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.

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 first victim, Quita Hague, was abducted while out for a stroll with her husband near Telegraph Hill. She was hacked to death with a machete; he survived. Another victim, a male whose identity was never determined, was butchered so badly that police referred to him as the Christmas Turkey victim. His torso was found on the beach near the Great Highway on Christmas 1973.

All of the other murder victims were shot to death — by various assailants using the same .32-caliber pistol.

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.

By consensus, it was an ugly time.

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.

White vice officers caught taking bribes from pimps to protect hookers might get a slap on the wrist, but a black officer suspected of the same thing expected to get "slapped upside the head," Sanders says. He cites an episode involving the first African-American cop to be assigned to the plainclothes detail in Chinatown, in 1972. In the book, Sanders contends that the officer was "set up" by two crooked white cops who recruited him to turn a blind eye to illegal gambling. Busted in an FBI sting, the black cop went to jail and never worked as a policeman again. The white cops, he says, were never punished.

Such portrayals have some of Sanders' critics fuming.

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.

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