UnSubs Central

Your stop for killer book and film reviews about the world's most notorious serial murderers

January 24, 2019

 

The Most Dangerous Animal of All: Searching for My Father…and Finding the Zodiac Killer
By Gary L. Stewart with Susan Mustafa
Harper Collins
New York, New York
2014

 

Imagine learning that your biological father had abandoned you in the stairwell of an apartment building in Baton Rouge, Louisiana when you were four weeks old. Shocking, heartbreaking and chilling, but true. Unbeknownst to his young wife, Earl Van Best, Jr. travelled from his home in New Orleans, entered a random apartment complex and left his infant son wrapped in a blanket on its second floor stairwell landing. Soon after, the child was adopted by Leona and Lloyd Stewart. They named him Gary.

Gary Stewart’s childhood was a happy one. In print and in interviews, Stewart freely offers that he was “raised in what he called a loving, wonderful environment.”[1] Of adopted father, Lloyd, Stewart has said, “I had the best adopted father in the world.”[2] Regardless, no one can much blame him for searching for information about his biological parents; many an adopted child looks for answers about where they came from. For Stewart, being adopted was a source of pain. It was a “desire to have a true identity,” that “bothered me, plagued me my whole life.” It was this desire that would lead him on a wholly unforeseen journey.[3]

Zodiac killer aficionados and readers of this blog, will quickly recognize the reference in the book’s title. In July 1969, the Zodiac killer sent what would become known as the 408 cipher. The only of the five ciphers the killer sent to be solved, in it Zodiac says, “I like killing people because it is so much fun it is more fun than killing wild game in the forest because man is the most dangerous animal of all.”

In The Most Dangerous Animal of All, Stewart and writer Susan Mustafa describe those years of Stewart’s life over which he met his biological mother, his frustrations experienced while searching for information about his father, stumbling upon an episode about the Zodiac killer on A&E’s “Cold Case Files” which lead him to believe that his biological father was the infamous killer, and then finally his efforts to prove his theories. Stewart would become close to his father’s former best friend, but also developed a strained relationship with his biological mother over his accusations.

Throughout the book, abundantly clear is both Stewart’s emotional pain and his whole-hearted belief that there is evidence to support his claim. Since it’s publication, more than a few reasons to doubt his theories have come to light. Here are a few:

 

The Handwriting:

A good portion of Stewart’s argument rests on the testimony of Questioned Documents Expert, Michael Wakshull. Wakshull reports, “I am virtually certain that the writer of the marriage certificate between Earl Van Best, Jr. and Judith Chandler is the same writer as the writer of the Zodiac letters.”[4]

Wakshull was so confident in his results that after having generated a 65 page report on his analysis, he penned his own book outlining his conclusions. In The End of the Zodiac Mystery: How Forensic Science Helped Solve One of the Most Infamous Serial Killer Cases of the Century, Wakshull, says of his work for Stewart and Mustafa, that he added a “final layer of certainty in their search for the true identity of Gary’s father, Earl Van Best, Jr.”[5]

Problematic about these assertions though, are what amateur Zodiac investigator Mike Rodelli found when he contacted the church where Chandler and Best were married. According to the church’s administrator, Audrey Phelps, the handwriting Wakshull refers to, in fact belongs to Reverend Edward Fliger, the priest that married the couple. Per Phelps, Reverend Fliger, “always filled those out.”[6]

Cipher:

The book claims that Earl Van Best, Jr.’s name appears in the Zodiac killer’s 340 cipher. Time and again, amateur sleuths have worked to make the cipher fit a suspect’s name. Some of the most in-depth work about the Zodiac killer’s ciphers has been done by David Oranchak on his blog Zodiac Killer Ciphers. Oranchak details the flawed nature of the book’s cipher argument, saying, “The only connection there is that the length of “Earl Van Best Jr” is the same length as the 13-letter cryptogram. This is an extremely weak connection, since there are millions of names that are thirteen letters long.”[7]

SFPD:

Retired detective John Hennessy refutes Stewart’s assertion that San Fransisco police ignored his claims. Hennessy says, “We didn’t kiss him off….He was a very nice man, very well spoken. And I think he was sincere in his belief that his father was the Zodiac, but there wasn’t enough to move quickly on. And the reality is that without hard evidence it’s hard to prove a case.”[8]

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Earl Van Best, Jr. with Judy Chandler, 1962. Chronicle file photo, courtesy of SFGate.

In the end, much of the The Most Dangerous Animal of All comes down to the reader learning about Earl Van Best, Jr.’s life, with Stewart and Mustafa liberally filling in a narrative that makes it an easy read. A credit to it’s successful story telling, is that in May 2018, “Deadline Hollywood” reported that the book rights had been acquired by the production company, Campfire. Most recently, Campfire has gained fame for producing Netflix’s true crime documentary The Innocent Man. According to its website, Campfire plans to first release a documentary, followed by a feature film.[9]

Do I personally believe that Earl Van Best, Jr. is the Zodiac killer? No. Do I believe that Gary Stewart believes Earl Van Best, Jr. is without a doubt the Zodiac killer? Yes. Do I believe that the massive publicity spun after and since the books release has been successful in making this particular son’s accusation one of the most high-profile to date? A most resounding yes.

 

Further Viewing/Reading:

Archival footage of Earl Van Best, Jr in court on August 31, 1962 – courtesy of CBS5 KPIX-TV as found in the Bay Area Television Archive: https://diva.sfsu.edu/collections/sfbatv/bundles/208846

“The Most Dangerous Daddy of All: Debunking Gary Stewart.” October 3, 2015. Found at:
https://zodiackillerfacts.com/main/the-most-dangerous-daddy-of-all-debunking-gary-stewart/

“Forensic Expert Slams New Zodiac Killer Claims.” HLN. May 14, 2014. Found at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YStPSZXZXq4

Campfire Production Company: https://campfire.us

 

ENDNOTES:

[1] Colvin, Beth. “In new book, Baton Rouge man says ‘Zodiac Killer’ was his father: I never set out to prove my father was a criminal.” The Advocate. May 5, 2014. https://www.theadvocate.com/baton_rouge/news/article_e7f402eb-92d1-57ee-b249-b4bddc406ecd.html

[2] Gary Stewart interview with Graham Ulkins. “RAW: Finding the Zodiac Killer.” May 15, 2014. Found at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0SEzyMjrcZg

[3] Ulkins interview.

[4] Letter from Michael Wakshull to Susan Mustafa entitled, “Re: Compare writing of Earl Van Best with letters from the Zodiac Killer.” December 9, 2012. Found in the insert after page 276 in The Most Dangerous Animal of All.

[5] Wakshull, M. (2014). The End of the Zodiac Mystery: How Forensic Science Helped Solve One of the Most Infamous Serial Killer Cases of the Century. eBook

[6] Fagan, Kevin. “Zodiac Killer suspect’s sex scandal shocks cops.” SFGate. May 22, 2014. Found at: https://blog.sfgate.com/crime/2014/05/22/zodiac-suspects-sex-scandal-shocks-cops/

[7] Oranchak, David. “The Most Pattern-Seeking Animal of All.” Zodiac Killer Ciphers blog. September 14, 2014/ Found at: http://www.zodiackillerciphers.com/?p=573

[8] Fagan. SFGate.

[9] Busch, Anita. “‘Most Dangerous Animal of All’ Bestseller About Author’s Father A The Zodiac Killer Picked Up.” Deadline. May 20, 2018. https://deadline.com/2018/05/zodiac-killer-most-dangerous-animal-of-all-gary-l-stewart-campfire-entertainment-ross-dinerstein-1202400219/

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