|Number of victims:||16 dead; 8-10 wounded|
|Span of killings:||1973–1974|
The Zebra murders were the work of one unit of the Death Angels, a group within the Nation of Islam (NOI). According to the Nation of Islam's beliefs, the white race was created by a scientist named Yakub. Furthermore, the Death Angels believed that they could earn "points" towards Paradise when they died if they killed as many whites as possible. The NOI's teachings present whites not as human beings, but variously as "blue-eyed devils," "white devils," and "grafted snakes."
None of the Death Angel murderers outside of the city of San Francisco, representing the vast majority of the related killings state wide, were ever caught or convicted.
Candidates would be invited to secret meetings at the Black Self-Help Moving and Storage owned by Nation of Islam and located on Market Street, San Francisco. To attain the status of Death Angel, each man was expected to kill either nine white men, five white women or four white children. After attaining this goal, a pair of black wings would be attached to his photograph and pinned up in an upstairs room of the Self-Help Moving building. Although killing and the spread of terror were their main goals, Death Angel candidates would often use machetes to torture victims over long periods.
On October 19, 1973, Richard Hague, 30, and his wife, Quita, 28, were kidnapped by a group of men and forced into a white van as they took an after-dinner stroll near their home in Telegraph Hill. 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 Pacific Gas & Electric 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.
On December 11, Paul Dancik, a 26-year-old artist, was shot three times in the chest by a man as he was preparing to make a telephone call at a pay phone.
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 barely survived the attack.
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, and when the shots spun her around, once in the back. She died.
On December 20, "Angela Roselli" (not her real name), a 20-year-old college student, was shot three times—one bullet nicked her spine—near her apartment by one of two men. She survived.
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 San Francisco Civic Center after doing his Christmas shopping. A man 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.
The killings stopped for five weeks, then resumed with a vengeance on January 28, 1974, with five more shootings: Tana Smith, 32, shot while walking to a fabric store; Vincent Wollin, 69, shot while walking home; John Bambic, 84, shot while collecting discarded bottles and cans; Jane Holly, a 45-year-old housewife gunned down while doing her laundry in a laundromat; and Roxanne McMillian, 23, shot while carrying items from her car to a new apartment she and her husband had rented.
Only one of the victims, Roxanne McMillian, survived—although she would use a wheelchair for the rest of her life. (A sixth victim that night whom authors Cohen and Sanders tie to the killers, 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 would go out or, as much as possible, avoid going out at night. In reaction, an increased police presence was ordered throughout the city.
The police were baffled by the lack of motive in the killings. Brutality and an apparent lack of remorse on the part of the gunmen marked the attacks. The common denominator in all the killings was that all the killers were black, and almost all of the victims were white.
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 (1925-2006). 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. Despite this radio wavelength designation, many people came to believe that the "Zebra" moniker was a result of the black-versus-white nature of the attacks.
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 arrived at the shooting 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, because of the 32-caliber shell casings found on the sidewalk.
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 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 "Nick" 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 again suspected that it was a Zebra murder because of the .32-caliber shell casings found at the scene.
Once again 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 also took a beating economically as tourists stayed away. Streets were deserted at night even at 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 to SFPD artist Hobart “Hoby” Nelson, who drew two sketches, based on them. The sketches were then distributed to the media and to SFPD officers, none of whom knew the sketches were generic.
In an unprecedented move, 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. Over 500 men were stopped by the first weekend the program was in operation.
This action by the police provoked vocal and widespread criticism from the African-American community. Acting on a lawsuit sponsored by the NAACP and the ACLU, U.S. District Judge Alfonso J. Zirpoli ruled that the widespread profiling of African-Americans was unconstitutional, and the operation was suspended.
With the offer of the $30,000 reward came a break in the Zebra case. Anthony Harris, an employee at the Black Self-Help Moving and Storage, called police 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 also provided specific details regarding several of the attacks that were known only to police—the details had never released to the press or general public. Harris denied that he had committed any killings, but said that he had been present at many of them.
Harris revealed the existence of the group to the police, and told them of a homicide which did not make the papers; it was that of a homeless man who they kidnapped from Ghirardelli Square. They brought the man to Black Self-Help Moving, gagged and tied him up, and while he was still conscious, took turns hacking away his limbs. Harris told the detectives that they dumped the body into San Francisco 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 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, 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. No one 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. Almost at once, local black leaders denounced the arrests, claiming that they had racist undertones. Black Muslim leader John Muhammad, the minister of Mosque #26 in San Francisco, denied the allegations of a Black Muslim conspiracy to kill whites.
However, there was enough evidence to prove the case against the "Death Angels." The trial started on March 3, 1975. Efforts by the defense to discredit Harris were to no avail, as he spilled all the 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. They also showed that it was used in many of the murders.
Based on 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.
While the Zebra murders were officially solved, some members of the Zebra task force suspected that at least 71 murders throughout California might have been the work of various other Death Angels squads. Since many victims were drawn from the ranks of the homeless or hitchhikers, there is no certainty about the actual numbers.
Only two books on the subject have been published, Zebra (1979), by Clark Howard, which is out of print, and The Zebra Murders: A Season of Killing, Racial Madness, and Civil Rights (2006) by Prentice Earl Sanders and Bennett Cohen.