A serial killer who murdered as many as 14 men in San Francisco in the 1970s and is believed to be the most prolific murderer of gay men in modern US history could still be alive and may soon be brought to justice, according to a new podcast.
Known as ‘The Doodler’, the killer would stalk his victims at bars and diners in gay neighborhoods, drawing sketches to lure them in and then suggesting they go somewhere quieter.
He would then stab, slash and beat them repeatedly, before dumping their bodies at beaches around the Bay Area.
Police say the killer committed five murders between late 1974 and 1975, and have linked him to another nine open cases.
He was given the nickname the ‘The Doodler’ after a survivor who met the the man at a late-night diner told police he was drawing on a napkin while they talked and said he was a cartoonist.
A police artist released a sketch of the man soon afterwards in 1975, and San Francisco detectives identified a prime suspect in the case.
However, the suspect was never charged.
In a 1977 Associated Press story, police said they had identified a suspect, but he could not be charged because three survivors, including a ‘well-known entertainer’ and a diplomat were reluctant to ‘come out of the closet’ to testify against him.
This pair of sketches provided by the San Francisco Police Department shows what a serial killer might look like now in a cold case involving at least five stabbing deaths of gay men in the mid-1970s in San Francisco
Now, veteran crime investigator and San Francisco Chronicle reporter Kevin Fagan believes police may finally have uncovered the evidence that will lead to an arrest in the case.
In a just-released podcast, ‘The Doodler’, Fagan teams up with private investigator Michael Taylor to reexamine the case and shed light on the killer’s victims, who were largely overlooked in coverage of the case at the time.
A promo for the podcast promises: ‘This time, the Doodler won’t walk away free’.
Fagan reveals that police believe the killer is still alive today and that they have the original suspect from the 1970s firmly in their sights.
Fagan, who has covered several serial killer cases including the Zodiac and the Unabomber, said the initial police inquiry was ‘plagued by a flawed investigation, a frightened public, and hesitation from victims’ friends and associates’ who were afraid of being outed as gay.
He said the case still ‘angers and confounds’ him.
The 1970s had marked the beginning of a vibrant gay nightlife scene in San Francisco. However homophobic attitudes meant many from the LGBTQ community were desperate to keep their sexuality hidden.
Reports of the brutal murders, and the nature of the killer’s predatory pick-up methods, remained buried on the back pages of papers like The Chronicle.
The Doodler would select his victims as they danced or ate, and sketch their portraits on cocktail napkins.
He’d then approach the unsuspecting men and show them the drawings, before suggesting they go somewhere quieter.
While the murders did not gain much publicity among the wider public, they terrorized the gay community in San Francisco.
The original 1975 police sketch of ‘The Doodler’, who terrorized San Francisco’s gay community and remained free due to a flawed investigation and reluctance of survivors to testify
In the 1970s, San Francisco, and the Castro district pictured here in 1977, was seen as more gay-friendly than most US cities. But discrimination persisted, and many were afraid to tell police what they knew about ‘The Doodler’ for fear of being outed
The killer preyed on gay men in bars and diners in the Castro neighborhood of San Francisco. This file picture from 1977 was taken at a time when the gay ‘social movement roared into life in the city’
His first victim was Gerald Cavanagh, a 50-year-old mattress factory worker. Cavanagh’s body was discovered in 27 January 1974 on Ocean Beach.
Detectives at the time thought it was a random killing, but the ferocity of the stab wounds pointed to a deliberate murder.
His next victim was a 27-year-old drag artist Joseph Jae Stevens, who was discovered six months later on 25 June 1974 in Golden Gate Park with multiple stab wounds.
The Doodler’s other known victims were Klaus Christmann, 31, who was found on July 7, 1974; Vietnam War hero Fredrick Capin, 32, on May 12, 1975; and Harald Gullberg, 66, who was fatally attacked on June 4, 1975.
At the time, police described the killer as an African-American male, about 5 feet, 11 inches tall with a lanky build who was likely in his early 20s.
A suspect was detained in 1976 but he has never been charged.
The Doodler was active in the Bay Area during the same period as the Zodiac Killer, but garnered only a fraction of the attention and notoriety.
