Inside the Hunt for San Francisco's Notorious Doodler Serial Killer: 'His Victims Deserve Justice'

Police have offered a $250,000 reward for any information leading to the arrest of the Doodler serial killer

Doodler Serial Killer rollout
Photo: Getty

Joseph "Jae" Stevens was a born performer. Growing up in a Bay Area suburb in the late '60s, Stevens found joy in wearing flashy clothes and performing musical numbers for his friends and neighbors. At 19, he moved to San Francisco where he became a rising star in the city's vibrant drag scene. In 1974, just days before an upcoming out-of-town gig in Boston, he went out for a drink at a popular cabaret bar — but never made it home.

On June 25 of that year, Stevens's body was discovered among bushes in Golden Gate Park. He was just 27.

"I had to identify his body at the morgue," his sister Melissa Stevens Honrath, now 72, tells PEOPLE. "It was just a horrible experience."

Stevens is just one of at least six men who San Francisco authorities say met similar horrific ends in the mid-'70s at the hands of a killer dubbed the "Doodler."

Somehow the Doodler was able to carry out multiple murders in multiple locations without being arrested, and authorities believe his final victim was in 1975.

Today, there is a renewed push by police to track down the killer. A team of San Francisco Police Department cold case detectives are examining new leads and hoping that a $250,000 reward for information will lead to the arrest and conviction of the killer — nearly 50 years after he first struck.

Doodler Serial Killer rollout
Top: Gerald Cavanagh, Joseph "Jae" Stevens and Klaus Christmann; Warren Andrews, Harald Gullberg and Fred Capin. Courtesy

"These men — the victims — came to this city for a better life and ended up getting killed," says San Francisco Police Department investigator Dan Cunningham in this week's issue of PEOPLE. "They deserve justice, their families deserve justice and we are all their advocates now."

The Victims

Around 1:30 a.m. on Jan. 27, 1974, a call came into the San Francisco Police Department from a payphone near Ocean Beach. The tipster on the line reported stumbling upon the body of a 50-year-old man who police later identified as Canadian furniture finisher Gerald Cavanagh.

"I just felt it was my duty to report it," the caller told a dispatcher before refusing to give his name and hanging up.

Less than six months later, Stevens was found dead by a woman strolling in Golden Gate Park. "He was a very sweet person, very genuine," drag queen Davida Ashton tells PEOPLE. "He was a real talent."

Twelve days later, on July 7, Klaus Christmann, a 31-year-old married father of two who had recently moved to San Francisco from Germany, was discovered on Ocean Beach. By the time decorated Vietnam Veteran and registered nurse Fred Capin, 32, was found "in a sprawled position" behind a sand dune May 12, 1975, investigators began to see a pattern.

Swedish sailor Harald Gullberg was next. His remains were discovered on June 4, 1975 in Lincoln Park near a golf course.

An early theory was developed that the Doodler would draw sketches of the men in the city's bustling gay bars before inviting them to the Ocean Beach area, a popular gay hook up spot, for sex. However, Cunningham, who is investigating the slayings along with cold case investigators and partner Dan Dedet, believes the killer may have simply met his victims at the parks and beaches where he murdered them.

Doodler Serial Killer rollout
Ocean Beach area. Santiago Mejia/The San Francisco Chronicle/Getty

Meanwhile, the murders put the tight-knit gay community on edge. "It was a scary time," former bartender Robbie Robinson, now 87, tells PEOPLE. "I was concerned because you never knew where he was going to be next."

At least three men escaped the Doodler's attacks, including a foreign diplomat who told police he met his attacker — described as a tall Black man between the ages of 19 and 21 – at a late-night diner in San Francisco's Castro District. The man was drawing animal figures on a napkin.

The Doodler suspect updated sketch
The Doodler suspect updated sketch. San Francisco Police Department

Soon after a sketch was released, police got a tip with the name of a person of interest and a vehicle plate. More calls followed with information about the same man. Police identified a person of interest in the case but were unable to make an arrest.

After the police interviewed the man — who has never been publicly identified — in Jan. 1976, the killings stopped, and the investigation went cold.

The Doodler San Francisco
1975 and 2018 forensic sketches of the Doodler. SFPD

For more on the hunt for the Doodler serial killer, subscribe now to PEOPLE, or pick up this week's issue, on newsstands Friday.

Many San Franciscans were disappointed and some blamed the then-hostile relationship between law enforcement and the gay community for stymieing the investigation and allowing the killer to remain free.

"Police departments in every major city had a unit whose sole job it was to track, entrap and arrest homosexuals, so you had a population of very closeted gay people who had no trust or faith in them whatsoever," Cleve Jones, LGBTQ+-rights activist and author of When We Rise: My Life in the Movement tells PEOPLE. "You would be in trouble with the law if you talked to the cops."

San Francisco police hope that a new generation of investigators will expose the Doodler.

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In Jan. 2022, police announced that Warren Andrews may be the sixth victim of the notorious serial killer.

Andrews, 52, was assaulted and found unconscious on April 27, 1975, at Land's End, a San Francisco park near the Golden Gate Bridge. He died several weeks later.

More recently, police released an updated drawing of the Doodler and have said the man, who was interviewed by police in the mid-70s, is still considered a person of interest today.

"I think this case is solvable," says Cunningham. "There's DNA we can test, and people with information are still alive."

For Melissa, the loss of her brother devastated the family. She hopes that the attention to the case will finally bring closure for her family. "We all loved him so much," she says. "He was like a thread through all of us that was just joy, and his loss just destroyed everything."

Investigators are asking anyone with information to call the SFPD's 24-hour tip line at 415-575-4444 or text a tip to TIP411. You can also contact Cold Case Investigators Tom Newland (415-553-1144), Dominic Celaya (415-553-9856) Daniel Dedet (415-553-1450), or Daniel Cunningham (415-553-9515).

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