George Hodel, Herb Caen, Zodiac and The San Francisco Chronicle Connection

February 8, 2014
Los Angeles, California

I have received numerous requests to explain George Hodel’s connections to the San Francisco Chronicle.Here is an excerpt from Chapter 16 of my book, MOST EVIL  (Dutton 2009) that addresses the subject.

The Chronicle Connection

Bay Area investigators have often speculated that Zodiac seemed to have a special relationship with the San Francisco Chronicle. According to the book Great Crimes of San Francisco, “Zodiac began his publicity campaign with several Bay Area papers, but he soon began to concentrate on one: the San Francisco Chronicle.”

Many experts suspect that Zodiac had a direct, personal connection to the newspaper. Perhaps he was related to someone who worked at the Chronicle or had once been an employee himself.

Zodiac’s Halloween card of 10/22/70 (Letter #17) was addressed directly to “Paul Averly, San Francisco Chronicle.” In his final letter (#25, dated 4/24/78[1], Zodiac took the time to acknowledge Herb Caen, one of San Francisco’s most beloved columnists, as though they were old friends. He wrote:

This is the Zodiac speaking, I am back with you. Tell herb caen, I am here. I have always been here. That city pig toschi is good but I am bu (crossed out) smarter and better he will get tired then leave me alone. I am waiting for a good movie about me. who will play me. I am now in control of all things.

yours truly   :

On the surface, Zodiac’s message can be taken as just another taunt to San Franciscans, reminding them that he’s a local boy and still on the prowl. But the person who carefully composed these letter and risked being discovered, isn’t someone who says things casually. Everything that issues from his complex, enigmatic, psychotic mind alludes to a deeper meaning as he plays his dangerous double game — relying on his superior intellect to outsmart the police, while at the same time feeding his massive ego that demands that he leave subtle clues to his identity.

In the earlier biographical summary of my father’s life, I mentioned his experiences as a young journalist, first in Los Angeles as a crime-reporter for the Los Angeles Record, then later, while he was living and attending medical school in San Francisco. It was during this time that he was employed as a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle.

San Francisco Chronicle columnists George & Emilia Hodel with son, Duncan, circa 1932.

Beginning on Valentine’s Day, February 14, 1932, George and his (first wife) Emilia Hodel wrote a weekly Sunday column in the San Francisco Chronicle entitled, “Abroad In San Francisco.”  The following insert printed next to their first co-bylined article, “Little Italy, Like Naples, Leans Over Azure Bay; Breath of Mediterranean,” shows how George and Emilia Hodel were introduced to San Franciscans back in 1932:

Editor’s note—This series of articles, by George and Emilia Hodel, deals with the foreign colonies of San Francisco. The various foreign quarters—Chinatown, the Latin Quarter, Little Greece, and the rest are veritable cities within a city. There are more than twenty of them, with a combined population of over 190,000. Each Sunday you will explore, with the Hodels, one or another of these colonies.The foreign populations of San Francisco have merged their interests inseparably with those of all San Francisco. In many respects life in the “colonies” is indistinguishable from that of the entire American scene. Nevertheless, each group has brought over with it its old-world heritage—customs, festivals, philosophies, foods.

The old ways have in many cases been carefully preserved, and each now lends its special color to the life of San Francisco.

Each subsequent Sunday, George and Emilia described the sights, sounds, customs and tastes of another ethnic enclave within the city. These included: Italy, Yugoslavia, Portugal, Spain, Fisherman’s Wharf, Greece, the Danes, Norway, Sweden, Russia, Japan, Germany, Chinatown, and France. Accompanying the articles were photographs showing traditional dress and interviews by George Hodel featuring a prominent citizen.

GHH SF Chronicle columnist

 

 

A  collage of the series of articles.
Note the 1932 sketch of George Hodel seated at a restaurant about to order some food.

After reading the Abroad in San Francisco series of articles, one comes away with two distinct impressions of George Hodel. One, he was a man who loved things that were different and exotic. Two, he was an acute observer who saw everything and remembered every detail.
George Hodel left the Chronicle in 1932, after writing some fourteen articles over a five-month period. Herb Caen, some nine-years younger than George, didn’t begin writing for the newspaper until 1938.[2]

Herb Caen went on to become the Chronicle’s greatest journalist and wrote about the city he loved for almost sixty-years. While my father encouraged San Franciscans to explore the cultural diversity of their own city, Caen spoke to them much more directly. His message: let’s laugh at ourselves and the vagaries of our time and in the process learn to accept one another in our splendid diversity.

