The Zebra Murders, co-written with TV and film scriptwriter Bennett Cohen, purports to set the record straight about the investigation into a series of racially motivated serial killings in 1973 and 1974 that are among the most horrific—and least talked about—crimes in San Francisco history. But even his friends acknowledge that the book is also an attempt by the city’s first and only African-American police chief to set his own record straight.
Until now, at least, what most people associate with Earl Sanders’ brief and generally un-noteworthy 14-month tenure as the city’s top cop is the Fajitagate scandal. He and most of his command staff were indicted for—and later absolved of—covering up a police probe of a 2002 street brawl, allegedly over a bag of fajitas, involving three young off-duty cops. Obstruction of justice charges were later dropped and Sanders obtained a rare factual finding of innocence from a Superior Court judge. Fajitagate wasn’t his only problem at the time. The year after the scandal broke, a U.S. District Court judge released two African-Americans that Sanders and an old partner in homicide allegedly framed for murder. By the time he retired in September 2003, after six months of medical leave, his reputation was in tatters. He’d been trashed in the local press. Detractors openly mocked the leave as a sympathy ploy despite his having suffered a minor stroke. Even his one-time patron, and the man who appointed him, former Mayor Willie Brown, asked him to quit.
Fleeing the limelight, the 69-year-old Sanders retreated to the Sacramento suburb of Folsom, where he has long maintained a home (and, ironically, home to the state prison where some of the former homicide detective’s criminal “clients” wound up behind bars). He went there to lick his wounds, care for his health, and, so it seemed, to settle into a life of obscurity.
But in the four months since The Zebra Murders hit store shelves, the book has done more than merely rekindle interest in a bloody and racially ugly epoch. It has also dredged up old dissensions within San Francisco law enforcement circles, and a few former cops have even stalked Sanders at book signings in the Bay Area. Critics accuse Sanders of recasting himself, both as a star sleuth in the Zebra investigation, and as a civil rights hero in a racial discrimination lawsuit brought by a group of black cops in the 1970s. “I read it and didn’t think much of it,” retired cop Dennis Bianchi says of the book. “To me, it isn’t so much about the [Zebra] killings as it is about promoting Earl Sanders.”
Each year on the anniversary of the first Zebra murder a few people gather in front of City Hall to observe one of San Francisco’s unlikeliest civic ceremonies. “What’s deeply troubling is how cruelly and callously the city has treated these victims,” intoned ex-cop Louis Calabro, at the most recent such memorial, last Oct. 20.
On the steps below him were 15 cardboard tombstones, each bearing the name of a person slain during the seven months of racially motivated terror from October 1973 to April 1974. (Another eight victims were wounded.)
The murders lasted 179 days and traumatized San Francisco in ways that few cities have experienced before the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The killings were random, carried out by a faction of Black Muslims associated with the Nation of Islam and calling themselves the Death Angels. They were out to kill white people with the intent of starting a race war.
The mayhem didn’t end until an accomplice-turned-informant named Anthony Harris, motivated by a $30,000 reward, came forward to give up the names of several fellow members of the Nation of Islam. By then, the harm could be measured beyond the violence. At the peak of the killing spree, Mayor Joseph Alioto issued stop-and-search orders that made almost every black male over 6 feet tall a possible suspect. A federal judge declared the sweeps to be unconstitutional only after hundreds of innocents were detained.
And in recounting the ordeal through the lens of his own alleged racial discrimination within the police department even as he helped investigate the killings, Sanders has stirred a hornet’s nest. He portrays the SFPD brass at the time as eager to minimize his and partner Rotea Gilford’s role in the investigation out of resentment for their involvement with Officers for Justice, a group of mostly black cops whose legal battle in the 1970s overturned the SFPD’s old order of white preferences in hiring and promotions. The group had filed its discrimination lawsuit against the department six months before the murder spree began.
