Hollywoodland: Unsolved (S02E01)
The Murder of Christa Helm
February 12th 1977
We know that Hollywood is full of secrets and those looking to expose them. So if you brag about keeping a diary of your sex-capades with the city’s rich and famous, don’t be surprised when you turn up dead.
I am breaking my “no investigating crimes with living suspects” rule to tell you about the “Black Dahlia of the Disco Era” Christa Helm.
Christa Helm was a 27-year-old single mother and aspiring actress who would do anything - or anyone - for fame. But she came to an untimely demise when she was brutally stabbed over 20 times on February 12th 1977 in West Hollywood. What would make someone commit such a senseless act of violence towards a seemingly innocent wanna be starlet?
Well, her alleged “love diary” might be an option. She kept detailed notes on all of her sexual encounter and included a ranking system of them written in said diary that she kept with her at all times…
…and in this diary? Names dates and details of sex with different member of hollywoods elite. A diary which she bragged about and the one that disappeared when she the night she was brutally attacked…. Her murder remains unsolved to this day.
I’m you’re host Ansley and welcome to Hollywoodland: Unsolved. Listener digression is advised.
Christa Helm was born on November 11, 1949 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, as Sandra Lynn Wohlfeil. She was the daughter of Harry – the owner of an asphalt company and Delores - a housewife. The two split just before Christa’s 3rd birthday. Her father went on and married another women and had two more children but her mother sunk into alcoholism and depression and dated a string of abusive and violent men.
Her mother allegedly stood idly by while these men took advantage of her three daughters, Chrsita (formerly Sandra), Marisa and Candie, and for years her mother denied that the abuse even happened. As the abuse progressed, Christa and her two sisters were moved to live with their father permanently.
During this time, Christa learned to push the limits. She developed wild habits and tested the boundaries of her small town Wisconsin life. Christa loved attention and made herself known wherever she went. At 16, Christa fell in love with 26-year-old Gary Clements and within weeks became pregnant with his child. Under the pressure of her parents, Christa and Gary got married in a shotgun wedding. Shortly after Christa’s 17th birthday, she gave birth to a baby girl – Nicole. But it wasn’t long before things went south for the couple. Within weeks of Nicole’s christening, Gary disappeared.
Nicole gave an account later that stated QUOTE “I never got to know my father. He kind of disappeared from our lives sometime after my christening. I was told that Mom looked high and low for him and that she couldn’t find him. My father never did come back. A few months later Mom was told by someone that he had died in a motorcycle accident in Florida, but she was never sure if that was true. It seems so strange to say this, but it’s like he just vanished one day into thin air” END QUOTE
But Christa wasn’t single for long. Her big personality and beautiful blonde locks attracted many… suitors and she dated a number of men.
After Nicole’s birth, Christa got a job as a waitress at a local Italian restaurant where she befriends another waitress, Dianne Mitchell, who was also a mother to a young daughter. Soon after, the pair got a two bedroom apartment together, with their daughters living with their grandmothers. Dianne was wary of Christa’s love of attention and willingness to bring it into their one. In one account Dianne states “She spoke to everyone in the restaurant and would often invite people she barely knew over to our apartment for drinks. I was concerned and told her that it wasn’t safe to invite total strangers over to our place like that but she would just laugh at me. She said it was fine and that I worried too much. Lucky thing, most of the people she befriended were fine. There were a couple of strange guys, but you know, that was Sandy! She didn’t seem to be afraid of very much, if anything
The girls were invited by their boss at the restaurant to go to a playboy club with him in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin where Christa met actor and singer, James Darren. She was bitten by the bug and said then and there she was going to be a star. She was hired as a playboy bunny but never actually got to work as one, stating that she didn’t want to do it alone. Just after her daughter’s second birthday, with her sights set on fame, Christa and her friend Dianne left their daughters in the care of a nanny in Vermont and moved to New York.
