In these Troubled San Francisco Times, there is a lot of talk about who was here when, and what that does (or doesn't) mean. In an effort to both assist newcomers and take long-time residents down memory lane, we present to you Ask a San Francisco Native, a column penned by SF native and longtime SFist contributor Rain Jokinen, which is inspired by a similar one on our sister site Gothamist, and is intended to put to rest all those questions only a native of this city can answer. Send yours here!
Was it really as scary as it sounded in Season of the Witch when the Zebra killers were around? Or worse?!
Having Nightmares Just Thinking About It
First, how old do you think I am?! Everything I know about the Zebra Killers I learned, perhaps like you, from reading David Talbot's book Season of the Witch. Anyone who has any interest in the somewhat recent history of San Francisco (late 1960s to early 1980s) owes it to themselves to read that book. (You don't even have to buy it if you don't want to! The library has over 700 copies of it since It was the selection for the SFPL's One City One Book "book club" last year.
I won't go into the details of the Zebra Killings — Beth Spotswood wrote a good summation for SFist a few years back, and Wikipedia is always a good source when it it comes to true crime — but the key facts to know are: the crimes happened in 1973-74; the killers were racially motivated; the killings were REALLY brutal, with 23 known victims; and future mayor Art Agnos was almost one of those victims, as he was shot by one of the killers, but survived.
Here's the section from Talbot's book that freaked me out the most:
Pumped up by the bloodthirsty rhetoric, the Zebra killers cruised San Francisco in search of white victims, riding in a Black Self-Help Moving van and a black Cadillac borrowed from Manney. The bloodshed began one balmy evening in October 1973 following a meeting in the loft, when Green, Cooks, and Anthony Harris, another ex-con recently released from San Quentin, began prowling the streets of the Excelsior, a drab neighborhood of stucco bungalows and lowered expectations.
They were on the lookout for white children, because killing women and kids was the quickest way to become a Death Angel. Cooks, who as a boy had tried to smother his dozing mother with a pillow, had particularly savage fantasies about white kids, telling his Muslim brothers that he wanted to pick them up by their feet and smash their brains out against a wall. On Francis Street, Cooks and Green pulled a gun on two young girls and a teenage boy and tried to hustle them into their van, but the kids broke away and saved their lives by dashing down the street.
After I read that, I knew I had to ask my dad about the Zebra Killings since I had, in fact, been a little white kid possibly roaming some of the same streets they had been targeting. (Although, being that I was only three, it's unlikely there was much wandering going on).
But here's where it gets disappointing: My dad really didn't remember being that freaked out about it, at all. He says he knew it was going on, but it was just something that he might hear on the local news, or read in a newspaper a couple times a week; it wasn't something he was very concerned about in day-to-day life. He admits he and my mother might have been a little caught up in their own little world to notice, but also points out that since there was no such thing as a 24-hour news cycle, it was easier to remain slightly oblivious to the horrors happening in the city.
So, I'd love to turn it over to any other natives or long-term residents who might have more vivid memories of those dark days and the Zebra Killers' horrible crimes. Please share your stories in the comments. And keep your questions coming!
Rain Jokinen was born and raised in San Francisco and, miraculously, still calls the city home. Her future plans include becoming a millionaire, buying a condo complex, and then tearing it down to replace it with a dive bar. You can ask this native San Franciscan your questions here.