Welcome to part IV of my examination of the Zebra murders. The prior installments, which can be read here, here. and here, have been a long, strange trip in which we navigated the underbelly of post-WWII San Francisco with a special emphasis on the legendary 60s counterculture that once thrived there. One simply cannot fully appreciate the Zebra murders without putting them in their proper historical time and place for it was a time of Black Panthers and the Black Liberation Army, of the Weather Underground and the SLA, of Zodiac and Charles Manson, of the Church of Satan and the Process. It was a weird scene to say the least, as were many aspects of the Zebra killings, such as the investigating officers, the dates, and even some of the victims. Then there was the fallout from Zebra, especially the proto-War on Terror-like tactics employed against San Francisco's black community.
Yes, we've examined much thus far, but we're getting down to the real nitty-gritty. Let us now consider the killers themselves. But, to do that, we have to start with the chief witness in the prosecution's case, a human known as Anthony Harris. How Harris came to break the case wide open for the SFPD was in and of itself bizarre. One of the lead detectives on the case, Gus Coreris, ordered police sketches of two the alleged Zebra members based on mental images he had pieced together from various descriptions the surviving victims had given him. One of these sketches looked strikingly like Harris.
"An even greater source of frustration was the lack of a solid description from any of the witnesses. Scores of people had seen the shooting. Yet no one witness had a clear enough recollection of a killer's face for them to feel comfortable with a sketch artist making a drawing from the person's memory...
"Neither Coreris nor Fotinos wanted to run that risk. Coreris, however, had been considering another option. What if he and Fotinos worked with a sketch artist? They knew all the descriptions, either from listening the witnesses themselves or by reading the descriptions that had been taken down by others. The more Coreris thought about it, the more he was certain it could work.
"There was only one problem. If they got it wrong and the killer they arrested looked nothing like the sketch, they could be even worse off than if the sketch had come from a witness. A good defense lawyer could take a fact like that and twist it into 'exculpatory evidence,' showing that even in the minds of the investigative officers the killer looked like someone other than their client."
(The Zebra Murders, Prentice Earl Sanders & Bennett Cohen, pg. 199)
The detectives made their play at roughly the same time as the infamous Zebra sweeps discussed in part three were going into effect across San Francisco. A few days later Mayor Joseph Alioto found himself at the center of a political firestorm as opposition to the sweeps began to break out not only in San Francisco, but across the entire nation. The ACLU and NAACP brought forth lawsuits and District Judge Alfonso J. Zirpoli soon ruled them unconstitutional.
|Mayor Alioto facing protests over his controversial 'Zebra sweeps' policy|
Mercifully for Alioto and the San Francisco PD, Harris came forward with enough evidence to spur arrests before the public could become to outraged at the total failure that was the city's response to Zebra. Upon seeing the sketches in a newspaper Harris, who was living in Oakland at the time after he had left the Nation of Islam, began panicking and eventually contacted the SFPD. Shortly thereafter officers began to believe that Harris was legit on account of details he gave concerning the murders that had not been released to the public.
Harris was not, however, the most credible of witnesses. He was an ex-con and drug addict that had even been institutionalized at a young age. A palm print of his found at the Erekat murder scene and other details of his statement strongly indicated that Harris had actively participated in several of the murders. The Los Angeles Sentinel reports:
"Who is Anthony Harris? According to public sources, he has been in and out of jail all his life. His mother had him committed to a mental hospital because of his violence. He also had serious drug problems. According to his fiancÅ½ at the time, Carolyn Patton, he came in one night covered with blood and told her he had been out killing devils. His testimony was he never participated in any of these murders nor did he witness them. Does this sound like someone who sits on the sidelines as these horrors took place?"
Harris only agreed to testify in part because of a cash reward and after Mayor Joseph Alioto himself promised Harris immunity from prosecution. What's more, his behavior was widely erratic during the trial, resulting in frequent disappearances.
