The Zebra murders were a number of ritual murders committed by Nation of Islam followers which took place in San Francisco, California from 1973 until 1974, and which left at least 16 people dead , and from eight (Howard) to ten (additions by Scheeres, Crime Library, and Cohen and Sanders) wounded. They were dubbed "the Zebra murders" because of the radio channel used by the San Francisco Police Department ("Z") exclusively for this case.
The Death Angels
The Zebra murders were the work of the Death Angels, a group within the black nationalist group, the Nation of Islam. According to the NOI's beliefs, the European race was created by a black mad scientist named Yakub, who, some say, wanted a race of inferiors to rule over. 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 presented whites not as human beings, but variously as "blue-eyed devils," "white devils," and "grafted snakes."
Candidates would be invited to secret meetings at the NOI-owned Black Self-Help Moving and Storage; 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 building. Although killing was their main goal, death angel candidates would often use machetes to torture victims over long periods, and some women were also the victims of rape.
The First Wave of Murders
On October 19, 1973 a couple, Richard and Quita Hague, 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, machete-wielding killer. One of the men who had fondled Quita then similarly hacked Richard and left him for dead, but miraculously, Richard survived.
Ten days later, on October 29, Frances Rose 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 Pacific Gas & Electric clerk, Robert Stoeckmann, was assaulted by another man but luckily, was able to take the gun away and fire back. The man, Leroy Doctor, was later arrested and convicted of assault with a deadly weapon.
Another victim, a Jordanian Arab Muslim, Saleem "Sammy" Erekat, was not so lucky. On November 25, a tall man pulled out a gun, and took Erekat to the back of his grocery store, bound him, and shot him execution-style, behind the right ear, killing him instantly.
On December 11, Paul Dancik, a 26-year old artist and drug addict, was shot three times in the chest by a man while he was making a call at a pay phone.
Two days later, on the evening of December 13, future San Francisco mayor rt Agnos, then a member of the California Commission on Aging, was attending a meeting in Potrero Hill, San Francisco, California. Agnos 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 when a man shot him twice in the back. He barely survived the attack.
During the same evening, Marietta DiGirolamo was walking along Divisadero 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.
On December 20, "Angela Roselli" (not her real name; Howard, 140), a 20-year old college student, was shot three times — one bullet hit her spine — near her apartment by one of two men. She survived.
An 81-year-old janitor, Ilario Bertuccio, was shot that same evening 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 was killed while walking near the 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 NOI killer; Cohen and Sanders) then chased down 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, Vincent Wollin, John Bambic, Jane Holly and Roxanne McMillian. Wollin had celebrated his 69th birthday that day. 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 Cohen and Sanders tie to the NOI killers, Thomas Bates, a hitchhiker who survived being shot three times near Emeryville, had earlier been mentioned by Howard, but not counted by him in that night's totals.)
Reaction to the Murders
The murders caused panic. People would try to find safety in numbers whenever they would go out, and 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 most 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 that littered 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). Police Chief Donald Scott assigned the "Z" frequency for their exclusive use. Since the letter Z is known in common phonetic use as "Zebra" they became known as the Zebra task force, and the murders became known as the Zebra murders.
The Killings Resume
On April 1, 1974, two Salvation Army cadets were walking toward 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. Cadet Thomas Rainwater died; Cadet Linda Story survived. Two policemen arrived at 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, because of the 32-caliber shell casings found on the sidewalk.
Easter Sunday, two other people, Ward Anderson and Terry White, were wounded while waiting for a bus.
April 16, 23-year old Nelson T. Shields IV, heir to a wealthy Du Pont executive, accompanied a friend who lived in the Ingleside district to buy a rug. They went back to the friend's house on Vernon St., and while Shields was working at the back of the station wagon they had borrowed to transport the rug, he was shot repeatedly. A witness later testified that she saw a black man rushing up Vernon St. 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.
Reaction to the Second Wave
Once again the new wave of killings 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 gambled, dictating 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 imaginings. Police then fanned out, stopping and questioning 500 young men who resembled the description of the killer: a black man with a short Afro and a narrow chin.
This action by the police provoked criticism from the African-American community. Acting on a suit 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.
The ruling was a blow to the SFPD, which felt crippled in its efforts to stop the Zebra killers. As a result, it resorted to contributing to a reward that, through several private and public donors, totaled $30,000, for information leading to the arrest of the killers.
Arrest and Conviction
When Anthony Harris, an employee at the Black Self-Help Moving and Storage in Market Street, and Death Angel candidate, saw the sketches in the newspaper, his active imagination concluded that one of the sketches was of him. Seeing the reward as a way of helping his family, gaining immunity from prosecution, and securing a new identity, he called the police and told them about the "Death Angels."
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, 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.
Harris provided the police with names, dates, addresses and details — enough information to issue warrants against the suspects.
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. 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. John Muhammad, the minister of Mosque #26 in San Francisco, denied the allegations of a Black Muslim conspiracy to kill white Europeans.
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), 8000 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 killings were officially solved, some members of the Zebra task force suspected that up to 71 murders in California could have been the work of various Death Angels squads. Since many victims were drawn from the ranks of the homeless or hitchhikers, there is no certainty about the actual numbers. Today the murders have been largely forgotten — even within San Francisco — despite the enormity of the crimes when they happened and the great effect they had on the city. Only two books on the subject have been published, Zebra (1979), by Clark Howard which is currently out of print and The Zebra Murders: A Season of Killing, Racial Madness, and Civil Rights (2006) by Prentice Earl Sanders and Bennett Cohen.
- Howard, Clark. Zebra: The true account of the 179 days of terror in San Francisco (New York: Richard Marek Publishers, 1979).
- Sanders, Prentice Earl and Bennett Cohen. Zebra Murders: A Season of Killing, Racial Madness, and Civil Rights (New York: Arcade Publishing, 2006).
- San Francisco Chronicle article, S.F.'s own time of terror.
- The Zebra Murders at the Crime Library
- Remembering The Zebra Killings
- 'Zebra Killer' J.C.X. Simon Found Dead in San Quentin Prison Cell