While Herb Caen was likely completely unaware of George Hodel, I suspect George followed Caen’s career with interest. Given the enormity of his ego, he probably considered himself to be Caen’s predecessor. As he read Caen’s column, he probably thought to himself, “I’ve been there and done that, said that before you.”

In his cryptic message to Caen, the author adopts a familiar tone. It no longer sounds like the Zodiac pontificating, but former San Francisco Chronicle columnist George Hodel talking to a colleague, as he says:

I am back with you. Tell herb caen, I am here.

I have always been here.

 


[1] In 1978, several months after the receipt of this letter, a controversy arose when it was learned that Inspector Toschi had anonymously written himself some “fan mail” letters and sent them to a friend at the San Francisco Chronicle. This caused some to wonder if the “I am back..” letter was genuine. Toschi adamantly denied writing the Zodiac letter and was backed by command staff on the SFPD. On 7/16/78 an article appeared in the New York Times headlined, “POLICE OFFICIALS ON COAST DENY INSP. FORGED ZODIAC LETTERS.” I quote in part from that article, “ Police officials have emphatically denied reports that Insp. Dave Toschi, who has investigated the Zodiac killer case for nine years, ever was suspected of forging the latest letters attributed to the murder…. Mr. Toschi was reassigned from homicide to the pawn shop detail Monday after admitting that he used fake names to write self-flattering fan mail to a former San Francisco Chronicle columnist.”  

[2] Herb Caen is credited with coining the term Beatnik. Kenneth Rexroth was a well known San Francisco poet and considered by many to be one of the “father’s of the Beat Generation.” George Hodel and Rexroth were good friends. In fact, in the spring of 1950 Rexroth, while visiting George from San Francisco, was overheard discussing his pending divorce by detectives who were staked out on the Franklin House and conducting electronic taped recordings. At the time of the Rexroth conversation father had been identified as the prime Black Dahlia Avenger suspect.

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Comments

  1. ann diamond says:

    Hi Steve,
    Just finished your book “Most Evil.” I commend your diligent work in pursuing every lead to it’s end, especially the final chapters, tying in G. Hodel’s life experiences, interests and influences into his criminal profile.
    I have also kept my mind just as open to the critics of the book, and after processing for a few days, I have some pressing questions for the critics, and wonder if you have addressed/resolved any of these with those folks?
    First, on the issue of Radians – the critics say that because the areas of interest form an “angle larger than one radian”, using radians to deduce a theory (location of “bomb”, etc.) is invalid. If this approach is invalid, why did the Zodiac himself ask that radians be used to decipher the location of the “bomb”? And, given your personal knowledge of G. Hodel’s life, you assert that the Zodiac persona was most likely inspired (by his immersion for a time in Native American culture) as a symbolic marker of seasons and time (the 12 months of the calendar, the 12 hours of the clock), rather than a mathematically precise number. Indeed, the Zodiac himself sketched an imprecise (that is, not using rulers and protractors) symbol over Mt. Diablo. Even if some of the sites were mapped “off” by a few miles, is this slight discrepancy still being used to debunk your assertions that the “bomb” – the location/significance of the E.Short gravesite – is invalid?
    Second, I am astounded that there is such a striking synchronicity between the Chicago murders and the L.A. murders, as far as M.O. What are the chances, statistically speaking, of these murders being completely unrelated? I know that the chances are extremely slim by your estimation (investigator to about 300 homicides). But I’m curious, on a nationwide scale, what the chances are that two separate killers would have this M.O. within this short time frame (that is, a year, rather than decades)? For example, I assume that over an increasing number of years, there is a greater statistical chance for a person to arrange a copy cat killing of a notorious killer such as Jack the Ripper.
    The handwriting samples are persuasive to me as well. I see your profile of G. Hodel as a “Dr. Jekell and Mr. Hyde” personality as being evident here – as the controlled, mature and defensive block writing uppercase style he uses in his professional life indicates the Dr. Jekell side of his life, and the childish, contrived and attention-seeking Mr. Hyde side is apparent in the notes that span from the Chicago murders to the Zodiac killings. The consistency of some of the letter shapes, (to me, especially the “s”, “e” and “c” over time certainly seems unusual and beyond pure chance. So here, my question is, have other graphologists weighed in on this issues besides the one you retained most frequently in your books?
    Finally, with all due respect, I do find that the physical descriptions of the Zodiac killer does not mesh with the appearance of G. Hodel. This leads me to wonder HOW G. Hodel might have been involved in the Zodiac killings – was he responsible for only one – the Stine killing? Was he responsible for the attention-seeking notes and a separate killer was acting independently? Did he alter his shoe size/appearance dramatically, and did eye witness accounts under trauma affect the suspect description/sketches? The shoe size is a big issue – however, I imagine different makes/styles of shoes would affect the size one chooses to wear comfortably, this is certainly true for myself.
    I sincerely hope you are well, and send you my highest regards for your pursuit of the truth, of justice, and in some ironic sense, vengeance for these crimes. I wonder if the the fourth watcher (what a chilling and surreal letter from your dad) is now behind you, in some strange way, guiding this journey? At any rate, I hope that DNA evidence will satisfy this investigation in your lifetime, closure is well deserved for all involved.
    Best wishes,
    a.m.