In an interview in 1977, gay rights advocate and former San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk told the AP that homophobic attitudes made it especially difficult for victims to testify.
‘I can understand their position,’ said the activist, who was portrayed by Sean Penn in the 2008 film Milk, earning him an Academy Award for Best Actor.
‘I respect the pressure society has put on them.’
Just over a year later on November 27 1978, , Milk, the first openly gay man elected to public office in California, was assassinated along with San Francisco Mayor George Moscone at City Hall by political rival and former city supervisor Dan White.
Pioneering politician Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected to public office in California, said gay men would have been reluctant to speak about ‘The Doodler’ for fear of being outed. A year later, he was assassinated by political rival Dan White
Inspector Dan Cunningham, pictured in 2020 at Ocean Beach, where some of The Doodler’s victims were found, said last year DNA samples were helping police zero in on their suspect
In 2018, California police revealed that they believed a suspect who was identified by police in the 1970s but never charged was in fact ‘The Doodler’.
They released a new sketch of the suspect, showing what he would look like 40 years later.
Inspector Dan Cunningham told CNN the San Francisco Police Department’s crime lab hoping that modern technology might manage to extract a usable DNA sample from evidence gathered at two of the crime scenes.
‘We made a lot of effort to collect a lot of blood samples at that time,’ Inspector Kenneth Moses, who worked at the lab in the 1970s, told CNN.
‘If there’s no moisture, there will be no decomposition. And it was standard procedure then to dry samples thoroughly.’
‘We have a suspect in the assault that spawned the sketch,’ he said at the time.
The inspector said he was working on five murders connected to The Doodler but he’d ‘be a fool to say he didn’t do more’.
At the time, Cunningham said a police artist had drawn an updated sketch of The Doodler showing what he would look like now, but they refused to release it until a year later.
‘Even now, the story gives me chills,’ prominent gay activist Cleve Jones said in 2019 when police unveiled the updated police sketch for the first time.
‘Imagine, you’re out at a club having a drink, and someone hands you a sketch they’ve done of you. I can’t think of a more disarming ploy to gain someone’s trust.’
The podcast host Fagan said the victims had largely been ‘forgotten’ to history.
‘Everyone deserves attention and sympathy and justice, these five guys were just swept under the waves totally. One of the goals of this project has been to illuminate who they were’.
Victims of The Doodler
Gerald Kavanaugh was the first of The Doodler’s victims, but very little was known about him
Originally from Canada, 50-year-old Gerald Kavanaugh had been living in San Francisco for some years working at a mattress factory prior to his death. In the early hours of January 27, 1974, his body was located on Ocean Beach, San Francisco. He’d been stabbed several times, including several defensive stab wounds to his hands. He was initially labelled as ‘John Doe’. He was believed to have attended a nightclub in the Castro district that night.
The serial killer’s second victim was Joseph Stevens, 27, a drag performer
Born in Texas, Joseph Jae Stevens was drawn to the Bay Area as a teenager in the hope of being able to live openly among other members of the LGBTQ community. Stevens had become a regular performer at a nightclub called Finocchio’s a popular hangout in the North Beach Neighborhood. Stevens was seen leaving a nearby venue, The Cabaret Club, on June 24 1974, and his body was found the next morning by a woman walking her dog, a mile away from where Cavanaugh had been murdered. Stevens had been stabbed three times, his car was found close by, and jewelry and a wallet had been stolen. It appeared as though Stevens had gone to the location willingly, presumably for a sexual encounter.
The Doodler’s third victim was 31-year-old Klaus Christmann
Klaus Christmann, a 31-year-old married father from Germany, was visiting friends in San Francisco when he was found murdered on July 7 1974 on a street between Golden Gate Park and Ocean Beach. His wounds were so gruesome that a coroner later said it appeared the killer had attempted to decapitate him after he was dead. He was initially listed as a John Doe, like other victims of The Doodler. Makeup found on his person led police to state he may have had ‘homosexual propensities’. There are no photos available of The Doodler’s other two known victims. Frederick Capin, a Vietnam veteran from Washington State, 32, who was discovered on May 12 1975, and Harald Gullberg, 66, who was fatally attacked on June 4, 1975.