The psychiatrist was the breakthrough. Said he had a confession. And a name. San Francisco homicide inspectors Rotea Gilford and Earl Sanders thought they were about to nab the Doodler, solving a string of murders.
Looking back to late 1975, it seemed like the handcuffs were about to come out. The shrink’s therapy session notes presumably had their suspect copping to being the guy who stabbed Doodler victims to death on Ocean Beach. Then there was the police sketch. The suspect apparently resembled the one generated by attack survivors that summer.
But it didn’t stick. Why? That’s one of the most vexing questions of this 45-year-old mystery.
And one of the most promising leads.
If San Francisco cold case detective Dan Cunningham could just reach into the Doodler case file and pull out the full name of the psychiatrist, he might build the foundation of a case. Maybe he could call him. Get him to produce his notes.
Maybe the counselor would testify in court. Talk about a confession. Point to the bad guy. Could be the biggest break of all.
But the only references to the psychiatrist in the file are “Dr. Priest” written on a slip of paper, and a plastic-bound copy of a 1977 Chronicle article quoting Gilford talking about Dr. Priest dropping a dime on the suspect. Gilford also said he was stymied. His three surviving Doodler victims had refused to cooperate — they feared being outed as gay. And the psychiatrist’s patient had denied being the killer. No surprise there.
About this project
Chronicle reporter Kevin Fagan spent nearly three years investigating the unsolved murders of gay men in 1974 and ’75 by a serial killer dubbed the Doodler by San Francisco police. The Doodler podcast, narrated by Fagan and produced in partnership with Ugly Duckling Films and Neon Hum Media, is available on your favorite podcast app.
Apparently the cop duo — the Soul Brothers — never put the full name of the doctor in the case file. Or documented why his bombshell claims didn’t lead to murder charges. Either that, or the paperwork got lost over the decades.
Now it’s up to Cunningham to try to deduce why the Dr. Priest bombshell fizzled without an arrest.
“It does seem that he maybe only talked to Inspector Gilford on the phone and pointed him in the right direction, but that was it,” Cunningham said. “It’s frustrating.
“If we could only find that Dr. Priest today, it would help a lot.”
Cunningham has been hunting for Dr. Priest for nearly three years.
So have we.
Chronicle reporter-turned-private investigator Mike Taylor and I started our hunt for Dr. Priest last year. First we looked through Medical Board of California records and ancient phone books. Called professional associations. Filed public records requests for staff listings.
Everyone we found was dead. Or the wrong guy. The psychiatrist supposedly counseled the suspect at Highland Hospital in Oakland. They had no files that old.
Then something in that 1977 Chronicle story caught our attention. Gilford said the suspect had “admitted” to “experimenting with homosexuality … But he said his sessions with the psychiatrist had cured him.”
Cured? Could the psychiatrist have been a gay conversion therapist? That damaging practice is now legally banned in California. But back then it was a nascent, growing national movement. And an organization called Love in Action was the pioneer in the Bay Area.
Love in Action was founded by Frank Worthen. Now dead. His widow told me she hadn’t heard of anyone who sounded like the Doodler. So we called gay conversion therapy experts and former leaders all over the country. We called the Trevor Project and other LGBTQ assistance groups. No luck.
But they said our theory made sense.
John Smid spent two decades as a Love in Action director. He renounced the practice in 2008. He said ostracism of LGBTQ people then, coupled with added misery for those who were conflicted or closeted, could create violent rage in some folks if they had volatile tendencies. Adding the pressure of conversion therapy? That just made things worse.
“Those experiences create a tremendous amount of psychological and psychiatric harm,” he said. “I have no doubt that the outcome of that is — and could be — a tremendous amount of acting out against other people.”
But he’d never heard of Dr. Priest. Or the Doodler.
“Isn’t there anything else in the files that can help us find this psychiatrist?” I asked Cunningham last fall. He’d already tried locating the guy through medical records and staffing files. Not that he knew of, he said. But he did like the gay-conversion-therapy theory.
So he looked more closely at the case folders. And he found something. In the notes of the 1975 and ’76 interviews with the suspect pointed to by the psychiatrist, the name “Rev. McClay” appeared. Seemed random before. Now, knowing the religious links to gay conversion therapy, it stuck out.
