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Earl’s Last Laugh 

Exiled in retirement after Fajitagate, ex–Police Chief Earl Sanders has re-emerged with a fresh account of the infamous Zebra murders. And his critics are on the warpath.

Wednesday, Feb 21 2007
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It's noon on a Thursday and former San Francisco Police Chief Earl Sanders, accompanied by his wife, Espanola, is holding court at the Washington Square Bar & Grill in North Beach, reminiscing about his nearly 40 years as a cop.

The more than a dozen people seated at his large table are there at the invitation of longtime Sanders pal and attorney Phil Ryan. There are other lawyers, a reporter, a cop, and a lobbyist. Sanders doesn't know some of them, but that's OK — this isn't a social gathering. Rather, at $50 a head, including lunch, it's an attempt by the former chief at generating some positive buzz about a book he has written and is promoting with near evangelical zeal.

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.

Now, he's back.

He's going full-tilt as a new author, whether at intimate affairs such as the one in North Beach, or at book signings, readings, or doing remote interviews with radio stations across the country, often accompanied by co-author Cohen. It seems that a three-decades-old tale of racially inspired terrorism has struck a resonant chord in places far from San Francisco in the years since Sept. 11, 2001. "Earl is really in his element and enjoying himself, and it couldn't have happened to a more deserving person," says Ryan, who was Sanders' lawyer during the Fajitagate mess.

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.)

Calabro, the event's emcee, and one of Earl Sanders' staunchest critics, heads the European American Issues Forum, a group whose proclaimed mission is to promote the rights of persons of "European American" heritage. He has long pressed for a permanent memorial to the Zebra victims. "We regret that the city's leaders have buried them twice; once in the earth and once in the unreachable corners of their hearts," he tells those assembled.

If San Franciscans aren't fond of recalling the Zebra killings (so named for the Z-channel on police radios reserved for the investigation), others say it's hard to blame them.

"After years of what we like to think of as racial progress, the murders are a subject that many people find uncomfortable," says former Mayor Art Agnos. He should know. Agnos was a young aide to then-Assemblyman Leo McCarthy when he was shot twice through the chest after leaving a meeting on Potrero Hill in 1973, the sixth in the string of Zebra attacks. The bullets destroyed his spleen and he wore a colostomy bag for a year.

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.

About The Author

Ron Russell

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