“Hello,” Leona said in her sweet southern voice.
“Hello. Is this Leona?” the voice on the other end of the line asked nervously.
“Yes, it is. And who is this?”
“My name is Judith Gilford, and I live in San Francisco. I believe I am your son, Gary’s birth mother.”
For a few seconds, Leona couldn’t speak.
When she was able to catch her breath, she managed to say, “What makes you think that?”
“I have information from his placement file,” Judith explained. “Look, I don’t want to interfere in your lives,” she rushed on. “I just want to make the information available to Gary, to give him an identity just in case he wants to know.”
Leona listened as the woman explained some of the circumstances of her life and how she had come to give her baby up for adoption.
“I never wanted to give him up, and I’ve always wanted to find him,” Judith said just as Loyd poked his head into the room. Leona waved him away and walked into her bedroom, closing the door behind her. She listened carefully while Judith told her everything she had gone through to find her son over the past few years. Leona, always attuned to the feelings of others, couldn’t help but feel sympathy for the woman.
“Please just let me send you a package with a letter and some pictures for him,” Judith begged.
“I’ll discuss it with my husband,” Leona said. “And I’ll talk to Gary.”
Judith cut her off. “Please don’t make me any promises. I will just send the information and trust that whatever should happen will happen.”
A few days later, when Leona received the FedEx box from Judith, she turned it over and over, afraid to open it, fearing the potential it had to change all of our lives.
All the birthday parties, the skinned knees, the boo-boos she had kissed. All of the memories she had shared with me flashed through her mind. Was this some kind of cruel joke? How dare this woman intrude into her life—her son’s life—like this?
Judy began sharing with me some of her recollections of my father, which were sketchy at best. “His name was Van. I don’t remember his full name,” she said, before explaining that they had met when she was very young and had run away together.
“Anyway, we ended up in New Orleans, and I ended up pregnant. One day, I think when you were about three months old, your father took you to Baton Rouge. I remember he took you by train, because we still didn’t own a car. He took you to a church. When he returned without you, I left him,” Judy continued. “Your father got mad at me for leaving and turned me in to the authorities.”
I struggled to comprehend what I was hearing. I had been left at a church?
“So my father took me to Baton Rouge and left me at a church, and then he turned you in to the authorities?” I queried, wanting to be sure about every detail.
Judy hesitated and then nodded her answer. “Yes.”
I sat quietly for a moment, taking it all in. Finally I said, “You know what, Mom? I really don’t think I want to know any more about my father. I have the best family in the world back home in Baton Rouge, and my dad is the best father in the world.”
Judy’s relief was visible. She obviously didn’t want me to find him, either.
I wish that would have been the end of it for me, but over the next few months, the more I thought about my biological father, the more I wanted to meet him, to learn his side of the story, maybe even forgive him and begin a relationship. My mother’s memories were limited. Maybe his memories would be better, and he could give me a reason why he had brought me to Baton Rouge and left me there.
I decided I would try to find him after all. I wanted to learn the truth about him—what kind of man he was, why he didn’t want me. I know now that sometimes things should be left in the past, that knowing isn’t always better. Sometimes the truth is so horrible that it must be uncovered in bits and pieces, snippets here and there, absorbed slowly, as the whole of it at once is simply too shocking to bear.
And sometimes the truth changes everything . . .
Van’s room soon became his refuge and his prison. He filled it with his beloved books, and when he wasn’t in school, he hid there while his mother gave piano lessons to the neighborhood children. He could hear the sounds of the children laughing in the living room beside him and his mother laughing with them as they banged away on the keys of the piano.
Gertrude did what she had to do for Van—she made sure he ate and went to school. Other than that, she ignored him. She embraced her newfound freedom, and soon a bevy of men were steadily making their way to her home.