We found just one Rev. McClay. He was a retired priest back East. Knew nothing about the case.
The cops call it Building 606. I call it the “Raiders of the Lost Ark” warehouse. It’s a block-sized cavern where the SFPD keeps crime evidence and files dating back decades. For cold-case cops it must be like burrowing through all those piled boxes at the end of the old Harrison Ford movie.
In early December, I met Cunningham there. He and I both hoped for new documents with leads to Dr. Priest. He’d fill me in after his latest expedition inside.
Cunningham faced a big problem: Everything in the 1970s was done by hand. Put in paper folders. There were 130 or so killings every year back then. And not every victim was confirmed as being gay or not. So making connections with similar murders to the Doodler’s was painstaking and confusing.
Information from one case file might be moved to a file on a similar murder. But from a different year. And left there. Forgotten over the decades. With something like, say, the full name of Dr. Priest in it.
Police commanders wouldn’t clear me to go inside 606. Had to wait outside. The look on Cunningham’s face when he came out told me everything.
“There are a lot of files in there,” he sighed. “I’m trying to cross-reference different cases, and there were a lot of gay homicide cases back in that period of time. But it’s slow going. I’ll go back.”
And he did. Nearly every week. Often with his cold-case unit colleagues, Sgt. Al Levy and Detective Dan Dedet, pitching in. He excavated one more name in the files — Marc Priest. We checked. Another dead end.
Maybe if we picked over everything we knew about the suspect from 1975 again we could find a clue.
There was never enough evidence to arrest Dr. Priest’s patient. So he can’t be called a suspect anymore. Cunningham calls him a “person of interest” — POI, in cop lingo.
The biggest revelations about the Doodler came from his three attack survivors. Particularly that their attacker snarled as he whipped out his knife. Cunningham said the Doodler told the Diplomat — the man he stabbed at Fox Plaza in July 1975, whose description led to the police sketch — “I’ve had other people I’ve done this to before and I enjoy this. Your anguish and pain and everything else is something I enjoy.”
And there was his line about gay guys all being alike.
In a 1976 interview with The Chronicle, Gilford said his investigation had led him to believe the Doodler was “a quiet, serious personality, probably with an upper-middle-class education … but he’s having difficulty with his sexuality. He’s probably ashamed of what he’s doing.”
Late 1977. The Soul Brothers were still hobbled by the refusal of the three Doodler survivors to help: The Diplomat, the second man attacked at Fox Plaza and the actor. The cops had no damning crime scene evidence. And for some reason they couldn’t turn the psychiatrist’s tip into an arrest.
So they shelved the case.
The next year, Mayor George Moscone tapped Gilford to be the director of his Council on Criminal Justice. Sanders partnered with Inspector Napolean Hendrix on other murders. Moscone and LGBTQ icon Harvey Milk were assassinated in November 1978. The gay community was overwhelmed with angry grief, and relationships with the police eroded further.
Those damaged relations impaired the cops’ ability to get the best tips from the street. Which was tragic at a time when gay liberation was freeing people to be more open.
“There were lots of ways that gays and lesbians became more visible to each other, to a wider mainstream population,” said Jim Van Buskirk, co-author of “Gay by the Bay: A History of Queer Culture in the San Francisco Bay Area.” “People started coming out. There was just a burgeoning of understanding ourselves, which was the first step to social liberation, and then taking the risk of coming out to our families, our friends, our employers.”
The lost opportunity to find fresh Doodler clues is incalculable. Then, in the 1980s, AIDS began to ravage the gay community. How many people afraid to talk about the Doodler in the 1970s could talk today, if not for the epidemic?
The Doodler mystery basically sat in a box until 2018. That’s when Cunningham pulled it out for a look.
The detective is still fishing for that psychiatrist’s name. So are we. It’s looking slim. If that doctor is alive, he could be in his late 60s. Or 90s.
But that’s not the only lead. We turned up a new body. Another potential victim. And tips have started flowing in from around the country.
Turns out the Doodler might have taken his murder spree outside the Bay Area.