Content Warning: This contains some descriptions of violence perpetrated against the gay community, and it talks briefly about police brutality. Some quotes contain borderline slurs and derogatory language.
After the Gay Liberation Movement in the late sixties and early seventies, LGBT people from all over the world journeyed to San Francisco, which was perceived as a sanctuary where their historically criminalized sexual orientations could be treated with some legitimacy and respect, and where a flourishing and diverse nightlife provided social and sexual opportunities for LGBT people of all ages and demographics.
But the city was policed by a traditionally conservative police department who had a policy against hiring LGBT officers. Police participated in frequent raids of LGBT establishments, street harassment, beatings, and displays of public humiliation that were under-reported in the mainstream news. As a result, the LGBT community was wary of the San Francisco Police department, and crimes against LGBT people such as muggings, beatings, and sexual assaults, commonly went unreported. With this conflict between cultures came an increase in violent crime; 129 LGBT people were murdered in San Francisco in 1974, and 131 were murdered in 1975.
In 1973, two San Francisco police officers pulled a gay man over for a minor traffic violation. By the time the incident was concluded, they had beaten the man so badly, he suffered brain damage. The survivor of the attack received a six figure settlement, but no criminal charges were brought against the officers because the survivor did not file a formal complaint. It was common knowledge in the LGBT culture that antagonizing the police brought nothing but harm upon an LGBT person. The SFPD’s director of personnel gave an interview in which he stated that LGBT people were of a “bad moral character” and stated that the department would never hire a “covert homosexual.”
A member of the LGBT community from this time stated, “It was a time when gay men were looked down upon, even in a queer mecca like San Francisco. The police were more likely to raid our bars and entrap us in cruising spots than to take a violent threat to our community seriously.”
This was the setting in which a serial killer nicknamed The Doodler was able to murder between five and fourteen people, leaving behind three injured survivors of high social standing, without being convicted.
Ocean Beach is peaceful in the middle of the night, as is the adjacent Golden Gate Park, which functions as New York’s Central Park does, creating a natural haven in the middle of a compact city. During the day, these thousands of acres of green space and coastline are alive with tourists and locals. At night, the silence can feel threatening. Sometimes, couples sneak off to use the solitude as an opportunity for a private moment, and sometimes, the privacy lends itself to violence.
Just before two o’clock in the morning on Sunday, January 27, 1974, the body of a man was discovered by the water on Ocean Beach at the eastern edge of the large Golden State Park. The man had been stabbed multiple times and his hands were similarly injured, demonstrating classic defensive wounds. The man was initially classified as a John Doe, as identifying documentation and items had been removed from his body. Slight rigor mortis hinted that the murder may have taken place two to six hours previously, late on Saturday night.
The man was ultimately identified as 49 year old Gerald Earl Cavanaugh. Gerald was born in 1923 in Canada and lived in San Francisco. Very little is known about Gerald, except that he worked in a mattress factory and was a Catholic. In a polite, restrained nod to his probable LGBT sexual orientation, the coroner indicated “never married” on the coroner’s report. That Gerald was found by water would later prove significant.
Violence against members of the LGBT community was not uncommon, and police had very little evidence to use as a basis for their investigation. Nonetheless, biological samples were taken at the crime scene and categorized, and the victim was buried according to his Catholic faith in the Holy Cross Catholic Cemetery in Colma. It is probable that the police knew Gerald had been attending a nightclub in the gay area known as the Castro on that Saturday night, for when subsequent crimes ensued, they were able to begin connecting this killer’s M.O.
Joseph Stevens, nicknamed “Jae,” was born in Texas in 1947 and moved to San Francisco in his late teens. San Francisco was home to thousands of young people in similar situations, young people moving to San Francisco in order to pursue a more authentic life wherein their LGBT identities could be public without as much fear of persecution.
