(CNN) A young serial killer stalked San Francisco's gay community in the mid-1970s. He would sketch strangers in bars, strike up conversations, leave with those strangers and then, police say, stab them to death. He became known as "The Doodler." His last known victim died in the summer of 1975: The victim's pants were unzipped. His face was eaten by maggots.
Police released a sketch of a suspect a few months later. They repeatedly questioned one man. But the Doodler was never caught. Now, more than 40 years later, the San Francisco Police Department says it has a suspect.
Three men were assaulted but somehow managed to escape the Doodler's clutches, the lead inspector on the case at the time told reporters. They gave police descriptions of the Doodler.
"We have a suspect in the assault that spawned the sketch," Inspector Dan Cunningham says. Police at the time were convinced that assailant was the Doodler, but Cunningham is now working to confirm the details. "I'm still connecting the dots," he said. "I'm working to see if that assault is actually connected to the murders." And Cunningham is now looking for the diplomat.
In the 1970s, detectives said the Doodler might have butchered as many as 14 people. "I'm looking at five murders," says Cunningham, who recently took charge of the department's cold case unit. "But I'd be a fool to say he didn't do more."
A police artist has updated the sketch: aging the Doodler, drawing him as he might look now. The updated sketch will be released, says Cunningham, "once I've got all my ducks in a row." If he's still alive, the Doodler will be in his early 60s.
Cunningham will also work with the SFPD crime lab, hoping modern forensic technology might manage to extract a usable DNA sample from evidence gathered at two Doodler crime scenes 43 years ago.
Cold cases warm up
The Doodler is one of a number of cold cases now creeping back into the spotlight after a suspect in the so-called Golden State Killer case was arrested in April thanks to advances in DNA technology. He's accused of a string of robberies, rapes and killings committed across California in the 1970s and 1980s.
Authorities in Vallejo, California, also hope DNA technology might now lead them to the Zodiac Killer, who killed at least five people in the Bay Area in the late-1960s. Detectives have reportedly sent two letters written by the killer to a crime lab for analysis.
Police in Simi Valley, California are hopeful that the arrest of a suspect in the so-called Golden State Killer case will help authorities solve the murder of a mother and her young son nearly 40 years ago.
A series of grisly killings
The first of the Doodler's alleged victims to be found was Gerald Cavanagh, a 50-year-old who had worked in a mattress factory. Cavanagh's body was in 1974, lying at the water's edge on Ocean Beach. The coroner states that Cavanagh's corpse was, "Lying on the sand, in a supine position. ... There were multiple stab wounds. ... There was an apparent defense wound on the left little finger." Cavanagh had been stabbed 16 times.
There are four other corpses on Cunningham's list. Joseph Stevens, a 27-year-old drag queen, was the next to die. His body was found by a dog walker in Golden Gate Park early one morning in June 1974. Stevens had been stabbed five times. According to the coroner's report, "Approximately 10 feet west of the deceased's feet was a large disturbed area of brush, with a pool of blood. There were drag marks from this point to where the deceased was found, indicating that an altercation had taken place."
ďżĽLess than two weeks later, another early morning walker found another body on Ocean Beach: Claus Christmann, a 31-year-old German. According to the coroner, "The deceased's pants were unzipped and open." The report details multiple stab wounds on Christmann's neck and shoulders, "In a manner which seemed as though the assailant had attempted to decapitate the deceased."
A police bulletin released regarding those first three killings reads, in part: "Victims one and two have homosexual propensities and due to underclothing and makeup in victim number three's pocket he also may have the same propensities."
In the summer of 1975 two more bodies were found. Frederick Capin, a registered nurse in his early 30s, was found stabbed to death beside the highway that runs parallel to Ocean Beach.
A month later, the fifth and final corpse was found in bushes near the 16th tee of the Lincoln Park Golf Course, a little to the northeast of Ocean Beach. "Deceased had no underpants and his blue pants were unzipped," wrote the coroner. The dead man was Harald Gullberg, a 67-year-old Swedish sailor.
Five men had been found dead within 4 miles of each other, all within 18 months. "There was fear among gay men," says Randy Alfred, news editor at The Sentinel, a gay newspaper.
The search for the killer
A few months after Gullberg's death, the SFPD released the artist's sketch and a description of the suspect. Inspector Rotea Gilford, the lead investigator on the case, told The Sentinel that the suspect "often sits in bars doodling caricatures and cartoons on napkins." Sometimes referred to as the Black Doodler, he was described at the time as African-American, between 19 and 22 years old, slender, a little shy of 6 feet, and frequently wore "a Navy-type watch cap."
The Sentinel was one of the few media outlets covering the story at the time. The Zodiac Killer was still big news. And in 1973 and 1974 the so-called Zebra Murders plagued the city: A group of black, Muslim men were killing white victims. Some in the gay community wondered if the police were taking the Doodler killings seriously. "There was a feeling they would have given it a lot more attention if the victims had been white society women from Pacific Heights," says Alfred.
"Baloney," says Moses, who worked in the SFPD crime lab. "I wouldn't say any case got less attention, was forgotten about," he said. "That's just not how the system works."
In January 1976, the San Francisco Chronicle ran a story about the Doodler and two days later a suspect was arrested. According to The Sentinel, "The man was carrying a butcher knife and a book of sketches when the police nabbed him."
Police questioned the man repeatedly, The Sentinel reported at the time. The paper quoted an unnamed police source as saying the suspect had confessed the killings to a psychiatrist. "He's having difficulty with his sexuality," Gilford told The Chronicle at the time.
Police had a strong suspect, and they had three still-living witnesses. But those three men refused to testify. "My feeling is they don't want to be exposed as homosexuals," Gilford told the UPI wire service. An Associated Press headline read: "Murder suspect free because gays silent."
Iconic gay rights activist and politician Harvey Milk told the AP, "I can understand their position. I respect the pressure society has put on them." Gay sex was illegal in California until January 1976, and discrimination in jobs and housing was still rife. "There was still a long history of mistrust between gay men and the police force," says Alfred. "I mean, the homicide detective might have been in the vice squad two years ago when he busted you."
Many of the officers involved in the Doodler investigation, and many of the witnesses, have died in the 43 years since the Doodler's last suspected hit. Gilford died in 1998.
Cunningham is well aware the clock is ticking to solve this case. "The DNA is going to be important," he says. "A lot is going to have to depend on the crime lab."