The Doodler – San Francisco Serial Killer
The Missouri Mule, now Beaux, was the Castro neighborhood’s first gay bar, opening in 1963. Since then the Castro has become a historical landmark for LGBT rights and remains a popular hotspot for gay bars and businesses for over forty years.
Without warning, during the climax of the Gay Liberation Front of the 1970’s, this borough became the hunting ground for one of the most mysterious serial killers in Californian history.
The motive of this horrific killer’s assaults on the LGBT com
munity would be due to the effects of homosexual indignity. Indignity from a shamed gay community and an embarrassed police force as a whole. There is very little information available about this forgotten case. Of the outrageous number of gay homicides in San Francisco at the time one can only speculate who fell victim. Only the gay newsletters of an era forgotten can hint at the possibilities and tell the story of what the gay community experienced during this killer’s reign of terror between 1974 through 1975. Inspectors claim the murderer is responsible for leaving six men for dead on or near San Francisco’s Ocean Beach.
It started on January 27th, 1974. The body of fifty-year-old Gerald Cavanaugh is found at the foot of Ulloa Street at Ocean Beach. Death by multiple stab wounds from two different blades, suggesting that there were two assailants or that the killer stabbed with a knife in each hand. Come summer, John Doe, aged around 25, would be found at the end of Lincoln Way near Ocean Beach on July 7th. Stabbed 15 times with his throat slashed three times. The police had no record of the individual. The Sentinel posted a deceased photo of John Doe’s face in their July 18th issue asking anyone with information to step forward, even anonymously. Ten days later an undisclosed individual claimed to have met him the night before at Bojangles before he left for The Shed.
The Sentinel would become the SFPD’s best asset for solving gay crimes in the years to come. Claus Christman of Germany would be survived by his wife and two children. The fact that he was a foreign traveler visiting a friend suggested that he was driven to Ocean Beach.
Nearly one year later on May 19th, 1975 the body of thirty-two-year-old Fredrick Capin, would be found stabbed 16 times and dumped in the sand dunes of Ocean Beach between Vicente and Ulloa streets. Marks in the sand indicate Capin was dragged to this location.
Weeks later on June 4th, Harold Gullberg, 67, is found on the Lincoln Golf Course near Land’s End. Found by a hiker, Gullberg had been dead for two weeks. The oldest of all the victims, he is thought to be the last to be left alongside San Francisco’s west coast.
Five months later, Investigators have a prime suspect and release a composite sketch in the November 6th issue of the Sentinel. Inspector Rotea Gilford states that the individual is wanted for questioning for several assaults on gay persons and is known to frequent bars in the upper market and Castro area. Between 19-22 years old, and five feet ten inches to 6 feet tall, African-American with a slender build wearing a navy-type watch cap. The SFPD were directed to the subject when a witness claims he is often seen in bars sketching caricatures on napkins, revealing that he is a student studying commercial art. SFPD gave the suspect a name, The Doodler.
Inspectors report the murderer was leaving renditions of his victims at the crime scenes. The Doodler would sketch men at bars and restaurants on napkins then give the illustrations to his victims as a way of wooing them away to an area where they could be alone.
January 23rd, 1976, after the Chronicle officially reports the abundance of murders being committed in the gay bar districts, police arrest a man outside a Tenderloin bar matching the description of The Doodler after a bartender contacted the police. The man entered the bar and began asking patrons if he could draw a sketch of them. Rotea Gilford states that “the man is one of many suspects”. It was discovered that the suspect was carrying a concealed blade and a book of sketches when police arrested him.
The suspect was brought in for questioning and attacked an investigator during the interrogation. Many believe the suspect was playing copycat. No future murders appeared to be the work of The Doodler.
By the end of 1975, there was a total of 17 unsolved gay murders. Inspector Rotea Gilford and Prentice Sanders are assigned to six of the known Doodler victims dumped at Ocean Beach while Detectives Dave Toschi and Franck McCoy worked almost exclusively on the remaining overwhelming bulk of the city’s unsolved gay murder cases in the three gay districts including the five murders of drag queens and transgendered prostitutes of the Polk Gulch and the six unsolved sadomasochistic killings along the Folsom Street Miracle Mile.
Nine months later, by the end of September 1976, a total of 90 murders had occurred in San Francisco since and there were still four months to go under the administration of Chief of Police Charles Gain. Additionally, 18 unsolved gay murders had occurred in the nine months since Inspector Rotea Gilford announced the arrest of the prime Doodler suspect in January.
In 1976 only thirty-two percent of murders are solved in an area of only forty-nine square miles; this is the city’s worst record to date, and lowest amongst any police department nationwide that year. Two-thirds of all murders in the nation involved firearms, eighteen percent performed by knives. Less than nine percent of the gay San Francisco murders involved a firearm. Instead two-thirds of the murders involved stabbings. Seventy-six percent of murders in America are committed by family members or friends while the Doodler was clearly a stranger to all his victims.