"Yet the volatility Harris had displayed after turning himself in to he police persisted in the days before the trial. He disappeared so often that eventually he had to be kept in protective custody so rigorous it was prisonlike. One particularly unnerving pretrial twist for the prosecution came when he wrote a letter recanting all the claims he had made about Zebra and mailed it to everyone from President Ford to Minister John Muhammad of Temple No.26. Harris subsequently recanted his recantation, claiming that the reason he had written the letter was that he had not yet been given an attorney to represent him. Once his complaint was addressed, Harris reaffirmed his original statements, and the prosecution was able to resume building its case.Based on all accounts, few would dispute that Harris was more than a little unstable. His frequent disappearances, ever changing stories, bizarre and erratic dress, and so forth may even be indications of a multiple personality. Certainly he seems to have suffered more than his fair share of abuse over the years. It would be interesting to know what hospital his mother had him committed to. Harris served time at San Quentin Prison where a Dr. Leo Stanley had performed a number of experiments on inmates from 1913 to 1951. Were some types of experiments still being conducted by the time Harris was there?
"Harris's antics were not limited to the preparatory stages of the trial. On the day he was to testify about the murders of Quita Hague and others and name Cooks, Green, Simon, and Moore as coconspirators, he arrived in court wearing a Nehru jacket and with his hands folded in prayer, as if he was about to perform a holy act. After the trial, even one the jurors characterized his manner as 'flaky.' Besides that, it has to be admitted that Harris's version of the events was if anything self-serving, which made him vulnerable to the defense, as did the fact that his testimony was contingent on the quid pro quo of immunity and the reward. Harris's account conveniently exculpated him from the worst crimes, namely murder..."
(The Zebra Murders, Prentice Earl Sanders & Bennett Cohen, pg. 252)
The mystery surrounding Harris continued even after his part in Zebra was over with. Once the trials were over and done with Harris seemingly disappeared from the face of the Earth.
"The thirty years that have elapsed since the attacks have created one new mystery. Anthony Harris, whose testimony was so critical to the killers' convictions, has disappeared. There was talk during the trial that he was being given a new identity by federal authorities, along with a new place to live and a job. Yet if he did take another identity, many believe that, like everything in Harris's peripatetic life, it was temporary, and that he returned to using his original name. Although he was constantly in need of funds before and during the trial, he did collect on the thirty-thousand-dollar reward once it was over. There are several rumors about his life in the years following Zebra. One had him back living a life of petty crime in southern California, and possibly using drugs again, though no one has found reports of such in any police records. Another rumor claimed that his last known residence was a homeless shelter in Los Angeles. Yet another asserted that he had left California and moved to Texas. But the source that may be most reliable claims to have heard through the prison grapevine that Anthony Harris is dead..."So, to recap briefly: At the same time the grossly unconstitutional Zebra sweeps were being devised, the lead detectives have their own police sketches made based on their description of the killers rather than an actual witness. Just as the Zebra sweeps are brought to a crashing halt by a District Judge and political opposition is mounting against Major Alioto, Harris makes the scene and provides police with enough evidence to make arrests on Beltane.
(ibid, pg. 266)
|the Zebra killers were arrested on May 1, Beltane, one of the two most important holidays in Celtic paganism|
As payment for his testimony Harris, a career criminal and drug addict with a history of mental illness, is promised immunity from prosecution and a $30,000 reward. Harris goes on to become the state's star witness despite displaying wildly erratic behavior throughout the entire trial. Once the trial comes to an end, Harris seemingly drops off the face of the Earth, which seems to be a strong indication that he died under mysterious circumstances. The police apparently had little concern over Harris' fate, despite the fact that was ample evidence that Harris himself participated in the murders and could still be a danger to the public.
But then again, its likely well for many involved in the Zebra case that Harris is no longer around to answer questions. Certainly there were numerous holes in his story, most notably his description of the secret society he called the Death Angels, of which to date not a shred of evidence has turned up to document such an organization. And the fact that he appeared to break the case at a time when political fallout was mounting against Mayor Alioto and the SFPD is rather opportunistic, to say the least.
As tempting as it is to dismiss Harris' claims outright, the men that he accused don't fair much better. From the time of the arrest, the individuals accused of the murders seemed off. Much like the zombie-like followers of Adolfo Constanzo, whom I've chronicled before here, here, and here, the Zebra suspect were oddly complacent about the arrests.