The famous Tales of the City books, written by Armistead Maupin, chronicled the lives of many such young people and were exceedingly popular, first with residents of San Francisco, where they were published as serial shorts, and then with the nation when they were introduced in book form. Maupin, who was writing the Tales of the City stories during the time of the Doodler murders, chronicled it in the following passage: “the Doodler, a sinister black man who sat at the bar and sketched your face . . . before taking you home to murder you.” "
It is not known what pronouns Jae preferred, but research points to Jae participating in daily life as a man, while performing in drag as a female impersonator, or drag queen, in high-profile clubs in San Francisco at night. As such, I will use male pronouns when referring to Jae Stevens, but I hope readers will consider that this may be an inaccuracy, and if so, I offer my apologies and condolences.
Finocchio’s was a nightclub that opened its doors in 1933. The word “finocchio” means “fennel,” but it can also be considered a slur for a gay man. Originally, it was not only a gay nightclub; it featured straight performers as well and offered diverse shows to cater to an international crowd. Over the years, it became a venue that specialized in drag, or female impersonating, performers. Performers often wore ball gowns or other eye-catching costumes and lip synched to popular, top 40 songs. n a tongue-and-cheek article, the Sentinel called Finocchio’s “About as respectable as the Methodist church back home,” as it offered a more conservative, hands-off vibe than many similar establishments that catered to the LGBT community rather than visiting tourists. It was located in North Beach, a diverse neighborhood home to Italian, LGBT, punk, literary, and other eclectic establishments. One notable North Beach establishment is City Lights Bookstore, which published much of the early Beat poetry and literature.
Jae had recently been awarded the summer performance spot at Finocchio’s in the North Beach Neighborhood. I Jae’s Finocchio’s gig came at the tail end of eight years spent performing in the city as a successful female impersonator. In recent months, Jae had been concentrating on comedy as a new form of expression of his love of performance.
On the night of Monday, June 24, 1974, Jae was seen leaving The Cabaret Club, which was located in North Beach not far from Finocchio’s. It was not stated by police whether Jae was with a companion or alone, but future speculation by police that Jae was meeting someone leads to the conclusion that Jae was not noticed to be with a companion by these witnesses.
Early in the morning of June 25, 1974, Jae’s body was discovered by a woman walking her dog. He was in the bushes by Spreckels Lake in Golden Gate Park, not far from his own abandoned car. Jae had been stabbed three times, and there was blood in his nose and mouth. His identifying wallet and jewelry had been taken, leading to him being classified a “John Doe” by police until identification could be completed.
The Jae Stevens crime scene was only a mile from that on Ocean Beach, where Gerald Cavanaugh had been discovered in January. Because Jae’s car was near the scene of his murder, investigators considered that he likely drove himself to the location, either to meet someone or with someone in his car alongside him. It was also considered that the location, which was picturesque and extremely isolated at that late hour on a weeknight, was chosen as somewhere to enjoy a private sexual encounter. All signs pointed to Jae having gone to Spreckels Lake willingly, likely looking forward to an enjoyable encounter with a new romantic partner, and having been attacked either before, after, or during this encounter. It was reasonable to consider that he may have met his killer at the Cabaret Club, as it was common practice among clubgoers to meet potential romantic partners in clubs and retreat to more private locations afterward.
Klaus Christmann was a 31-year-old German national visiting friends, Mr. and Mrs Booker Williams, in San Francisco. By July 1974, he had been in the city for three months, while his wife and two children remained in Germany.
Early on the morning of Sunday, July 7, 1974, Klaus was discovered by a dog walker on Lincoln Way, a street leading from Golden Gate Park to Ocean Beach, two miles from Spreckels Lake and less than a mile from the Ocean Beach crime scene.
The attack on Klaus was particularly vicious. One investigator, who also worked on the Zodiac Killer case, described it as the most vicious stabbing he had ever seen. The coroner posited that the stabbing may have been an attempted decapitation. Klaus’ identification had also been taken, resulting in his being classified as a “John Doe” by police until he could be properly identified. The coroner noted that his pants were unzipped, supporting investigators’ theory that he had retreated to this quiet location to participate in a consensual sex act before being attacked. The coroner also noted that he had a tube of face paint in his pocket and wore orange bikini shorts under his pants, which led police to consider that he may have been working as a drag queen, or female impersonator, in secret.
After this third killing in such close proximity and with such similar surrounding circumstances, police felt certain these three murders were linked, and they began investigating this as a serial murder case. Their working theory was that the perpetrator was operating from a place of shame, participating in gay sexual acts and then acting out against his romantic partners either during or afterward.
