a lost hiker. Besides thinking it was the worst possible day for hiking, I wasn’t surprised: hiking accidents are an occasional occurrence in the Park. 

It wasn’t until yesterday morning that I learned the hiker was found dead in a ravine in Bronson Canyon, just east of Beachwood. She was Sally Menke, 56, an editor best known for her work on the films of Quentin Tarantino. Despite the heat, she had begun hiking that morning with her dog and a friend, carrying only 16 ounces of water. When Menke decided to cut the hike short, her friend went on without her. It wasn’t until hours later than anyone realized she was missing.  

Search-and-rescue teams found Menke’s body just after 2am. Her dog–who miraculously survived–was standing guard.  

It’s hard to convey the vastness and wildness of Griffith Park to those whose idea of a park is Central Park or some other man-made green zone. Its size–over 4,200 acres–not only makes it the largest municipal park in the United States but gives it more in common with a county or state park. As the Park’s website makes clear, it is largely wilderness and contains not only deer and coyotes but bobcats and  mountain lions. 

Its 52 miles of trails are a huge civic resource, allowing residents to enter the natural world without leaving the city. Nevertheless, hikers often underestimate the trails’ dramatically varied elevations and levels of difficulty. In Bronson Canyon, the trail begins easily but becomes increasingly steep and narrow as hikers approach the Hollywood Sign. This isn’t the first time someone has gotten into trouble there. A couple of years ago, helicopters were called in for a pair of hikers, one of whom was injured and needed rescue.     

In the wake of this tragedy, one can only hope that hikers will take better precautions in Griffith Park, carrying adequate water and knowing their limits. I know all too well the urge to go hiking on the spur of the moment: because the trails are close by and hiking is commonplace, it’s hard to see it as a risky activity. But everyone, regardless of ability, should understand the dangers of hiking in extreme heat.

On (Not) Keeping Wildlife Wild in Beachwood Canyon

September 7, 2010 § 1 Comment

“Wolfie” in Better Days/Hope Anderson Productions

A couple of years ago, a friend from the dog park told me a story about a man she met at Tailwaggers, our neighborhood pet store. He enthusiastically petted her retriever, saying he loved dogs but had never had one of his own. Noticing he was buying several sacks of dog food, she asked, “Then who’s that for?” “Oh,” the man replied, “I feed coyotes.”

He’s not the only one. Other Canyon residents feed coyotes in less overt ways, by throwing them chicken bones and other scraps and leaving low-hanging avocados on their trees. One notorious coyote feeder even claims to have struck a bargain with them–in exchange for food, the coyotes apparently have agreed not to eat his cats. Water bowls are common, placed outside in the belief that providing them with liquids is a humane gesture. The fact that feeding wildlife is illegal is not a concern, as enforcement is nil.

God help Beachwooders who point out that coyotes and other scavengers are not only capable of finding food and water but are not helped by these measures. The feeder-waterers will accuse them of heartlessness and will go on doing it, while the objectors will try to ignore it. As a result, areas of the Canyon resemble an outdoor cafeteria for wildlife. The sight of a coyote trotting along the sidewalk of  Beachwood Drive at 9am is not uncommon. 

From April through July of this year, my roof was requisitioned by flocks of enormous crows who each dawn would screech and fight above my head before flying up en masse to eat breakfast on my neighbor’s deck. When I finally said something to her, I received a diatribe about my selfishly wanting to sleep and not liking nature.  

But this isn’t natural. The crow-feeding has upset the balance of birds in the neighborhood: even well-fed crows will eat the eggs of doves, sparrows and other smaller species. The finches that used to cluster around my flowering plants have been absent this season, as have the doves. (There are plenty of hummingbirds, however, probably because they lay eggs that are too small to bother with.)

On walks in the neighborhood, I see bread left out for birds and squirrels, along with copious droppings. A neighbor reports that as a result the squirrels have become so numerous that they are undermining the foundation of her house.

The coyote pictured above, nicknamed Wolfie by the neighbor on whose property he was born, has been a fixture by my house for the past three years. He and my dog were frenemies, barking at each other through the window and occasionally encountering each other on walks.  But over the past year, a severe case of mange has taken all of Wolfie’s fur. It will kill him–yet somehow he survives, completely hairless and terrifying-looking. Thus when I heard from someone whose dog had recently attacked Wolfie, I assumed the worst. However, the following week I happened to meet a woman who knew the coyote well. She reports Wolfie is alive and that his mange is being treated by a friend of hers. When I asked how, she said he feeds the coyote balls of raw meat spiked with medicine.  



“Under the Hollywood Sign” DVDs For Sale Online

July 28, 2010 § Leave a comment

Poster by Nathan Church/Hope Anderson Productions

The documentary that inspired this blog is finally available on DVD off my website  To those who’ve asked about it, thanks for your patience.

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