On Wednesday, Publisher’s Marketplace announced that former San Francisco Police Chief Earl Saunders has sold a book on a high-profile serial murder case, this one dubbed The Zebra Murders. Between 1972 and 1974, a group of radical black Muslims stalked and killed 71 whites throughout San Francisco. The killers, who called themselves the Death Angels, hoped to spark a race war, and the murders did lead San Francisco police to crack down hard, often unjustly, on young black men.
“From the first African-American police chief of the SFPD, Prentice Earl Sanders and screenwriter Bennett Cohen's THE ZEBRA MURDERS: A Season of Killing, Racial Madness, and Civil Rights, an account of the racially-motivated serial killings (intended to start a race war) that terrorized San Francisco in the winter of 1973-4 and how two African-American detectives solved the crime while simultaneously suing the SFPD for discrimination, to Cal Barksdale at Arcade, for Spring 2006, by Jessica Kaye at Kaye and Mills.”
Saunders later became San Francisco's first African-American police chief, a position he held until he became involved in another high-profile case called Fajita-gate. The District Attorney filed obstruction of justice charges against Sauders. They were quickly dropped, but the stress was too much and Saunders resigned.
Before the Zebra killings, the city was terrified by random killings by a murderer calling himself the Zodiac. He would shoot people in their cars and then send letters about the crimes to the San Francisco Chronicle. The case has never been solved, but now it is being made into a movie featuring Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr., Gary Oldman, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Edwards and Chloe Sevigny.
The movie centers on San Francisco Chronicle reporter Robert Graysmith, who wrote a book about the serial killer. Downey plays “veteran police reporter Paul Avery, the first to link the sniper to a murder outside the Bay Area,” according to a recent Chronicle article by Ruthe Stein. The Zodiac sent him a chilling note warning, "You are doomed."
In another murder-to-book-to movie, a crew is filming “Valley of the Heart’s Delight,” around San Francisco and Oakland. It’s a fictionalized account of the 1933 kidnapping and murder of department store heir Brooke Hart, who was abducted outside his father’s department store in San Jose. His killers were caught and then hung by a lynch mob a few hours later. Harry Farrell, a wonderful reporter for the San Jose Mercury News, wrote a book about the shameful episode called Swift Justice: Murder and Vengeance in a California Town.
The movie is based, however, on the reporting done at the time by Chronicle reporter Royce Brier, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his efforts.
Another book about San Francisco murders is Charles F. Adams' Murder by the Bay, which looks at historic homicides in the city.
I remember both the Zodiac and Zebra Killings. The Zodiac killed a taxi cab driver in front of the house of my mother’s best friend on Washington Street. It was a terrifying period.