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/

December 12, 2018

Most Evil: Avenger, Zodiac, and the Further Serial Murders of Dr. George Hill Hodel
By Steve Hodel
Penguin Publishing Group
2009

What if your father was a serial killer?

For most everyone, that answer will be no, of course your father is not a serial killer. For a painful few though, the answer is yes.[1] But what if you suspect your father might have been a serial killer? In other words, what if you were Steve Hodel?

In part one of ‘Is there a Serial Killer in the Family’, I review Steve Hodel’s book, Most Evil: Avenger, Zodiac, and the Further Serial Murders of Dr. George Hill Hodel. A former Los Angeles detective, Steve Hodel asserts his father, Dr. George Hill Hodel not only killed the woman often referred to as the Black Dahlia, Elizabeth Short, but that he was also responsible for the Lipstick Killings (Chicago from 1945 to early 1946) and the Zodiac murders. His bold claims are met with a variety of responses, such as “Steve Hodel makes Sherlock Holmes look like an amateur,” or “I’m convinced,” to “amateurish and insulting.”[2]

In Most Evil, Steve Hodel begins with a brief overview of his family and his father’s background. From the start, it’s clear the Hodel’s were a troubled family, and rampant are accusations of orgies, incest, rape, and forced abortions. A physician who specialized in the treatment of venereal disease, George Hodel fathered eleven children with five women. Seeming to enjoy a glamorous life in Los Angeles, he would leave it and his children, moving to Hawaii in 1950. The year prior, Hodel was charged with the sexual assault of his fourteen year old daughter, Tamar Hodel. Following a high profile trial he was acquitted, even if questions about his guilt remain.

Interspersed throughout Most Evil are stories of Steve Hodel’s childhood, letters from his father, and an insight into father and son’s relationship at the end of George’s life. There is mixture of awe, anger, confusion, and reverence in the way Hodel speaks about his father. Even as he accuses him of being a sadistic and evil serial killer, he appears enamored by his father’s talent and charisma.

While there is a modicum of truth in Hodel’s account, examining his book with a heavy dose of skepticism isn’t hard. Hodel uncovers that his father was in fact, an early suspect in Elizabeth Short’s murder, enough so that LAPD detectives placed a wiretap in the Hodel home. While in those tapes George Hodel does mention Short’s killing, he was never charged with any crime. Instead of sticking with the Black Dahlia case, though, Hodel has taken it upon himself to bolster his father’s image as a psychopathic mastermind of epic proportions, by tacking on the crimes of both the Lipstick Killer and the Zodiac. Overkill? Yes, with pun intended.

Briefly, here are just a few of the issues with Hodel’s account:

    • George Hill Hodel’s age – to fit Steve Hodel’s narrative, George Hodel would have been 61 years old when he committed the Zodiac killings (if you consider Betty Lou Jensen and David Faraday the first Zodiac victims). Every account about the Zodiac’s identity place him nowhere near this age.
    • The Zodiac sketch used in the original Dutton pressing of Most Evil (below is picture from my copy). As any Zodiac armchair detective knows, this is clearly not law enforcement’s rendering of the suspected killer. Hodel did release a statement trying to explain his guffaw, but if one were to believe his account was as well researched as he claims, you would also believe that such a simple mistake would not have occurred in the first place.
    • Hodel’s expanded descriptions of the criminal acts in which he provides minute details only the killer could know are misleading and stated without proof, appearing to be his way of reinforcing his theories.[3]
    • Hodel relies heavily on one particular handwriting expert, Hannah McFarland, to examine the notes from the Black Dahlia killer.[4] Subsequently, the CBS News show 48 Hours had the same documents evaluated by John Osborn, “one of the most respected document examiners in the field,” but unlike McFarland, his results were not conclusive. Per Osborn, there was not enough evidence to “prove one way or another whether his father was the writer or not the writer.”[5]
    • It becomes apparent that in Hodel’s eyes, his father is the prototypical serial killer. White male? Check. Travels and operates interstate (or as Hodel asserts, internationally)? Check. An evil genius? Check. And last, but most important for Hodel, the premise that “serial killers don’t stop until they’re caught, go to prison, or die.”[6] Therefore, according to Hodel, his father must be responsible for more murders. Among the many issues with this supposition is that these stereotypes aren’t always true, even if continually perpetuated.[7]
    • In both Most Evil and in the Discovery Channel series called Most Evil (unrelated), Hodel takes credit for a pseudo-scientific theory called “thoughtprints,” but it’s not entirely clear he is the originator of the idea, as psychiatrist Andrew Hodges appeared to advocate for the concept as early as 1998. [8] Either way, the “thoughtprint” theory has no clear basis in scholarly or academic research, and Hodel’s use of it only further undermines the validity of his assertions.[9]
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This inaccurately attributed Zodiac sketch occurs not once, but twice (on pages 108 & 190)