In August of 1974, the Sentinel, an LGBT publication who paid the most attention to this story, ran a series of articles on the three stabbings, reporting that police had officially linked the murders. A quote from an August 9 article reads, “All apparently involved the victim meeting someone who suggested driving to a remote area as the Beach or Golden Gate Park. All three were viciously stabbed front and back. All three were stripped of identification and property.”
A police bulletin regarding these three murders read, "Victims one and two have homosexual propensities and due to underclothing and makeup in victim number three's [Claus Kristmann] pocket he also may have the same propensities."
At this point, all three victims were clearly linked, but other murders were happening at the same time. Police were following up leads all over the city, and articles were printed wondering if three active serial killers could be at large. An article entitled “Sado Murder Horror” carried an account both of the murders and a link to what we would now consider the BDSM scene. Police followed leads throughout the LGBT community, visiting nightclubs in the Castro, the Tenderloin district, and in other predominantly gay nightclub areas.
32-year-old Frederick Elmer Capin, from Washington State, was a decorated Vietnam veteran working in San Francisco as a registered nurse. He had been a medical corpsman in the Navy. Frederick had strong family ties to his grandparents and sister, who lived in Port Angeles, Washington.
On Monday, May 12, 1975, a hiker discovered Frederick’s body in the sand dunes a quarter mile south of Ocean Beach, where the first body in the series had been found. Drag marks indicated that Frederick had been dragged 20 feet, which was different. He had been dead approximately 10 hours, which made it likely he had died the night before, that of Sunday, May 11. Like the other victims, he had been stabbed repeatedly, and the coroner reported that stab wounds to the heart and aorta were his cause of death. Again, the location of the murder was in a natural, isolated setting near the beach and Golden Gate Park, and the time of the murder seemed to coincide with a natural time to retreat with a new romantic partner to a more private location ideal for a sexual encounter.
Frederick was the fourth official victim tied to these serial murders, but police were busy ruling out other homicides taking place throughout San Francisco at the same time.
Five months after Gullberg’s death the SFPD finally released a composite sketch of a suspect. “He was known, said the police, to frequent bars and restaurants in the Upper Market and Castro Areas. He was black, between 19 and 22 years old, between 5’10” and 6” tall, slim, and frequently wore a Navy-type watch cap” (Green 9). They believed that he could have possibly been an art student due to the frequent doodler MO of drawing the victim and luring them away. It is important to note that the sketches were never released to the press. It was also apparent that he had been visiting and was undergoing psychiatric care. It was even noted that the SFPD knew the therapist and had spoken with said doctor who admitted that a patient had admitted to the killings. The police had often looked for witnesses but feared that no one came forward due to not wanting to out themselves as homosexuals.
At one point, the Sentinel reported that the police had a man in custody. He had been collected from a nightclub, where he was seen offering to sketch patrons. When the police grabbed him, he dropped a butcher knife. The police reportedly spoke with the man’s psychiatrist, who said the man had confessed to the murders. Given that more eyewitnesses came forward, he should have been caught, right?
Three witnesses gave information to the police. One was actually stabbed six times by a young man resembling the composite sketch police had created of The Doodler. Another man was about to go to bed with a young man matching the description when a knife fell out of the man’s coat. One witness was a European diplomat; another, a well-known entertainer, and a third man who left the city and wouldn’t respond to police phone calls.
The problem with the witnesses: None would go on record. No one wanted to be outed.
Eventually, the police suspected The Doodler may have killed as many as 14 people. The case has been reopened, and they’re looking into five potential murders connected to this killer.
A police artist has updated the sketch: aging the Doodler, drawing him as he might look now. If he's still alive, the Doodler will be in his early 60s.
