In 1974, the Castro, in San Francisco was for gay men, a beautiful refuge from everywhere else. The bar and bathhouse scenes were jumping. Harvey Milk had just opened his camera shop. It was pretty much a pre-AIDS wonderland.
The Doodler’s Victims
Until 27th January 1974, a corpse was found at the water’s edge on San Francisco’s Ocean Beach. Gerald Earl Cavanaugh, 49, had been stabbed multiple times. His left hand had defensive wounds. His body was, as the coroner’s register put it, “in a supine position” and showed signs of slight rigour mortis.
Very little is known about Gerald Cavanaugh. All we know is that he was born in Canada on 2nd March 1923, and lived in San Francisco working in a mattress factory.
Gerald was the first victim in a string of murders that, to this day, remain unsolved. From January 1974 to September 1975, The Doodler — or, as he was sometimes known, the Black Doodler, because of his skin colour — caught the eye of his victims by drawing caricatures and cartoons of them, but then leaving the drawings next to their bodies after murdering them. We don’t know what the drawings look like, as the police have never released the pictures.
The Doodler’s second victim was, Joseph Stevens, best known by the nickname “Jae,” was discovered on 25th June 1974, by a woman walking along Spreckels Lake in San Francisco. Stevens was only 27 years old and had died shortly before his body was found; he had been witnessed at a club the previous day. He was employed as a “female impersonator” (or as we know it now a Drag Queen) and comedian. Officers suspected that Stevens was alive at the time he had been at Spreckels Lake, possibly driving himself to the area with his killer.
Claus A. Christmann, a 31-year-old German national and employee of Michelin, who had a wife and two children, was the Doodler’s third victim. He was last seen alive at Bojangles. Christmann was found on 7th July 1974 at the foot of Lincoln Way, by the beach. Tauba Weiss, now 88, was walking her dog and discovered the body.
Christmann’s throat was slashed in three places and he was stabbed at least fifteen times. Inspector David Toschi, described the murder as one of the most vicious stabbings he has ever seen.
This was the first time the police realised that there could be a connection to all three killings. The inspector said “All apparently involved the victim meeting someone who suggested driving to a remote area such as the Beach or Golden Gate Park. All three were viciously stabbed front and back. All three were stripped of identification and property.”
On 12th May 1975 — nearly a year since the murder of Claus Christmann — the Doodler left another corpse; Frederick Elmer Capin, 32, was found by a hiker behind a sand dune between Vicente and Ulloa Streets. Capin was a six-feet-tall, medical corpsman in the Navy and the recipient of a “commendation medal for saving four men under fire in the Vietnam war.” and was living with grandparents at the time of his murder.
The coroner determined that the cause of death was “stab wounds of the aorta and heart.” There were marks in the sand leading to Capin, he wrote, “indicating that he had been dragged approximately 20 feet.”
Harald Gullberg was the Doodler’s last — and, at 66, oldest — victim. Found on 4th June 1975 on a Lincoln Park golf course by a hiker, ten yards off the trail, slashed across the neck. His pants were unzipped and he wasn’t wearing any underwear. The San Francisco Chronicle reported that he’d been dead for approximately two weeks because maggots and fly larvae occupied his face.
Gullberg was Swedish and a sailor by profession. According to immigration records, between June 1930 and July 1940, he stopped in numerous harbours, including Boston, Puerto Vita, Cuba, Shanghai, Melbourne, San Luis Obispo, Yokohama and Liverpool. He became a naturalized citizen on 15th August 1955.
Identifying the Culprit
Five months later, the police released a composite drawing of the suspect. He was known, said the police, to “frequent bars and restaurants in the Upper Market and Castro areas.” He was black, between 19 and 22 years old, between 5’10” and 6” tall, slim and frequently wore “a Navy-type watch cap.”
