On October 20, 1973, in San Francisco, a white couple strolling down Telegraph Hill was set upon and butchered by four young black men. Thus began a reign of terror that lasted six months and left fifteen whites dead and the entire city in a state of panic. The perpetrators wanted nothing less than a race war.
With pressure on the San Francisco Police Department mounting daily, young homicide detectives Prentice Earl Sanders and his colleague Rotea Gilford—both African-American—were as- signed to the cases. The problem was: Sanders and Gilford were in the midst of a trail-blazing suit against the SFPD for racial discrimination, which in those days was rampant. The backlash was immediate. The force needed Sanders’s and Gilford’s knowledge of the black community to help stem the brutal murders, but the SFPD made it known that in a tight situation, no white back- up would be forthcoming. In those impossible conditions—the oppressive white power structure on one hand, the violent black radicals on the other—Sanders and Gilford knew they were sitting ducks. Against all odds, they set out to find those guilty of the Zebra Murders and bring them to justice. This is their incredible story.
This look at a largely forgotten reign of terror in San Francisco in 1973 and 1974 is an interesting if superficial true police procedural. Sanders, the SFPD's first African-American chief of police, was one of the lead detectives on the case code-named the Zebra Murders, involving a group of African-American men who, apparently racially motivated, were targeting whites in vicious random acts of violence that claimed 15 lives. The book reads less like an objective assessment of these events than a memoir of Sanders's experiences with the investigation and his role in a civil lawsuit against the SFPD to combat rampant racial discrimination. Oddly, about halfway in, the authors break the linear narrative with information derived only at the case's end, rather than lay out the police work and discoveries as they happened. The efforts to compare the police tactics with post-9/11 targeting of Muslims will strike most readers as labored despite Sanders's insistence that the killings were acts of political terror, not mere serial killings. Nonetheless, this serves as a useful introduction to the case.