Before we get too into tonight’s story, I think it’s important to time travel back to the early 70’s for a moment and set the stage for you. As much unrest and inequality as there is still in the world today, we have made some progress and we need to remind ourselves of what it was really like to be LGBTQ+ living in San Francisco in 1974.
San Fransisco had become a hub for the gay rights movement. The city supervisor was legendary openly gay politician Harvey Milk, so many people were becoming more outspoken and vocal demanding their equal rights. As we know this sometimes caused dangerous backlash for the people who were willing to be loud about it. Whether their physical safety was at risk, or their livelihood through being ostracized, for many coming out and standing up for their rights wasn’t a risk they felt they could take. In fact, Harvey Milk himself was assassinated for his progressive beliefs right inside city hall in 1978. It was estimated that San Fransisco housed around 85,000 gay men at the time and still up to 25% of them were not out of the closet.
Another important thing to note is that being gay wasn’t just societally frowned upon… there were actually laws attempting to prevent it in any way possible. Beyond the equality laws we’re still fighting for today, Gay relationships which included sex were considered a punishable offense. You could be arrested! Sodomy laws weren’t repealed in San Francisco until 1976 which meant that while this killer was hunting in the gay bars, patrons also had to worry about the police busting in and breaking up the party- something which could and did happen! The LGBTQ community felt little safety and support from the police.
Being gay in the 70s in San Fransisco made you vulnerable in a number of alarming ways, but perhaps the most mysterious of these threats is the man known today as the Doodler Killer, or the Black Doodler. It’s believed he murdered anywhere between 6 and 16 people, though some believe there may have been more victims in other locations as well.
The first known victim of the Doodler Killer was a 49 year old blue collar factory worker and Canadian immigrant named Gerald Cavanaugh. It took quite some time for his body to be identified and he was initially listed as a John Doe, likely because he was unmarried with little connections. Through diligent investigative reporting by Kevin Fagan, we’ve learned that he was also a world war II vet with the US Army. He visited his mother once a year, but in general his family was not aware that he was gay, likely because they self identified as “very catholic” He’d been found fully clothed face up in the sand on Ocean Beach near a popular hookup spot on January 27th 1974 in the early morning hours. His body had to be dragged from the shoreline, nearly washed out to sea. He’d been stabbed 17 times, both in the front and in the back, in what seemed like it could only be a fit of pure rage. Authorities believed he’d died within hours of when he was found, that he’d been conscious at the time of his death, and he’d fought back hard against his killer as evidenced by several defensive wounds.
5 months later, a woman walking along Spreckels Lake beach came upon the recently deceased body of Joseph Jae Stevens. Stevens was 27 years old and had been working locally as a “female impersonator and comedian.” He was 6 foot 2 and muscular, didn’t drink alcohol to keep his whits about him and did a killer Julie Andrews under his stage name Jae. He could sing, dance, and his friends described him as “a really good stand up comic in a dress”. He was described as attractive, charming, gregarious, and well spoken. Despite his high level performances on stage, off stage he was shy and humble, easily embarrassed, quiet, and modest. He had publicly come out when he was drafted into the military, and though his family had a hard time with it at first he was eventually accepted and celebrated by them for who he was, even sharing performances with his sister Michelle. It was the morning after a performance at the Cabaret Club in North Beach that his body was found stabbed so brutally that his family barely recognized him. Stevens was a well-loved local, born and raised in San Francisco, and his death simply agonized the LGBTQ community. It agnonized his family even more- In her deep grief, Stevens’ sister Alma suffered apsychotic break, and just three months after her brothers’ murder, she savagely murdered her own mother and another remaining sister with a sledgehammer. She was institutionalized and the family has never recovered from the unspeakable back to back tragedies.
Less than two weeks after the discovery of Joseph Stevens’ body, another woman was walking her dog on Ocean Beach where Gerald Cavanagh had been found at the beginning of the year. She stumbled upon another stabbing victim. Klaus Christmann, a german immigrant, was a 31 year old married father of two who had been staying with an American friend since April. Though he was not publicly out as gay, his daughter has since stated that she always knew he was hiding something about his sexuality, so San Francisco was a good fit for him to explore what that meant, while also exploring new employment opportunities. He was just hoping for a chance at what he thought would be the American dream. He was last seen partying at a bar named Bojangles in the Tenderloin district. When his body was recovered on Ocean Beach, he had been stabbed even more than the other victims. this time the killer had added slashing his throat in an apparent act of overkill, nearly decapitating him. He was fully clothed, though his pants were unzipped and open.