After moving to New York, Christa got a job as a waitress at The Gaslight club where she met Buffalo Bills player, Ray Abbruzzese. A hot and heavy fling ensued but her time was Ray’s live-in lover was short lived. Christa booked a few modeling jobs and was working on a way to to really “get discovered.”
Her “big break” came shortly after when she met costume designer Linny Barron. He became a good friend of Christa’s and helped introduce her to New York’s elites.
Christa knew that she would need to be seen as a movie star to become a movie star so she adopted a lifestyle of parties, glitz and glamor as quickly as she could.
It was through her nightlife in New York that Christ met Broadway producer Stuart Duncan, heir to the Wrostcher sauce fortune, who was making his transition from the stage to the screen.
Stewart and Christa had a long-time friendship and he helped her buy property and a corvette and helped her get her career off the ground.
Stewart gave Christa her breakout role as the star of his 1974 film “Let’s Go For Broke” where she plays an investigative journalist names “Jackie Broke” and it has a Charlie’s Angles meets James Bond feel. One account by Steve Thompson and John O’Dowd says QUOTE The film’s outlandish, Bond-style plot deals with a wheelchair bound madman who uses a synthetic dog food on his enemies which causes them to turn into (believe it or not) raw meat! Reporter Jackie Broke is interviewing a feminist who is then kidnapped and taken to Haiti. She herself is later kidnapped by the same villains and also taken to the island where voodoo and various tortures come into play until she escapes and tackles the bad guys with her feminine wiles and elaborate skills in martial arts.
Steward was the creator of the well-known musical, Godspell and gave Christa stock in the show, which made her money for years.
After filming “Let’s go for broke” wrapped, she made the transition from New York to Hollywood to continue her quest for fame. With connections made and a bit of success under her belt, Christa was ready for the city of Angles.
According to reports, Christa submitted photos and stories of herself to gossip columns to try to edge her way into Hollywood’s elite. And it worked. Christa was able to link herself to Mic Jagger, Warren Beaty, and Jack Nicholson, to name a few. She used her charm and good looks to make herself part of the entertainment industry’s inner circle.
Shortly after moving to Los Angeles, Christa met big-time fiancer Bernard Cornfeld (aka Bernie) and shortly after moved into his 39- room mansion located at 1100 Carolinian Drive. The house housed numerous of people from up and comers to Bernie’s lackeys. It was a allegedly a nonstop party destination and Christa fit right in.
Christa was later described by her daughter as a “free agent who openly enjoyed sex.”
On the topic of sex… Christa allegedly kept a diary of her many escapades and sexual encounters. She apparently kept very detailed accounts down to what she was wearing and her rating of how much she enjoyed the interactions. She wrote down everything. And she took the diary with her everywhere.
Years after her death – her high school friend recounts reading Christa’s diary and what it said QUOTE “She said it's kind a like when we are teenage girls in on our rating system then she showed me her diary it was a step above let's put it that way it was meant that she had slept with including some threesomes with women” END QUOTE.
She didn’t hide that she kept this habit either – and allegedly several of her friends advised her to stop or at the very least, stop talking about it. But Christa didn’t listen.
According to some reports she was keeping these diaries to write a book about her adventures in hollywood but according to others, she was keeping it to blackmail the Hollywood bigwigs she was sleeping with.
After a few years in Hollywood, and a few small tv roles under her belt, most notably a role on an episode of “Wonder Woman” Christa started to realize that her years in Hollywood were not amounting to what she’d hoped. She started searching for a new way to break into the spotlight.
What did she come up with? Nothing other than a disco album.
Yep, Christa went from trying to be the next movie start to trying to be the next disco star.
According to reports, Christa was signed on to Casablanca Records and they brought in DJ Frankie Crocker – an up and coming producer, but the pair didn’t get along and their relationship fizzled out. Trying to save face, Christa allegedly told people that it was her idea that she didn’t work with Crocker and that she QUOTE “had him by the balls”
From the start this disco album was doomed to an ill fate. Christa started to party harder and got mixed up in a crowd she would later tell a friend that she was afraid of.