"The raids went like clockwork. Despite Harris's warnings, none of the suspects resisted arrest. Only one, Manuel Moore, was even preparing to flee. The others seemed oddly complacent, as if they had succeeded in outwitting the police for so long that they expected to do so in court as well. The raids, which began at dawn, were completed by the time the sun had fully risen."Seven individuals were arrested for the murders that day, but four were ultimately released for lack of evidence. One of them was a Nation of Islam member named Dwight Stallings, who had been a close friend of Rotea Gilford, one of the chief investigators on Zebra and partner to Earl Sanders. Another link the Nation had to the SFPD came in the form of Officer Jesse Byrd, another member of the Nation. While there was no evidence that Byrd had direct knowledge of the killings, there were indications that he was advising the Nation as to the progress of the SFPD's Zebra investigation. Once Harris came forward with evidence concerning Zebra he was moved to a safehouse and Byrd even tried to locate this safehouse for the Nation.
(ibid, pg. 239)
|Dwight Stallings, one of the men arrested for, but never charged with, the Zebra killings; he was also a long time friend of Rotea Gilford, one of the chief investigators on the case|
Ultimately there were four men indicted for the Zebra killings. Two of them, Manuel Moore and Jessie Lee Cooks, were small time criminals with little to no formal education. Cooks was himself already serving time for murder when Harris tipped off the police, and was not part of the Beltane arrests. The other two were human beings known as J.C. Simon and Larry Green. In most accounts Simon is generally portrayed, if not as the leader of the group, at least as the dominate personality. Clark Howard's historical novel, Zebra, even has Simon flying to Chicago to meet with the upper brass of the Nation of Islam itself. Yet he comes off as being even more unstable than even Harris in his court appearance.
"Although Simon denied Harris's claims that he wanted to start a race war in his own testimony during the trial, his denials were fraught with statements so bizarre that they seemed to beg the question of his sanity. He claimed under cross-examination that he had come to California from Texas not by way of car or bus or train, but by riding 'a snake' halfway and 'a tornado' the rest. Then, when asked by the prosecution about the binder that he had in his possession at the time of his arrest, which contained Lesson No. 10 among its contents, he claimed that he had received the material 'from Allah' in 1971 at a park in San Francisco's Fillmore district."
(ibid, pg. 254)
Of the four arrested, Green, a former Berkeley student from a solid middle class background, comes off as by far the most together member of the outfit. Green's parents and many who knew him before the killings were shocked that he could have been involved with the murders. As such, some have speculated that Green's involvement in the killings may have been over exaggerated by Harris, if not outright fabricated. Yet his close relationship with Harris and Simon seems to strongly indicate he had some knowledge of the killings. What's more, several of the surviving Zebra victims were able to identify Green in lineups. In general, Green comes off as a highly intelligent, but weak-willed individual that was more content being a part of the group than the leader.
Despite the fact that the Zebra murderers were able to operate in a major American city for almost seven months without the police being able to turn up a single solid lead before an informant magically appeared to wrap the case up for them, it is not generally believed that there was an organized structure behind them. They were simply disillusioned Nation of Islam (the bulk of whom were ex-cons with no real formal education) members that hit upon the idea of killing whites as a form of political retaliation, and then carried this plan out to pinpoint precision. While its generally acknowledged that none of the men convicted displayed the kind of leadership skills necessary for such an operation authorities are quick to offer a simple explanation to explain the Zebra killers' success: Luck. They simply got lucky, month after month, murder after murder, despite the entire city mobilizing against them.
One thing that there seems to be little dispute over, however, was the ultimate objective of the Zebra killers: to incite a race war.
"...the Zebra defendants, such as their hating whites and objectifying them as 'devils' or trying to start a race war, were corroborated by others both in the course of the trial and in the years since. During the trial, as mentioned earlier, the woman Cooks raped two nights after the Hague assault testified that among his ranting remarks were predictions of indiscriminate slaughter, that 'people are going to be killed and the streets would be lined with blood.' In addition, Harris testified that Manuel Moore had wanted to be taught kung fu so he could kill whites in just such a struggle. Harris also told the court that J.C. Simon spoke repeatedly about killing whites in a variety of ways, using the Nation of Islam's Lesson No.10 as his justification.
