The Zebra Murders: An Alternative Perspective
Kevin J. Mullen
In his 1968 book, The Police Establishment, ex-FBI Agent William W. Turner made the point that police departments around the country were unable or unwilling to handle racial matters fairly and effectively. To make his case regarding San Francisco, Turner cited the Police Commission’s treatment of an African American officer assigned to the minority oriented Community Relations Unit.
In an off-duty fracas in October1966 in Oakland, the officer had been fired upon by one of two men engaged in a dispute with a streetwalker. Hailed before the police commission on a charge of conduct unbecoming an officer, the officer resigned from the department. According to most in the minority community, says Turner – a position in which he seems to concur –“an indiscretion (on the officer’s part) ordinarily punishable by a reprimand and transfer, had been magnified into a cardinal sin in order to put the Community Relations Unit on trial.”
As things turned out, the officer, who had been in a relationship with the prostitute for several months, was waiting in her nearby automobile while she serviced tricks. It was after one of the johns demanded his money back that the officer got involved and the shooting resulted. Moonlighting as a pimp by a sworn police officer has always been considered something more than an indiscretion, yet Turner viewed the legitimate attempt at discipline as an affront to the African American community.
The curse of racism and its varied consequences have in some way infected just about every aspect of American life for centuries. In the last 50 years or so these issues have profoundly influenced the external relations and internal operations of many of the nation’s police departments. This has given rise to a literature, as represented by Turner’s book, that tends to view the world through a lens of racial injustice.
Now comes The Zebra Murders: A Season of Killing, Racial Madness and Civil Rights, in which retired African American San Francisco Police Chief Prentice Sanders and his writer, Bennett Cohen, make their contribution to the genre. As suggested by its title, the book deals largely with that part of his career in which Sanders was involved in the investigation of a series of black on white homicides which terrorized San Francisco in the early 1970s. The Zebra killings were the most atrocious manifestation of a phenomenon which began in the 1960s when homicide rates soared in urban America generally. By the late 1970s, San Francisco’s homicide rate was 18.5 per 100,000 population, up from 5.9 in an equivalent period in the early 1960s. Much of the increase was driven by a rise in black on white killings. It was in this climate that the Zebra killings occurred.
There is an earlier published account of the case, Clark Howard’s 1979 Zebra: The true account of the 179 days of terror in San Francisco, a workmanlike job which covers much of the same ground and more. But what Sanders can bring to the subject, of course, is an insider’s view of the case. The book is written from his point of view, as well it should be. The question becomes, however: how does that point of view square with objective reality?
Sanders starts with a description of his attendance at the autopsy for the first victim, Quita Hague. Hague had been seized with her husband while walking on Telegraph Hill on October 19, 1973 and taken to an isolated area of the Potrero District where she was brutally butchered. Her husband survived. The case differed from the other 73 homicides preceding it that year only in its brutality and seeming senselessness. When 28 year old Frances Rose was shot by a black man who invaded her automobile on October 28, there was no reason to connect it to the Hague murder, other than the race of the perpetrator.
The killing of Saleem Erakat in his market on Turk Street on November 25 might have been a typical robbery murder except that the killers took the trouble to bind the victim and shoot him execution style. On December 11, Paul Dancik was killed while approaching a street phone booth. Police found that both Erakat and Dancik were killed by the same .32 caliber weapon, an uncommon size for such crimes. A week or so later three more white victims were shot down in the street without provocation in the space of a few days, all with the same weapon.
Realizing that they had a terror spree on their hands, department officials formed a task force under veteran homicide detectives Gus Corerris and John Fotinos. Two robbery detectives, Jeff Brosch and Carl Klotz, were assigned to assist the two lead detectives. Other homicide detectives were to continue taking cases in rotation as was the standard procedure, but under the coordinative supervision of Coreris and Fotinos. For a time the killings seemed to stop. Then they resumed in late January when four whites were killed and one wounded in a two hour rampage. Again there was a brief break in the killings until April 1st when Thomas Rainwater was killed in the street. On April 16, 1974, the last victim, Nelson Shields was killed with three shots in the back.
A simple recitation of the murders fails to convey the effect of the reign of terror on the city at the time. City residents were terrified at the seeming randomness of the attacks. The streets were deserted at night, and intense pressure was put on the police to bring the case to a successful conclusion. In the course of the investigation, investigators became convinced that the Nation of Islam, the black separatist group, was involved. In the absence of any hard information, almost in desperation, the department established controversial procedures to stop and question all young black men found out at night. Finally in mid-1974 the killings came to an end after 15 whites had been shot or hacked to death on the city streets and several more were seriously wounded.
The dust jacket material provided by the publisher of the Sanders/Cohen book describes the Zebra case as a “riveting story of the racially-motivated serial killings--black on white--that terrorized San Francisco in the fall and winter of 1973-74, and how they were solved by a team spearheaded by two trailblazing black detectives." Even allowing for the customary hyperbole to which publishers are inclined, that statement is over the top. The case was eventually solved, after a massive amount of leg work by a large number of detectives, headed by Inspectors Gus Coreris and John Fotinos--not Sanders and his partner-- when one of the killers decided to claim the $30,000 reward offer and contacted the police.
