I've gotta run! Thanks, this was fun -kf

I’m a longtime reporter who specializes in a wide variety of subjects including murder, disaster, addiction and homelessness. I'm known for having a knack for finding stories others might not cover – from profiling the lives of homeless drug addicts to finding people who sleep in coffins and detailing the intricacies of hunting down serial killers.

I’ve witnessed 7 prison executions and covered many of the biggest breaking stories of our time: the Sept. 11 terror attacks at Ground Zero, the Columbine High School massacre, and fires in Northern California.

Here’s some of my work: - https://www.sfchronicle.com/projects/doodler-true-crime-podcast/chapter-one

Proof: https://twitter.com/sfchronicle/status/1393265022982262785

Comments: 82 • Responses: 20  • Date: 

tablair17 karma

There’s a saying about the news that “if it bleeds, it leads.” And it’s definitely true that inspiring fear in readers/viewers is a reliable way to increase engagement. However it can lead to unrealistic fears among consumers of that news. For example, the media coverage of plane crashes leads to people who are afraid to fly despite it being, statistically, among the safest ways to travel.

For your work, serial killers seem to fall into that category of getting a disproportionate amount of coverage, both in the news and in popular entertainment shows. Do you think it is part of your responsibility to help readers place the stories you cover in a proper statistical context and, if so, what do you do or say to help them with that contextualization?

SFChronicle20 karma

That is a fascinating, and absolutely relevant, thing to talk about. I agree that heavy coverage of crime leads to unrealistic fears -- you see endless stories of shootings and killings and car crashes (in local news, in particular), and you begin to think disaster is around every corner. But actually, your chances of being involved in some horrible event are very small. For the same reason, I also think there is too much fictional crime on TV and in films. So yes, it is good to contextualize stories when you can -- but that is difficult to do often. We have space and deadline constraints, and context has been shown in media studies to be one of the first things to cut when you have to cut for space.

In the Doodler series, I and the people working with me on it thought it was very important to make the context and history of the times, as well as the humanity of the victims, key components of the narrative so that it wasn't just a scary crime mystery. It can be frustrating at times, though -- there's always more context, more information, you wish you could include.


fritsiexx10 karma

What do the serial Killers have in common?

SFChronicle19 karma

I'd say they all have a psychotic (to one degree or another) impulse to hunt down and kill people that somehow fall into a category for them that stems from their own psychological problem. Ted Bundy had a twisted rage rooted in a messed-up childhood that he turned into a hatred for women. Unabomber Ted Kaczynski had a mental illness that warped him toward thinking technology in society was oppressing him, and everyone else, so he targeted people who were tech reps in his mind. Freeway Killer William Bonin was raped and abused as a kid, and chose to act that out on kids when he got old enough to do so. And so on.

None of that justifies anything a serial killer does. Understanding the demented motives helps explain a bit, but the bottom line is that psychotic serial murder is just that -- off the hook, not fully "explainable," and terrible by any definition.


pumpkinspice_biatch9 karma

Who do you think Zodiac is?

SFChronicle13 karma

Well, since it's still an open investigation it could actually be any of a number of leading suspects, or someone we've never heard of. And there are hundreds of people in the world who have done intensive investigations of their own that believe strongly they have the right names. Arthur Leigh Allen seems to be the one mentioned the most, but he's long-dead, which makes his case a bit harder to pursue. The mystery can't really be closed until one or more of the police investigators involved makes a solid determination.


the_shit_disturber-11 karma

He asked who do YOU think

SFChronicle21 karma

As a news reporter, I can't give opinions like that. I just report.


mifilsm12 karma

Yes I'd also like to know who your #1 suspect is and why.

SFChronicle7 karma

Sorry to be so inspecific in that last answer, but that's really the best I can offer. I get letters, emails, etc. from hundreds of people who sincerely believe they've solved the Zodica case when it comes to the suspect, ciphers etc., and as long as I've been on the story the SF Chronicle has had a policy that the only real determiner is what the official investigators decide.


mifilsm14 karma

No apologies needed, thanks for replying. On a different note what did you think of the film? It's one of my favourites, did you have any input in it?

SFChronicle7 karma

I thought the film was very good and stuck to a lot of the known facts, which you could pick up on if you were deeply familiar with the case. But plenty of fictional stuff, too -- it is a wide-release film, after all, not a documentary. I was away from the newsroom on a fellowship while it was being made; had no input to it.


