The Most Dangerous Animal of All
Earl Van Best Jr. was 27 years old when he met Judy Chandler, 13 at the time. It was October 1961 and they were in front of an ice cream shop in San Francisco. He became fixated on the teen, but Van Best knew he was far too old to be trying to court Judy. Worse, she had a less than ideal home life- her father was said to be abusive which made her a prime target for a guy who knew how to say all the right things.. Van Best did continue his pursuit and the two began sneaking to see one another for months. The couple was soon found out, and the whole city was disturbed to know a pedophile was operating and grooming young girls in their area. After running away together, Van Best and Judy eventually eloped in Reno, Nevada.
Their illicit relationship was tabloid news in the ‘60s and in July of 1962, Van Best ended up behind bars for statutory rape. The marriage was annulled and Chandler was sent to a juvenile facility. In February of 1962 true perversion prevailed and Van Best got Chandler to again run off with him to Mexico. While there, Chandler became pregnant and Van Best began to show his true colors. He was having problems holding down a job and according to Judy, he asked her to turn tricks while she was pregnant. Before the baby was born, the couple continued to elude the law- they made stops in California and finally settled in Louisiana for a while.
Judy was all alone when she gave birth to Earl Van Doren Best, Jr, on Feb 12, 1963, when she was just 15 years old. Van Best was not going to win father of the year when the baby was born- in fact, he would routinely lock the crying child in a footlocker. Judy would do everything she could to protect her son, and she had considered leaving Van Best because of his complete disinterest in the baby and his constant abuse of her. She got in contact with her mother, who allegedly told her that she could come home but the baby couldn’t come with her.
Their son was 1 month old when Van Best announced that the baby had to go. He jumped on a train from New Orleans to Baton Rouge. Around 11:30 am, Van Best found himself at 736 North Boulevard where he entered the building with the baby and came out without him. Baby Van Best had been abandoned in the stairwell of a building by his father. He was found by a woman about 5 hours later.
Upon finding out that Van Best really did get rid of her baby, Judy found the strength to leave. Amazingly, the pedophile called the authorities on Judy and she was promptly arrested. Of course, she had dirt on him as well so he ended up back in the slammer.
The whole saga was constantly reported on by San Francisco media outlets, most scathingly by Paul Avery at the San Francisco Chronicle (?).
The poor baby was adopted into a very loving family. Loyd and Leona Stewart renamed the infant “Gary Stewart” and treated him as their own, but their son still wanted to know who he was and where he came from.
The Ice Cream Romance could be a true crime episode all by itself, but today it serves as the prelude to a possible conspiracy to cover up the identity of one of the most notorious serial killers of all time. In his quest to find his birth mother, Gary Stewart believes he stumbled upon the name of the Zodiac.
The Zodiac killer has been covered extensively in episodes of well-known podcasts, on documentaries, and even on the big screen most recently in 2007’s Zodiac (starring Robert Downey, Jr as Paul Avery, Mark Ruffalo, and Jake Gyllenhaal). I’ll eventually tell the entire story of the murders committed by the Zodiac, but today I want to give my full attention to Gary Stewart and his journey.
After years of both of them searching, Gary found his birth mother. She was Judy Gilford (formerly Chandler). As one could imagine, Gary had many questions for his birth mother, but it seemed like she couldn’t give him all the answers he had hoped for. He did find out that she never meant to give him up. That may have been somewhat of a relief to Gary, finding out that his mother did love him. When he heard what his father had done, he initially had no desire to find out where he was. In time, however, curiosity and that incomplete feeling washed over him again. He wanted to meet the man who abandoned him all those years ago. He felt a need to clear the air.
Judy was a big help to Gary because she had connections in law enforcement. Her husband Rotea Gilford was a cop in San Francisco before his death in 1998. Through her connections with the police, Gary was provided with his father’s name, date of birth and social security number.
According to Gary, after getting that information, the police became hesitant to give him any other leads pertaining to Earl Van Best.
Gary had enough info to discover he had siblings on his father’s side of the family who lived in Austria. When he reached out to them, they politely declined to provide any details about dear old dad, except that he had abandoned the family years ago.
After that rejection, Gary decided he would call off his search. One day, while watching TV, Gary and his son Zach were floored by what they saw on Cold Case Files. A police sketch of the Zodiac Killer from 1969 was on the screen. Zach remarked that this guy bore a striking resemblance to Gary. Gary thought he looked like someone else entirely. He went to his folder of research on his birth father, then took out a photo and could not believe his eyes. He was looking at a face, from that era, that matched the sketch.
From that moment on, Gary dug up everything he could on the Zodiac. He claimed that he had proof that Van Best’s movements in the late 60’s- early 70s lined up with the murderer’s. He said he could trace his father’s involvement with Anton La Vey- head of the church of Satan and Charles Manson. He had proof that Earl Van Best’s father was a codebreaker who exercised his son’s brain by challenging him to solve cryptograms. It was well known that Zodiac liked to use ciphers to taunt the police and the public. Gary also claimed that Earl Van Best’s name was hidden in one of the ciphers. Van Best had a grudge against Paul Avery for his embarrassing coverage of the Ice Cream Romance. Avery was the only journalist to receive a personal threat from Zodiac. Gary dug up Judy and Earl’s marriage certificate. He found a handwriting analyst who ascertained the writing on that certificate matched the handwriting of the Zodiac. He also submitted a DNA sample that he says indicates he shared genetic markers with DNA from a stamp that was used on a letter sent to newspapers by Zodiac. There were more claims made by Stewart that seemed to point to the fact that Zodiac was indeed Gary’s biological father, Earl Van Best.
