• The True Crime Edition

The Doodler of San Francisco

The murderer has evaded capture for 45 years, but he’s next on the wishlist for DNA testing.


Photo by Saksham Gangwar on Unsplash


In the early to mid-seventies, homophobia was rampant in San Francisco. Only the year before these murders began, homosexuality had just been declassified as a ‘disorder’ by the American Psychiatric Association.


According to politician Harvey Milk, 20 to 25 per cent of the 85,000 gay men in San Francisco were closeted about their sexuality. It was no wonder, with the state facing such severe legislation. In 1978, the Briggs Initiative was proposed, asking for the ban of homosexuals teaching in public schools.


It faced overwhelming opposition and was quickly quashed, but it poses the question; if society had been more accepting of sexuality, could this serial killer have been caught?





The Doodler prowled San Francisco for over a year, between 1974 and 75, looking for victims, all of which were white, gay men found in bars, nightclubs and diners. The killer told his victims he was a cartoonist, and he would sketch them while he gained their trust. Later, he would leave with the man, and once they were alone, he would then stab them to death.


The victims


On the 27th of January 1974, Gerald Cavanaugh was found by Ocean Beach. The 49-year-old’s body told of a fight, and he was covered in stab wounds and had a slice to his hand. He still had money in his pockets and a Timex on his wrist. He’d also died only hours before his discovery.


Born in Canada in 1923, Cavanagh moved to San Francisco and worked in a mattress factory. Little else is known about the unmarried man, but police knew he was the first victim of the Doodler.



Six months later, Joseph ‘Jae’ Stevens was found by Spreckels Lake in Golden Gate Park on the 25th of June. The 27-year-old performed as a female impersonator at Finocchio’s on Stockton Street. Originally a speak-easy, the Texan had been brought into the bar as a replacement act but had quickly moved into gay stand-up comedy.


The night before, he had been seen at the Cabaret Club in North Beach, and police believed he’d driven the Doodler to the park, where he stabbed Stevens three times.

Joseph ‘Jae’ Stevens via listverse.com



The crimes continued, and less than two weeks later, Klaus Christmann was discovered by a dog walker at the beach by Lincoln Way. The 31-year-old had been stabbed fifteen times, and his throat had been cut. Inspector Dave Toschi was one of the detectives on this case and described the killing as one of the most vicious he’d ever seen. Christmann had a wife and two children, but police believed him to be gay as he had a tube of makeup in his pocket and had been seen at a gay club the night before.


Originally from Germany, Christmann and his family had been staying with friends in San Francisco for three months. His family took his body back to Germany for the funeral.



With a strange gap of nearly a year, another body was discovered. On the 12th of May 1975, Frederick Capin’s body was found. The 32-year-old nurse was a decorated soldier who’d served in the Navy during the Vietnam War as a medical corpsman and had been given a commendation for saving four lives while under siege.


His body had been discovered between two residential streets in the Parkside district. He’d been stabbed in the heart and dragged twenty feet from where he was killed.



On the 4th of June, Harald Gullberg’s body was discovered by a hiker. The 66-year-old was found on a golf course in Lincoln Park with his throat cut, just yards away from a busy trail. Unfortunately, he’d been dead for two weeks by the time he was discovered, and he wasn’t in good shape.


The sailor was Swedish and had emigrated to America years earlier. He suffered from liver disease, and it was likely that he wouldn’t have been alive much longer.


The investigation


By this point, police knew that the murders were connected. All the victims had frequented gay bars at least semi-regularly and found within four miles of each other. They’d driven or been driven to a remote area, had been stabbed, and their identification had been removed.

The gay community was now frightened and questioned who would be next. They believed that the police weren’t helping them because of their lifestyles, and their willingness to help the officers in their investigation decreased.


In July 1975, two attacks took place in the Fox Plaza Apartments. The assaults happened two weeks apart, and both victims managed to get away from their attacker and give a description to the police. They both said he was a young, tall, slim black man with smooth skin.


A third man was attacked and gave the same description as the first two. Again, investigators believed that these assaults were the Doodler's work and thought they’d be able to catch the assailant. But, unfortunately, the third man quickly left the city and wouldn’t help the police any further in their investigation.


Witnesses and survivors told police that the man was a talented artist. They said he was intelligent and likely had a good education. They called him charming, so it would have been easy for him to convince men to go to a remote location with him. Investigators believed that the man was driving into San Francisco at the weekends to murder his victims and then travelling back out once he was finished.


The Doodler sketch via Wikipedia


Five months after the attacks of the three men, San Francisco police released a sketch of the man they were looking for. He was between 19 and 22 years old and between 5’10” and 6 feet tall. He was thin and wore a watch that looked to be Navy-style.


Police believed the man had ‘sexual identification problems’ and was likely under psychiatric care at the time of the killings. They also believed he had ‘mental difficulties’ with sex.

The sketch of the Doodler was printed in newspapers and seen on television, but no new information comes from the release despite its broad reach.


Rumours began to spread of men who’d had close run-ins with the Doodler. From actors to diplomats, the stories kept coming. Some of the survivors’ names are still classified, and that is a mystery in itself.


Readers of the San Francisco Chronicle began to call in tips to the hotline about a specific man. He was an artist who looked like the sketch and was seen in a bar, offering to draw customers. When the police arrested him, the man had a sketchbook and a butcher’s knife on him.


When he was brought in for questioning, he denied assaulting or killing anyone and became so enraged that he tried to attack one of the detectives. He was arrested for the incident, but when charges were brought for the attacks and murders, the three survivors wouldn’t testify against the man in court due to their closeted sexuality. The man was let go, and his name was never released.


In 2018, police released another sketch of the Doodler. This time, the original drawing of the man had been aged to coincide with what he may look like as an older man, but no solid leads came from the new sketch.


Updated image of the Doodler via abcnews.com


Recently, the investigation into the identity of the Doodler has been reignited, thanks to the Golden State Killer. Advances in technology mean that finding this serial killer will be easier, and the legwork has begun into identifying the man who’s been free for 45 years. If still alive, the suspect would be in his mid-sixties.


Police have also asked that the anonymous person who called in a tip for the discovery of Gerald Cavanaugh to come forward. They believe that the Doodler may have been responsible for as many as 14 murders in San Francisco during 1974 and 1975.


In October 2020, the San Francisco Chronicle announced the release of its new podcast, looking directly at the Doodler case. The series is available on Apple Podcasts.



The Doodler case remains open, as does the tip line. Furthermore, the $100,000 reward for information leading to the murderer is still waiting to be claimed. Anonymous tips can be called in at 415–570–9299.