Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The unsolved case of The Doodler

A 1976 AP article that credits the gay community's refusal to talk publicly with the Doodler's escape from justice.

A rash of serial killings is no guarantee of fame, even if the perpetrator has a good shtick  An unknown killer slayed 14 men San Francisco between January 1974 and September 1975; three more victims got away. His trademark behavior—he picked up gay men by sketching them in bars and sex clubs, then stabbed them once they were alone—won him the nickname “the Doodler.” An Associated Press article widely reprinted in random cities’ newspapers got the Doodler some attention, but his surviving victims’ reluctance to come forward means he was never caught, and his crimes have faded from public memory. Dead or alive, the Doodler has been forgotten.

His move could have been a charming gesture: The Doodler would draw a quick sketch and present it to his targets to start a conversation. They were often honored—and, as his stomping grounds included some of the wildest bars and clubs in San Francisco’s post-liberation, pre-plague heyday, they often left with him.

Police first thought they were dealing with multiple murderers, as the victims seemed to fall into three distinct groups. When five Tenderloin drag queens were found mutilated, cops hypothesized that their killer was someone with a violent psychological issue about transsexuals, or just something against drag queens. Six other men met their killer in sadomasochistic leather bars such as the Ramrod, Fe-Be’s and Folsom Prison; this group included murdered attorney George Gilbert.  Another six were what cops described as “regular businessmen” or other successful figures, and they met their match in tamer Castro District bars; all three of the survivors were part of the latter group.

These three silent survivors included a prominent entertainer and a diplomat, as well as another man who soon left San Francisco, disappearing from investigators’ radar by 1977. These men identified the killer—but they were unwilling to go public and help nail their assailant.

Harvey Milk in 1978. Photo: Daniel Nicoletta/Wikimedia Commons.

Openly gay politician and hero Harvey Milk himself excused that seemingly cowardly behavior, telling a reporter that he understood why people would refuse to talk: They were worried about losing their jobs. Milk told his interviewer that he estimated that there were 85,000 homosexuals in San Francisco, and that 20-25% of them were closeted.

Police spoke multiple times in the mid-70s with a man to whom those survivors pointed, according to Inspector Rotea Gilford. A former psychiatric patient who’d received treatment for sex-related problems, the suspect hinted about the killings and seemed to be toying with the cops. He never confessed, and his victims never stepped up. Unidentified police sources cited in a 1977 AP story suggested the man may have killed his victims in a horrible reaction born out of his shame around his own homosexual impulses.

The Doodler would be an old man today—he could be dead of natural causes by now,  or he may have died years ago, perhaps one of the many Bay Area residents felled by AIDS in its most brutal years. It’s unclear whether his anonymous victims are still around, much less whether they’re interested in finally talking. The cops involved with the story are being culled from our ranks too: Investigator Gilford, the SFPD’s first African American homicide detective and later the city’s deputy mayor, died of diabetes-related complications in 1998.

So the Doodler will almost certainly remain a mystery. Not only are we unlikely to ever know his identity, but his sick story has already faded from our memories in a world beset by a seemingly endless series of inexplicable and strange crimes.


Sources on following page. 

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