Signs of the Zodiac
The streets of San Francisco, 1969
Sep 9, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 01 • By RICHARD CARLSON
Mel Belli was nothing if not flamboyant. Every time he won a case (he lost the Ruby trial) or made a large tort settlement, he fired a cannon from the roof of his Montgomery Street office and hung a piratical skull and crossbones from his building’s flagpole. He billed himself the King of Torts but to those not in his fan club he was known simply as Melvin Bellicose.
I called an ABC vice president named Dave Sack at home and woke him up. He was a friend of Belli. A few hours later, Belli was on the AM show. Soon, the same fellow who called the Oakland police called the KGO switchboard. He was patched through live to the studio.
He told Dunbar and Belli that he was the Zodiac killer and his name was “Sam.” Sitting a few feet away, listening to the man on the speaker, I thought it was obvious that he was a phony—too deranged—and so did the entire stage crew.
At one point the caller began screaming, “I’m going to kill those kids,” referring to the Zodiac’s well-publicized pronouncement about the school bus. There was much eye-rolling and silent chortling in the studio, but not from Dunbar and Belli, who seemed to have been transported to Media Idiots Heaven. Here is an exact transcript:
Belli pleaded with the caller to surrender: to Belli. He promised that “Sam” wouldn’t face the gas chamber for the murders if he gave himself up. “Sam” said okay.
Off camera Belli set the meeting place behind the St. Vincent de Paul’s charity shop on Mission Street, in two hours. Belli was practically delirious over his pending coup.
Feverish efforts by police and the phone company to trace the call were unsuccessful. A surviving victim and two police dispatchers who had heard the real Zodiac’s voice listened to a tape and all agreed “Sam” was an impostor, though the Oakland police dispatcher said it was definitely the same loony who had called early that morning.
The scene at the St. Vincent de Paul’s store was other-worldly, with a portly Belli, long white hair flaring in the breeze, waddling to and fro like a walrus with a weak bladder, his broad, handsome face both expectant and nervous, being watched by dozens of news crews, who’d discovered the “surrender point” from cop friends or the talkative Belli, all of them being watched in turn by police snipers on surrounding rooftops and uniformed cops barely hidden all over the seedy block.
“Sam” never showed. Police learned later that his real name was “Eric” and he was locked up in an Oakland mental hospital and had court-ordered access to a telephone.
Over one thousand leads came to police from that KGO broadcast. None of them panned out or even came close. Some were from people pointing the finger at a troublesome tenant (some guy they couldn’t evict any other way) or an irritating ex-husband or neighbor or ex-boyfriend. Hundreds of people thought they knew someone who looked like the drawing of Zodiac that Dunbar and Belli showed.
The taped segment with “Sam the Zodiac” ran on hundreds of radio and TV stations, including on Walter Cronkite’s CBS Evening News that night. So far as I know, none of this was accompanied by irony or cynicism.
We took a call in our newsroom after the Cronkite show from an excited couple in Florida who said they had three reasons why they were certain Zodiac was their son: (1) He had visited California a couple of times, (2) he was “a pervert,” and (3) he looked exactly like the drawing.
One viewer who watched our AM show called the newsroom and said, “I just saw the killer. He’s in the men’s room at the downtown Sacramento bus station right now.”
The San Francisco police chief of inspectors Martin Lee held a news conference to say emphatically that the AM show caller was not the Zodiac, but he was a sick puppy, for sure. The national media ignored this.
Reporters and news crews not hiding in doorways or cruising the neighborhood near St. Vincent de Paul’s on the Mel & Sam watch flocked to the offices of San Francisco district attorney John J. Ferdon to hear Ferdon beat up Belli because Mel had promised “Sam” he wouldn’t be sentenced to the gas chamber if he surrendered to Belli.
Ferdon, normally a colorless bureaucrat, was happy to cooperate with reporters. He was indignant. He said Belli couldn’t make any such promise to a possible murder defendant, he had no authority. Who did he think he was? In an aside to the last reporters at his desk after the news conference ended, Ferdon said about Belli, “The man is crazier than a shithouse rat, and just as principled.”
The crowd around his desk erupted in laughter.
“That’s off the record,” said the DA.
Postscript: The Zodiac killings have never been solved.
Richard Carlson, a former ambassador and former director of the Voice of America, is writing a book about San Francisco in the sixties.
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