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Police relaunch search for ‘the Doodler,’ a serial killer who sketched his victims first

This pair of sketches shows what "the Doodler" serial killer might look like now. The cold case involves at least five stabbing deaths of gay men in the mid-1970s. (San Francisco Police Department/AP) (AP)

He found his victims in gay bars and night clubs and 24-hour diners in San Francisco, slipping past their defenses with a flattering ploy: He told them he was a cartoonist, then passed along a piece of paper with a sketch of their face.

Later, alone after they had sex, he pulled out a knife.

Police believe the serial killer known as “the Doodler” killed five people in 1974 and 1975 — all gay white men whose lacerated bodies were dumped at San Francisco’s Ocean Beach or in Golden Gate Park. In all, police say, the Doodler may be connected to as many as 14 killings.

Authorities have conceded the social stigma around being a gay man in the 1970s may have contributed to the homicide cases going cold for more than four decades.

Some of the people who escaped the Doodler — eyeball witnesses who could give information about his appearance, voice or other identifying features — were hesitant to come forward, worried their lives would be upended if word spread they had left a gay bar with a man.

One man who survived the Doodler was a “well-known entertainer.” Another was a diplomat. A man the Doodler is accused of killing was married with children. One of the men who police believe escaped the killer left town and simply never returned investigators’ phone calls.

“There is a likelihood of additional victims who may have survived attempted attacks but have not come forward to document the incidents,” police said in a crime bulletin released Wednesday.

“I understand their position,” Harvey Milk, a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and the first openly gay elected official in California’s history, told the Associated Press in 1977. “I respect the pressure society has put on them.”

Gerald Cavanaugh was the first victim, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. His body, covered with stab wounds, was found on Jan. 27, 1974 at Ocean Beach. Some of the wounds were defensive, indicating he fought back against his killer.

“I believe there might be a dead person on the beach right across from Ulloa Street . . . if you follow the street right down to the water," the man who found the body told a 911 dispatcher. “I was walking along there, and I saw somebody lying there, but I didn’t want to get too close because you don’t know what will happen.”

Joseph Jae Stevens, a “female impersonator who worked in a North Beach nightclub,” was discovered in Golden Gate Park five months later. He had been stabbed five times.

In July, two “separate attacks upon gay white males” happened inside the Fox Plaza Apartments on Market Street, police said. Both victims escaped and were able to provide a description to police: a lanky black man with a medium complexion and smooth skin. He was between 5 feet 11 and 6 feet tall.

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Police said they believe the man lived in the Bay Area, but outside of San Francisco, and would come into the city on nights and weekends.

Klaus Christmann, Frederick Capin and Harald Gullberg are the Doodler’s three other confirmed victims. San Francisco police commander Greg McEachern called them “horrendous homicides,” according to the Chronicle. Many of the victims had their throats slit. One victim had been stabbed 15 times.

Forty years later, police have been emboldened by the arrest of the man suspected of being the Golden State Killer, who was accused of raping 45 people and killing 12 in California in the 1970s and 1980s. Joseph James DeAngelo, a 72-year-old former police officer, was charged with several murders last year.

DeAngelo was nabbed via DNA analysis, and officers hope the murderous cartoonist can be identified in the same way.

On Wednesday, San Francisco Police released a new sketch, which shows what investigators believe the Doodler would look like now. The investigators’ bulletin also includes the original sketch, a composite of descriptions from victims.

For decades, investigators have said they have a person of interest in the case, a man who has been interviewed but never arrested. He was detained in 1976 but never charged.

Police are offering a $100,000 reward for information that leads to arrest of a man whose actions still haunt San Fransciscans.

“Even now, the story gives me chills,” prominent gay activist Cleve Jones told the Associated Press. “Imagine, you’re out at a club having a drink, and someone hands you a sketch they’ve done of you. I can’t think of a more disarming ploy to gain someone’s trust.”

Read more:

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