Most people know about the Zodiac killer: Psycho roams the Bay Area in the 1960s and ’70s, randomly taking lives and taunting police and the San Francisco Chronicle with cryptic letters. Spreads terror. Never gets caught.
But that’s just the best known of the unsolved cases that have bedeviled San Francisco over the decades. In its 144 years of operation, The Chronicle has covered many – some of them outright murders, some just creepy deaths surrounded by murky circumstances.
Scores remain unresolved.
Take the gambler whose body was found in a San Francisco alley in 1946, carefully chopped up and wrapped in brown butcher paper. Or the Chinatown kingpin who was killed in 1897 by assassins as he was sitting in a barber’s chair, getting a shave.
Mafia bosses, boy-crazy society matrons, innocent children, party-hearty actors, even a U.S. president have all also met untimely ends here. And in case after case, the most crucial questions of who and why have gone unanswered.
That shouldn’t be surprising. On average, 40 percent of the 18,000 homicides in the United States each year go unsolved, according to the FBI. Translate that into 144 years of death in the city – which regularly logs at least 50 annual slayings- and you’re talking about a lot of grief and justice left unserved.
“San Francisco is among the least violent cities in the country, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its share of pretty jolting murders,” said Charles Fracchia, founder and president emeritus of the California Historical Society. “It all goes back to the time of the Gold Rush, really. People drank, someone would stab somebody, someone got shot, and it would take off from there.
“Those were kind of wild, woolly times back then.”
To some extent, that spirit never fully left the city. It’s somewhere in the DNA.
This is a brief journey through that DNA: 10 unsolved death mysteries that rocked this city to its core when they happened.
Death of a tong king
Fong “Little Pete” Ching was the king of Chinatown in 1897. As leader of the Sam Yup Tong, the 32-year-old was rumored to have killed 50 men, and was worth more than $150,000 – a fortune in those days – in gains from his empire built on prostitution, gambling and opium.
Rival tongs hated Little Pete, so he never went anywhere without a bodyguard, plus two German shepherds, two pistols, a chain-mail armor vest, and a hat reinforced with metal to function as a helmet.
But on Jan. 23, Little Pete let down his guard. He was getting the finishing touches on a shave at the Wong Lung barbershop at 819 Washington St. when two gunmen burst in and held him down. They shoved a .45-caliber revolver under the chain mail and pumped five bullets into his spine, then two more into his head.
By the time the police came, The Chronicle wrote, “Little Pete’s face, clean shaven, powder-marked and bloody, was setting into the fixed stare that marks death.”
Two men were arrested but quickly freed. Nobody was ever convicted.
Fatal final exam
Most history books say Jane Stanford, co-founder of Stanford University with husband Leland Stanford, died of heart failure in 1905 while on vacation in Honolulu.
Then there is the murder theory.
It all began when the widow Stanford was relaxing in her Nob Hill mansion on Jan. 14, 1905, and took a deep quaff of her nightly mineral water. She spat it out and forced herself to vomit – it had a “bitter” taste, she told her servants. And sure enough, the water was laced with a fatal dose of strychnine.
Rattled by the incident and eager to shake a chest cold, Stanford sailed for the warmer air of Hawaii. But she couldn’t outrun fate.
On Feb. 28, Stanford again took her nightly mineral water – and at 11:30 p.m. she cried out for help to her servants, who rushed to her plush hotel room to find her in convulsions, according to The Chronicle’s cablegram-assisted account the next day. “I have been poisoned!” she reportedly screamed. “They have tried this once before. It is a horrible death!”
One doctor’s report said the water was full of strychnine, another said it wasn’t. Accusations abounded about suspects wanting to get their hands on Stanford’s estate, but nothing stuck. Stanford Magazine reported in 2003 that Jane Stanford had been secretly advocating for the removal of University President David Jordan, implying that this might given him motive to kill her.
But at this point, such theories are worth nothing more than the dust of the ages of which they speak.
Police chief in the bay
He was by reputation an honest man, good and true, but in the days of graft and quick death in the early 1900s, that wasn’t enough to save Police Chief William Biggy. Scandal at City Hall led to ominous whispers – and in 1908, the chief disappeared.
He was crossing the bay on a police boat at sundown on Nov. 30 when the dark deed was done. Or not done. The pilot of the boat, Officer William Murphy, told investigators he last saw the chief vomiting over the gunwale. ” ‘The chief has been lost,’ he sobbed as the tears rolled down his cheeks,’ ” The Chronicle reported Murphy telling a hospital worker after he landed the boat.