Police believed the killer had a quiet, serious personality, with an upper middle-class education and above-average intelligence. Quite possibly he was an art student; he’d informed a witness he was “studying commercial art.” The police also believed the suspect had a history of, “mental difficulties involving sex.” One paper said, he had “sexual identification problems” and was undergoing psychiatric care on “an outpatient basis.” According to the Chronicle, he told each victim, “All you guys are alike,” by which he probably meant that they were gay.
Witnesses were reluctant to cooperate with the police. “My feeling is they don’t want to be exposed as homosexuals,” says Inspector Rotea Gilford a few years later.
Numerous press accounts mention three surviving witnesses.
One was a European diplomat assigned to the States who, in May 1975, met the suspect in an Upper Market restaurant “where he was having a midnight snack.” The suspect asked if [the diplomat] had any cocaine.” They went back to the diplomat’s apartment, where the suspect stabbed him six times. The diplomat denied he’d had “sexual relations” with the suspect.
Another surviving witness was an entertainer of some kind who, according to police, was “nationally known.”
And the third was described as “a well known San Francisco figure” — left the city and reportedly wouldn’t answer letters or phone calls.
The police had many tips over the years and questioned a number of suspects. One man, who resembled the composite sketch, was taken into custody after he entered a Tenderloin bar and offered to draw the patrons. Along with a book of sketches, he’d been carrying a butcher knife. He was arrested for carrying a concealed weapon and after he attacked homicide inspectors during an interrogation, charged with aggravated assault.
“He is one of the many suspects being checked,” said the police.
In fact, there were dozens of suspects, and at least one of them looked good for the murders. In July 1977, the police had a suspect in question for a whole year, he had “talked freely” with police but declined to confess to the killings.
A week later, thanks to an anonymous tip, the license plate number of the suspect’s car but nothing came of that.
A Forgotten Serial Killer
And apparently, they’d even “spoke[n] to the psychiatrist who treated the Doodler.” It is believed that the psychiatrist told investigators that the suspect admitted during one session that he had committed the brutal slayings.
Three and half years after the killings began, Harvey Milk — who, four months later, would be elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors with 30% of the vote — was asked about the case and, in particular, the uncooperative surviving witnesses. “I can understand their position. I respect the pressure society has put on them,” he said. “They have to stay in the closet.”
After that, mentions of the Doodler murders nearly vanished, even among the gay publications. Apart from in 1978’s Tales of the City, Armistead Maupin writes of “the Doodler, a sinister black man who sat at the bar and sketched your face . . . before taking you home to murder you.” But otherwise, it’d been almost entirely lost to history.
Over forty years after the murders, the story of the Doodler killings has barely been told or reported. Unlike cases with similar body counts — the Zodiac Killer and David Berkowitz — this one has seemed to have quickly been forgotten.
Maybe it’s a matter of timing because when the killings began, it had been just a year since the American Psychiatric Association Board of Trustees ceased classifying homosexuality as a disorder. Most media outlets did not consider gay men sufficiently sympathetic to receive enough coverage.
As of May 2018 though, the case is open and ongoing in the San Francisco Police Department. Recent successes using DNA technology developed in the decades since the crimes have led police to re-examine the evidence in the case.
In February 2019, police offered a $100,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the killer and released a revised sketch showing what he could look like four decades later. They later announced they would consider forensic genetic genealogy, which identified a suspect in the Golden State Killer murders.
In 2020 it was announced that the San Francisco Chronicle would be launching a new podcast hosted by longtime Chronicle journalist Kevin Fagan that would be coming in 2021. The podcast would be the Chronicle’s first narrative podcast and would be produced in partnership with Sony Music Entertainment and the U.K. based Ugly Duckling Films. The podcast will be an investigative podcast and will be hoping to bring justice to this case.
If you want to follow along with the case in real-time and maybe even help them solve this unsolved murder then please go and check that out on Spotify.
That is the very strange and sad story of The Doodler Murders and let’s hope they find him and bring him to justice.