According to Sanders, his superiors grudgingly decided to involve the pair under the direction of lead investigators Gus Coreris and John Fotinos only after it became obvious that if they were going to track down unknown black assailants for a baffling series of murders, they needed black detectives. (Fotinos died last year; Coreris did not respond to interview requests for this article.)
Sanders alleges that he and Gilford, while officially assigned to investigate three of the killings, were at times kept out of the loop with respect to the overall probe; his superiors weren’t always quick to share information related to the other Zebra murders. And he asserts that they were intentionally deprived of the privilege of participating in perhaps the probe’s signal moment—the arrest of the three suspects (at an apartment at 844 Grove St.) after Harris fingered them.
Indeed, while accusing Sanders of puffing up his role in order to sell more books and attract attention from Hollywood, some of the ex-chief’s critics are especially upset with his portrayal of alleged racism in the police department. Sanders depicts the SFPD in the early ‘70s as operating by two sets of rules, one for white cops, and another for the handful of blacks and other minorities on the force.
While not denying that racism existed, Kevin Mullen, a former deputy chief turned criminal justice writer and SFPD historian, insists that the book’s “allegations of rampant racism within the department simply don’t square with reality.” He accuses Sanders of “opportunistic ingratitude,” and says that the ex-chief was “pampered and advanced by the department at every step” of his career. “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,” says Mullen. “It’s disgraceful.”
Other attacks have been similarly personal. “[Sanders] came into the department with a well-established negative agenda,” says Calabro, the victims’ memorial emcee, who retired in 1991 after 30 years on the police force. He claims Sanders was more interested in personal advancement than in advancing the cause of minority officers. Calabro showed up at a Sanders book signing in Corte Madera last fall and openly challenged the ex-chief’s veracity on several issues “because I thought someone needed to try and keep him honest.”
Among other things, Calabro accuses Sanders of soft-peddling the role of the Nation of Islam and downplaying the extent of black-on-white crimes during the time of the Zebra killings, both in the Bay Area and throughout California.
As for the suggestion he downplayed the Nation of Islam’s role, it’s hard to see how critics come to that conclusion. Throughout the book, Sanders and Cohen contemplate the Nation of Islam connection in the murders.
During his hectic first months as chief there wasn’t time, he says. In November 2002, as he and Cohen were preparing to dig into the boxes, the Fajitagate scandal erupted. Upon his retirement in September 2003 (at which point, due to the medical leave, he hadn’t been to the office in six months) the SFPD packed up Sanders’ personal effects and shipped them to his home in Folsom.
Mistakenly included among those belongings was one of the Zebra boxes. To his surprise, its contents included the handwritten and dictated confessions of Zebra informant Anthony Harris and previously undisclosed details about the killers’ plans the day before five of the victims were murdered in a single night.
Detractors have taken issue with Sanders’ use of these long-forgotten police files after his retirement. Calabro, the ex-cop, who worked the Zebra cases during his career, acknowledges having petitioned Police Chief Heather Fong to investigate whether Sanders broke any laws. (He says he also sent missives to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the FBI, and District Attorney Kamala Harris.) Fong didn’t respond to interview requests for this article.
Sanders says he received the material unsolicited and makes no apology for using it. Besides, he says, it wasn’t as if the department didn’t know he had it. Sanders says that while researching the book, he sought Chief Fong’s permission for access to the other seven boxes of evidence still in police custody. Despite several overtures, she didn’t respond, he says, “which I took to be a diplomatic way of saying no.”
But last month, after Sanders’ critics raised the issue, he did hear from Fong. He still had the one box sent to him accidentally, and the police chief sent him a letter demanding it back.
But the record of the November 1978 trial (about which the book offers little detail), preserved among boxes of transcripts and other materials at the U.S. National Archives in San Bruno, reveals a less-flattering role for Sanders than the trial’s outcome suggests.
As an articulate, experienced trial witness in police matters who had put himself through Golden Gate University to earn a master’s degree in public administration while serving as a homicide detective, Sanders was carefully chosen by Gnaizda to be the lead witness when the OFJ case, after years of pretrial wrangling, finally got its day in court.