    • Steve Hodel says:

      Hi Ann:

      Thank you for the kind words. Much appreciated.

      As to your query if there any resolution to the questions you have asked my critics, here are a few observations on my part.

      Radians: Yes, you have hit the nail on the head here. The important part is that this is coming from the mouth of the killer, not some “theorist.” Zodiac is telling us what to do and how to map it out by following HIS instructions. Whether the mathematic angles (mine or his) are off by a few degrees either way is not the point. He has even gone further and drawn the points on the circle showing the angles. The line-up of Elizabeth Short’s gravesite with the Stine murder location, I do not believe is in question or dispute.
      The significance is the mapping of and the placement of the victims’ bodies, just as the Black Dahlia Avenger had done some two decades prior.

      As to the second question, yes this is what pointed the way for me to eventually take a look at the later Zodiac killings. It was Elizabeth Short’s personal investigation of the Chicago Lipstick Murders in 1946, while her “former suitor”, George Hodel was away in China that got me looking into those crimes. The source was not some “he said she said”, but hard and detailed documentation in the L.A. DA Files containing the who and what and when and where of it. Then of course the ultimate discovery that one of the Lipstick murders (Suzanne Degnan) was performed by a skilled surgeon who performed a “hemicorpectomy” to divide the body. The exact same operation as performed later on Elizabeth “Black Dahlia” Short with her body then posed on a street named “Degnan.” This and the handwriting and the voice all take it, in my mind, way beyond any so called “coincidence.”

      As to the handwriting. No legitimate court certified QDE has come forward to challenge my own expert’s findings on either the Black Dahlia Avenger authorship to George Hodel or to the Zodiac authorships. Not one. The CA DOJ has had their own expert review and compare George Hodel’s handwriting to Zodiac and he/she has come back with results saying, “Unable to eliminate George Hodel as the possible author of the Zodiac letters and request additional lower-case samples of his writing for additional analysis.” (Unfortunately, I do not have any addition, as he mostly wrote in uppercase or typed his communications to me over the years.) To my knowledge, CA DOJ made no comparison of the Zodiac HW to the Kern Notes, which contains a large amount of lowercase HW as I point out in MOST EVIL.

      As to the questions on the physical descriptions I do not see it as a major discrepancy at all. The original descriptions were many and varied by different witnesses, none of whom actually got a good look at Zodiac. The best is the Stine composite coming from the teenagers, looking from at least a hundred feet distant, in the darkness, who describe the man close to George Hodel’s physical description, but younger, “35-45.” (I would suggest that to a teenager, there exists little difference between a man 45-55, as they tend to look at all men past a certain age as “old.” Further, we have officer Fouke’s description of the suspect being “at the high end of that range”, meaning 45 years. George Hodel was 59, but could easily pass for mid-Forties. The 1960s photo of him in comparison to the Stine composite speaks for itself and is well within the realm of possibility. I do not believe the Stine killer was different from the other Zodiac murders and am confidant all were done by the same suspect.

      As to the shoe size, not sure what the reference is here? My father’s shoe size was a size 10, which is exactly the same size as Zodiac.

      Again, as I have repeated frequently, I am not saying that George Hodel was Zodiac, but I do believe a compelling case has been made and the only way we will know for sure is for law enforcement to obtain confirmed DNA and make the comparison to my father’s full DNA profile, which I have in my possession.

      Again, my thanks for your support and confidence.

      Steve

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