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...

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. [page]

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.

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. [page]

“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.

In 1989, Sanders and Hendrix arrested and later helped convict two young black men, John “J.J.” Tennison and Antoine “Soda Pop” Goff, in a gang slaying. The two men said they were innocent and had been framed by Sanders and his partner. After they spent more than 13 years in prison, a federal judge freed Tennison and Goff, concluding that Sanders and Hendrix engaged in misconduct by, among other things, withholding evidence that another man confessed to the killing.

Then, of course, there was Fajitagate, which defined Sanders' short and unremarkable stint as chief — a job most people assume he got because he was a Willie Brown crony. As a young attorney, Brown had worked for the plaintiffs in the Officers for Justice case. But Sanders and the volatile ex-mayor had a difficult relationship, those who know them say. Marcus Sanders, the ex-chief's son and an East Bay attorney, says that his father's being named chief upon Fred Lau's retirement in 2002 came as “a last-minute surprise.” Upon Sanders' indictment in the Fajitagate brouhaha, Brown wanted him to quit immediately. Aiming to clear his name, Sanders balked, taking the medical leave.

Given such a tumultuous history, the former chief and his writing partner knew that their tale would upset some people. But neither man was prepared for the hostility The Zebra Murders has engendered, including suggestions by some that the duo may have even broken the law while researching the book. [page]

After being appointed chief in July 2002, Sanders had eight boxes of materials related to the Zebra killings removed from police archives and brought to his office in the Hall of Justice. The boxes constituted an untapped treasure. They contained material the cops had assembled about the murders but that the district attorney's office did not require in prosecuting the three Zebra killers it brought to trial, including material related to several suspects who were never charged for lack of evidence.

But Sanders says he and Cohen never got to examine most of the boxes.

During his hectic first months as chief there wasn't time, he says. In November 2002, as he and Cohen were preparing to dig into the boxes, the Fajitagate scandal erupted. Upon his retirement in September 2003 (at which point, due to the medical leave, he hadn't been to the office in six months) the SFPD packed up Sanders' personal effects and shipped them to his home in Folsom.

Mistakenly included among those belongings was one of the Zebra boxes. To his surprise, its contents included the handwritten and dictated confessions of Zebra informant Anthony Harris and previously undisclosed details about the killers' plans the day before five of the victims were murdered in a single night.

Detractors have taken issue with Sanders' use of these long-forgotten police files after his retirement. Calabro, the ex-cop, who worked the Zebra cases during his career, acknowledges having petitioned Police Chief Heather Fong to investigate whether Sanders broke any laws. (He says he also sent missives to the U.S. Attorney's Office, the FBI, and District Attorney Kamala Harris.) Fong didn't respond to interview requests for this article.

Sanders says he received the material unsolicited and makes no apology for using it. Besides, he says, it wasn't as if the department didn't know he had it. Sanders says that while researching the book, he sought Chief Fong's permission for access to the other seven boxes of evidence still in police custody. Despite several overtures, she didn't respond, he says, “which I took to be a diplomatic way of saying no.”

But last month, after Sanders' critics raised the issue, he did hear from Fong. He still had the one box sent to him accidentally, and the police chief sent him a letter demanding it back.

From Sanders' perspective, much of the hostility resulting from the book goes back to his involvement with Officers for Justice.

By his account, it was his idea to bring the police discrimination lawsuit. He says he thought of it one night in 1972 over a game of dominos at Gilford's house. At the time, there were fewer than 150 minority cops among SFPD's nearly 2,000 sworn officers. As homicide inspectors, he and Gilford were the highest-ranking blacks.

OFJ had been around since 1968, but fearing retribution from the mainline Police Officers Association, fewer than 50 of the minority cops had chosen to join, Sanders says.

The lawsuit was filed in April 1973, barely six months before the Zebra killings started. It began as a slam dunk for OFJ, with U.S. District Judge Robert Peckham issuing a preliminary order setting hiring quotas for minorities and ordering the Civil Service Commission to redress problems with its testing for police department hiring and promotion. (An unrelated lawsuit, affecting the San Francisco Fire Department, had just concluded with similar results.)

But it would be a long five years — culminating in a brief and rather bizarre trial with Sanders as the star attraction — before the historic consent decree that changed the face of the once predominantly white and male SFPD into the more gender- and racially diverse department that exists today.

As the face of the lawsuit during its later stages, Sanders is, perhaps not surprisingly, portrayed in his book as a civil rights role model. After all, the case was a landmark for affirmative action, resulting in the largest quota hiring ever ordered in the United States at the time, and setting a precedent for police departments around the country. Cohen, Sanders' co-author, contends that the case did for women and minority police officers what Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark 1954 desegregation case, did for minority schoolchildren.

Berkeley civil rights attorney Robert Gnaizda, who was lead counsel in the case, concurs about Sanders. “I would call him a visionary. The lawsuit never would have occurred without Earl Sanders' leadership, and never would have succeeded without his courage.”

