Convicted "Zebra murderers" at the time of their arrest in 1974: Manuel Moore, Larry Green, Jessie Lee Cooks, and J.C.X. Simon
|Criminal penalty||Life imprisonment|
|Conviction(s)||First-degree murder and conspiracy to commit first-degree murder|
|Victims||15 dead; 8–10 wounded|
Span of killings
The "Zebra" murders were a string of racially motivated murders that took place in San Francisco, California, from October 1973 to April 1974. A group of male Black Muslims who called themselves the "Death Angels" committed at least 15 murders and 8 attempted murders, mostly against white victims. However, some authorities believe they may have killed as many as 73, or more, victims.
Criminology professor Anthony Walsh wrote that the "San Francisco–based Death Angels may have killed more people in the early to mid-1970s than all the other serial killers operating during that period combined." Police named the case "Zebra" after the special police radio band they assigned for the investigation.
In 1974, four men — Manuel Moore, Larry Green, Jessie Lee Cooks, and J.C.X. Simon — were arrested in connection with the case. They were convicted of first-degree murder and conspiracy charges and sentenced to life imprisonment.
First wave of murders, 1973
On October 19, 1973, Richard Hague, 30, and his wife, Quita, 28, were strolling near their Telegraph Hill home when they were kidnapped by a group of black men and forced into a van. Quita was fondled by two men, and then nearly decapitated by a third with a machete. One of the men who had fondled Quita then similarly hacked Richard, and left him for dead, but he survived.
Ten days later, on October 29, Frances Rose, 28, was repeatedly shot by a man who blocked her car's path and demanded a ride, as she was driving up to the entrance gate of the University of California extension.
On November 9, a 26-year-old gas company clerk, Robert Stoeckmann, was assaulted by another man, but was able to take the gun away and fire back. The attacker, Leroy Doctor, was later arrested and convicted of assault with a deadly weapon.
Two days later, on the evening of December 13, future San Francisco mayor Art Agnos, then a member of the California Commission on Aging, was attending a meeting in Potrero Hill. Agnos, 35, was in the largely black neighborhood to discuss building a government-funded health clinic in the area. After the meeting ended, Agnos was talking to two women curbside when a man shot him twice in the back. Agnos was seriously injured, but survived.
During the same evening, Marietta DiGirolamo, 31, was walking along Divisadero Street when she was shoved into a doorway by a man and shot twice in the chest. The shots spun her around and struck her once in the back, killing her.
On December 20, "Angela Roselli" (not her real name), a 20-year-old college student, was shot three times near her apartment by one of two men. She survived, although one bullet nicked her spine.
An 81-year-old janitor, Ilario Bertuccio, was shot that same evening while walking on his way home from work in the Bay View district. He died almost instantly after four shots to the shoulder and chest.
On December 22, two more victims died within six minutes of each other. Neal Moynihan, 19, was killed while walking near the Civic Center while shopping. A man had walked in front of him, and shot him in the face, neck, and heart. The killer (or perhaps a different killer, per authors Cohen and Sanders) then chased down 50-year-old Mildred Hosler as she was heading to her bus stop, and also shot her four times.
The killings resumed a week later on December 28, 1973, with five more shootings. Tana Smith, 32, was shot while walking to a fabric store. Vincent Wollin, 69, was shot while walking home. John Bambic, 84, was shot while collecting discarded bottles and cans. Jane Holly, a 45-year-old housewife, was gunned down while doing her laundry in a laundromat, and Roxanne McMillian, 23, was shot while carrying items from her car to her new apartment. Of these, only McMillian survived, although she would need to use a wheelchair for the rest of her life. A sixth victim who was shot that night, Thomas Bates, a hitchhiker who survived being shot three times near Emeryville, had earlier been mentioned by author Howard, but not counted by him in that night's totals.
The murders caused widespread panic in San Francisco. People attempted to find safety in numbers whenever they went out or, as much as possible, avoided going out at night. In reaction, an increased police presence was ordered throughout the city. The police were baffled by the apparent lack of motive in the killings. Brutality and an apparent lack of remorse on the part of the gunmen marked the attacks.
Based on what was initially known about the killings, there was a common pattern. In a hit-and-run shooting, the gunman would walk up to his victim, shoot the victim repeatedly at close range, and flee on foot. Another link to the shootings was the killers' preference for a .32-caliber pistol, based on the slugs recovered from the victims and the shell casings found at the crime scenes.
As a result, a special task force was formed to try to solve and stop the murders, led by Detectives Gus Coreris and John Fotinos. San Francisco Police Chief Donald Scott assigned the "Z" police radio frequency for their exclusive use. Since the letter "Z" is known in common phonetic use as "Zebra", the group became known as the Zebra task force, and the murders became known as the Zebra murders.
Second wave of murders, April 1974
On April 1, 1974, two Salvation Army cadets were walking toward the Mayfair Market just two blocks away from the Salvation Army School for Officers' Training Center when a black man who was following them overtook them, wheeled around, fired four shots at them, and fled. Thomas Rainwater, 19, died; Linda Story, 21, survived. Two policemen were on the scene within 15 seconds, and although a manhunt was initiated in an effort to find the killer, it proved to be futile. They suspected that the Zebra killers had struck again, as the shell casings found on the sidewalk were found to be from a .32-caliber gun.
On Easter Sunday, 13 days after the Rainwater-Story shootings, two more people, Ward Anderson, a merchant seaman, and Terry White, a 15-year-old student, were both shot and wounded as they stood at a bus stop at the corner of Fillmore and Hayes Streets; their attacker was a black man who approached the corner on foot and then fled after firing.