Investigators state the main reason they are having a hard time solving the gay-related murders is due to the lack of feedback from the gay community likely from a fear of outing themselves.
Just days before the Gay Freedom Day Parade of 1977, thirty-three-year-old Robert Hillsborough would be dead. On June 22nd Robert and his roommate were coming back from Oil Can Harry’s and stopped at Whizz Burgers Drive-In. There they were met by young “queer baiters” and a confrontation began. The two drove back to their apartment only a few blocks away, unaware that their assailants were following on foot. When they got out of the car Robert was stabbed fifteen times. The city had had enough, Robert Hillsborough was thought of as a gay martyr and gay murders were no longer going to be ignored in San Francisco.
Three months earlier on March 18th, 1977 John Otis LaMay told his mother he was going to visit a friend named Dave in Redondo Beach and never returned. Through intense investigation, police found themselves at the doorstep of David Hill and his partner Patrick Kearney, a couple since 1967. The couple was now held for twenty-eight murders across the state. Kearney confessed to murdering twenty-one gay men but police estimate forty-three victims. By July 1st the Trashbag Killer was apprehended. This eliminated a lot of suspects to many murder cases all across California.
This sent curious San Franciscans into a frenzy, bombarding the police department with phone calls wanting to know if Patrick Kearney was indeed The Doodler.
After the media over Hillsborough, The Trashbag Killer and an explosive Gay Freedom Day Parade of 1977 the SFPD Homicide Unit decided now was the time to publicly reveal the unfortunate truth about the Doodler Murders.
SFPD had basically already caught The Doodler. Suddenly responsible for now fourteen murders of local gay men, possibly starting with Gerald Cavanagh in January 1974 and potentially ending with an alleged victim in September 1975.
Inspector Gilford had been investigating the Doodler since January of 1974. He revealed to the public that the Doodler lived in the East Bay and worked in the city. San Francisco was dumbfounded. The gay community was still at the mercy of a sadistic serial killer. It all started with a mysterious phone call in May 1975.
A woman had called Gilford, gave a common name then hung up quickly. Gilford followed the lead, one of many but without success. Ten days later she called back irate with Gilford for his lack of action. She stated an age, an address and an automobile license plate number then hung up again. Gilford put the suspect under surveillance. Less than a week later another woman called claiming to be a secretary at a psychiatrist’s office, the Doodler’s psychiatrist. She pleaded with Gilford, tried to assure him that the patient truly was the mass murderer described in the papers, but that wasn’t enough for Gilford to take action. Three days later the Psychiatrist calls and states that “beyond any question” his patient is indeed the Doodler. The Doodler had been expressing in detail the murders to his Psychiatrist for the past three to four months. The Doodler was seeing the psychiatrist for treatment of his mental illness, being gay, and the psychiatrist was indeed practicing homosexuality correction on him.
In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association declassified homosexuality as a mental disorder. The psychiatrist’s revelation to the police came at the same time California state legislators were debating a bill that would have enforced psychiatrists to inform authorities if any of their patients posed a threat to society. The doctor’s claims were not only illegal at the time but would not hold up in court. Gilford couldn’t arrest The Doodler based on the psychiatrist’s testimony but he brought him in for questioning anyway. The Doodler was eager and excited to speak to detectives, relishing in the attention with a noticeable lack of sanity, but when it came down to admitting murder the Doodler would plead the Fifth Amendment. The Doodler denied being a homosexual and claimed to have a steady girlfriend.
Some believe that Joseph “Jae” Stevens fell victim to The Doodler. Jae, 27, was a professional entertainer well recognized in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Long Beach. He was murdered at Spreckels Lack on June 24th. Five stab wounds, three directly in the heart. Jae is thought to have driven the murderer to Spreckel’s Lake in his car. Someone heard Jae screaming for help from their apartment but didn’t call the police under the assumption that they were hearing screams of pleasure. San Francisco parks became a homosexual hook-up headquarters after dark and that did not exclude Golden Gate Park. Jae’s body was found at 7am the next morning at 34th Ave and Fulton Street by a walker. Jae’s car was pulled over in Hayward for a speeding violation two hours earlier, 5am, after which the driver sped away provoking a high-speed pursuit. The driver, most likely the killer, was described as having shoulder-length blond hair, went out of control and crashed into a house before escaping on foot from the deputy sheriff.
The “Gay Detectives”, journalists for The Sentinel, saw similarities in the prior murders of Klaus Christman and Gerald Cavanagh. All three driven to a remote area, stabbed and robbed of their identification and property. The Doodler targeted closeted foreigners in the Castro District and took them to the west coast. Jae was a well recognized female illusionist in the North Beach district, was not closeted or from out of town. He was murdered in central Golden Gate Park far from the beach.
