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.
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.
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.
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:
Dunbar: Talk to us. Just, tell us what’s going on, inside you, right now. Please.
Caller: I have headaches.
Belli: How long have you had those headaches, uh, Sam? Been a long time?
Caller: Since I killed a kid.
Belli: Well, was it before December that you had the headaches?
Belli: If, did, were you in service, that you might have had an injury in service, did you ever fall out of a tree or down stairs? Were you ever unconscious?
Caller: I don’t know.
Belli: You don’t remember. Does aspirin do you any good?
Belli: Doesn’t do you any good?
Belli: Damn stuff never did me any good either.
Dunbar: Sam, let me ask you a question. Did you, um, did you attempt to call this program one other time when Mr. Belli was with us? And, you called—
Dunbar: Did you try to call us one other time about, oh, two or three weeks ago when Mel Belli was with us?
Dunbar: And you, uh, well—
Belli: You couldn’t get through, and we were talking?
Dunbar: And you couldn’t get through, the phones were tied up, is that it?
Belli: Sam, let me ask you this. There’s some reason why you go to a particular doctor or a particular priest, and some reason why apparently you wanted to talk to me, or Lee [F. Lee Bailey]. Is it that you feel we have compassion for people who get in trouble? Or is it that you feel that we can do something for you? Or is it that you feel we’re, we’re, have enough integrity that if we promise you something, that we’re gonna stick to it?
Dunbar: Well, let’s find out why he wanted to talk to—Why did you want to talk to Mr. Belli, Sam?
Caller: I don’t want to be hurt.
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.