San Francisco was still reeling from the crimes of the unidentified Zodiac Killer in the mid-1970s when a new serial killer struck fear into the city by the bay. Between January 1974 and June 1975, an unknown man monikered ‘the Doodler‘ murdered as many as 14 men and injured 3 more. Like the Zodiac, the Doodler was never captured, and his legacy hangs like a black cloud over San Francisco’s gay community because of the victims he selected – and the way he was able to evade justice.
San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood has long been recognized as one of America’s most openly gay districts. The area became a beacon for gay men and women from all over the country in the late 1960s and 1970s, and many people flocked there, transforming the former working-class enclave into a fashionable, gay-friendly neighborhood. The man known as the Doodler used the Castro as his hunting ground, stalking and violently attacking gay men he met in nightclubs and restaurants.
The Doodler’s first victim, 49-year-old Gerald Cavanaugh, was found dead on a San Francisco beach with multiple stab wounds to his body in January 1974. By the middle of 1976, 17 gay men had been murdered in San Francisco. Though some were eventually solved, 14 of the crimes were eventually determined to match the Doodler’s modus operandi and witness descriptions: victims were viciously stabbed and slashed to death after leaving a gay entertainment spot with a young, black man who would sketch their image on a cocktail napkin (hence the nickname, ‘The Doodler’).
Although the Castro neighborhood was an inclusive place that catered to San Francisco’s gay community, being a homosexual in the mid-1970s was still taboo for many people. In fact, the insularity of the community and the stigma of being publicly gay are two major reasons why the Doodler, as well as a couple of other killers who targeted the Castro, was able to avoid police detection for so long. It wasn’t until June 1976, after 17 gay men were murdered in two years (again, not all attributed to the Doodler), that the local media picked up the story. San Francisco Chronicle ran a front-page story about the murders, and then a follow-up the next day in which they published a police sketch of “the Doodler”.
The Doodler did leave survivors, but they were reluctant to go on the record about their harrowing experiences – effectively “outing” themselves publicly – which meant the serial killer remained on the loose. Apparently the survivors included a “well-known entertainer” and a diplomat. Gay activist and San Francisco politician Harvey Milk empathized with the unwillingness of the Doodler’s survivors to speak out publicly, saying,:
San Francisco police did have a main suspect in the Doodler murders, but the man never admitted to any killings, and, again, the lack of witnesses willing to identify the man seriously hampered law enforcement’s case, allowing the suspect to remain free. Though times and social mores have changed significantly, the Doodler was never brought to justice.
Although the development of the Castro as an accepting, inclusive neighborhood is a bright spot in 1970s San Francisco, the unsolved murders of the Doodler remain a very dark mark on the era.
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