The next May of 1975, in nearly the same location as Cavanaugh and Christmann, the body of Frederick Capin was found stabbed 16 times on the beach. Capin was a 32 year old decorated war veteran who worked locally as a nurse. He was considered a hero who had fought off the enemy to save several of his fellow soldiers and earned commendations for his bravery. He was also described as a talented artist who had his pieces on display in bars in the neighborhoods near his home. In a cruel twist of irony, his family had recently been asking to come for a visit, but Capin had told them that it was too dangerous of a time with the crime and serial killers in the community. Investigators believe perhaps he’d been lured to the sand dunes by his killer that night for a private moment together. In the autopsy it was noted that there was blood smeared all over his feet and hands, something not noted in the other autopsies. Perhaps also a result of his fighting back like the others.
A few weeks later in June of 1975 a fifth victim was located buried under the brush off the 16th hold of Lincoln Park Golf Course near Ocean Beach. He was badly decomposed and authorities believed he’d been there approximately two weeks. He was the oldest of the victims, and took some time before he was identified as 66 year old Harald Gullberg, a Swedish immigrant. He was never married and had no family, so not much was known about him. Unlike the other cases, his underwear appeared to have been taken by his killer, and a handkerchief appeared to have been left behind.
According to original homicide investigators Rotea Gilford and Earl Sanders who had interviewed many witnesses in the local bar scene, the killer would flatter his victims with drawings of them in an effort to lure them for sex. He’d sit sipping his drink in a corner, drawing pictures of animals to impress the people he’d meet, oftentimes even drawing their likeness on a napkin. To the men who chose to leave with him, this must have come across as charming and romantic. They never suspected they were sneaking away to their tragic ends. Police believe he frequented the bars in the area of San Francisco known as the Castro, the Tenderloin, and Polk Street- spots that had previously felt like little safe havens for the LGBTQ community. These areas had some affordable housing projects, which really helped someone who might be single and estranged from family be able to make it on their own in the world. Now it was this vulnerable population that the Doodler had made his ample target.
By the time summer of 1975 came around, the Doodler was beginning to make some mistakes- that is namely leaving his victims alive. Though there’s not a lot of information available on these crimes, there were at least three surviving victims of the Doodler who came forward to police to share their stories. The first victim says he encountered the Doodler at 2 am when the bar was closing for the night as they all made their way to a diner called the Truck Stop. The man never told his name, but the victim invited him over for some alone time at his swanky apartment building. When they arrived, the Doodler locked himself in the bathroom for a lengthy time and when he finally came out, he attacked. The victim had his back turned when he was stabbed repeatedly from behind. The steak knife the attacker was using broke, and he fled leaving his victim alive.
Astonishingly, 2 weeks later, the Doodler returned to the same building and knocked on the door of another resident. Though it’s unclear if he was attempting to finish what he started or seek a new victim, he convinced the man to let him in under the guise of using his phone. Once inside, he bound the man’s hands and feet, but the victim fought back- yelling and banging as loudly as he could. The commotion attracted security and the Doodler snuck out of the building, making another escape. In both of these cases, the victims say that the man repeated “you guys are all alike.”
The third failed attempt was on a man who met the Doodler at a bar before inviting him back to his house. Once in the bedroom, the killer dropped a concealed knife from the sleeve of his jacket. It’s unclear to me how the escape was made from here, but the Doodler fled and the victim made it out unharmed.
All three victims were terrified and wanting to be anonymous, but they all approached the police with as much cooperation as they were able. With their help a composite sketch was created and circulated. The Doodler was described as young (19-23), African American, tall and lanky with a narrow face and high set cheekbones. His eyes were wide set with a “calm look.” That sketch was distributed, first in The Centennial, the local queer newspaper at the time, and eventually the San Francisco Chronicle.
It did generate some serious leads. A psychologist came forward (after his secretary called the police multiple times to report it but was not taken seriously) and said he’d seen a patient he believed to be the Doodler- that this man had confessed to the killings and looked like the sketch. He also had told the psychologist that he was struggling with feelings of his own sexual identity, which fit the behavioral profile of the killer and his extreme rage toward the victims. His own sexual identity was probably something he felt a lot of self hatred about.
In 1975, an amendment to the patient privacy laws allowed the psychologist to share this man’s name with investigators, as he believed he posed an imminent threat to the public. This person of interest was interviewed extensively and is reported to have been cooperative, though never admitted to any involvement. He admitted that he did say he struggled with his sexuality, but that had a girlfriend now and was feeling much better. He was watched from a distance for a long time, but of course ultimately there was nothing he could be charged with. His name has never been released.
