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Signs of the Zodiac

The streets of San Francisco, 1969

Sep 9, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 01 • By RICHARD CARLSON
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It was a cold Saturday night on Columbus Day weekend 1969 when Lance Brisson and I pulled up behind a Yellow cab parked at a crazy angle on the corner of Washington and Cherry Streets, an expensive area of San Francisco called Presidio Heights.

Richard Carlson

The author’s KGO-TV credentials

Richard Carlson

Our headlights glanced off the swirling fog. The taxi’s front passenger door was open. The cab driver, whose name turned out to be Paul Stine, was sprawled on the seat on his back, his head on the floor, his left arm sticking out the door, palm up. A watch with a brown leather band was on his wrist, the crystal covered in blood. He had been shot in the head at point blank range. Paul Stine was 29 years old. He was the last known victim of the publicity-obsessed serial killer who called himself the Zodiac.

San Francisco in the 1960s was the place to be for two young guys in reportorial pursuit of colorful news events of the shallow but endlessly entertaining variety. Lance and I fit that bill. We were the overnight news crew at KGO-TV (“Killings, Guts & Orgies—you stage it, we cover it,” would have been on our business cards if we had ever thought to have them). This was an ABC-owned TV station, and the then-small ABC network used our film stories frequently to build its national audience.

By the end of the sixties, thousands of kids had been drawn to San Francisco and its Haight-Ashbury district, fired by the imagined odor of musk and patchouli, media images of the banging of tambourines and finger-cymbals, of long hair, garlands of daisies, exotic roach clips and hash pipes, pretty girls in headbands dancing with one hand bouncing, and the promise of cheap dope, free sex, and no carping parents. The reality was far more sordid.

At the scene of Paul Stine’s murder, two famous SFPD homicide detectives, Dave Toschi and his partner Bill Armstrong, drove up in their battered gray Ford. They joined a knot of folks around the Yellow cab—motorcycle cops, a tow truck driver, a couple of neighbors, the Yellow cab supervisor, and a half-dozen police dogs and their handlers who had been called to hunt for the suspect. We filmed the scene, and I did an interview with Toschi. The enormous mansions of Washington Street loomed darkly above.

A little boy looking out of his third-floor window had seen two men “fighting” in the front seat of the cab. His sister called the police to say the driver was being robbed and the thief was still at the scene, “wiping” the car doors with a cloth. The girl stayed on the phone and told the dispatcher the man was walking down Cherry Street towards the Presidio, a wooded Army base that was unguarded at night.

Toschi and Armstrong were in charge of the Zodiac investigation for the SFPD. Their presence at the Stine murder that night was a coincidence—they happened to be the homicide team on weekend call. They assumed the killing was the result of a simple robbery. It would be a few days before the Zodiac made clear his responsibility for the killing of the cab driver.

Lance and I were the only TV news crew working in San Francisco that Saturday night. We had heard the police dispatcher’s call on our car radio—“a possible robbery of a taxi, the driver appears injured”—on our way back to the office.

We had just finished interviewing the tearful father of 15-year-old Geoffrey Zachariah, a San Francisco boy who had disappeared the previous Saturday. Geoff was last seen swimming fully clothed in the Pacific Ocean.

He and another 15-year-old had gone to Haight Street that afternoon to “look at the hippies.” According to Geoff’s friend, a little boy about 10 years old offered them each a chocolate Necco Wafer as they walked into Golden Gate Park, hinting it had been dipped in LSD. He apparently was telling the truth. Both boys ate them and soon began hallucinating. They ended up hours later, still disoriented, at a grim amusement park called Playland at the Beach.

Dozens of witnesses said they saw Geoffrey Zachariah run across the sand into the cold, heavy surf and begin swimming out to sea until they watched him disappear in a wave. He surely drowned, but his devastated father was holding out hope.

There was no hope for poor Paul Stine. He had come up from working-class Fresno, had a wife and a day job selling insurance, and lived in a cheap apartment in the Mission District. Paul was also a student at San Francisco State and would soon have completed his Ph.D. He had planned to teach college-level English.

A few days after his killing, the Chronicle received a letter from the Zodiac claiming responsibility for the murder of Paul Stine and blasted the story across page one.

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