According to the man who became the prosecution’s star witness against the notorious “Zebra” killers of San Francisco, entering the Death Angels wasn’t easy.
According to Anthony Harris: “[The Death Angels] is supposed to be a pretty high branch of the Nation of Islam, supposed to be 2,000 people inside it.
“And every time you kill a person, you’re supposed to have somebody witness your killing the person for verification when you go back to Chicago,” the national headquarters for the Nation of Islam.
Chicago Headquarters of the Nation of Islam
It was there, said Harris, that the photographs or eyewitnesses had to appear before the prospective Death Angel could receive his winged badge of membership.
“And after you get to killing people,” the Death Angels “give you a pair of wings to put on your neck, and they take a picture,” testified Harris.
“They say you kill four children, you automatically become a captain, or a lieutenant. If you kill five or six women, you become a lieutenant. Or kill nine men, the number of completion, and they give you a rank.”
Extra status was attached to Death Angels who mutilated the bodies of their victims.
“If you cut their heads off, and cut the legs and arms off and cut them open wide with a lot of blood, it’s supposed to symbolize you’re very vicious and that you could be well trusted.
“The killing was so, if they see you do it, they know for a fact you’re not a police officer and you’re not involved” as an informer,” testified Harris.
The slayings were always proceeded by elaborate safety precautions. These included disguises, escape routes and the use of safehouses.
“In case you kill someone in that area,” Harris later testified that his Muslim friends were told, “you can automatically go to that house. There won’t be any questions asked about it at all.
“They made that clear all the time, every Saturday, at the Fruit of Islam (FOI) meetings. The FOI was the enforcement and disciplinary arm of the Nation of Islam.
“They said that if you’re going to kill someone, come right out and say it. Let us know ahead of time so we can set up a good alibi.”
Recruiting poster for the Fruit of Islam, the elite guard of the Nation of Islam
Non-Muslims were not to be trusted or used in any way.
“Our own attorneys,” the listeners were told at these weekend meetings, “will lie for you,” Harris quoted one of the Muslim speakers as saying.
On the night of January 28, 1974, J.C. Simon, Larry Green and Manuel Moore launched their most spectacular assault on San Francisco whites.
Shots and screams echoed throughout the city as the killers, cruising in a fast-moving black Cadillac, literally turned the streets into a shooting gallery:
- Tana Smith, a secretary, was slain while waiting at a bus stop.
- A derelict, John Bambic, was murdered as he rummaged in a garbage can.
- Vincent Wollin, a pensioner, was walking down the street when one of the gunmen fatally overtook him.
- A housewife named Jane Holly was killed in a Laundromat while she removed clothes from a dryer.
- And Roxanne McMillan, another housewife, was critically wounded and left paralyzed from the waist down as she walked down a flight of stairs to her apartment.
Each of these victims had been shot twice in the back by a black gunman using a .32 automatic pistol.
Just hours before the murder spree, Anthony Harris had asked his friend, Larry Green, why their comrade, J.C. Simon, was so depressed and irritable.
“He’s pretty pissed off because he didn’t make lieutenant,” Green had replied. “He didn’t have enough kills on his record.”
The killings continued up to mid-April, 1974.
On April 20, 1974, San Francisco’s liberal mayor, Joseph L. Alioto, authorized a city-wide police dragnet to flush out the still-supposed lone gunman.
Throughout the city, roving squads of specially-assigned officers stopped and questioned over 600 young black men. Those stopped were thought by police to resemble a vague description of the “killer,” as given by witnesses and surviving victims.
Some blacks were stopped so many times they were issued special identification cards to prevent future police interrogations.
The dragnet failed to flush out the Zebra Killers, but it touched off an uproar within the black community. Mayor Alioto was heatedly denounced by civil rights and religious activists.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People filed a suit in federal court for the Northern District of California to halt the stops.
On April 26—six days after the dragnet began—San Francisco’s U.S. District Judge Alfonzo J. Zirpoli acted on the NAACP’s suit. He declared the stops an unconstitutional violation of blacks’ civil rights.
In the future, ordered Zirpoli, police would need specific information leading them to believe that whoever they stopped had committed a crime or was in the process of doing so.