So, if Gary has all this circumstantial evidence that points directly to his father, why would the police NOT consider his research to close this ice-cold case? Gary submits that the San Francisco police (including Judy Gilford’s deceased husband, Rotea) bungled the investigation. They allegedly had interviewed Van Best and Gilford noted that he was the pedophile who had kidnapped, abused, and impregnated his now-wife. For some reason, the case was botched and buried because of this. If this was true, not only had Gary unmasked Zodiac but he had also stumbled upon one of the biggest cover ups ever.
The police may have ignored Gary’s findings, but Susan Mustafa- a true-crime author- found them to be intriguing. She and Gary pored over his research and before you know it she was set to co-author a book with him. This story was sure to make a shitload of money because EVERYONE who is about this true crime life wants to know the identity of the Zodiac. Of course, armchair detectives around the country were all pissed off because every good web sleuth has their own theory about the Zodiac. They mostly dismissed Gary’s claim because it didn’t line up with their own speculations. I myself would be thrilled to know who this fucker is- just like I was when the world found out that Joseph DeAngelo is allegedly the Golden State Killer (I can’t wait till that bastard pleads guilty so I can remove that “allegedly”). But, I digress. So, what happened after the book was published in 2014?
Duh- it became a New York Times bestseller, that’s all!
It has a rating of 4.1/5 on Amazon’s reviews.
Just like the true-crime community in general, the reviews are pretty divided.
A user named 2broke2shop wrote:
Reviewed in the United States on October 12, 2016
I could not put this book down. The whole story is so well written and put together. I am completely convinced that Earl Van Best Jr is the Zodiac killer. I did not think that I would be so thoroughly convinced. I am really surprised that so many people are being critical about the “lack of evidence.” Back in the day and even now, without DNA, many cases are won if you have enough convincing circumstantial evidence. Nowadays, most of us prefer DNA, or both, but honestly, just comparing his picture to the sketch, and taking into account his unique scar on his finger which matched a fingerprint left behind from one of the Zodiac crime scenes alone was huge!
The very next review, from Chardee Macdennis, read
Reviewed in the United States on October 31, 2018
It lacks significant evidence. All the victims looked like mom…I don’t see it. EVB Jr photo and Zodiac sketch …many people could have be seen as be as bearing a resemblance to a sketch. Perhaps there is something to the handwriting but too small sample of EVB Jr writings in my opinion to give so much potential of a match even from a Professional. Lastly, no DNA TEST. AND the cyphers, seems that many people have found various names with no definitive answers with confidence.
Despite the varying opinions, the book was a huge success. Earlier this year, FX and Hulu teamed up to give us a 4 part docu-series that takes a deep dive into the life of Gary Stewart, an adoptee who needed to find himself and the research he did that apparently uncovered the Zodiac. It was directed by Academy Award nominee Kief Davidson and Ross Dinerstein. Wow! We met law enforcement officers, the handwriting analyst, Susan Mustafa, Judy Gilford (who is now estranged from her biological son after he wrote that book without giving her a heads up) and so many more people who Gary says substantiate his story. The series was well done and I found myself wondering if this was it. Had the Zodiac finally been named?
Sadly, it appears he has not. The documentary fairly laid out Gary’s evidence and told his story of searching for his identity. It shed light on the struggles of many adoptees who have little to no knowledge of who they are. It made me scratch my head and ponder whether there was a conspiracy to keep Zodiac’s identity a secret. It made me look forward to the final episode aptly titled “The Truth”. In it, we learned that Gary Stewart was an unreliable narrator. And it finally revealed enough truth to make me doubt not only Gary’s story but his motivation.
It seems that Gary saw that sketch on Cold Case Files and immediately became married to the idea that his dad was a serial killer. All the evidence he “found” was carefully manipulated to fit his narrative. Yes- Earl Van Best resembled the sketch, but -real talk- half of the white guys in this documentary resembled the sketch. The marriage certificate was filled out by the judge presiding over his parents’ marriage, NOT by Van Best. The handwriting analyst who definitively said that the certificate was filled out by the Zodiac was debunked by his own peers. The DNA Gary submitted was never matched against the known sample of the Zodiac. All of the evidence that placed Van Best in the areas that Zodiac was known to be in was stretched by Gary to fit times and dates. Susan Mustafa and Gary turned on one another, each blaming the other for failing to check and double-check the facts surrounding the case. Gary accused his biological mom of selectively forgetting details of her life with Van Best- and if she did, could you blame her? She was a REAL victim of Van Best, also. Yep- the final episode was a real shit show. Thus, I spent 4 hours watching this show and the only thing I’m sure of is that Gary Stewart was obsessed with the thought that Earl Van Best was the Zodiac Killer. Obsession is one of those things that lets you see what you want to see. Gary NEEDED his biological father to be a MONSTER. It would explain why he took him to 736 North Boulevard and left him in a stairwell. It would explain why he never looked for him. It would validate his worth if the person who threw him away was a fucking MURDERER. Even if Van Best is not the Zodiac, he was a terrible person. If his only crimes were against Judy and Gary, that qualifies him as a shitty individual. And shitty individuals deserve shitty endings. Earl Van Best got his.
He died in 1994, choking on his own vomit in a bar in Mexico City, Stewart said. He was buried in an unmarked grave where Gary and his son were the first visitors. That’s it, that’s all- The Most Dangerous Animal is finally in the books.
What do you think of Gary’s story- also, who is your favorite Zodiac suspect? Let me know! I’m still TCbyTB on all the things, including my blog at TCbyTB.com where you’ll find sources and shit. There’s also a little donate button in case you are so inclined. My email is still TcByTb@gmail.com if you’d like to catch up with me that way. I can’t wait to holla at you all next week- until then Stay outta the Shadows. Peace!!