Two weeks later, Biggy’s body washed up on Angel Island.
Wags had been whispering that Biggy was involved in the shooting of a prosecutor trying to bring down one of the city’s political bagmen, and one theory was that Biggy was bumped off in retaliation.
But San Francisco crime historian Kevin Mullen believes Biggy killed himself in despair over being accused of something so nefarious when he was actually an honest cop in a corrupt city.
“He was the wrong man in the wrong job at the wrong time, and that cost him his life,” Mullen wrote in his book “The Toughest Gang in Town.”
Preparedness Day bombing
For a reminder that terrorism is no new thing, one need look no further than the Preparedness Day parade of July 22, 1916.
With 51,329 marchers, it was the biggest ever held in San Francisco up to then. The preparedness theme referred to the nation getting ready to join World War I. But there were those who vehemently opposed going to war – primarily the radical labor movement of the time, and one its pamphlets promised, “We are going to use a little direct action on the 22nd to show that militarism can’t be forced on us.”
Nobody ever proved who was behind the horror, but at 2:06 p.m., a suitcase bomb exploded near the Ferry Building – blowing 10 people to bits, and wounding 40 others. It was the worst terrorist act in the city’s history, and The Chronicle’s coverage, referring to the bomb as a “Timed Infernal Machine,” pulled no punches.
“There was a sudden roar, and I was knocked to the ground,” the paper quoted acting Police Lt. Charles Birdsall as saying. “I arose, looked down at the girl, and found one of her legs was hanging by a thread. All around the bodies of men and woman, almost stripped of their clothes, lay in horrible grotesque heaps.”
The star and the dead starlet
Comedian Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was one of the biggest silent-movie stars in the world in two respects in September 1921: He’d just signed an unprecedented $1 million film contract, and he famously weighed 266 pounds.
Arbuckle came to the city by the bay that year to celebrate his new contract – but on Sept. 5, on the third day of a booze-fueled party at the St. Francis Hotel, the celebration, Arbuckle’s career and the life of a budding starlet all began an abrupt skid to an ugly end.
Virginia Rappe – known for screen roles in “An Adventuress” and “A Twilight Baby” – was one of the more fetching carousers at the party, and Arbuckle later testified that he found her vomiting in his bathroom that morning. He put her to bed, he said, and summoned the hotel doctor.
Some witnesses told a hoarier tale. The hefty film star, they said, had raped 26-year-old Rappe with a bottle and crushed her with his girth during the act. She was found screaming, naked and bleeding in Arbuckle’s room, they said.
The only proven fact was that Rappe died three days later of peritonitis caused by a ruptured bladder. But based on the salacious accusations, Arbuckle was tried three times for murder. The last produced an innocence verdict – but the damage was done. He was blackballed in Hollywood and never found meaningful work again before dying at 46, practically broke, of a heart attack in 1933.
Crime historian Mullen believes Rappe actually died of complications from a recent abortion.
“She shouldn’t have been drinking a week after an abortion like that,” Mullen said.
Warren Harding poisoned?
The Palace Hotel of San Francisco was – and still is – one of the grandest hotels in the nation.
On Aug. 2, 1923, it was a death house for Warren Harding, the 29th president of the United States.
The official White House dispatch read that he died “at 7:30 p.m. from a stroke of cerebral apoplexy” – but within moments of the news, rumors began to swirl.
The commander in chief’s wife, Florence “The Duchess” Harding, it turns out, may have been in a jealous rage over her husband’s alleged affairs with at least five women that reportedly resulted in at least one illegitimate child. She also might have been despondent over his administration’s swirling scandals that included the Teapot Dome affair.
So, some historians suggest, when Harding stopped in San Francisco on a cross-country “Voyage of Understanding” to explain his policies to ordinary people, The Duchess may have poisoned him.
On the other hand, judging by The Chronicle’s reporting at the time, maybe not. Nothing foul was ever proved.
“The President’s wife, who from the beginning of the President’s illness, had expressed confidence and unwavering hope, did not break down,” the paper reported in its account of the death. ” ‘I am not going to break down,’ she told those who stood at her side. None could have been braver.”
A houseman wouldn’t do it
Rich divorcee Rosetta Baker had it all in 1930. At more than 70 years old, “She spent her days among unguents and creams, and her nights in the company of slick-haired young men vaguely connected with the arts who squired Rosetta and her bejeweled contemporaries to some of the city’s more elite social events,” The Chronicle reported.