Still, as some reviewers have noted, we are led to believe that Sanders and his partner were personally and intimately involved in just about every aspect of the investigation from beginning to end. The reviews so far have been mixed, ranging from the fawningly adulatory: “The Real Deal” and “Stunningly Researched” to severely critical: “Not the Real story” and “You’ve got to be kidding.” Sanders and his partner, Inspector Rotea Gilford were in fact assigned to three of the 14 cases credited to the Zebra killers but their involvement in the solution seems to very much less than is suggested in the book.
The book is littered with errors and misstatements, too many to catalogue in a single review. Examples will have to suffice. If Sanders is the hero of the story, he also provides a set of villains. In his version of events, that role is played by an amorphous band of what he calls a “white Irish old-boys network.” “In 1973,” he claims, “only one man who wasn’t Irish had the rank of captain or higher in the SFPD.” As a simple matter of fact, at the time of which Sanders writes, the chief and almost all his top staff were demonstrably non-Irish. The Homicide Detail was riddled with Irish old-boy operatives as well, according to Sanders, from Charles Ellis, the detail’s commander, on down. Retired Captain Charles Ellis will doubtless be surprised to find out that he has been transformed into an Irishman. The fact of the matter is that Irish-named detectives were a decided minority in the detail at the time.
A more egregious mischaracterization is Sanders’ discussion of an attempt by adversarial forces to find out where the man who had given up the suspects was being housed for his own safety. By Sanders’ account, the president of the OFJ -- who also happened to be a member of the Nation of Islam, the very group of which the killers were members-- approached the lead investigator in the case and asked him where the principal prosecution witness was being sequestered. Sanders more or less brushes off that overture as an innocent act, saying, “It’s more than possible that someone in the Nation (of Islam) told him (the officer) they were afraid Harris was being held against his will, and all they wanted to do was ‘talk’ to him.” Yes. And John Gotti had someone ask the FBI for Sammy “The Bull” Gravano’s address in the Federal Witness Protection Program so that he could update his Christmas card list. In the end, it is for Sanders’ colleagues in the Homicide Detail at the time to report on just how involved Sanders was in the final resolution of the case.
While the story of the horrendous spate of murders serves to hook the reader into the book, its underlying purpose – the real purpose it would appear—is to provide a platform for Sanders to vent about what he sees as a career’s worth of complaints about his victimization by racist forces, both during the Zebra investigation and otherwise. To that end he recounts the efforts of the Officers for Justice, an association of largely black officers, against what they saw as discrimination in selection, treatment and promotions of minority police officers. In 1973 the OFJ filed a lawsuit in Federal Court in which Sanders played a prominent role, claiming discrimination in hiring and promotions and petitioning for relief in the form of preferential treatment in future hiring and promotions.
According to the Sanders/Cohen formulation “It was proven that some of the tests given to minorities were statistically more difficult than those given to whites.” (This sentence doesn’t make sense. They probably mean to say that the statistical difference in results between whites and minorities proved that the tests were biased against minorities, a very different thing.) In any event, the statistical disparity was seized upon by the court in 1973 in a preliminarily finding of disparate treatment. The judicial proceedings which followed were intended to test the validity of that finding. After years of legal wrangling, the case finally came to trial before Judge Robert Peckham in November 1978. The plaintiff’s first witness – and only witness as things turned out -- was Homicide Inspector Prentice Sanders.
It was brought out on cross examination that for all the discrimination he claimed, only one other member his academy class had advanced farther in the department by 1978. And it was pointed out that good things had come to Sanders sooner than most. While his academy classmates were settling into their final patrol assignments, Sanders was assigned to the much coveted Robbery Detail, a promotion his fellows could not hope to make for several years more at least. And at the time the OFJ case was filed, he was assigned to the Homicide Detail, the most prestigious non-management assignment in the department.
His claims of humiliation by whites were put to the lie when the defense introduced a set of photographs showing that Sanders had willingly decked himself out in racially offensive primitive African garb. At the close of Sanders’ testimony, the judge commented “This man has not been discriminated against,” and informed plaintiff’s attorney that they had better get a better witness if they hoped to prevail. The court then adjourned until December.
It was during this period, on November 28, 1978, that former Supervisor Dan White entered City Hall and assassinated Mayor George Moscone and County Supervisor Harvey Milk. When the court reconvened on December 5th, the judge, alluding to the Moscone/Milk murders – and with a non-sequitur worthy of inclusion in a course on legal logical fallacies—declared: “Before the resumption of the trial with all its unavoidable divisive and embittering consequences, I desire to continue the trial for one additional week and request counsel for all parties to meet and confer.” What the OFJ case had to do with the Moscone/Milk killings is still not clear. In the following months, the city “preemptively surrendered,” to borrow a phrase from Thomas Sowell, and what resulted was a consent decree by means of which appointments to and promotions within the department were governed for years to come.
