Reward, Information Released in San Francisco's 'Doodler' Serial Cold Case Killings

Authorities shared a new sketch of what the Doodler may look like today based on age progression (right). They also shared the original sketch drawn of the suspect (left). At the time of the killings, the suspect was believed to be between 19 and 25 years old.
San Francisco Police

Between January 1974 and September 1975, a serial killer dubbed the "Doodler" preyed upon gay men in the Castro District in San Francisco.

The days of a serial killer who terrorized San Francisco's gay community in the '70s may be numbered, as law enforcement recently announced a hefty reward to identify the monster in the case. 

On Wednesday, San Francisco police announced a $100,000 reward for the identification and prosecution of the "Doodler,” who is believed to have murdered at least five men and assaulted at least three others. 

Between January 1974 and September 1975, the suspect preyed upon gay men in the Castro District. He often met his victims at bars and restaurants, where he would charm them by sketching their likeness on cocktail napkins. After luring his victim away, the Doodler then stabbed them to death and dumped their bodies in public.

The Doodler’s first known victim was discovered on Jan. 27, 1974. The body of Gerald Earl Cavanaugh, 49, was found on Ocean Beach after an unknown man called police. He had been stabbed several times and appeared to have also suffered self-defense wounds. 

“I believe there might be a dead person on the beach … if you follow the street right down to the water,” the caller said at 1:25 a.m. on Jan. 27, 1974, according to an audio recording of the call released by police Wednesday. “I was walking along there and I thought I saw somebody lying there. But I didn’t want to get too close to him because you never know what could happen, OK?"

When asked for his name, the caller replied: “No I don’t think that’s necessary. I just wanted to let somebody know, maybe he needs help or something. But, uh, I felt it was my duty to report it.”

A passer-by found the body of Joseph Stevens, 27, near Spreckels Lake about 7 a.m. June 25. Stevens, described in reports at the time as a “well-dressed man,” had been stabbed five times and authorities initially believed him to be the victim of a robbery, as his pockets were empty. A woman who lived nearby told investigators she heard screams and cries for help shortly before midnight. 

A woman walking her dog discovered Claus Christmann, 31, dead near the beach at the foot of the major thoroughfare, Lincoln Way, on July 7. He had been stabbed at least 15 times and slashed in three places, reports at the time said. Christmann, a married father of two originally from Germany, was buried in his native country. 

Christmann’s murder was the last officially connected to the Doodler until 32-year-old Frederick Elmer Capin was discovered stabbed to death at Ocean Beach on May 12, 1975. Capin, a decorated U.S. Navy veteran who served in the Vietnam War, had been dead for about 10 hours when a passer-by found his body behind a sand dune about 9 a.m., reports at the time said. 

The Doodler’s last known victim was Harald Gullberg, a 66-year-old sailor whose partially decomposed body was found on June 24, 1975. Investigators believed Gullberg had been dead for about two weeks when he was discovered not far from the ocean at the Lincoln Park Golf Course.

In July 1975, two gay white men were attacked within two weeks inside the Fox Plaza Apartments on Market Street. One of the surviving victims told police his attacker was drawing caricatures when they met. 

“The manner and methods of attacks, circumstances surrounding the homicides … led investigators to believe the suspect from the Fox Plaza attacks was also a person of interest in these five homicides,” police said.

Police in 1976 detained a person in the case, but they were never charged. Police Cmdr. Greg McEarchern told reporters Wednesday the man is still alive and considered a person of interest, but would not say whether he matches the sketches released. 

Authorities shared a new sketch of what the Doodler may look like today based on age progression. At the time of the killings, the suspect was believed to be between 19 and 25 years old. 

Investigators believed the Doodler lived in the Bay Area, but not San Francisco, and would come to the city during the weekend. He is believed to have been seeing a psychiatrist with the last name “Priest” who practiced in the East Bay, police said. Investigators are working to learn more about that person as well.

DNA evidence connected to the case has been submitted to labs for testing and authorities are awaiting results from the tests, McEarchern said. 

Officials also urged whomever made the phone call reporting Cavanaugh’s body to police to come forward. 

“If you are the individual who called in 1974, we would like to speak to you about what you saw," McEarchern said.

Authorities were inspired to push for new leads following the arrest of a suspect in the Golden State Killer case, officials said. After matching crime scene DNA to genetic material from a relative of Joseph James DeAngelo who was registered on an open-source genealogy site, police zeroed in on the 72-year-old ex-cop, who was arrested last April.

DeAngelo has been charged with 26 counts of murder and kidnapping. Prosecutors believe that he killed 13 people and raped dozens of others in six California counties in the 1970s and 1980s. He hasn't entered a plea.

"The interest in this case now is no different than it is for all of our cold cases,” McEarchern told reporters Wednesday. “We take a look at cases that we believe are solvable and cases that the victims have never had justice.”

Anyone with information in the Doodler cold case investigation is asked to call Homicide Inspector Cunningham at 415-553-9515, or the San Francisco Police Department’s anonymous tip line at 415-575-4444. Tips can also be texted to TIP411. Include “SFPD” in the beginning of the message.