Furry_comrade5 karma

Why did you decide to take on Doodler and Zodiac, and why did you look at Zodiac for so long?

SFChronicle7 karma

I got pulled into the Zodiac case in the mid-1990s when I was covering the Unabomber serial killings with Mike Taylor -- coincidentally my partner on the Doodler project, and back then a reporter at the SF Chronicle with me. I started getting letters from people theorizing that the Unabomber was the Zodiac, I wrote about it, and by default I then became the Zodiac reporter. Stories that we can actually do on that case don't come up that often, so it's certainly not a full-time thing for me. But it never goes away because the cops haven't closed it out as a homicide case.

As for the Doodler -- after getting contacted by cold-case investigator Dan Cunningham in 2018, I found the intense tragedy of these forgotten victims, along with whole context of LGBTQ history, bravery and oppression to be a compelling, useful thing to dive into. Fortunately, the producers at Ugly Duckling Films in London, Lene Bausager and Sophia Gibber, had also been feeling the same way even before then, and they contacted me about doing a podcast. My newspaper connected with them, then enlisted Sony and Neon Hum, and soon we had a whole team working on this. It was terrific to have this much resource working on something we all came to feel passionate about -- investigating the crime story, yes, but also telling the history and bringing to light the humanity of the victims who had been overlooked by time.


thesnapening3 karma

What was it like witnessing someone’s last moments? I’ve been with patients when they passed but a execution must be a different kettle of fish all together.

SFChronicle20 karma

It's a weighty responsibility -- that's foremost in your head as a reporter witnessing an execution. You need to be accurately observing everything so you can be the eyes and ears of the public, so you control your emotions as much as possible while it's going on. That having been said, it's always a very sad thing to watch. Relatives and friends of the victims are in the room, and you acutely sense their anguish. Usually, a relative or friend of the killer is in the room, and sense their anguish, too. Whatever happened that put this man -- and it's always been men since executions restarted here in the early 1990s -- on Death Row was a horror for the victims and their loved ones, and a waste of a life when it comes to the killer. You think about how a lot of somethings somewhere went wrong in his life to propel him to murder, and how tragic that is as well. The most important thing is to do the best job you can watching an execution so that we as a society know exactly what we're doing when these things happen.


magnagan3 karma

I really enjoyed the doodler series. Do you have any more podcasts planned for the the future?

SFChronicle9 karma

We certainly hope to -- at some point we want to do an Episode 9 with updates of the tips and leads we and the police have gotten. There were a lot of very promising avenues to explore by the time the deadline came to produce the 8th and final episode of the series, but investigations and life don't necessarily move on newspaper/podcast deadline schedules, so those avenues kept rolling even after the episode ran. Stay tuned, please!


SFChronicle2 karma

Thanks much for the questions and for your interest in the Doodler podcast and stories! We do hope to do a follow-up Episode or two as new developments emerge in the future, so please stay tuned to the podcast. I need to sign off now. Best to all out there.


fenixuk2 karma

The Doodler it seems took advantage of the fact that at the time, at least somewhat socially the victims were themselves ‘outcast’. Do you think that his victims have continued far beyond the time of the killings we know of? And do you think that there are other killers active today who are able to get away with it for so long, especially now news and information travels much quicker.

SFChronicle4 karma

I do think there there is a chance that there are other Doodler victims. For instance, just this year we added Warren Andrews as a probable victim. There were quite a few gay men killed back then whose cases never got solved, for all the reasons we laid out in the podcast, and more of them could potentially be tagged to the Doodler.

As for getting away with such killings easily today? I think it would be harder for the Doodler to work his horrors now. DNA awareness, better forensics techniques, better data bases and more have all made it harder for serial killers to proliferate today. Studies show their numbers have dropped dramatically in recent years, and in the early 1970s serial killing as a widely known phenomenon was in its infancy. Plus, the LGBTQ community would not be under the same level of oppression that existed back then -- there's not that same need to go to secret hookup spots, there would be a readier impulse to openly talk to the cops, etc.


fenixuk1 karma

Thanks for the response, I’m only part way through, but the podcast is riveting so far! Great work!

SFChronicle1 karma

Thanks much!


