On the morning of January 27, 1974, at approximately 1:25 a.m., police dispatch received a phone call reporting the discovery of a corpse at San Francisco’s Ocean Beach.
“I believe there might be a dead person,” the caller said in a calm, male-sounding voice before declining to give their name and hanging up.
When officers arrived on the scene 30 minutes later, they found the body of 50-year-old Gerald Cavanaugh. He’d been stabbed 16 times.
Over the course of the next year and a half, five victims—all white gay men—would be linked to the serial killer dubbed the Doodler. Despite its childish quality, the Doodler’s nickname is a haunting reference to the killer’s reported fondness for sketching cartoons of the men he’d meet at bars in San Francisco’s Castro district, then lure somewhere more remote with the promise of sex.
While the Doodler is thought to have been active between January 1974 and June 1975, there has been some confusion over his total number of victims. In 1976, reporter Maitland Zane made blunt reference to the number of unsolved homicides of gay men at the time—17 had occurred in 1975 alone—in an article for the San Francisco Chronicle titled “The Gay Killers.” Owing to this tragically large number, some reports have suggested that the Doodler’s true body count may be as high as 14.
In the five cases officially tied to the Doodler, the victims died from numerous stab wounds. Each body was found in a park or by the beach. Following the discovery of the Doodler’s fifth victim, Harald Gullberg, in June 1975, the killings seemed to stop.
During the mid-1970s, the overall homicide rate in San Francisco was more than double what it is today. In 1974, there were 129 homicides in the city. The following year, there were 132. Needless to say, the SFPD’s homicide detectives were busy, and the Doodler wasn’t even the only serial killer on their radar. At the time of Cavanaugh’s death, the city was enduring the infamous Zebra murders, and arrests were still three months from being carried out.
The gay community already faced plenty of danger without the added prospect of being targeted by a serial killer. Even in the comparatively welcoming environment of the city’s Castro neighborhood, being outed in the mid-1970s meant risking stigmatization, injury, and even death, owing to antigay sentiments prevalent across the United States. (Harvey Milk’s election to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors was four years away.)
Fear of such repercussions led three men who survived encounters with the Doodler to refuse to cooperate with police. One, reportedly, was a European diplomat (according to the Chronicle, he was stabbed six times before fleeing). Published reports about survivors also mention a “nationally known” entertainer and an individual who quickly skipped town and declined further contact with law enforcement. Four decades later, the identities of these men remain unknown.
Their accounts, however, were not the only information investigators had to go on. In November 1975, police released a composite sketch that depicted the Doodler as an African American man in his early 20s. Then, in 1977, Rotea Gilford, a lead investigator on the case, told the UPI wire service that police had been speaking with a potential suspect for the past year. And that same year, the San Francisco Sentinel reported that a psychiatrist had shared a client’s confession with investigators and that they now believed the killer to be a straight male. Despite these leads, no suspects were ever named. From there, the case went dormant.
Largely forgotten—though he does receive a passing reference in Armistead Maupin’s 1978 novel, Tales of the City—the Doodler seemed destined to completely fade from memory until 2018, when SFPD investigator Dan Cunningham announced that, nearly 40 years later, the police had a suspect. Whether this suspect is the same person Gilford spoke with back in 1977 remains unclear, but Cunningham’s renewed interest in the case was at least partially inspired by advances in DNA technology that recently helped lead to the arrest of Golden State Killer suspect Joseph DeAngelo.
Speaking with CNN, Cunningham announced that DNA collected at two separate Doodler crime scenes was being sent to a lab for testing. In February 2019, San Francisco police officials convened a news conference to offer a $100,000 reward for any information that would assist them in identifying the Doodler. They also released an age-enhanced composite sketch of the killer and a recording of the 911 call in which someone reported the discovery of Gerald Cavanaugh’s body.
Asked for an update, SFPD media relations officer Michael Andraychak could only confirm that the Doodler case “remains an open investigation.” As of now, there is no news to suggest that the DNA samples, updated sketch, or release of the 911 call has yielded any fresh leads.
Zack Ruskin wrote about eco-friendly Christmas trees for Alta, Fall 2019.