"... More than twenty-five years later, both Green and Cooks would confirm during separate parole hearings that they had embraced a doctrine of hate toward whites during the time of the Zebra murders, which took them years to get beyond. Yet perhaps the most chilling evidence that they viewed the killing as part of a longer, ongoing struggle came from a statement that Cooks, after the verdicts were handed down, made to someone involved in the investigation, who was so unnerved by the threat that he till wishes not to be named. In a voice quiet enough that the judge couldn't hear but firm enough to be frightening, Cooks simply said, 'This isn't over.'"With the kind of random killings and ideology driving these murders, the Zebra killers ultimately more closely resemble a terror outfit than a cabal of 'serial killers,' as they are most commonly described. There are indications that they may in fact have been a small part of a broader network acting throughout California (and possibly the entire nation) at the time. Yet none of the men convicted of the killings, outside of Green, come off as the types of individuals capable of guiding such an organization, or even operating for as long as they did, without 'help from above.' There has been speculation that someone within the Nation of Islam's upper brass was actively directing the campaign. What's more, there's the curious fact that both Green and Simon, who were living together at the time of the arrests, were both residing within blocks of some of the most notable members of the SLA.
(ibid, pgs. 253-254)
"Up until the Zebra arrests, members of the SLA had been holed away on Golden Gate Avenue, just off Divisadero and not far from where Green and Simon lived. Nervous because of all the police activity, the SLA finally cleared out, moving from the San Francisco ghetto of the Fillmore to L.A.'s South Central. There, on May 17, the LAPD and the SLA engaged in a furious gun battle, trading shots for over an hour as America watched on live TV and stopped only when everyone who had been in the hideout was dead."
(ibid, pgs. 243-244)
|the Symbionese Liberation Army|
Rumors of an SLA/Zebra link had been bouncing around the SFPD months before the arrests. At one point, the SLA even sent a letter to an ABC affiliate taking credit for the shootings on the night of January 28 (the bloodiest night of Zebra, featuring five, maybe six victims).
"Then another letter to a news organization, this time KGO-TV, the ABC affiliate in San Francisco, seemed to take credit for the shootings. This one purported to be from the Symbionese Liberation Army, the same group that had claimed responsibility for slaying Marcus Foster. Postmarked on January 30, two days after the attacks, it predicted, 'Any day now there will be more killing and more shootings,' and went on to call for the release of Joseph Remiro and Russell Little, the men charged with Foster's murder. Nothing in the letter indicated any knowledge of the shootings beyond what one could read in the newspaper, so in the minds of most investigators there was little reason to think it was anything other than a hoax or an attempt by the SLA to add to their notoriety.The prosecution's star witness, Anthony Harris, even claimed to have met SLA leader Donald DeFreeze and Patty Hearst. Like every other possible tie between the SLA and Zebra, this claim was not taken seriously by Sanders in his account of the murders.
"Even so, the seeds were sown in the minds of some that a connection might exist. Although the SLA was unknown before the murder of Marcus Foster, since then they had been using letters and communiques filled with incendiary rhetoric to gain increased media exposure, joining the legion of other shadowy, secretive groups in the Bay Area like the Weathermen and the Black Liberation Army. Like the latter group, the SLA was believed to be an alliance of black and white radicals. Most in Homicide did not take the letter seriously, but others, especially in the SFPD brass, felt it was worthy of serious consideration."
(ibid, pg. 154)
"Supporting the notion that Harris took at least some clues about how to couch his activities from news articles is a statement he made in his meeting with Alioto, in which he claimed that he had met Patty Hearst and Donald DeFreeze at Temple No. 26. No one has ever given much, if any, credence to this claim. But it is revealing that he made it to Alioto, who more than once stated publicly that he believed there was a connection between the SLA and Zebra."
(ibid, pg. 258)
|Patty Hearst during her SLA days|
While it does seem likely Harris' claim of meeting Hearst and DeFreeze is bogus, a possible link between Zebra and the SLA is not as far-fetched as Sanders would have us believe. As noted earlier, the two Zebra 'masterminds,' Larry Green and J.C. Simon, were living in the same neighborhood as the SLA at the time of their arrest. In fact, it was the Zebra arrest that drove the SLA out of San Francisco. Is it possible that they fled San Fran not just because of the heightened police presence in their neighborhood, but also because they were afraid someone associated with Zebra would tip off their hideout?