But the record of the November 1978 trial (about which the book offers little detail), preserved among boxes of transcripts and other materials at the U.S. National Archives in San Bruno, reveals a less-flattering role for Sanders than the trial's outcome suggests.

As an articulate, experienced trial witness in police matters who had put himself through Golden Gate University to earn a master's degree in public administration while serving as a homicide detective, Sanders was carefully chosen by Gnaizda to be the lead witness when the OFJ case, after years of pretrial wrangling, finally got its day in court.

As things turned out, he was OFJ's only witness.

In testifying for parts of three days, Sanders told a compelling story of personal mistreatment while describing an atmosphere of epidemic racial intolerance among SFPD's mostly white officers. The OFJ legal team had brought in a bulletin board from the homicide bureau where Sanders worked. It contained photos and drawings posted by officers portraying African-Americans and other minorities in unflattering ways. One such item, depicting Sanders, bore the caption, “Purse Snatch Detail.”

Cross-examined by then-Deputy City Attorney Ken Harrington, Sanders was asked if he had ever engaged in ethnic teasing while in the bureau. “No, sir. I don't take part in that sort of thing,” he said. Pressed, Sanders responded, “No, sir. It is my policy not to engage in ethnic jokes, ethnic ribbing, with mixed [racial] company, because it has been my experience in the police department and throughout life that if you engage in those kinds of things, you leave yourself open to other people.” At the suggestion that such teasing was part of ordinary police camaraderie, Sanders shot back, “It is not part of the camaraderie that I participated in.” [page]

But there was a bombshell.

After Sanders' first day on the stand, a patrolman phoned Harrington to say he had some items the deputy city attorney might be interested in. They were photos of racially provocative skits presented at an off-hours police soiree in the early '70s. The bash had been put together by a group of cops who called themselves the Second Platoon, to commemorate their participation in helping to quell the 1968 student riots at San Francisco State University.

Among the photos was one of Sanders dressed in drag, as a black woman wearing a blond wig and playing the role of the wife in an interracial marriage. In another skit he was done up as an African witch doctor, holding a spear with a skeleton on the end, and with a tiger skin slung over his shoulder.

Whatever usefulness his earlier testimony may have served appeared to evaporate. Back on the witness stand, Sanders acknowledged that, as a member of the event's entertainment committee, he had helped create the skits relying on racial and ethnic humor of the kind he had earlier criticized under oath. Court records reveal that other skits depicted an African-American male employed by the “Black Hand Janitorial Service,” and a lazy Latino male sitting under a cactus drinking tequila. In another, a Japanese-American cop provided an unflattering imitation of former SFSU President (and later, U.S. senator) S.I. Hayakawa.

“Sanders was absolutely destroyed” as a witness, says Harrington, now in private practice. He and Philip Ward, another deputy city attorney involved in the case, insist that the judge (who is now deceased) expressed as much in chambers after Sanders' testimony and before placing the trial on an already planned recess. (It's a recollection that Gnaizda does not share.) As best people can remember, Sanders' courtroom meltdown didn't attract a lot of media attention, perhaps because of something else that happened. The day he took the stand, the Jonestown massacre, the murder-suicide in the Guyana jungle that claimed the lives of hundreds of devotees from San Francisco's Peoples Temple, dominated headlines.

During the break in the trial, newly resigned Supervisor Dan White slipped into City Hall and shot and killed Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, leaving the city in further turmoil. In early December, Peckham halted the proceedings. Citing the need for the city to heal its divisions, he urged the sides to settle the lawsuit. The result, months later, was the consent decree.

Three decades later, Sanders' self-proclaimed hero's role in the OFJ matter has, predictably, stirred old rivalries. “When I think of Earl Sanders as a civil rights hero,” declares Harrington, “I just want to laugh.”

Sanders defends his Officers for Justice role, dismissing those who would seek to diminish it “as the same voices who've tried to discredit me for years.”

To critics, he may have embellished his civil rights portfolio and placed himself too front-and-center in the Zebra probe. But to others, he's a hero. “He's a person of impeccable integrity,” says Berkeley civil rights lawyer James Chanin, for whose clients Sanders has sometimes testified as an expert witness in police misconduct cases. “As far as I'm concerned, Earl calls them as he sees them.”

Yet, despite having climbed to the top after four turbulent decades in law enforcement, Sanders is still defending his honor. “Am I pleased with the way the book and everything has turned out? I think so,” beams the ex-chief. He says it with the manner of a man who expects to have the last laugh.

He just might.

The Zebra Murders has been optioned by Plan B, actor Brad Pitt's production company, for adaptation as a movie. A source familiar with the matter says that Plan B is on board to develop the film for DreamWorks Pictures, and that an announcement by the studio may be forthcoming in several weeks.

Among the actors' names being floated to portray the two black Zebra murders sleuths are Jamie Foxx and Will Smith. But if it happens, the real star will almost certainly be Earl Sanders.

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