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Tracking a Serial Killer in Louisiana

Gary Stewart’s new book The Most Dangerous Animal Of All shares his search for his biological father, who he believes was infamous serial killer The Zodiac. 

mostdangerousanimalWhen Baton Rouge native Gary Stewart started a new job in northern California, his boss and coworkers offered to take him to lunch. They were riding down Lake Herman Road and asked him about South Louisiana serial killer Derrick Todd Lee. He told them that he’d recently been swabbed for DNA since he was a male living in the area and remembers one of of his coworkers saying “we had our own serial killer back in the day here.” Stewart says the story of the Zodiac killer went in one ear and out the other as he was more worried about making a good impression on his boss than gossiping about serial killers. “I never thought of that name again until July 31, two years later,” he says.

For people living in the San Francisco Bay Area in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Zodiac was a household name. The killer, whose nickname resulted from a series of taunting letters and ciphers to newspapers during that time, had seven known victims, two who survived. His first murder took the lives of two young lovers on Lake Herman Road in Benicia and he continued to target young couples, in addition to a San Francisco cab driver and a female student at Riverside College. The Zodiac was never caught, and no conclusive evidence ever surfaced. In San Francisco, the case was deemed inactive in 2004 but reopened again a few years later. A film version of the case, “Zodiac,” was released in 2007 starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr. and Mark Ruffalo.

Although Stewart was working on the same road as the Zodiac’s first crime scene, he was unaware of any other connections he might have to the now notorious killer. When his birth mother contacted his adoptive parents from California in 2002, Stewart had no way of knowing that his search for his birth father would reveal him as the Zodiac.

What Stewart discovered after meeting his birth mother, Judy Gilford, is that his parents were on the run from the law in New Orleans when he was born. The two met outside a sherbet shop in San Francisco. Even though Judy was underage, Stewart’s father, Earl Van Dorn Best Jr., fell in love with her and whisked her away to South Louisiana with the authorities on their heels. The lovebirds’ story became known as the “Ice Cream Romance” in the papers, but things got real once Stewart was born. His father, known as Van, threatened to harm the baby several times and finally traveled to Baton Rouge, where he left his son on the stairwell of an apartment building downtown in 1963.

Stewart was discovered by a resident and eventually adopted by Lloyd and Leona Stewart, who raised him as their son. Judy’s mother wouldn’t allow her to get her baby back and she and Van finally parted ways, with Judy later remarrying and having more children of her own. As Stewart would discover, Van’s fate wasn’t quite as rosy.

In 2002, Stewart officially began searching for his father armed with his full name, date and place of birth and Social Security number. He wrote letters to people he believed might be related to his father asking for information. In a letter to his biological grandmother, he pleaded: “I just want to find my father and see him face to face. I want to tell him that I love him and that I’m okay.”

It just so happened that Judy had remarried a member of the San Francisco Police Department, and she asked her late husband’s colleagues for help in finding Van. They were able to provide Stewart with a photo of his father and confirmed that they had a file on him but said the information it contained was too “heinous” to be revealed.

Mugshot-overlaid-onto-sketchStewart was curious of course but aware of the friction his search was causing between he and the mother he’d just discovered, so he decided to drop it. That is, until A&E aired a program on July 31, 2004, on the Zodiac killer and Stewart saw a sketch of what victims had described the Zodiac to look like. He couldn’t deny the resemblance of the sketch to the photo he had of his father (which turned out to be his mugshot) and himself.

It took several other confirmed coincidences — from Van spending time in Atascadero prison with main suspect Arthur Lee Allen, who told police “the Zodiac is a crazy man I met in Atascadero,” and finding his father’s name in the ciphers sent to newspapers — to confirm Stewart’s suspicions.

“I saw that one cipher that was sent to the Examiner one time,” he says. “I looked at it and immediately the EV Best Jr popped up off the page and I took a yellow highlighter and I highlighted EV Best Jr, put it in my folder and filed it away. I said I’m through trying to disprove this. I believe it.”