Learn more about The Doodler:
My Research for this Piece:
Three and half years after the killings began, Harvey Milk — who, four months later, would be elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors with 30% of the vote — was asked about the case and, in particular, the uncooperative surviving witnesses. “I can understand their position. I respect the pressure society has put on them,” he said. “They have to stay in the closet.”34
Cavanaugh was the first victim in a string of homicides that, to this day, remain unsolved. From January 1974 to September 1975, The Doodler — or, as he was sometimes known, the Black Doodler, on account of his skin color — caught the eye of the Castro’s bar patrons by drawing caricatures and cartoons of them.1 Amused, flattered, perhaps titillated by the attention, man after man would leave the bar with their killer for a more secluded, intimate spot. Once they were alone, the men were stabbed and their bodies left on waterfronts and in parks.
In July 1977, two men were arrested in Riverside, California, in connection with a series of unsolved homicides involving the gay community of Redondo Beach. These murders bore a striking resemblance to the Doodler crimes. All told, the men were questioned regarding 28 homicides, all of which investigators believed stemmed from homosexual encounters. Given the stated similarities between the Redondo Beach area killings and the work of the Doodler, California experienced a veritable tsunami of homicides within the gay community between the years of 1974 and 1977. The arrests in Riverside provided very little evidence pertaining to the Doodler case. Given that the names of the two men were never published, and also given the fact that neither was ever convicted of any offense, the crimes in Redondo Beach also remain mostly unsolved.
San Francisco AP: “A man the police call the doodler, suspected of killing 14 men after homosexual relations, may be walking the streets because three survivors of his knife attacks won’t “come out of the closet” and testify against him.
For those in the dark: three gay men were violently assaulted by a man who described himself as a cartoonist, police said on Thursday. One of the victims said he was doodling while talking to him in a late-night diner and gave a description, leading to the 1975 forensic sketch.
Three men were assaulted but somehow managed to escape the Doodler's clutches, the lead inspector on the case at the time told reporters: a well-known entertainer, a European diplomat, and a third man who left the city and didn't respond to police calls. They gave police descriptions of the Doodler.
In the absence of an arrest, there were rumors. The late Charles Lee Morris, owner and publisher of the Sentinel, told the Chronicle about a Los Angeles man who encountered the Doodler. He was about to go to bed with a young black man resembling the composite sketch, but changed his mind when a knife fell out of the man’s coat.27
Numerous press accounts mention three surviving witnesses. One was a European diplomat assigned to the States who, in May 1975, met the suspect in an Upper Market restaurant “where he was having a midnight snack.” Reported the Chronicle, he “asked if [the diplomat] had any cocaine.” They went back to the diplomat’s apartment, where the suspect stabbed him six times. For his part, the diplomat denied he’d had “sexual relations” with the suspect. (In 2011, I submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the State Department for names of European diplomats based in San Francisco; nothing came of it.) Another surviving witness was an entertainer of some kind who, according to police, was “nationally known.” The third — described by the Sentinel as “a well known San Francisco figure” — left the city and reportedly wouldn’t answer letters or phone calls. (The San Francisco Police Department declined to comment for this story. “We don’t discuss open investigations,” Sergeant Monica MacDonald told me.)
The identity of the “nationally known” figure is one of the great secondary mysteries of the case. To my surprise, his name never leaked into the gay press. I asked Randall Alfred, the Sentinel’s news editor in 1975, who the entertainer might have been. “Was it Johnnie Ray? Was it Rock Hudson? Richard Chamberlain?” he said. “It was a time of very cheap airfare from L.A. to San Francisco.”
The San Francisco police were convinced that they had caught the Doodler way back in 1976. In newspaper articles and public statements, the police said that they had a viable suspect in custody but could not bring him to trial without the cooperation of eyewitnesses. The name of this person was never released, and because the necessary cooperation never came, he was ultimately let go. Very little is known about this suspect, except that he had a history as a mental patient and had been treated several times for sex-related illnesses. He was also quite candid with interrogating officers but never quite confessed to being the Doodler. All of the work done by investigators came to nothing when the three survivors refused to testify against or even identify their attacker. Such was the power of public shame back in 1977.
Police report re. First 3 victims:
A police bulletin released regarding those first three killings reads, in part: "Victims one and two have homosexual propensities and due to underclothing and makeup in victim number three's pocket he also may have the same propensities." Police said the third victim, Claus Christmann, was wearing "orange bikini shorts" at the time of his death. According to the coroner, he was married.