But on the surface, that seemed far from the truth. Shortly after starting the album, Christa started hooking up with one of her female backup singers, Patty Collins. Patty and Christa became inseparable and Patty couldn’t get enough of it. That was until Debbie Danalow joined the mix. Another backup singer, Debbie joined the record after Patty and said in one account QUOTE “ Christa was flirty, and came on to me immediately but with a sense of timeliness. She let me know she was interested in me (sexually) but wanted me to be comfortable with her first. I more or less ignored her advances, all the time keeping my eye on Patty who was keeping her eye on me! To be quite frank, I have never had an interest in having a relationship with another woman, especially sexual. I have been married five times — but always to men! But I accepted Christa as she was, and I appreciated her interest in me, even though it was not something we would act upon.”
So let’s pause for a moment here – we know that Christa used her sexuality to forward her acting career and wasn’t shy about who she was sleeping with, but that didn’t get her very far. With not much to show for her career she starts a new one as a singer and gets mixed up with not one, but two of her FEMALE backup singers? Okay, great now that we are all on the same page…. What we have here is a fame and adoration seeking young woman who will do whatever it takes to achieve said fame and adoration. Which is a slippery slope…. Black Dalilah anyone?
Christa continued to brag about her sex diary and how detailed she kept. She told people that she wrote names, things they liked, dates and even ranked the sex with a scale she created. She openly bragged about her conquests and the details written in her diary that she always kept in her purse.
Shortly after, Christa wound up dead.
On the night of February 12th, 1977, Christa Helm went to a Hollywood party with her roommate, Stephanie. Christa left the party to go to the home of Sandy Smith, a quote “talent agent” when Christ arrived at Sandy’s house, she was brutally stabbed a number of times on the street in front of the house and left for dead with no eye witnesses.
So let’s start at the beginning –
We know that on the night of February 12th Charisa went to a party with her roommate. Her roommate’s name was Stephanie. The party was in West Hollywood. She and her roommate took her roommates car. We know that she made a call to her agent – Sandy Smith – at some point during the party. Allegedly she was trying to get him to come to the party (they may or may not have been lovers) but Sandy refused. We also know that Christa left the party to go to Smith’s house where she was later found stabbed to death outside of the car, in front of Smith’s house.
All around her body. From her breast, to her back to her left, Christa was violently attacked and left for dead, bleeding out, on a West Hollywood neighborhood street.
Her hands were covered in stab wounds, indicating that she was trying to defend herself. She definitely didn’t go down without a fight.
Smith denies hearing or seeing Christa that night and claims to have been sleeping.
Christa was stabbed over thirty times and beaten with a blunt force object (authorities assume the handle of the knife or a hammer). Her body was discovered by a young man crossing the street. According to some reports he found her with car keys in her hand, partially under the car.
When investigators arrived on scene they took note at the odd way her car had been parked: She allegedly stopped her car abruptly, with her tires jammed into the curb on the passenger’s side. This lead them to believe that someone had been trailing her that evening in West Hollywood.
According to reports, Christa then got out of the car and then neighbors reported hearing people talking loudly and one neighbor said that he heard quote “two women and a man.” Another ear witness said that they heard QUOTE “vicious screams that sounded like a cat being skinned.” End quote.
The knife used in Christa’s murder was never found but according to reports the LAPD speculate that it was a buck knife or a more-heavy duty knife that what most people have lying around in their kitchen. It is also speculated that the amount force and passion that went into her stabbing that it was a single person who knew Christa who was acting alone. This is a very personal and violent way to kill someone, so the police (and I) assume that it was someone who knew Christa intimately.
No evidence of the murderer was left at the scene. But DNA was taken from under Christa’s nails. According to LAPD, Christa had fought for her life.
Shortly after an unidentified person walking in the neighborhood finds Christa covered in blood, on the ground in the street by her car. He claimed that he was standing by her as she breathed her last breath.