Then came the morning of Dec. 8.
Around 8:30 a.m., her butler, 63-year-old Liu Fook – referred to in reports as a “Chinese houseboy” – found Baker’s naked, blood-spattered body lying next to the bed at her elegant California Street apartment with a bedsheet knotted around her neck. Her teeth, breastbone and ribs had been savagely broken.
Fook ran through the house screaming “Bossy Miss on floor and no get up!” – but, as the paper reported, “The detectives took one look around and said the butler did it.” And indeed, it didn’t look good. Fook had been openly derisive of Baker’s penchant for young men, was a secret opium addict, had fresh scratch marks as if from a struggle, and had apparently stashed blood-stained clothes in the basement.
But then came the trial. The jury took 21 minutes to find Fook innocent – a verdict that, in hindsight, appears to have involved a bizarre racism working on behalf of a minority for once.
The Chronicle, in an editorial, attributed the verdict to “the profound conviction of the public mind that the crime is one entirely out of tune with the character of an old Chinese servant.” Nobody has ever been charged again in the crime.
The scattered body
It all began with a bit of horseplay downtown by four boys late on the night of Sept. 8, 1946.
The boys were kicking debris around the alley behind the Paramount Theater near Jones and Market streets. One of them was a package wrapped in butcher paper. It broke open.
Out tumbled two legs, two feet and one arm.
A matching body trunk “and a few other odds and ends, including a heart, all carefully wrapped” in paper and cotton, were found nearby stuffed into a milk can, The Chronicle reported.
“Police had not determined whether the human parts were those of a man or woman. … A strong stench indicated death had occurred some days ago,” the paper wrote.
The body turned out to be that of Ramon Lopez, 52, a flower dealer from San Leandro. At home he was a quiet family man, but in the city he was “known as a happy-go-lucky sort with a flair for gambling” who liked flashing big rolls of dollar bills and kept a room at the Mint Hotel – where, the paper reported, police found 14 pairs of nylons.
Eighteen years later, a man strolling on the beach at Hunters Point found Lopez’s skull in the sand. No one has ever been charged in the killing.
Mafia boss in car trunk
“Most murders are compounded of love and hatred, avarice or madness,” the young San Francisco Chronicle reporter Art Hoppe wrote in 1958. “Each is usually the ultimate and desperate flailing out of a human soul driven to the wall by emotional forces he can no longer control.
“But Nick de John wasn’t murdered. He was executed.”
De John, 38, was known under an alias as a retired furniture dealer in Santa Rosa – but in actuality he was a Mafia associate of Al Capone who had fled Chicago after some murderous gangland messiness. De John was trying to muscle into the mob of San Francisco when someone presumably ordered him eliminated.
On the night of May 7, 1947, four executioners cornered De John at a card game in the city, wrapped a fishing line around his fleshy neck, and strangled him, witnesses told police. They removed his diamond ring, diamond watch and bulky bankroll, and stuffed his hefty body into the trunk of his flashy car, a Chrysler Town and Country.
Three men were tried for the killing – but it was all for nothing. Then-San Francisco District Attorney Edmund “Pat” G. Brown, later a governor, asked that all charges be dismissed after he told the court his own star witness “was lying, completely and 100 percent.”
“Executions have a curious way of going unsolved,” the late Hoppe, later a star Chronicle columnist, wrote in his 1958 series looking back on the mystery.
Forever missing boy
Perhaps the most confounding death mystery of all is one in which a body is never found. That is the enduring horror surrounding Kevin Collins, the 10-year-old boy who disappeared on his way home from basketball practice on Feb. 10, 1984.
Kevin was last seen sitting on a bus bench at Oak Street and Masonic Avenue at 6:40 p.m. Despite a nationwide hunt and a cover story in Newsweek magazine, no solid suspect has ever emerged. The closest lead anyone had was a report that, around the time he was presumably snatched, Kevin was talking to a tall, blond man with a large black dog.
“He’s deceased,” Kevin’s despondent father, David Collins, finally told The Chronicle in 1996 as he closed the search center he ran for 12 years in an effort to find his boy. “If he could have, he would have come back to us.”
Kevin was just the first of a string of Bay Area children – Michaela Garecht, 9, Amanda “Nikki” Campbell, 4, and more – who vanished in the 1980s and early 1990s and never came home.
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