January 27, 1974 Gerald Earl Cavanaugh
At 1:57 a.m. on January 27, 1974, a corpse was found at the water’s edge on San Francisco’s Ocean Beach. Gerald Earl Cavanaugh, 49, had been stabbed multiple times. His left hand betrayed a defensive wound. His body was, as the coroner’s register put it, “in a supine position” and showed signs of slight rigor mortis. Cavanaugh wore underwear, shoes, socks, pants, a shirt and a jacket. In his pocket was $21.12 and on his wrist a Timex.
As befits a man initially identified as John Doe #7, very little is known about Cavanaugh. He was born in Canada on March 2, 1923, and lived in San Francisco. A photo that ran in the San Francisco Sentinel after his death shows that he was balding. He worked in a mattress factory. He was five-foot-eight and weighed 220 pounds. He was Catholic. “Never married,” wrote the coroner.
Buried in Colma, Holy Cross Catholic Cemetery
Colma, San Mateo County, California, USA
June 25, 1974 Joseph “Jae” Stevens
A woman, never identified, found a body at Spreckels Lake in Golden Gate Park on June 25, 1974. Joseph Stevens, nicknamed “Jae,” had been stabbed three times; there was blood in his mouth and nose. He was last seen the previous night, leaving the Cabaret Club on Montgomery Street in the North Beach neighborhood. Police theorized that Stevens himself had driven the murderer to the park.
The 27-year-old was the Doodler’s second victim.
Stevens, born in Texas, was a popular female impersonator and had been named the summer replacement at Finocchio’s. Finocchio’s was an old-time club that had been around since the early thirties. It had once been a hot spot for the military and celebrities, wrote James Smith, but by the seventies “the high tourist attendance and…hands-off rules discouraged the gay crowd and they largely went elsewhere.”2 (It was, clucked the Sentinel, “about as respectable as the First Methodist Church back home.”)3
“When Stevens first appeared on stage eight years ago, he made a sensation in San Francisco as a stunning impersonator,” said the Advocate. “Over the years, however, he had moved away from the role of impersonating beautiful women and concentrated more on gay comedy.”4
The woman who found the body called to Warner Jepson, an avant-garde composer, who in turn called the police. “My God,” said his wife, Andrea, when we spoke recently. “I remember this now. He was in the bushes. Oh my God, I’d totally forgotten. [Mr. Jepson] was walking with the dogs in the park. We had two little kids. He didn’t know him.”5
Stevens was seen leaving the Cabaret Club the night before his murder, and “officers suspected that Stevens was alive at the time he been at Spreckels Lake, possibly transporting himself to the area alongside his killer”
According to the coroner’s report, “Approximately 10 feet west of the deceased’s feet was a large disturbed area of brush, with a pool of blood. There were drag marks from this point to where the deceased was found, indicating that an altercation had taken place.”
Joseph Stevens performed as “Jae” at many of San Francisco’s popular gay bars. Stevens was officially listed as a “female impersonator” and a “comedian.” He was originally born in Texas and made his working home at Finocchio’s, a gay bar that had been in the city since the 1930s. Stevens’s body was found at Spreckels Lake in the Golden Gate Park on June 25, 1974. Stevens had been stabbed three times. Investigators found blood in his mouth and nose, which indicated that he had been stabbed at least once in the lungs. By all appearances, Stevens most likely drove to the site with his killer or to meet him at a prearranged spot. Stevens’s abandoned car was found not far from where his corpse was first spotted by a woman out walking her dog. After casing the gay community of San Francisco, investigators learned that Stevens was last seen alive at the Cabaret Club on Montgomery Street.
July 7, 1974 Claus Kristmann
The third victim in the Doodler murders was found July 7, 1974, he was found at the foot of Lincoln way, by the beach.
After the death of Christmann the San Francisco police department finally started to believe that the murders were connected. The police realized that all of the murders had the same M.O., and also realized that each involved the victim meeting someone and then driving to a remote area. Additionally, all three were stripped of their identification and property which resulted in each being classified originally as a John Doe.
Christmann, who had a wife and two children, had been staying with his friends, Mr. and Mrs. Booker Williams, and had been in the city for three months. His body was returned to Bamberg, Germany for burial. (My attempts to contact his family, and the family of the other victims, were unsuccessful.)