It is important to note that when Christa’s body was found – her purse was missing. And in the purse? The sex diary. Which to this day has not been accounted for. According to reports, her murder didn’t receive as much media attention as you would think for someone so deeply entrenched in the Hollywood gossip scene but one account thinks that that is the precise reason for her murder: it was personal. QUOTE ““who she knew and what she knew may be the reason her savage killing was barely reported.”
Investigators has very little to go on at the scene but they matched the keys to the car and to the apartment that she shared with Stephanie Warsaugh. When police went to the apartment – Stephanie told them that her roommate, Christa, had her car last night.
And this is where the story gets a little weird – Christa’s roommate Stephanie told investigators that Sandy Smith was Christa’s agent and was a mutual friend of them both. Stephanie stated that Christa had called Sandy from the party earlier that evening to try to get him to join their party.
When asked about that night – Sandy Smith told investigators that he was sound asleep and never heard a thing. He claimed that he had no idea that Christa had been stabbed to death mere feet from his house.
But according to witnesses, that statement is false – allegedly there were other people coming and going from Sandy’s house all evening. And the person who found Christa’s body was on his way to Sandy’s house. So there we have our first lie. What was Sandy trying to hide by lying to the police?
In the recording from her sessions at the studio working on her disco album, investigators found that they were littered with personal drama and tensions. Allegedly her backup singer, Patty Collins, was having a secret relationship with Christa. But Christa denied being a lesbian and that upset Collins. Upon hearing the recordings, investigators went on the hunt for Patty Collins… but they were never able to find her. Where did she go? And why?
Another weird thing – Christa was said to have been carrying a handbag with a “Tommy boy” logo on it and allegedly her sex diary inside. Neither the purse nor the diary has ever been accounted for.
After a few months… the case went cold.
The police had too many leads, too many loose ends, too much on their hands – they passed things off and moved on to the next until there was nothing left… so let’s look at the suspects:
Sandy Smith. He was Christa’s agent and the person whose house Christa was murdered in front of. He was – from what I could find – definitely in the Hollywood party scene, potentially had mob ties, and definitely was a shady character. I couldn’t find too much on him in my research but I did come across a notice that the LAPD is actively looking for him… so Sandy Smith if you’re listening, investigators at the LAPD would like to talk to you.
The next suspect is Rudy Mozella. Remember the drama that police found on the studio recordings from Christa’s disco album? Well, He was a drug dealer who was roommates with Blair Aaronson – the keyboardist who worked on Christa’s disco album. According to reports, Christa was storing large amounts of cocaine for Mozella and during that she stole some of the drugs from him and he found out and got violent. Another crazy thing? Rudy allegedly bragged that he was the one who committed the murder of Christa Helm . We all know false confessions happen regularly in murder cases, but this is one that I take seriously. He wasn’t looked at deeply at the time of Christa’s murder but when the case was open in the mid 2000’s cold case investigators found that Rudy had been dead for years.
According to my research – Rudy is the general favorite for who killed Christa. But with investigators unable to interview him (because he’s dead) and there being no direct evidence linking him to the death of Christa Helms, the case is still unsolved today.
What I would like to know is did Sandy Smith see something. Why did he lie to the police? Did Sandy Smith and Rudy know each other? Rudy was a drug dealer and smith was an agent in Hollywood in the ‘70’s so…. It wouldn’t be a far stretch.
What is also interesting about this case is investigators found tapes among Christa’s possessions – audio recordings of her sexual encounters.
The next suspect is Tony Sirico (Si-ricco). Yep, you heard that right, the actor who played Paulie Walnuts on the Soprano’s is a suspect in this case. According to reports, Christa’s roommate, Stephanie, said that Tony showed up at their apartment shortly after the party to check on Christa’s quote “welfare” but allegedly what he ended up doing was going to their apartment to steal furs and personal documents of Christa’s. According to reports – Stephanie believes that it was Tony who initially stole Christa’s tape recordings from her room after the murder.