Just because Stewart believed it didn’t mean Judy, the SFPD or the woman tapped to help him write his book did. “When he first told me he thought his father was the Zodiac, I was like yeah right,” says co-author Susan Mustafa, “but as I sat and read all of the info he had accumulated over those years, all of a sudden it was like everything started to fall into place. Everything started to click and by the time I finished reading, I was already convinced.”

What Stewart had discovered also pointed to a coverup by the SFPD. Judy’s late husband, Rotea Gilford, was high up in the department and well respected. Had his boys’ club discovered that their friend’s wife was once married to a serial killer and decided to spare him the embarrassment? Stewart had been told by those same friends that what was in his father’s file would tear his family apart. Not long after viewing the A&E program, he found an article online that mentioned the SFPD was restructuring its homicide division and listed a contact for anyone who had new information about a case. Stewart called Lt. John Hennessey, then traveled to San Francisco to meet with him at the end of October. He told the lieutenant his story and had his DNA swabbed that same day. Hennessey told him the lab had a backlog of samples and that it would take them a while to compare his profile to the Zodiac’s, but three years later Hennessey retired and Stewart was still waiting.

Just a few days before his booksigning at Barnes & Noble in Lafayette last month, Stewart met with the SFPD again and once again was swabbed for his DNA. He’s hopeful now that enough time has passed and most of Rotea’s friends in the department are dead, the SFPD will finally compare the samples and give him — and the families of the Zodiac’s victims — an answer once and for all. (Stewart ended his search for his father at his grave in Mexico City, so there is no chance for arrest.)

While it was gutsy for Harper Collins to publish The Most Dangerous Animal Of All without a DNA match, the rest of the evidence Stewart presents is so compelling, it’s almost not necessary. From Van’s name in the ciphers to his fingerprint with a matching scar, handwriting samples and his photo superimposed over the Zodiac sketch (pictured above), not to mention all the personal connections linking the Zodiac’s quirks to Van, Stewart certainly makes a case that can’t be ignored.

Mustafa, who wrote books on South Louisiana serial killers Derrick Todd Lee and Sean Vincent Gillis, says Van fits the profile. Young Van felt rejected by Judy and went on to target lovers on lovers lanes, often doing more damage to the women than the men. “His narcissism and his confidence as just flagrant disregard for the law, he didn’t operate by the same rules that others in society do,” she says. “His seeking out a girl he could control and manipulate, his abuse of Gary, taking a son from his mother and going to a different town and leaving him where he left him, that told me how cold and callous he was. There were just numerous things as I read all the way through that just fit the sociopathy of serial killers.”

garystewartObviously, Stewart has had a hard time accepting the news that his father may have murdered at least five people. He says he’s had to disassociate himself from the serial killer and the father who abandoned him. “How my father did what he did to me and laid me on the doorstep and walked away, that’s personal to me so I still deal with those personal feelings every day,” he says.

Whether or not the SFPD finally tests his DNA, Stewart’s story will continue through his book, now a New York Times bestseller, and future TV segments related to his story. Investigation Discovery plans to feature it on their “Most Evil” program, and CBS has expressed interest in a major network miniseries to air next fall.

Mustafa says the project has been a writer’s dream. “You don’t get an ice cream romance, the abandoned baby, the Zodiac killer, Judy marrying Rotea and then you’ve got the SFPD coverup,” she says. “Those stories don’t come along very often. Truth is stranger than fiction.”

Photos from themostdangerousanimalofall.com.

Go to themostdangerousanimalofall.com to order the book and view Stewart’s research and evidence. You can also see him at the Louisiana Book Festival in Baton Rouge November 1 from 1-1:45 p.m. in the Senate Chamber of the State Capitol. He will sign copies of The Most Dangerous Animal Of All following his talk. 

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