According to the coroner, "The deceased's pants were unzipped and open." The report details multiple stab wounds on Christmann's neck and shoulders, "In a manner which seemed as though the assailant had attempted to decapitate the deceased."
In an interview with the Sentinel newspaper, the detective in charge of the case, Dave Toschi, described the murder of Christmann as one of the most ghastly stabbings that he had ever investigated. Toschi was already quite famous in 1974 due to his involvement in the hunt for the Zodiac Killer. Although Christmann had a wife and two children, homicide detectives noted that in one of his pockets, there was a tube of face paint. This suggested to the authorities that Christmann was a secret drag queen. Christmann’s murder was also the case that convinced homicide detectives that a serial killer was actively targeting the city’s gay community.
May 12, 1975
— nearly a year since the murder of Claus Christmann — the Doodler left another corpse; Frederick Elmer Capin, 32, was found by a hiker behind a sand dune between Vicente and Ulloa Streets.
Frederick Capin, a registered nurse in his early 30s, was found stabbed to death beside the highway that runs parallel to Ocean Beach. The coroner notes, "There was dried blood smeared on the soles of both shoes, on the hands, about the face and upper torso, anterior, lateral and posterior." Capin was wearing a corduroy jacket and a striped "Picasso" shirt when he died
June 4, 1975
On a Lincoln Park golf course by a hiker, ten yards off the trail, the Doodler’s last and oldest victim was found on Lincoln Park golf course, slashed across the neck.Harald Gullberg was known first only as John Doe 81 before being identified. Unlike previous victims Gullberg was missing his undergarments and his pants were left unzipped. Also unlike previous victims when Gullberg was found he was dead for at least 2 weeks, maggots and fly larvae both being present on the victims face. Gullberg was Swedish and a sailor by profession, he was tattooed on both arms, and became a naturalized US citizen in 1955. was found in bushes near the 16th tee of the Lincoln Park Golf Course, a little to the northeast of Ocean Beach. "Deceased had no underpants and his blue pants were unzipped," wrote the coroner. The dead man was Harald Gullberg, a 67-year-old Swedish sailor.
A few months after Gullberg's death, the SFPD released the artist's sketch and a description of the suspect. Inspector Rotea Gilford, the lead investigator on the case, told The Sentinel that the suspect "often sits in bars doodling caricatures and cartoons on napkins." Sometimes referred to as the Black Doodler, he was described at the time as African-American, between 19 and 22 years old, slender, a little shy of 6 feet, and frequently wore "a Navy-type watch cap."
The Sentinel was one of the few media outlets covering the story at the time. The Zodiac Killer was still big news. And in 1973 and 1974 the so-called Zebra Murders plagued the city: A group of black, Muslim men were killing white victims. Some in the gay community wondered if the police were taking the Doodler killings seriously. "There was a feeling they would have given it a lot more attention if the victims had been white society women from Pacific Heights," says Alfred.
"Baloney," says Moses, who worked in the SFPD crime lab. "I wouldn't say any case got less attention, was forgotten about," he said. "That's just not how the system works."
In January 1976, the San Francisco Chronicle ran a story about the Doodler and two days later a suspect was arrested. According to The Sentinel, he was detained "outside a Tenderloin bar last Friday night after a bar patron called to report that a man fitting the composite drawing furnished by the SFPD had entered the bar and was offering to draw sketches of patrons." According to the paper, "The man was carrying a butcher knife and a book of sketches when the police nabbed him.
Police questioned the man repeatedly, The Sentinel reported at the time. The paper quoted an unnamed police source as saying the suspect had confessed the killings to a psychiatrist. "He's having difficulty with his sexuality," Gilford told The Chronicle at the time. "He's probably ashamed of what he's doing. Homosexuality has never been accepted in the black community. ... The guilt he is experiencing causes him to want to erase the acts he's committed."
"That was a very popular meme in police circles at the time," says Alfred. "And it was probably true. In some cases."
San Francisco Gay History and Culture:
https://read.amazon.com/?asin=B00CNYHCXO (horrible source)
The Encyclopedia of Unsolved Crimes