MOST SERIAL KILLINGS in America take on a life of their own through movies, books and documentaries. The crimes of Charles Manson, Jeffrey Dahmer and The Son of Sam are still well remembered years after they were committed. Yet there is one set of serial killings that has been almost completely forgotten and is rarely mentioned in popular culture.
The Zebra Killings occurred in the San Francisco bay area between 1972 and 1974 and left 71 people dead. They were dubbed the Zebra Killings because of the radio channel used by the police investigating the case (channel Z). The name would take on a more sinister meaning as it became apparent that a group of blacks was systematically stalking and killing whites simply because of the color of their skin.
Zebra (1979) was written by crime writer Clark Howard and remains the definitive book on the murders. Using court records, police reports, witnesses and interviews with the killers themselves, Howard was able to piece together the horrid details of the murders and the unrelenting hatred that inspired the killers.
The majority of the attacks were carried out by five members of a group within Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam called the "Death Angels." Jesse Lee Cooks, J.C. Simon, Larry Green, Manuel Moore and Anthony Harris were part of this group which believed that whites were created 3,000 years ago by a black mad scientist named Yacub who wanted a race of inferiors to rule over. Death Angels believed they could earn "points" towards going to heaven when they died if they killed whites. For them, whites were not human beings but "grafted snakes," "blue-eyed devils" and "white motherf-----s."
Howard describes the vicious and cowardly nature of the attacks, which were made at gunpoint and mostly carried out against women and weak or old men who could not fight back. The first victims in San Francisco were a couple named Richard and Quita Hague. The Hagues were out for an after dinner walk when they were abducted at gunpoint and forced into a van. They were bound and Richard was beaten over the head with a lug wrench and knocked unconscious. Quita was sexually molested and hacked with a machete. While begging for her life she was decapitated. Before leaving, the attackers hacked at the face of the still unconscious man. Miraculously, he survived and was able to give valuable information to the police.
Brutality and a lack of remorse on the part of the criminals mark the attacks. Vincent Wollin was shot in the back and killed on his 69th birthday. Mildred Hosler, an obese, older woman was shot while frantically trying to get away from her younger, faster attacker. Ilario Bertucci, a 135-pound, 81-year-old man, was killed while walking home from work. Marietta DiGirolamo, a 5’1" white woman was shot and killed on her way to a neighborhood bar. In none of these cases did the victims do anything to provoke the murderers. They simply had white skin and were in the wrong place at the wrong time.
There were even some high profile victims. Art Agnos, who would later go on to become mayor of San Francisco, was shot and almost killed by the Death Angels. A member of the California Commission on Aging, Agnos was attending a community meeting in a black neighborhood to discuss building a government funded health clinic in the area. In the same neighborhood the killers were hunting for whites. As the meeting let out, Agnos stopped to talk with two women. One of the killers came up behind him and shot him twice in the back. The bullets ripped apart his lungs, spleen and kidneys. Bystanders called an ambulance and Agnos barely survived.
Lou Calabro was a street patrol sergeant with the San Francisco Police Department at the time and notes that as the murders added up, the SFPD came under increasing pressure to stop the killings:
"In what was known as Operation Zebra, more police were put on the street and security checks were beefed up. Despite the increased police presence, the attacks did not stop. They would often happen when we were on full alert. Some officers suspected a black cop who was a member of ‘Officers for Justice,’ a black police officers association formed to get more promotions for themselves, was tipping off the killers, though this was never proven. We were very frustrated at not being able to stop the killings."
The increased police presence had the effect of angering the black community. Twenty years before the Los Angeles riots and O.J. Simpson trial, blacks were already making statements to the press that showed a stunning lack of remorse for what was happening to their white neighbors. Howard quotes from interviews conducted by the San Francisco Examiner in 1974. Among the responses by blacks were, "I don’t feel comfortable with all the police around. But then, I never have felt safe around them." A young housewife stated, "I’m really glad the police are concerned for a change. I just wonder if they would be as much concerned if it were black people getting killed." A black lawyer added, "I commend the police for their beefing up of the force, but I hope it’s not just directed at blacks. I hope blacks aren’t being harassed."
Still other blacks blamed "unemployment" and "oppression" for the attacks. One man said, "the madness that drives black men to kill innocent people . . . involves a sickness that is as American as apple pie." Black Panther leader Bobby Seale declared, "every black man in the Bay area is in danger of losing his life." The Reverend Cecil Williams claimed that the entire black community was "under a police state that could erupt into a racial war." Howard observes, "although they were responding only to a question about Operation Zebra, it was curious that none of the blacks interviewed took the occasion to condemn the unknown street killers or express sympathy for the victims."
Detectives Gus Coreris and John Fotinos were 13-year veterans of the Homicide Unit and led the investigation which eventually cracked the case. Though they both suspected the Black Muslims, it was hard to get any information on the possible suspects because of a ban on surveillance of religious institutions. Moreover, the closed atmosphere of the NOI made it hard to get spies into the organization.
Coreris and Fotinos were able to link the murders because the killers were using the same weapon for each attack. They were also able to put together information and descriptions from those who survived such as Agnos and Hague. The case was solved when one of the members of the Death Angels came forward with information on the other killers. A total of eight black men with previous records were arrested. All were members of the Death Angels. Though this group committed most of the killings, they do not account for all of the criminals. Some are still free to this day.
The Nation of Islam paid for the legal representation of every one of the killers except Cooks, who immediately admitted to his murders. The Death Angels are still in prison but are up for parole in 2002.