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.

Meanwhile, Mullen, the ex-deputy chief, has written an essay that has gained wide circulation among Sanders' critics, accusing the former chief of inflating his and Gilford's role in helping to bring the known killers to justice. The essay quotes from an overly exuberant publicist's advance that refers to the book as a "riveting story, told by San Francisco's first black police chief, of the racially motivated serial killings that terrorized the city in the winter of 1973-74, and how it was solved by black detectives."

However, the book makes no such claim. Sanders and Cohen give deference to Coreris and Fotinos, the two lead detectives, for their investigative oversight. And they don't stray from the generally accepted thesis that while a great many cops deserve praise for their efforts, the cases might never have been solved — or at least solved as quickly — had it not been for informant Harris' coming forward.

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.

Ex-cop Louis Calabro presides over an annual memorial service for Zebra victims.
Ex-cop Louis Calabro presides over an annual memorial service for Zebra victims.
Sanders and co-author Bennett Cohen.
James Sanders
Sanders and co-author Bennett Cohen.

"Some people are trying to discredit me any way they can," says the ex-chief. "Old hostilities don't die easily."


Sanders' involvement with the book came about as the result of an unsolicited phone call from Cohen in 2002 while he was assistant chief of police. As a Los Angeles scriptwriter and occasional producer, Cohen was looking for a true-crime story to pitch as a feature film. He contacted Sanders on a hunch after recalling the Zebra killings, which had occurred when Cohen was a young UC Berkeley drama student.

Cohen says that almost everything he had read about the murders suggested that there were no black detectives involved in solving the cases, something he thought to be odd considering the black-on-white nature of the crimes. An Internet search turned up the names of Sanders and Gilford.

The call was music to Sanders' ears.

Sanders had harbored ambitions of writing a book about the murders for years, he says, while doubting that he ever would. As Sanders moved up through the ranks at the police department, it had gotten under his skin that he and Gilford had been "written out" of most accounts of the investigation, he says. Zebra, crime writer Clark Howard's 1979 book about the murders — which many old-line cops regard as the definitive account of the killing spree — mentioned Sanders and Gilford only once.

"I always wanted to set the record straight and put the entire period of racial unrest in a context that's been missing whenever the subject of the murders gets brought up," says the former police chief.

But Sanders wasn't a writer. Then, just as it seemed he would never get his chance to "set the record straight," he got the call from Cohen out of the blue. In Cohen, who had set out looking for an African-American protagonist for a movie project, Sanders found the perfect writing partner. In Sanders, Cohen discovered a legendary black cop with a great back story.

Born in Texas, Prentice Earl Sanders grew up estranged from his father; his mother died when he was a teenager and Sanders came to live with an uncle in Laurel Heights at age 14. After being thrown out of his uncle's house, he created a fictitious family for official purposes while living alone and putting himself through George Washington High School, where he played football. He returned to the city after a stint in the Army.

After obtaining a bachelor's degree at Golden Gate University (where he met his wife), Sanders went to work for the city as a key punch operator with no thought of becoming a cop until he helped a relative study for the police entrance exam and realized he could ace it.

There were fewer than two dozen black cops at SFPD when Sanders joined the force in 1964. None rose faster through the ranks. While others in his Police Academy class were still patrolling a beat, Sanders was placed in the robbery squad after only two years. Five years later, he ascended to the homicide bureau. He became a legendary figure, first working with Gilford and later, for 16 years, with the now-retired Napoleon Hendrix.

With Hendrix, he logged more than 300 homicides.

Sanders' first murder case, while he was still in the robbery detail, garnered widespread attention. After a bus driver was shot and killed during a heist in the Bayview, Muni drivers threatened a citywide work stoppage until Sanders arrested two teenagers who were subsequently convicted. The murder resulted in a policy still in effect: Muni drivers carry no change.

In one of the earliest uses of DNA evidence — from fly larvae — Sanders helped convict a man of murdering his wife and dumping her body next to the old Central Freeway. At his request, a UC Berkeley scientist matched samples of larvae from the crime scene with biological material in the trunk of the man's car.

His career has also had blemishes, some of which don't make it into the book.

In 1973, he shot and killed a man who he said had threatened him while he was trying to apprehend a bail-jumper. He was later cleared of criminal misconduct. He didn't emerge so unscathed in another notorious bust that made headlines.

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