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Adopted author learns his birth father was likely the Zodiac killer

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In this memoir, Louisiana businessman and first-time author Gary L. Stewart makes a strong case identifying the Zodiac killer, the notorious serial murderer who baffled investigators in the 1960s and '70s with his reign of terror in northern California. But in addition to solving one of the most famous cold cases of all time, there is a personal element that makes this page-turner much more compelling than your average true-crime book.

In 2002, at the age of 39, adoptee Stewart was contacted by his birth mother, opening a new chapter in his life but raising more questions about his past, as his newfound mom had little information about his biological father.

Through his own investigation, Stewart would learn that Earl Van Best Jr., his father who left him in an apartment stairway when he was only weeks old, was quite possibly the elusive murderer who famously taunted police investigators and media for years with cryptic, seemingly indecipherable clues to his identity.

The Zodiac killer was officially tied to five deaths between 1968 and '69, but claimed to have killed more than 30 victims over several years. Co-written with crime journalist Susan Mustafa, The Most Dangerous Animal of All is largely Stewart's attempt to understand what would drive someone to commit these crimes.

According to Stewart, Earl Van Best Jr. was an outsider his entire life. He was the son of a well-respected minister and former military intelligence officer. His mother, however, cheated on his father regularly and made it clear that she never really wanted a son.

Best had few friends and spent his youth listening to operas and deciphering codes his father made for him, inspired by those he worked with during the Second World War. Soon Best would be writing his own codes, much like the cryptograms the Zodiac would later become known for.

Later his life would be filled with crime, alcoholism and even a connection to Church of Satan founder Anton LaVey (the title is actually based on a line from one of the Zodiac's famous letters, which in turn was borrowed from LaVey's writing).

While investigating the Zodiac murders, Stewart discovered the female victims all had something in common -- a physical similarity to his mother, Judy Chandler.

Chandler and Best met in 1961, when he was 27 and she was only 13. The following year they would run away and get married in Reno, Nev. A manhunt was on for the couple, whose relationship was followed in the media as the "Ice Cream Romance" (based on the way they met).

After over a year on the run, Best was charged with the kidnapping and rape of a female under the age of 18 and was sentenced to more than a year in jail. After his parole, Chandler kept her distance from her controlling ex-lover, but Best's obsession with her never went away.

In an interesting twist, Paul Avery, the reporter who covered the runaway story for the San Francisco Chronicle, would later go on to cover the Zodiac murders, even receiving personal letters from the killer, but never knowing that he may have been writing about someone he reported on extensively in the past.

Another twist relayed by Stewart is that his mother would go on to marry Rotea Gilford, a police officer who spent some time investigating the Zodiac murders. The author strongly suggests the marriage was part of the reason the Zodiac was never caught, as some police may have tried to cover up the fact that a high-profile officer -- San Francisco's first African-American homicide detective -- was married to the Zodiac's ex-wife.

Of course, Best is never 100 per cent proven to be the Zodiac, as Stewart's attempts at using his DNA to prove the connection have fallen through owing to red tape (and, possibly, the suspected cover-up). But a strong case is made through handwriting analysis, fingerprints and the discovery of Best's name in two of the Zodiac's famous ciphers that baffled investigators for years.

Clearly not knowing the full story of his family roots was something that haunted Stewart for years. However, through this memoir that can easily be read in a sitting or two, he shows that sometimes knowing the truth can be much worse.


Alan MacKenzie is a Winnipeg-based writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 28, 2014 G5


Updated on Saturday, June 28, 2014 at 7:54 AM CDT: Formatting.

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