So does that make him a suspect? My guess is that he was new to Hollywood and was trying to find is way in. Someone offered him something he wanted for going to their apartment and stealing Christa’s things. Tony denies all involvement, and this is just a theory, but something worth thinking about.
When interviewed by the police, they said he was cooperative and friendly and stated that he was simply an acquaintance of Christa’s. But when investigators got specific on dates and times, Tony’s demeanor allegedly changed. His lawyer stopped the interview and said that Tony wouldn’t answer any more questions. Suspicious if you ask me.
The next suspect is the unnamed Movie star.
The main theory is that someone – one of her high-powered sexual partners – found out about her tapes and detailed diary and was not willing to risk that information getting out, remember Christa was not shy about telling people about her detailed diary and ranking system, so that would be enough to spook anyone with something to hide.
Would that be enough for a high profile person to murder Christa? I believe so. I am so fascinated by this case because there are so many moving parts and SO many suspects.
So what happened to the tapes? I’m my research I came across a report where a cold case investigator stated that on the tapes was a recording of a threesome that was described as quote a “very intense sexual encounter.” This threesome was with Patty Collins (Christa’s backup singer and lesbian lover), Christa and a well-known movie star. The investigator does not disclose who this person is but states that he is a man and is still alive and in the public eye today…. Interesting… when this “celebrity” as he is called in the reports, was interviewed he states that Patty Collins was not happy with Christa at the time of their sexual encounter and that there was a lot of tension between the two. So could Patty be a suspect?
Let’s say that she is – I find is very weird that Patty disappeared right after the murder of Christa Helms. To me, that says “I have something to hide” and investigators thought so too. They still to this day have not been able to find her. So – she definitely knows something and willing to stay hidden to not let anyone find out what that is.
As for Christa’s other backup singer Debby Danilo? She knows more than she ever let on… According to the band’s keyboardist Blaire Aaronson, he and Debbie were in a relationship – but he and Christa had sexual relations the night before her murder. According to that same report, Debbie caught him cheating on her with Christa by watching them have sex through a window. Aaronson says this is what happened… Debbie denies it.
So what about DNA evidence? When cold case investigators hopped on the case in 2006, they began testing the DNA under Christa’s fingernails from the night she was murdered. Remember how she fought for her life? Well, what they turned up was that the DNA evidence showed that it was a woman with whom Christa had had contact that night. That also matched the ear-whiteness reports that stated that they had heard woman’s voices.
Investigators began searching for the woman in Christa’s life and of the suspects listed – Debbie was the only female they could track down and after being tested they learned the DNA was not hers.
What breaks my heart about this case is Christa’s daughter Nicole. She is the reason that the case was given to cold case investigators 30 years after her mom’s murder and she is still searching for answers.
Ultimately what this case comes down to is the idea that Christa got herself mixed up in something so big she couldn’t get out. Whether it was a high-profile movie star or a killing over drugs, Christa Helm’s murder is a case with as many loose ends as there are interesting characters.
So what do you think?
Was it one of Christa’s backup singers? The sketchy agent Sandy Smith? Or the drug dealer who bragged that he killed Christa? Or was it someone else? Tweet me at HollywoodlandPC or email me at Hollywoodlandpod.com
I’ve included a complete reference list of all of my research in the show notes as well as links to the accounts I quotes in this episode. Please feel free to check them out for more information on Christa Helms.
What drives a father to commit sadistic acts in a Los Feliz mansion? And why is the house infamously known as the “Murder House” in Los Angeles? Find out next time on Hollywoodland Unsolved. Until then – happy sleuthing!
All elements of Hollywoodland: Unsolved are produced by me, with graphics and maps by Brian Balzerini and music by my amazing father.
Sources: https://cbsn.ws/2pIC0UT | https://bit.ly/2DTaTf7 | https://oxygen.tv/2szPLtR | https://bit.ly/2G6M4xZ | https://bit.ly/2I0twV8