In testifying for parts of three days, Sanders told a compelling story of personal mistreatment while describing an atmosphere of epidemic racial intolerance among SFPD’s mostly white officers. The OFJ legal team had brought in a bulletin board from the homicide bureau where Sanders worked. It contained photos and drawings posted by officers portraying African-Americans and other minorities in unflattering ways. One such item, depicting Sanders, bore the caption, “Purse Snatch Detail.”
Cross-examined by then-Deputy City Attorney Ken Harrington, Sanders was asked if he had ever engaged in ethnic teasing while in the bureau. “No, sir. I don’t take part in that sort of thing,” he said. Pressed, Sanders responded, “No, sir. It is my policy not to engage in ethnic jokes, ethnic ribbing, with mixed [racial] company, because it has been my experience in the police department and throughout life that if you engage in those kinds of things, you leave yourself open to other people.” At the suggestion that such teasing was part of ordinary police camaraderie, Sanders shot back, “It is not part of the camaraderie that I participated in.”
But there was a bombshell.
After Sanders’ first day on the stand, a patrolman phoned Harrington to say he had some items the deputy city attorney might be interested in. They were photos of racially provocative skits presented at an off-hours police soiree in the early ‘70s. The bash had been put together by a group of cops who called themselves the Second Platoon, to commemorate their participation in helping to quell the 1968 student riots at San Francisco State University.
Among the photos was one of Sanders dressed in drag, as a black woman wearing a blond wig and playing the role of the wife in an interracial marriage. In another skit he was done up as an African witch doctor, holding a spear with a skeleton on the end, and with a tiger skin slung over his shoulder.
Whatever usefulness his earlier testimony may have served appeared to evaporate. Back on the witness stand, Sanders acknowledged that, as a member of the event’s entertainment committee, he had helped create the skits relying on racial and ethnic humor of the kind he had earlier criticized under oath. Court records reveal that other skits depicted an African-American male employed by the “Black Hand Janitorial Service,” and a lazy Latino male sitting under a cactus drinking tequila. In another, a Japanese-American cop provided an unflattering imitation of former SFSU President (and later, U.S. senator) S.I. Hayakawa.
“Sanders was absolutely destroyed” as a witness, says Harrington, now in private practice. He and Philip Ward, another deputy city attorney involved in the case, insist that the judge (who is now deceased) expressed as much in chambers after Sanders’ testimony and before placing the trial on an already planned recess. (It’s a recollection that Gnaizda does not share.) As best people can remember, Sanders’ courtroom meltdown didn’t attract a lot of media attention, perhaps because of something else that happened. The day he took the stand, the Jonestown massacre, the murder-suicide in the Guyana jungle that claimed the lives of hundreds of devotees from San Francisco’s Peoples Temple, dominated headlines.
During the break in the trial, newly resigned Supervisor Dan White slipped into City Hall and shot and killed Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, leaving the city in further turmoil. In early December, Peckham halted the proceedings. Citing the need for the city to heal its divisions, he urged the sides to settle the lawsuit. The result, months later, was the consent decree.
To critics, he may have embellished his civil rights portfolio and placed himself too front-and-center in the Zebra probe. But to others, he’s a hero. “He’s a person of impeccable integrity,” says Berkeley civil rights lawyer James Chanin, for whose clients Sanders has sometimes testified as an expert witness in police misconduct cases. “As far as I’m concerned, Earl calls them as he sees them.”
The Zebra Murders has been optioned by Plan B, actor Brad Pitt’s production company, for adaptation as a movie. A source familiar with the matter says that Plan B is on board to develop the film for DreamWorks Pictures, and that an announcement by the studio may be forthcoming in several weeks.
Among the actors’ names being floated to portray the two black Zebra murders sleuths are Jamie Foxx and Will Smith. But if it happens, the real star will almost certainly be Earl Sanders.