If you aren’t from San Francisco, CA, chances are good you haven’t heard of the Doodler murders. The Doodler was active in San Francisco, CA in the 1974 to 1975 and mainly targeted gay men. He killed at least five people, but up to 14, in the short period of time he was known to be active and was never caught. With the arrest of the Golden State Killer in 2018, this case is among many being viewed as solvable through the same DNA process used by Golden State Killer investigators (Dowd 2019).
It began on January 27, 1974, with the discovery of the first known victim: Gerald Cavanaugh (Dowd 2019). A call was made to police at approximately 1:30 AM by an unknown individual, possibly even the Doodler himself. The caller refused to identify himself, claiming that he felt it wouldn’t be important and that he simply felt it was his duty to report the body he found (Miller 2019). Cavanaugh was found at Ocean Beach, stabbed to death. Defensive wounds were found on him, indicating that he had fought back against whomever it was that took his life. Five short months later, the second victim was found at Spreckels Lake. Joseph Stevens, sometimes known as Jae, was a known drag queen, at the time described as a “female impersonator.” Just like Cavanaugh, Stevens had been stabbed to death. Klaus Christmann was found at Ocean Beach just like Cavanaugh a few weeks after Stevens (Dowd 2019), slashed across the throat three times and stabbed 15 (Green 2014). While Cavanaugh and Stevens were single, Christmann was married and had children. Frederick Capin was found on Ocean Beach in May 1975. Capin was a nurse and a Vietnam war veteran. The final confirmed victim, Harald Gullberg, was found in Lincoln Park in June 1975, apparently hidden in some bushes that were reminiscent of an igloo and he is believed to have been dead for at least two days before being found (Down 2019) The victims were notably all white (Miller 2019).
What do we know about the victims? What could we learn from their lives that could lead us to the Doodler? Cavanaugh was 49-years old, balding, stood at approximately five feet, eight inches tall and weighed around 220 pounds. He was known to have been Catholic and was never married. Beyond these things, not much is known about this victim. Stevens was 27-years old and worked as a female impersonator at Finnochio’s for the summer. While Finnochio’s was once a popular bar, having been around since the 1930s, by the 1970s most of the LGBT+ crowd had moved on from the club due to hands off rules. By the time of his death, Stevens had actually moved away from his work as a female impersonator and headed in the direction of being a gay comedian. When he first took the stage eight years before his death, he was well received (Green 2014).
Christmann, 31, was a German national who worked for Michelin. He was last seen at Bojangles and was found with a tube of makeup in his pocket, leading detectives to believe he had homosexual tendencies. Christmann was visiting San Francisco and had been staying with his friends, the Williams’s, for three months at the time of his death. His remains were returned to Bamberg, Germany for funeral services. Capin was 32 at the time of his death, and stood approximately six feet tall while weighing only 148 pounds. An obituary was run in Port Angeles, WA, where Capin’s sister lived, which talked about his time as a medical corpsman for the Navy. Capin had received a commendation medal during his time in Vietnam when he saved four men while under fire. Gullberg was the oldest of the Doodler’s victims at 66-years old and, according to the pathologist who examined him, was unhealthy and dying of portal cirrhosis. Gullberg was a Swedish sailor with both his arms tattooed and became a naturalized citizen on August 15, 1955. During his time as a sailor, he made stops around the world, including Boston, Yokohama, Liverpool, and Cuba (Green 2014).
At the same time as the Doodler murders, there were other attacks on white, gay men occurring in the area at the time. Two of the victims even lived in the same apartment complex, though they were attacked at different times. Another victim that survived the attack was able to give police details that lead to the connections made between the assaults and the murders. Surviving victims were able to give enough of a description of their attacker to result in a sketch of the offender. The offender was described as a lanky black man around six feet tall, aged between 19 and 25-years old at the time of the attacks (Miller 2019). Investigators believed that he was upper-middle class with the education to match and an above average intelligence. He was supposedly quiet with a serious personality. A witness claimed the suspect told them he was studying commercial art, leading investigators to believe he was likely an art student. Surviving victims claimed he told them, “All you guys are alike,” likely meaning gay men (Green 2014).
In 2019, an updated sketch of the Doodler was released and a call was made to the public for any information any may have. The sketch was what they believe the Doodler would look like today, based on a sketch made from two survivors. Along with the updated sketch, the audio file of a man calling in one of the victim’s remains to the police was also released. A reward of $100,000 was offered at the time (Miller 2019).
How has this case gone unsolved all these years? The answer may be simple, if a bit upsetting: the murders occurred only a year after the American Psychiatric Association of Trustees declassified homosexuality as a mental illness. Gay men were viewed in a less-than-favorable light and were easy victims for an aspiring murderer. Just like with sex workers, gay men were seen as less desirable to society and therefore, easy pickings for a murderer. The killer was even seen, supposedly, at a local club, the Castro (Green 2014). He got the moniker of the Doodler because he was spotted many time drawing caricatures of club goers (Miller 2019). At the time, San Francisco was the place to be if you were gay. It was, essentially, a safe haven from the rest of the world, before the AIDs epidemic that would soon take over (Green 2014).
At the times of the Doodler murders, gay men were not taken seriously as victims. Murders committed against gay men were common, and while there are five confirmed Doodler murders, there are others that could be attributed to him as well. However, many of those that are listed as possible Doodler murders may very well not be, given the high rate of crime against gay men at the time. The surviving victims were, understandably, scared to be outed as gay at the time and would not testify when a possible arrest was made. One survivor was supposedly a diplomat while another was some form of public figure. At the time, being gay would have destroyed their careers (Green 2014). As it stands, we may never get an answer to who committed the Doodler murders. He may not even be alive anymore, or, perhaps, he is in prison for something else entirely.
Dowd, K. (2019, February 06). Who was San Francisco’s Doodler killer, and why wasn’t he caught? Retrieved August 15, 2020, from https://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/the-doodler-serial-killer-cold-case-unsolved-13014008.php
Miller, R. (2019, February 07). ‘The Doodler’ killed 5 gay men in 1970s San Francisco. Police just released new info on him. Retrieved August 16, 2020, from https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2019/02/06/san-francisco-doodler-serial-killer-cold-case-has-new-info-reward/2795825002/
Green, E. (2014, December 11). The Untold Story of the Doodler Murders. Retrieved August 16, 2020, from https://www.theawl.com/2014/12/the-untold-story-of-the-doodler-murders/