Poobeard762 karma

Hi Kenneth,

I’m a big fan.

Did the other kids at school make fun of you because your last name sounds like a slur against gay people?

SFChronicle8 karma

Sure, sometimes when I was a little kid. Children can be so casually mean. But even at that young age, I was always aware that the kind of taunting I got was nothing compared to the cruelty the LGBTQ kids I was pals with at school experienced. We've come a long way as a society since then, but we sure as hell have a long way to go still. I once talked about that kind of childhood cruelty with SF 49er football team defensive lineman Kevin Fagan, around the time he was on Super Bowl-winning teams, and wrote a story about how we had the same name (but aren't related). We both agreed that we were proud of our Irish heritage and that bigotry is awful. Obvious things, yes, but it was interesting to have that conversation from another person in the world who had the same name and was pretty different from me.


shootthesound1 karma

Love the podcast. If the doodler does ever get caught, would you interview him, if that became an option? I'm sure it would be fascinating, but equally challenging.

SFChronicle7 karma

If given the chance, I absolutely would interview any Doodler suspect who got arrested. I've interviewed plenty of killers over the years, but access can be tough to get if prosecutors think a press interview could compromise their case. That having been said -- if I could talk to the actual Doodler himself, I would first try to have him talk about what HE thought motivated him to kill gay men. People always want to know "why" murderers do what they do, and the tragic thing is that even knowing that never brings back the victims -- but just maybe it can help us understand what pathologies lead to such horrible crimes, which can maybe help us prevent them in the future with better medicine, social work, policies, etc.

The next thing I'd ask would be for him to describe each killing, and what was going on in his life. How exactly did he find each victim, did he really doodle them on napkins or other pieces of paper, what was each man like, and whatever else the Doodler wanted to offer. That can be very difficult stuff to hear, but somewhere in a killer's narrative you usually find explainers and bits that can not only be helpful for the kind of prevention understanding I referred to -- but maybe also something that can useful for the relatives and friends to know. For instance, I once interviewed the killer of a little girl, and her family found some comfort in knowing that she fought back. Very small comfort, but there's very little comfort to be found in anything involving a murder.


_jeremybearimy_1 karma

What’s your theory on the famous person who was a victim on the Doodler? Any ideas who it was? I’ve heard Rock Hudson being proposed.

SFChronicle2 karma

Yes, Rock Hudson was considered, but the cops and Mike Taylor and I all dug into that theory and it didn't pan out. There were lots of other actors of the day we checked on, and I wish I could share their names, but none of them were confirmed as The Actor in our mystery, and we have to respect their privacy just like we do with non-famous people.


_jeremybearimy_1 karma

Rock always seemed far fetched to me. Do you have your own theory? You don’t have to say who it is, just curious if there is someone you’re leaning towards. Any other vague speculation or info you can tell me while maintaining privacy would be appreciated. I’m from San Francisco and gay (though not a man) so I’ve always been interested in this case.

SFChronicle2 karma

There are a couple of people I'm leaning toward.... wish I could say more, but it's a touchy subject with the people involved. Thanks for asking though.


PocoChanel1 karma

I haven’t finished the podcast yet, but I can’t stop thinking about Jae Stephens. Is there more info on him somewhere—more photos, maybe video?

Also, I have heard one name associated with the “entertainer,” and that person is still alive. I don’t want to dox anyone, but is the identity you’ve heard most often that of someone still living?

SFChronicle2 karma

Well, I've heard a lot about both living and dead actors.... it's a tough subject for those who are alive, and very hard to prove with those who are dead.


Sunanda871 karma

Hi Kenneth. One quick question as a journalist, if there was one serial killer you'd like to interview - who would that be?

Thank you.

SFChronicle2 karma

Talking to killers is disturbing and anything but easy, but I guess if I could pick anyone it would probably be either the Doodler or Zodiac, since I've written so much about them.


Mother-Platypus-586-2 karma

What's your favourite playstation 5 game?

SFChronicle5 karma

Sorry, I don't play that


KGB112-8 karma

Are you the Zodiac Killer? No lying.

SFChronicle14 karma

Of course, no. Please remember that every murder, even those that have had movies and endless stories written about them, involves real victims with real anguish and pain. I don't joke about these things. Not something to make light of.