Jae’s family was questioned by SFPD at their homes in Concord, California but The Doodler was never mentioned to the family. The Stevens strongly believe that Jae’s sister, Alma Theresa Stevens, 18, killed her brother. Alma murdered her mother Mary Evelyn before walking into the Concord police station and confessing in the middle of the night. She had vowed to kill her entire family and was sent to a mental institution shortly after. Alma had blond shoulder-length hair. Joseph’s case remains unsolved and inactive.
This kind of assumptive reporting by the journalists at The Sentinel helped fuel the fire between The Sentinel’s owner Charles Lee and the Bay Area Reporter’s owner Bob Ross. Notorious enemies, Bob would often put pressure on readers to ignore reports from The Sentinel, claiming their “Gay Detectives” were sensationalizing news to market to more advertisers. They did the opposite. Gay bar owners, members of The Tavern Guild, sided with Bob, pushing the Bay Area Report into the forefront of success. They did not want to scare away customers, no matter what the cost. The competing newspapers were the only outlet to the gay community that there was a killer on the loose.
Of the fourteen dead there were an additional three victims who escaped or simply survived the Doodler’s method of stabbing his victims. A European diplomat assigned in San Francisco, a renowned San Franciscan Figure and the other a nationally recognized celebrity. All three were closeted homosexuals.
In May of 1975, the diplomat met the Doodler in a Tenderloin District diner and took him back to his apartment at the Grosvenor Plaza. Once there the Doodler went to the bathroom and stayed there for half an hour. When he finally emerged he told the diplomat the same thing he told the local San Franciscan and the well-recognized celebrity, “All you guys are alike.” The Diplomat survived six stab wounds.
Two of the three survivors pointed out the Doodler in a photo lineup for the detectives. The diplomat was angered by his involvement in the case but agreed to do the line up if promised to be left alone. The San Franciscan figure left the city shortly after his stabbing. He refused to respond to SFPD through phone or mail. The celebrity agreed to the photo line-up as well but struggled to decide whether or not he would be willing to out himself for the detectives and the gay community. Ultimately, he could not be convinced.
All three survivors refused to testify against the Doodler for fear of outing themselves to their friends, family, fans and employers. Harvey Milk claims that at the time the city contained 85,000 homosexuals and that 20-25% of them were closeted.
The Doodler is free, believing he is cured, living as a heterosexual in the East Bay under police knowledge and surveillance. While multiple murderers were terrorizing the gay community, The Doodler managed to kill an alleged fourteen gay men throughout the three gay districts. Though many speculate today that at the time, perhaps embarrassed by the number of unsolved gay homicides, the investigators took the opportunity to pin the Doodler for killing more victims than he actually had.
Today only two investigators work on the abundance of unsolved homosexual cold cases of the 70’s. The Doodler would be in his mid-sixties today. He is responsible for the most serial killings in San Francisco’s long history. His story serves as an everlasting example of what can happen when a group of people are repressed. During a time of indignity, gays held their secrets by not coming forward with the truth, and in the same way, the three survivors and our defeated police force did too. Fourteen victims may never find justice.
Regardless of whether it is a blessing or a curse that one of the most disturbing mass murderers in LGBT history has been disregarded and lost without justice, The San Francisco Gay Community, The SFPD, The Doodler and his three survivor’s example of indignity and the consequences that follow should never be ignored or forgotten.
by Bryan William Randal
Archival LGBT Newsletter Issues: The Sentinel, July 18th, 1974 The Sentinel, August 1st, 1974 The Sentinel, April 10th, 1975 The Sentinel, April 24th, 1975 The Sentinel, May 22nd, 1975 The Sentinel, November 6th, 1975 The Sentinel, December 18th, 1975 The Sentinel, January 29th, 1976 The Sentinel, May 20th, 1976 The Sentinel, October 21st, 1976 The Sentinel, July 14th, 1977 The Crusader, April 1974 The Crusader, September 1975 The Crusader, October 1975 The Crusader, September 1976 The Crusader, June 23rd, 1977 The Bay Area Reporter, August 21st, 1974 The Bay Area Reporter, April 1975 The Bay Area Reporter, September 18th, 1975 The Bay Area Reporter, July 7th, 1977 The San Francisco Chronicle, January 27th, 1974 The San Francisco Chronicle, May 14th, 1975 The San Francisco Chronicle, June 5th, 1975 The San Francisco Chronicle, January 19th, 1976 The San Francisco Chronicle, January 20th, 1976 The San Francisco Chronicle, July 9th, 1977 The San Francisco Examiner, July 8th, 1977 Out! – Los Angeles, July 29th, 1977