Let us now briefly consider the SLA before continuing with their possible links to Zebra. The SLA first made waves with the kidnapping of heiress Patty Hearst, who later participated in SLA operations after allegedly being brainwashed by the group. As such, they have long since been an object of fascination in conspiracy circles, with some researchers linking them to the CIA and their MK-ULTRA experiments.
"The SLA was a bizarre revolutionary militant group, whose claim to fame was the kidnapping of publishing heiress Patty Hearst on February 4, 1974 only a few eeks after Reagen's controversial 'violence center' announcement, and it has been a favorite subject of conspiracy theorists for decades, who believe that the SLA was a front for a domestic CIA operation. The mere fact of the kidnapping itself, with Patty Hearst being subjected to brainwashing by the SLA cadres and then sent out to help them rob a bank, was headline-grabbing news for weeks, even though many people could not understand what it all represented...
"Much was happening between 1973 and 1975. Donald DeFreeze, the commander of the SLA, had earlier been a prisoner at the Vacaville facility that was used by the CIA as part of their mind-control experimentation program. At Vacaville, an organization was set up to raise black consciousness -the Black Cultural Association, or BCA --which was under the direction of Professor Colston Westbrook. Westbrook has since been identified as a former intelligence officer who served in the Far East during the 1960s and, in fact, worked for AID --the same agency that provided cover for Dan Mitrione and, perhaps, Jim Jones in Brazil --during the same years that Mitrione was with them. It is tantalizing to speculate about a handoff of Jones from Mitrione to Westbrook; or perhaps after the murder of Mitrione, Westbrook simply picked up where he left off. We know now that Jones spent time at the Langley-Porter Neuropsychiatric Institute during the 1960s and 1970s; Westbrook had been a psychological warfare officer in Vietnam, Japan, and Korea. At Vacaville, he may have been involved in the MK-ULTRA testing and manipulation of violent inmates. Therefore there may be connections between these men, but Jones is dead and Westbrook isn't talking...
"The existence and actions of the SLA are so strange, and so illogical, and so out of context that the organization has been subject to the full-court press of the conspiracy theorists. The leader of the SLA --Donald DeFreeze, or 'Cinque' --was black. Virtually everyone else in the SLA was white. (This is a mirror-image of the Peoples Temple, where the leader was white and the congregation black.) The group was believed to be Maoist, but the evidence for this was flimsy. Further, they claimed responsibility for them under of Dr. Marcus Foster -Superintendent of the Oakland school system --in 1973... by two white men who had used makeup during the commission of the crime, making themselves look black. This attempt to incite a race riot had been prefigured, of course, by the Manson Family attacks on the Tate and LiaBianca households in 1969.
"DeFreeze himself was a police informant who spent very little time in prison, even though he had a record of arms-dealing, among other felonies. When he left prison, he simply walked out, leading many to assume that his escape was an inside job. This was after prolonged contact with known intelligence officer Colston Westbrook. Although the SLA was painted in the worst possible colors as a violent revolutionary group, their record as violent revolutionaries is rather weak. They made so many mistakes, and reveal themselves to so many people during the course of their life 'in hiding,' losing large quantities of arms and ammunition at various poorly-dis safe houses, that it is possible to view these actions as those of agents provocateurs and not as genuine revolutionaries. At one point they even hijack a car and driver, drive around for a few hours introducing themselves, and then let the driver free..."
(Sinister Forces Book Two, Peter Levenda, pgs. 204-207)
There is a lot to take in here, which is why I'm going to wrap things up for the time being. In the next installment we will more thoroughly examine the connections between the Zebras and the SLA as well as both outfits relation to to the notorious Peoples Temple founder, Jim Jones, who would have an interesting relationship with the Nation in San Francisco by the mid-1970s. Jones is of course most well known for inducing nearly a thousand of his followers to commit suicide by drinking cyanide-laced Kool-Aid at Jonestown in 1978. Jones' followers would also be involved in the assassination of Congressman Leo Ryan, who incidentally was investigating the connections between the SLA and the CIA shortly before his assassination.
Surely that, like everything else mentioned in this series, is mere coincidence. Stay tuned and make up your mind for yourself.