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16 September 2013

The Zebra Killings': A forgotten hate crime

Most serial killings in America take on a life of their own through movies, books and documentaries. The crimes of Charles Manson, Jeffrey Dahmer and The Son of Sam are still well remembered years after they were committed. Yet there is one set of serial killings that has been almost completely forgotten and is rarely mentioned in popular culture.

The Zebra Killings occurred in the San Francisco bay area between 1972 and 1974 and left 71 people dead. They were dubbed the Zebra Killings because of the radio channel used by the police investigating the case (channel Z). The name would take on a more sinister meaning as it became apparent that a group of blacks was systematically stalking and killing whites simply because of the color of their skin.

The majority of the attacks were carried out by five members of a group within Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam called the “Death Angels.” Jesse Lee Cooks, J.C. Simon, Larry Green, Manuel Moore and Anthony Harris were part of this group which believed that whites were created 3,000 years ago by a black mad scientist named Yacub who wanted a race of inferiors to rule over. Death Angels believed they could earn “points” towards going to heaven when they died if they killed whites. For them, whites were not human beings but “grafted snakes,” “blue-eyed devils” and “white motherf—–s.”

Howard describes the vicious and cowardly nature of the attacks, which were made at gunpoint and mostly carried out against women and weak or old men who could not fight back. The first victims in San Francisco were a couple named Richard and Quita Hague. The Hagues were out for an after dinner walk when they were abducted at gunpoint and forced into a van. They were bound and Richard was beaten over the head with a lug wrench and knocked unconscious. Quita was sexually molested and hacked with a machete. While begging for her life she was decapitated. Before leaving, the attackers hacked at the face of the still unconscious man. Miraculously, he survived and was able to give valuable information to the police.

Brutality and a lack of remorse on the part of the criminals mark the attacks. Vincent Wollin was shot in the back and killed on his 69th birthday. Mildred Hosler, an obese, older woman was shot while frantically trying to get away from her younger, faster attacker. Ilario Bertucci, a 135-pound, 81-year-old man, was killed while walking home from work. Marietta DiGirolamo, a 5’1? white woman was shot and killed on her way to a neighborhood bar. In none of these cases did the victims do anything to provoke the murderers. They simply had white skin and were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The increased police presence had the effect of angering the black community.
Twenty years before the Los Angeles riots and O.J. Simpson trial, blacks were already making statements to the press that showed a stunning lack of remorse for what was happening to their white neighbors. Howard quotes from interviews conducted by the San Francisco Examiner in 1974. Among the responses by blacks were, “I don’t feel comfortable with all the police around. But then, I never have felt safe around them.” A young housewife stated, “I’m really glad the police are concerned for a change. I just wonder if they would be as much concerned if it were black people getting killed.” A black lawyer added, “I commend the police for their beefing up of the force, but I hope it’s not just directed at blacks. I hope blacks aren’t being harassed.

Still other blacks blamed “unemployment” and “oppression” for the attacks. One man said, “the madness that drives black men to kill innocent people . . . involves a sickness that is as American as apple pie.” Black Panther leader Bobby Seale declared, “every black man in the Bay area is in danger of losing his life.” 

The Reverend Cecil Williams claimed that the entire black community was “under a police state that could erupt into a racial war.” Howard observes, “although they were responding only to a question about Operation Zebra, it was curious that none of the blacks interviewed took the occasion to condemn the unknown street killers or express sympathy for the victims.

The Nation of Islam paid for the legal representation of every one of the killers except Cooks, who immediately admitted to his murders.

It has been almost 40 years since the Zebra Killings and, with the exception of Clark Howard’s book, little has been written about the murders. That is why they have disappeared from the public consciousness. At least one filmmaker who tried to get funding for a documentary on the killings has said that producers will not touch it, as it involves the taboo of black-on-white racism. Needless to say, there is no such taboo on discussing white-on-black racism.

But a society that memorializes Emmett Till, Medgar Evers and James Byrd should also make room for the victims of the Zebra Killings. Justice demands it.

While serial killers are usually loners, they do sometimes murder as a group. This was one of those relatively rare instances.

And while many of the most infamous serial killers tend to be driven by lust, or greed, this case is different. These monsters simply wanted white blood on their hands.

And they got what they wanted.

Now, these horrific killings clearly fit the definition of “hate crimes.” But of course, such a classification of crime did not exist in the 1970s.

But one wonders if such vile acts, were they to occur today, would be prosecuted as “hate crimes.” After all, it was black-on-white, not the reverse. And prosecutors have been extremely reluctant to pursue convictions for “hate crimes” if the defendants are black.

Is this a particularly obvious example of a “hate crime”? Yes. But is it also obvious that this would be prosecuted as such, if it were to happen today? No.

And that is the problem with “hate crime” legislation: Unequal protection under the law.

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