Investigators believe that the Doodler may have had up to 16 victims local to San Francisco at the time. Reporter Kevin Fagan has taken a deep dive on this story in the last handful of years, writing a series of articles for the San Francisco Chronicle as well as an entire podcast called The Doodler (which I have not yet listened to but I can’t wait to). According to his own research and interest, he believes it’s possible or even probable that the Doodler Killer moved on and had more victims in other parts of the country. That very suspect from the psychologist’s report allegedly left town on a lengthy road trip himself, and it’s believed that his whereabouts coincide with similar unsolved murders. But since they’re all still open investigations, no one of any authority is talking much about those connections.
So why has catching the Doodler been such a monumental task? We’d think surely with this much evidence and witness reports, we could find this guy. Unfortunately that’s where we have to go back to the state of Gay Culture in San Francisco at the time.
It’s reported in several sources that the first surviving witness was actually a foreign diplomat, and the third surviving witness was a reported to be a well known American actor. In both of their cases the men stood a lot to lose by being publicly outed in such a dramatic fashion, and for both of them the fear of testifying outweighed the fear they had of the killer. Though they cooperated with the police, they refused to testify and have spent all the years following the events in complete anonymity, though many have speculated on their identities.
We also have to take into consideration the crime culture in California in the 70’s when we had a surge of horrific serial killings:
The fear of this terrible type of crime was alive and well, thanks to the Zodiac killer, still unsolved, who had targeted couples and the media alike with his chilling series of coded letters sent to the San Francisco chronicle in the 60’s.
We had the Santa Rosa Hitchhiker killer in 1972 who murdered several young women and has never been caught.
Then in 1973 a new serial killer group calling themselves the Death’s Angels began targeting the African American community in the Bay Area with insane random shootings. It’s rumored that due to the seemingly random threat, all police communications about this case were to be done exclusively on the Z channel, and so they were dubbed the Zebra killers.
The Doodler began his target of the San Fransisco gay community in January of 1974, and within days of Gerald Cavanaugh’s body being discovered both the Zebra Killers and the Zodiac Killer had struck again, completely overshadowing the investigation into the Doodler from the start. By the time his killings had established a pattern that police could recognize, it became completely swallowed up again by the Golden State Killer, now known as Joseph DeAngelo, who had started his spree in 1975.
So you can see how the combination of the need for anonymity clashed with the media’s opportunities to promote those who were eager to share their stories. A lot of the of the victims of the other killers were middle class white couples who’s families were ready to take up the fight for them, but for many gay male victims of violent crimes that was not a luxury they had. Further many of the LGBTQ community members had a massive distrust of the police, strengthened only by the fact that they felt the police did not seem to care at all about these murders of this underserved population.
Unfortunately, without cooperation from surviving victims and any solid evidence that can conclusively link a suspect, the police have thus far been unable to close the case. But apparently things are looking up in the investigation. In 2018 San Francisco police investigator Dan Cunningham was put in charge of the cold case unit and brought the Doodler case back into the light. His team had an artist rework and re-release the witness sketch with age progression. He says there were two DNA samples that have been sent in but so far there are no matches. Cunningham says they’re closer than ever to connecting all the dots and closing this investigation.
In fact, Investigator Cunningham’s newly renewed efforts combined with Kevin Fagan’s investigative journalism have led to a huge break in this case recently in 2022! SFPD recently made an announcement that they’ve added a 6th victim to the official tally, though the Doodler is suspected to have killed maybe as many as 16 victims that we know of. 52 year old attorney Warren Andrews was found clinging tenuously to life beneath some brush near a popular hook up spot for local gay men on April 27th 1975. He had been beaten severely with a rock and tree branch, and though he fought for 7 weeks he was never able to regain consciousness and died of his injuries in the hospital. Because the murder weapon didn’t fit the Doodler’s main method of killing, the pattern was initially missed and investigators believed it to be unrelated. Other similarities in the victimology are said to reveal the connections between the killings, so the investigators now believe that the killer’s knife was probably tossed off nearby cliffs during his attack on Andrews as he was fighting back, and that the rock and branch became weapons of necessity. When investigators called Andrews’ sister in 2021 to break the announcement, she had never even heard of the Doodler, but she says she’s grateful for the renewed attention.
Investigator Cunningham also says that the same man they spoke of before, who was brought forward by the psychologist, is still a “person of interest” all these years later. Police have even re-interviewed him and say that he accidentally left his DNA for them to compare to in the future, but we’re assuming that means it has not matched anything so far. Now with advances in technology I think everyone is hopeful that this will finally be the year the man who terrorized the gay men of San Francisco in the 70s will be brought to justice.
Investigators believe that the killer may still be living as an openly gay man in the San Francisco Bay Area, never having faced justice. Please take a look at and distribute the updated aged sketch. Anyone with information on this case or with possible leads can contact Homicide cold case investigator Daniel Cunningham at 1-415-553-9515 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you with to remain anonymous you may call SFPD Tip Line at 1-415-575-4444 or Text-A-Tip to 847411