Throughout Most Evil, Steve Hodel admits that his evidence is circumstantial, but in closing says, “As a man who has dedicated his life to criminal investigation, I can’t ignore the facts.” Yet this is exactly what Steve Hodel has done. It appears that his desire to make his father pay for his perceived and possible sins have clouded his judgment and his conclusions.

Most Evil illustrates just how many theories about the Zodiac killer exist, just how passionate each of those espousing his or her said theory are, and how often circumstantial evidence is just that. Were Hodel to leave the accusations against his father at the Black Dahlia and the Lipstick Killer, he may have continued to convert the public to his theories. With Most Evil, it’s evident that Hodel has stretched his assertions to make his suspect fit not just one notorious crime, but also some of the highest profile crimes of the century.

 

 

Further reading:

For a full debunking of Steve Hodel’s theories that George Hill Hodel was the Zodiac, visit:
http://zodiackillerfacts.com/zodiac-media/zodiac-books/2167-2/
https://zodiackillerfacts.com/zodiac-theories/the-accused-the-accusers/george-hodel-most-evil/steve-hodel-most-evil-debunked/
https://www.laweekly.com/news/urban-myths-busting-the-black-dahlia-avenger-2136281

FBI files on the Black Dahlia murder: https://archives.fbi.gov/archives/news/stories/2006/october/dahlia_102006

For an in-depth article about Steve Hodel’s half-sister, Tamar Nais Hodel, see: Weller, Sheila. “Uncovering the Secrets of the Black Dahlia Murder.” Dujour. 2015. http://staging.dujour.com/news/uncovering-the-secrets-of-the-black-dahlia-murder/

A possible television series about Tamar Nais Hodel daughter, Fauna Hodel: https://variety.com/2017/tv/news/chris-pine-patty-jenkins-tnt-one-day-shell-darken-1202507134/

Endnotes
[1] Kerri Rawson is one of those painful few. Daughter of BTK, she has endured something we wouldn’t wish on an enemy. Come back at the end of January, when I review her upcoming book, “A Serial Killer’s Daughter: My Story of Faith, Love, and Overcoming.”

[2] From Amazon.com book reviews.

[3] For example, see Hodel’s theory of how his father cleaned the crime scene after Elizabeth Short’s death, 88-89.

[4] Certified Document Examiner and Forensic Handwriting Analyst, Hannah McFarland. See her web page at: http://www.writeexam.com/writeexam.htm

[5] “Black Dahlia Confidential,” 48 Hours. December 31, 2005. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/black-dahlia-confidential/3/

[6] Hodel, Most Evil, 109.

[7] At a 2005 symposium that gathered a multi-disciplinary group of experts, the FBI called out many of these tropes as myths. See, Behavioral Analysis Unit, National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime (NCAVC), “Serial Murder: Multidisciplinary Perspective for Investigators.” Edited by Morton, Robert J. and Mark Hilts, p. 3-6. PDF of symposium available at: https://www.fbi.gov/stats-services/publications/serial-murder; see also, Ramsland, Kathryn. “Persistent Myths about Serial Killers.” Psychology Today. February 12, 2018. At: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/shadow-boxing/201802/persistent-myths-about-serial-killers

[8] Discovery Channel “Most Evil” season 2, episode 4, “Unsolved Cases.” Original airdate: September 2, 2007. See the video at: https://youtu.be/dEClH1a8i2E?list=PLM98pZNJOqZhSeb1w14MKE20OGf2PGBfS

[9] See: Andrew Hodges –http://www.andrewghodges.com/forensic-profiling/recognition-of-thoughtprint-decoding
http://www.cnn.com/2008/CRIME/07/28/ccc.directors.log/index.html
http://articles.latimes.com/2004/nov/21/magazine/tm-1dahliaside47