Since the question of whether the examination process discriminated was never really put to the test in an adversarial judicial setting, this would be as good a time as any to explain why minorities did not do as well statistically as whites in the civil service promotional process. Why did the minorities fail? Why couldn’t Sanders, who placed third on his entrance test, pass promotional examinations without special help from the courts? The answer lies not in discriminatory practices but in the culture of the examination process itself as it then existed in San Francisco. Simply put, those who scored highest on the examinations were those who studied the hardest. Truth to be told, the actual examination was more of an obstacle course, designed to exclude those who had not studied rather than as an instrument for determining the best candidates for promotion. That said, neither was it designed to exclude any group based on race or ethnicity. The process was objective and fair, and discriminated only against those who did not study. The same cannot be said about the process which replaced it.
In an ironic way, the department, in its stumbling efforts to accommodate itself to minority demands, may have in fact put black officers at a disadvantage when it came to civil service promotions. It was evident at the time to anyone paying attention, that the department officials put black officers in “plum” jobs as soon as they could. Witness Sanders’ speedy ascension to the Inspectors Bureau. Other minorities were assigned to high visibility non-uniformed day-watch positions in the Hall of Justice as well. That practice, whether done for altruistic or political reasons, backfired in a way that made minorities less likely to pass the regular civil service tests.
The officers who tended to do best on the promotional exams, whatever their ethnicity, were the men working nights in the outlying district stations-- switching back and forth weekly from an evening to a midnight watch -- looking for a way out and up. Who – white or black—wanted to give up a clean, dry day job in the Hall of Justice to go back to work as a street sergeant on a midnight watch in the fog belt? And with the best and brightest of the minorities in plum jobs, the pool of likely successful minority candidates was accordingly reduced.
There may be another explanation for poor minority showings at that time as well. As the trial date neared in 1978, the city’s attorneys began deposing the plaintiffs. Before the plaintiff’s attorney got the court to shut off pre-trial discovery peremptorily, assistant city attorney Ken Harrington was able to get the president of the OFJ to admit under oath that he and other OFJ members discussed the possibility of deliberately doing poorly on the 1976 sergeant’s exam to strengthen their court case. He also admitted that he had read only three of the ten books on the scope announced prior to the test.
Perhaps the above factors were not the sort of thing that the court wanted to entertain, but that’s what the situation was, and, more to the point, they offer an explanation for disproportionate minority failure without degenerating into racist formulations on either side of the equation. Furthermore, they may help to explain in part the mystery why Sanders, who was smart enough to pass third on his entrance examination, turned up 190th on the 1976 sergeant’s list, and was unable to attain a later promotion to lieutenant without help from the courts. The prize went to those who studied. It was that simple.
At one point in the Zebra investigation, Sanders had an epiphany which tied the killings to the OFJ suit. “That’s when it hit me,” he says. “The same thing that sparked the killing was getting in the way of solving it. As hateful as the killers were, it was racism that lit the fire that burned inside them. And it was racism that kept the department so white we didn’t have enough black officers to infiltrate a group like the one we were after.” Sanders ends his book with a suggestion that more minorities be hired so that better intelligence inroads can be made into minority communities.
It’s generally conceded that a diverse department is a good way to better relate to disparate ethnic communities. (There is also abundant evidence that top-heavy minority departments can sometimes be worse than that which they replaced. Witness the debacle in New Orleans). And the received wisdom that minority officers would be better able to obtain intelligence from the communities of which they are a part would seem to be beyond doubt. Experience has shown, however, that that isn’t always the case. In the Zebra case investigation, the best efforts of Sanders and other black officers to turn up information in the black community came up empty. And remember, at that time, in the heyday of what he calls a “white Irish old-boys network,” the detectives turned up evidence to solve 75 percent of the homicides. More recently, with blacks in top command positions and presumably situated throughout key positions in the department, the solve rate is 43 percent.
In the end, what grates on the officers who knew and worked with Sanders is his obviously opportunistic ingratitude. The man was pampered and advanced by the department at every step along the way. By his own account he was assigned to Robbery Detail with only two years in the department. A few years later he was assigned to the Homicide Detail. There he remained for 25 years until promoted to lieutenant over dozens of others who had bested him in the civil service examination. After serving a short stint in the Records Division he was appointed assistant chief in 1996. And in 2002 he was appointed chief of police.
All along the way, his career was accompanied by a background noise of controversial and questionable activities which, it is doubtful, others would have survived (and which are too extensive to detail here). Yet he goes on, as he has forever, complaining of how he has been used and abused by the very organization which made him what he became.
 A curious feature of the book is that while Sanders is billed as the lead author, he is referred to throughout the text in the third person. One wonders whether Cohen is playing a subtle joke on his “co-author.”
 Does he not remember Police Chief Donald Scott, Deputy Chief William Keays, Supervising Captain Jeremiah Taylor, Director of Criminal Information Louis Feder, Director of Traffic Ignacio Zaragoza, and captains Charles Korelec, Hugh Elbert and Harry Nelson among others, none of whom were Irish?