American Crime Revisited: The Doodler Murders

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Today, when we think of serial killers who preyed mostly on gay men, the person who immediately comes to mind is Jeffrey Dahmer. But long before the Dahmer killings were the murders of 14 gay men in San Francisco, California. The media referred to the suspect as “The Doodler”, as he would often sketch his victims before murdering them.

The murders started in 1974 when authorities found the body of 49-year-old Gerald Cavanaugh, who investigators have deemed as the Doodler’s first victim. He was found stabbed to death on Ocean Beach. There were stab wounds on Cavanaugh’s hands, showing that he had tried to defend himself and was conscious during the attack.

Detectives came to the conclusion that the Doodler had frequented the Castro District; San Francisco’s primary gay hub. There, at the many gay bars and nightclubs, the Doodler would flatter his victims by drawing caricatures of them. After this, he would leave with his victims to find an isolated spot where they could be alone. It was there that they would prepare for sex before he savagely murdered them by stabbing.

Only 5 of the murders were confirmed by investigators to be the work of the Doodler, but authorities believe he was also responsible for the deaths of 9 other gay men in the city who were killed in a similar fashion. Of these 14 victims, 5 were drag queens and another 5 were regulars at leather bars. Many of the victims were found to be closeted gay men. Because of this, officials wanted to respect the privacy of these victims and their families. In doing so, they refrained from announcing the victims’ identities to the public.

Of the known victims was 27-year-old Jae Stevens, a prominent San Francisco drag queen and comedian. Stevens is believed to be the Doodler’s second victim. His body was found near his car at Golden Gate Park. Detectives believe that he and the Doodler drove to the park together. Stevens had been stabbed 3 times, including once in his lung, which caused blood to exit his mouth and nose when he died.

The third victim was 31-year-old Klaus Christmann, an immigrant from Germany. Christmann was a closeted gay man, and was reported to have last been seen at BoJangles; a popular gay nightclub. His body was found on the edge of Golden Gate Park. His pants were unzipped and open. Of the murders, Christmann’s was the most vicious. He was stabbed 15 times and his throat was slashed in 3 different places.

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The Doodler’s fourth confirmed victim was Frederick Capin. The 32-year-old was found near Pine Lake Park, just south of Golden Gate Park, behind a sand dune. His autopsy revealed that he was stabbed multiple times through the heart. He had been a registered nurse for the U.S. Navy.

The fifth and final confirmed victim of the Doodler was Harald Gullberg. He is the oldest of the Doodler’s official victims, as he was 66 years old at the time of his murder. Gullberg was a Swedish immigrant who was a sailor for the majority of his life. His throat had been slit, and like Christmann’s, Gullberg’s body was found with his pants unzipped.

Each of the Doodler’s 5 confirmed killings, along with the 9 speculated killings, occurred over a period of 18 months, between 1974 and 1975. He is believed to have been a young African-American man between the ages of 19 and 22. Detectives believe that he was a highly intelligent art student in the city, as he had informed a witness that he was “studying commercial art.” To date, the San Francisco Police Department has not released any images of his sketches.

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During the initial investigation, there were 3 men who had escaped the Doodler’s attempted attacks, but were defiant in testifying due to fears of being outed as gay men. None of these men have ever been identified, but were confirmed by police to include a European politician, a famous actor (rumored to be Richard Chamberlain), and a San Francisco public figure. The European politician invited the Doodler to his apartment, where the killer stabbed him 6 times. Luckily, he was able to survive.

In 1976, San Francisco police took a suspect into custody after he offered to draw patrons at a bar in the Tenderloin District. The suspect fit the description of the Doodler and carried both a sketchbook and a butcher knife. He reportedly attacked investigators during an interrogation, but there was not enough evidence to charge him in the murders.

Later, in 1977, another suspect spoke with police about the murders, but would not confess. Speculation surrounding this suspect increased when an anonymous caller left the SFPD with a tip, which identified the Doodler’s license plate number and his psychiatrist. The police reportedly spoke with the doctor, who told them that the suspect had admitted to the murders. The doctor also stated that the suspect was a heterosexual man who he was treating for sexual identification issues. Some believe that it was the psychiatrist himself who left the anonymous tip in good conscience. Despite this, witnesses in the case remained uncooperative and no arrests were ever made. The case has been cold ever since.

In June 2018, Dan Cunningham, the chief inspector of SFPD’s cold case unit, told CNN that the case was recently opened and that the department now has a suspect. Cunningham stated that he is trying to locate the European diplomat who escaped the Doodler, but is unsure if he is still alive. He is also investigating whether the suspect is the same individual who assaulted one of the other two unnamed witnesses. Cunningham stated that the SFPD crime lab will be conducting DNA tests on samples that were taken from two of the murder scenes. The department plans to release an updated sketch in the future that will show what the Doodler may look like now. If he is alive, he would be in his early 60s.

 

Dowd, K. (2018). Who Was San Francisco’s Doodler Killer, and Why Wasn’t He Caught?. San Francisco Gate. Retrieved from www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/the-doodler-serial-killer-cold-case-unsolved-13014008.php
Green, E. (2014). The Untold Story of the Doodler Murders. The Awl. Retrieved from www.theawl.com/2014/12/the-untold-story-of-the-doodler-murders/#foot23
Watt, N. (2018). This Serial Murder Case Has Been Cold for More Than 40 Years. Now Police Say They Have a Suspect. Cable News Network. Retrieved from www.cnn.com/2018/06/20/us/doodler-cold-case-murders/index.html

 

For more on crime and cold cases, check back soon at Truth Provision!

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