The Magazine

Signs of the Zodiac

The streets of San Francisco, 1969

Sep 9, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 01 • By RICHARD CARLSON
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Hell broke loose with this news. Just a few weeks before, at the end of September, Lance and I had driven to Lake Berryessa to the north of San Francisco, in the Napa Valley, to cover the murder of a 22-year-old girl named Cecilia Shepard and the terrible stabbing of her boyfriend, 20-year-old Bryan Hartnell, both students at a nearby Christian college.

The pair had been sitting at the water’s edge on a late Saturday afternoon when a large man wearing a black hood with a white circle painted or stitched on the front walked out from a copse of trees. He was carrying a foot-long butcher’s knife and a gun. He tied their hands behind their back and made them lie on their stomachs. They didn’t resist, thinking they were only going to be robbed. Without a word, he began stabbing them.

Bryan was stabbed 15 times but survived. Cecilia was stabbed more than 20 times and died. The killer left a message written in the dust on the side of Hartnell’s car—“Sept. 27, 6:30 p.m. (by knife)” and the symbol he used.

Lance and I usually came in to the TV station on Golden Gate Avenue, at the edge of San Francisco’s Tenderloin District, around 7 p.m., six nights a week. We hit the streets by dark, tooling around in an unmarked Ford station wagon with police radios and a radio telephone, and covered crime—the weirder the better, fires, Black Power meetings, transvestite smackdowns, police raids, and other timely cultural phenomena—for the rest of the night. We usually worked until about 4 a.m., when even the strangest of San Francisco’s night folks had slithered or slid into their beds. Then we’d head to the newsroom.

We would type up our news logs for the morning assignment to use on the two-hour show AM San Francisco that started at 7 a.m. I had been doing the news on that show for two years. It was hosted by Jim Dunbar, a smooth-talking KGO radio disc jockey. He read the newspaper aloud, interviewed guests, and chatted with phone callers. These are more difficult TV tasks than they sound, and Dunbar was very good at them. He made the show hum, and it was top-rated. He was very well paid and drove his Ferrari in from his waterfront Marin County manse early every morning.

A couple of days after the killing of Paul Stine, the San Francisco Chronicle received a letter from the Zodiac claiming responsibility. Included in the envelope was a torn section of Stine’s bloodstained shirttail. Zodiac had taken it, along with the keys to Stine’s cab. The paper ran a huge banner and a photo of the letter and shirt. The letter contained this dramatic threat:

School children make nice targets. I think I shall wipe out a school bus some morning just shoot out the front tire and pick off the kiddies as they come bouncing out.

A wave of panic struck the Bay Area, fueled by media visions of Zodiac mowing down little kids with rifle fire, kindergartners clutching book bags and teddy bears, falling wounded or dying to the ground. Police, the California Highway Patrol, and sheriffs’ deputies tailed school buses in San Francisco and every nearby town. Many parents kept their children out of school and off the streets of their neighborhoods as well.

About a week later, in the wake of all this craziness, AM San Francisco was happily called upon to inspire even further paranoia.

Early on the morning of October 22, Lance and I were sprawled at desks in the otherwise deserted KGO newsroom. We had divvied up our beat checklist and were making calls to Bay Area police and sheriff’s dispatchers looking for news leads, something we did two or three times every night.

The Oakland police department desk officer, a fellow we talked to many times a week, said, “We’ve been getting phone calls from a guy who says he is the Zodiac. He just called again. He sounds really crazy,” said the deskman, “probably too crazy to be the Zodiac.” The bottom line is, he said, this whack job wants us to arrange for F. Lee Bailey, the defense attorney, to be on AM San Francisco so he can call in and talk with him. But, if we can’t arrange that (Bailey lived in Boston), said the sergeant laughing, he’ll settle for Melvin Belli of San Francisco.

We chuckled over the possibility that the crazy caller had actually been hired by Belli, a publicity hound of truly gargantuan proportions, to get him on TV more often now that the media interest he had received for representing Jack Ruby in the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald had significantly waned. This will work, we told the police deskman. A perfect KGO-TV nutcase story.

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