Convicted "Zebra murderers" at the time of their arrest in 1974: Manuel Moore, Larry Green, Jessie Lee Cooks, and J. C. X. Simon
|Conviction(s)||First-degree murder and conspiracy to commit first-degree murder|
|Criminal penalty||Life imprisonment|
|Victims||15 dead; 8–10 wounded|
Span of crimes
The "Zebra" murders were a string of racially motivated murders and related attacks committed by a small group of Black Muslim serial killers in San Francisco, California, United States from October 1973 to April 1974; they killed at least fifteen people and wounded eight others. Police gave the case the name "Zebra" after the special police radio band they assigned to the investigation.
Some authorities believe that the "Death Angels," as the perpetrators called themselves, may have killed as many as 73 or more victims since 1970. Criminology professor Anthony Walsh wrote in a 2005 article 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."
In 1974 a worker at the warehouse where the Death Angels were based testified to police for a reward, providing private details about the murders. Based on his evidence, four men were arrested in connection with the case. They were convicted in a jury trial of first-degree murder and conspiracy charges, and sentenced to life imprisonment. The informant received immunity from prosecution for his testimony and was admitted to a witness protection program for him and his family.
First wave of murders, 1973
On October 19, 1973, Richard Hague (30) and his wife, Quita (28), were walking near their Telegraph Hill home in San Francisco when they were kidnapped by a group of black men and forced into a van. Quita was fondled by two of the men, and then nearly decapitated by a third man who cut her neck with a machete. One of the first pair attacked 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, Robert Stoeckmann (26), clerk with the Pacific Gas and Electric Company, was assaulted by an armed man, but gained control of the gun and fired back. The attacker, Leroy Doctor, was later arrested and convicted of assault with a deadly weapon. Saleem "Sammy" Erakat (53), a Jordanian Arab Muslim, was bound and shot dead in the restroom of his grocery store on November 25. On December 11, Paul Dancik (26), an artist, was shot three times in the chest by a man as he was preparing to make a telephone call at a payphone.
Two days later, on the evening of December 13, future San Francisco mayor Art Agnos (35), then a member of the California Commission on Aging, was attending a meeting in the largely black neighborhood Potrero Hill to discuss building a government-funded health clinic in the area. After the meeting ended, Agnos was talking to two women at the curbside when a man approached and shot him twice in the chest. 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 home from work in the Bayview 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 as he was 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 shot her four times. On December 24, an unidentified John Doe victim was killed. The man's remains were recovered on February 10, 1974.
The murders caused widespread panic in San Francisco. People attempted to find safety in numbers whenever they went out, and avoided going out at night as much as possible. The city ordered an increased police presence throughout the area. Investigators from the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) were baffled by the randomness and apparent lack of motive in the killings. Brutality and an apparent lack of remorse on the part of the gunmen marked the attacks.
Initial evidence related to the killings revealed 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 among 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.
A special task force was formed 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, January-April 1974
The killings resumed on January 29, 1974 with five more shootings; four were fatal. 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 at a laundromat, and Roxanne McMillian (23) was shot while carrying items from her car to her new apartment. Of these, only McMillian survived, but she had to use a wheelchair for the rest of her life. A sixth victim was Thomas Bates, a hitchhiker who survived being shot three times that night near Emeryville but was not originally associated with the Zebra murders.
On April 1, 1974, two Salvation Army cadets were walking toward the Mayfair Market, two blocks from the Salvation Army School for Officers' Training Center, when a black man who was following the pair 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 fifteen seconds, and although a manhunt was initiated, it proved to be futile. The police suspected that the Zebra killers had struck again, as the shell casings on the sidewalk were found to be from a .32 caliber gun. On Easter Sunday, thirteen days after the Rainwater-Story shootings, 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 fled after firing.
On the evening of April 16, 23-year-old Nelson T. Shields, IV, son of a wealthy Du Pont executive, accompanied a friend to pick up a rug at a house on Vernon Street in the Ingleside district. Shields had opened the back of his 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, as the shell casings found at the scene matched a .32 caliber, the size of the weapon in other killings.
The new wave of murders on January 29 shocked the city, and people renewed precautions taken during the first wave. The city suffered losses in revenue by a dramatic drop in tourist traffic. 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 composite sketches based on the descriptions.
Scott and San Francisco Mayor Joseph Alioto announced that SFPD 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 police during the first weekend the program was in operation.
The Zebra Check program provoked vocal and widespread criticism from the black community. However, Dr. Washington Garner, the first black member of the Police Commission, called for blacks to be understanding of the exceptional circumstances. The policy also faced internal criticism. The Officers For Justice group, led by Nation of Islam (NOI) associate Jesse Byrd, described the policy 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 police suspended the operation.
Arrests and convictions
Following the city's offer of a $30,000 reward, a break came in the Zebra case in April. Anthony Harris, an employee at 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 in Oakland. Harris claimed to be one of the persons featured in the police sketches. He provided specific details regarding several of the attacks which the police had never released to the public. Harris denied that he had committed any killings, but admitted that he had been present at many of them.
Harris told the police about the Black Muslim group, and told them of a homicide that did not make the papers; the group had abducted a homeless white man ("John Doe #169") from Ghirardelli Square. They took the man to Black Self-Help Moving and Storage's warehouse, where they gagged and tied him. According to Harris, while this man was conscious, others of the group 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. In addition, it affirmed their recovery of a body on the previous December 24, 1973: it was a bound and badly butchered male torso and limbs missing his hands, feet, and head; it 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 for the prosecutor to issue arrest warrants against the suspects. Harris subsequently sought, and received, immunity from prosecution 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 police 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 and Storage's facility. None offered resistance when arrested. Of the seven men arrested that day, four men were released for lack of evidence.
Mayor Alioto announced the news of the raids and said that the killings were perpetrated by a group who called themselves the "Death Angels" and targeted whites and dissident blacks. He said that their members had to show proof of attacks and murders to advance in the cult, and may have killed as many as 73 persons since 1970.
Scholars continued to study this group. Criminology professor Anthony Walsh wrote in a 2005 article 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."
Black Muslim leader John Muhammad, the minister of Mosque #26 in San Francisco, denied the allegations that there was a Black Muslim conspiracy to kill whites. The Nation of Islam paid for attorneys for Green, Moore, and Simon. Jessie Lee Cooks pleaded guilty before the trial, and the Nation did not provide him with defense counsel.
The trial started on March 3, 1975. Efforts by the defense to discredit Harris were unsuccessful. He revealed many grisly details over twelve days of testimony. The Zebra team presented evidence of a .32 caliber Beretta semiautomatic pistol, which was recovered from the backyard of a home near the scene of the last murder. They demonstrated the chain of ownership of the gun to one of the workers at Black Self-Help Moving and Storage, and showed 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 (by plea deal) were convicted in 1976 of first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit first-degree murder. The jury deliberated for eighteen hours. Each man was sentenced to life imprisonment.
On March 12, 2015, J. C. X. Simon (aged 69) was found unresponsive in his cell at San Quentin State Prison, where since 1976 he had been serving a life sentence with the possibility of parole. He was declared dead of unknown causes, pending an autopsy. Moore (aged 75) died in 2017 at the California Health Care Facility. Cooks is currently imprisoned in Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility and Green is in the California State Prison, Solano.
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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.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
- 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.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
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- Talbot, David (2012-05-08). Season of the Witch: Enchantment, Terror and Deliverance in the City of Love. Simon and Schuster. ISBN 9781439127872.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)