On the evening of April 16, 23-year-old Nelson T. Shields IV, heir to a wealthy Du Pont executive, accompanied a friend to a house on Vernon Street in the Ingleside district to pick up a rug. Shields had opened the back of the station wagon and was making room in the cargo area for the rug when he was shot repeatedly. A witness later testified that she saw a black man rushing up Vernon Street at the time of the shooting. The police suspected it was another Zebra murder, due to the shell casings found at the scene matching a .32-caliber.
The new wave of murders brought the city to a state of shock as people took the same precautions as they had when the first wave took place. The city took a beating economically as tourists stayed away. Streets were deserted at night, even in North Beach, a neighborhood known to have a seven-nights-a-week nightlife.
Police decided to take drastic measures. Inspector Gus Coreris dictated generic suspect descriptions with the best-known characteristics of the killers to SFPD sketch artist Hobart "Hoby" Nelson, who drew two sketches, based on the descriptions. The sketches were then distributed to the media and to SFPD officers, none of whom knew the sketches were generic.
San Francisco Mayor Joseph Alioto and Police Chief Donald Scott announced that police officers would begin stopping and questioning "large numbers of black citizens" who resembled the description of the killer: a black man with a short Afro and a narrow chin. Once stopped, checked, and cleared, each citizen received a specially printed Zebra Check card from the officer(s) that they could show to police if stopped again. More than 500 black men were stopped by the first weekend the program was in operation.
This provoked vocal and widespread criticism from the black community. Dr. Washington Garner, the first black member of the Police Commission, called for blacks to be understanding of the exceptional circumstances. The policy faced internal criticism, with the Officers For Justice group led by Nation of Islam associate Jesse Byrd viewing it as "racist and unproductive". Acting on a lawsuit filed by the NAACP and the ACLU, U.S. District Judge Alfonso J. Zirpoli ruled the widespread profiling of blacks was unconstitutional, and the operation was suspended.
Arrests and convictions
With the offer of a $30,000 reward came a break in the Zebra case. Anthony Harris, an employee at the Black Self-Help Moving and Storage, called police a week after the sketches had been posted and subsequently agreed to meet with Zebra case detectives at a bank parking lot in Oakland. Harris claimed to be one of the persons featured in the police sketches, and provided specific details regarding several of the attacks that the police never had released to the public. Harris denied he had committed any killings, but admitted he had been present at many of them.
Harris revealed the existence of the group to the police, and told them of a homicide that did not make the papers; it was that of a homeless man whom they had kidnapped from Ghirardelli Square. They had brought the man to Black Self-Help Moving's warehouse, gagged and tied him up, and while he was still conscious, took turns hacking away his limbs. Harris told the detectives that they had dumped the body into the bay. He told his story in such detail that the police were convinced of its veracity, especially since the police had, on the previous December 24, recovered the bound and badly butchered torso of a male, missing its hands, feet and head, that had washed up in the city's Ocean Beach district at the foot of Pacheco Street. Harris provided the police with names, dates, addresses and details — enough information to issue arrest warrants against the suspects. Harris subsequently sought, and received, immunity for his help in breaking the Zebra case, as well as new identities for himself, his girlfriend, and her child.
On May 1, 1974, simultaneous raids during the pre-dawn hours were made, resulting in the arrests of Larry Craig Green and J.C.X. Simon in an apartment building at 844 Grove Street. More suspects were arrested at Black Self-Help Moving & Storage's facility. None offered resistance when arrested. Of the seven arrested that day, four were released for lack of evidence.
Mayor Alioto announced the news of the raids and announced that the killings were perpetrated by the Death Angels. Black Muslim leader John Muhammad, the minister of Mosque #26 in San Francisco, denied the allegations of a Black Muslim conspiracy to kill whites. The Nation of Islam paid for attorneys for all of the perpetrators convicted, except for Jessie Lee Cooks, who had pleaded guilty.
The trial started on March 3, 1975. Efforts by the defense to discredit Harris were unsuccessful, and he revealed many grisly details over 12 days of testimony. In addition, the Zebra team presented evidence of a .32 caliber Beretta automatic pistol that was recovered from the backyard of a home near the scene of the last murder. They were able to demonstrate the chain of ownership of the gun to one of the workers at Black Self-Help, and that the gun had been used in many of the murders.
Based upon the testimony of 108 witnesses (including Harris), 8,000 pages totaling 3.5 million words worth of transcripts, and culminating in what was then the longest criminal trial in California history, Larry Green, J.C.X. Simon, Manuel Moore, and Jessie Lee Cooks were convicted of first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit first-degree murder after an 18-hour deliberation by the jury in 1976. Each was sentenced to life imprisonment.
On March 12, 2015, J.C.X. Simon (aged 69), was found unresponsive in his cell at San Quentin Prison, where he had been serving a life sentence with the possibility of parole since 1976. He was declared dead of unknown causes, pending an autopsy.
- Howard 1979, pp. 228, 238–39, 247–48, 266, 333–34.
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- Howard, Clark (1979). Zebra: The True Account of the 179 Days of Terror in San Francisco. New York: Richard Marek Publishers. ISBN 978-0-399-90050-1.
- Peele, Thomas (2012-02-07). Killing the Messenger: A Story of Radical Faith, Racism's Backlash, and the Assassination of a Journalist. Crown/Archetype. ISBN 9780307717573.
- Sanders, Prentice Earl; Cohen, Bennett (2006). Zebra Murders: A Season of Killing, Racial Madness, and Civil Rights. New York: Arcade. ISBN 978-1-55970-806-7.
- Talbot, David (2012-05-08). Season of the Witch: Enchantment, Terror and Deliverance in the City of Love. Simon and Schuster. ISBN 9781439127872.