Yesterday's Crimes: The Serial Killer Who Stalked Gay Men in the Castro

On January 27, 1974, the body of Gerald Earl Cavanaugh, 49, was found on Ocean Beach, with the tide threatening to drag his corpse out to sea. Cavanaugh had been stabbed several times. The coroner’s report described him as “never married” — a polite way of implying that he was homosexual.

[jump] Cavanaugh was the first known victim of the Doodler, a serial killer who preyed on gay men in the Castro in 1974 and 1975. Also called “The Black Doodler” because of the color of his skin, he met his victims in bars and restaurants, then lured them in by sketching their likenesses on cocktail napkins. Once the Doodler made it home with his intended victim, he stabbed him to death and dumped the body on the beach.

The sheer number of gay men murdered in San Francisco in the 70's makes the Doodler’s body count hard to determine. The Encyclopedia of Unsolved Crimes by Michael Newton credits the Doodler with as many as 14 murders. However, in his exhaustive 2014 history of the serial killer in The Awl, Elon Green attributes only five known kills to him, which matches the number of known victims killed by the Zodiac Killer and Jack the Ripper.

But even with a pulp villain name, the Doodler remains obscure. No bestselling books detailing his still-unsolved crimes have been made into blockbusters starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Mark Ruffalo, although Inspector Dave Toschi (the cop Ruffalo plays in the 2007 movie Zodiac) did investigate a series of “S&M slayings” of gay men in the mid-70's that may or may not have been the Doodler’s handiwork.

The Doodler's last known victim was Harald Gullberg, a 66-year-old sailor. His partially decomposed body was found on June 24, 1975, on the Lincoln Park Golf Course overlooking the ocean.

Six months later, on June 19, 1976, the San Francisco Chronicle finally mentioned the case in a front-page story titled “Sado Murder Horror” that bore a two-tone font similar to a grindhouse poster. By then, 17 gay men had been murdered in San Francisco in a two year span, some by the Doodler, some by other suspects — a death toll high enough to finally get the mainstream press’s attention.

A day later, in a follow-up story titled “The Gay Killers,” the Chronicle published a police sketch of the Doodler.

By 1977, police had a good suspect for the murders, and they also had witnesses who could identify him. One Los Angeles man recalled a night where he was about to go to bed with a young African-American man matching the Doodler’s description, but reconsidered after a knife fell out of the man’s coat. Among the survivors of brutal Doodler attacks were “a well-known entertainer and a diplomat,’” according to a July 1977 AP story.

Over several conversations with homicide detectives, the man suspected of being the Doodler talked freely but stopped short of confessing to the murders. Inspector Rotea Gilford told UPI that the suspect had been under psychiatric care, and police were “fairly certain” they had the right man. The problem was that none of the witnesses would testify for fear of being outed.

Harvey Milk, then described as “an advocate of homosexual rights,” gave his thoughts on witnesses' reluctance to testify in the Doodler case.

“I can understand their position,” Milk told the AP. “I respect the pressure that society has put on them. They have to stay in the closet.”

Without any witnesses willing to go on the record, the Doodler suspect walked.

Calls to the SFPD's Cold Case unit about the Doodler were not returned. If the Doodler is still alive today, he would be in his early-to-mid 60s. What's even more terrifying is that one or two other mass murderers who killed gay and trans men in San Francisco in the 70's could have also escaped justice.

The bloody trail just goes in too many directions.

*h/t to Katy St. Clair for this story. 

“Yesterday's Crimes” revisits strange, lurid, eerie, and often forgotten crimes from San Francisco's past.

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