The Zodiac Killer, identity unknown, never seems to leave the cultural landscape for long. He terrorized Northern California right at the time when flower power and cultural revolution began to fade into something more dissonant, and he set the tone for the next decade in the city of San Francisco as one full of violence and heartbreak.
HarperCollins recently released a book to exclamatory headlines, “Man Claims Zodiac Killer is His Father!” The publisher kept the contents of The Most Dangerous Animal of All: Searching for My Father . . . And Finding the Zodiac Killer under lock and key until its release date. The book’s author, Gary L. Stewart (along with true crime writer Susan Mustafa), relays the history of Earl Van Best, a cold-hearted organ-player who lived in San Francisco. Here’s what you need to know:
- Gary L. Stewart was the product of the doomed “Ice Cream Romance” between Judy Chandler, 14 and Earl Van Best, 27. Best saw Chandler walking off a school bus and fell in love, despite their 13 year age difference and the legalities surrounding sex with a minor. More news clippings on the romance can be found on Stewart’s site.
- Paul Avery, who reported on the Ice Cream Romance, would later receive a card from the Zodiac killer and be considered one of his targets. Reporters at the SF Chronicle would wear buttons saying “I’m not Paul Avery.”
- Shortly after Chandler gave birth to their child, Best abandoned the baby in an apartment hallway. The baby would be rescued, adopted by loving parents, and named Gary. As an adult, he would be contacted by his birth mother Judy, leading him to his birth father’s history and identity.
- Best was taught ciphers by his father, who worked as an intelligence officer in the Navy. The Zodiac sent ciphers, many unsolved to this day, to various newspapers.
- Stewart claims to have found E.V. JR Best in one of the Zodiac’s ciphers, and Earl Van Best Junior in another.
- A fingerprint comparison of a blood print taken at a Zodiac crime scene and Best’s fingerprint show a similar scar.
- Expert handwriting analysis has indicated that writing from Best’s marriage certificate and the Zodiac’s letters are a match. As I was writing this, SFGate’s blog released an article contesting the handwriting sample, saying it may not be Best’s handwriting at all.
- In an incredible twist, Judy Chandler went on to marry Rotea Gilford, San Francisco’s a highly decorated San Francisco homicide investigator who worked on the Zodiac case, and went on to become involved in San Francisco politics.
- Stewart implies that Gilford’s buddies on the force knew Best was the Zodiac and purposefully hid his identity to save the department from ridicule and preserve the reputation of (now deceased) Rotea Gilford and his wife.
The book itself leaves much to be desired, as there is an achingly awkward Part 2, “Signs of the Zodiac” written from the exact perspective we are so unsure of: Earl Van Best’s history and his place in the crimes. Speculation as to Best’s actions and motives combine with too much scene-setting to remind the reader that this is a re-enactment of history we really have no idea about.
Where the truth really lies, in Stewart’s discovery of his father as a man who closed him in a chest when he cried, abandoned him on an apartment landing, and then possibly murdered an unknown number of people, is only explored in Part 3 of the book, “The Truth Deciphered.” I question if a true crime writer was the right choice for such emotional subject matter, as the book seems to drift between facts of the case and guesses about what could have happened, totally lacking the deep symphony of heartbreak and fear that must be running through Stewart’s mind as he learns more and more about his father.
Compared to a truly fearless exploration of family history and adoption like The Mistress’s Daughter, by A.M. Homes, The Most Dangerous Animal of All leaves many questions unanswered. Did Judy Chandler wonder if her former kidnapper/husband was the Zodiac before Stewart begins to dig? Was it even ethical for a mother to reach out to the child of a closed adoption where there is so much pain involved?
This isn’t the first time someone has claimed an elaborate cover-up regarding the Zodiac Killer case, or even the first time someone has claimed their father was the Zodiac. The San Francisco Police Department has been underwhelmed with the book’s accusations, saying they ignored Stewart not because of a cover-up, but because of a lack of evidence. San Francisco police public information officer Albie Esparza recently said, “You can’t imagine how happy we’d be to have this case solved, since it’s been open so long,” he said. “If anyone has any details, any information is greatly appreciated by Homicide. Any time we can close a case and bring closure to families, that’s what we strive for.”