Van could hear, sometimes, the banging of the headboard, the moans and gasps permeating the walls. He let the sounds of his music—flutes and violins and clarinets—swirl around him as he turned up the volume of his phonograph to drown out the banging. As he listened to The Mikado, the tale of lust and deceit captured in the opera mimicked his own life, and he listened over and over, memorizing every word.
Other times he occupied himself with writing codes, wishing his father were sitting across from him trying to decipher the meaning. Van missed his father. Even though he was strict, my grandfather had given him attention, had challenged him, had made him feel like he was important. In San Francisco, Van felt like he was nothing more than a nuisance, invisible.
My father was placed in a cell on the sixth floor of the Hall of Justice. He was sitting on his bunk, contemplating his next move, when a handsome young man walked up.
“Mr. Best, might I have a word with you?”
Van looked at him questioningly, wondering if he was a lawyer. “I’m Paul Avery, with the San Francisco Chronicle,” the man said. “Do you mind if I ask you a few questions?”
Van shook his head.
Avery pulled out his notebook. “Where did you meet Judy?” he asked.
“At Herbert’s Sherbet Shoppe. She was there . . . beautiful and sweet,” Avery would later quote Van as saying.
“But she was only fourteen,” Avery said.
“That didn’t matter.”
Over the next half hour, Van told Avery the whole story. “He Found Love in Ice Cream Parlor,” read the headline of the San Francisco Chronicle on August 1, 1962. Pictures of Van and Judy were splashed across the page, accompanied by an article depicting their romance. “At the moment, several sets of steel bars and more than a mile in distance separate Van and his one-time wife, Judy Chandler,” Avery wrote before describing how the now twenty-eight-year-old man had fallen in love with a teenager.
When Van saw the article, he was furious. He didn’t like the way Avery had portrayed him as if he were some old, balding child molester. Avery would later dub their love affair “The Ice Cream Romance.” Van would never forgive him for mocking his love for Judy.
About twenty minutes later, a voice over the intercom announced, “Baton Rouge Depot” as the train squealed to a stop.
Van stood up, pulled me close to him, and exited the train on the west side of the station. He walked across the tracks and made his way up South River Road. My father could not help but notice the Old State Capitol, a neo-Gothic structure located on a hill overlooking the Mississippi River that is so memorable Mark Twain once wrote, “It is pathetic enough, that a white- washed castle, with turrets and things—pretending to be what they are not—should ever have been built in this otherwise honorable place.”
A light wind began to swirl as Van turned right onto North Boulevard. My thin blanket did little to shield me from the cool air. Looking for the perfect spot, my father passed by the State Library of Louisiana and then the police and sheriff’s departments, housed together in one building. Fallen leaves and acorns from the plentiful live oaks that decorated downtown Baton Rouge crunched beneath his feet as he walked. Reaching the top of a hill, Van could see a needle-like structure that resembled the spaceship NASA was planning to send to the moon one day. Built by Huey P. Long, the Louisiana State Capitol stretched upward 450 feet and housed thirty-four floors, making it the tallest state capitol building in the country. To his right, the Old Governor’s Mansion, home to Louisiana’s singing governor, Jimmie Davis, who had risen to fame with his song “You Are My Sunshine,” bore a strong resemblance to the White House.
Bells sounded out a chorus of the traditional Westminster chime from an old Anglican church. It was 11:00 a.m.
Just a little farther up North Boulevard stood an apartment building bordered by St. Joseph and Napoleon Streets. Built in a Georgian Colonial style, the redbrick building housed eight single-family dwellings. White-tile steps with the number 736 inlaid in blue tiles led the way to the front door. Crepe myrtles and azalea bushes decorated the yard with brilliant splashes of color.
It was perfect. Because there were no spots allotted for parking on the busy street, Van knew there must be a back entrance. He carried me around the corner to St. Joseph Street, searching for the gate in the wrought-iron fence that he guessed would be there. Opening it, he stepped into a courtyard behind the building that featured beautiful oaks, an old sugar kettle with a fountain, and seclusion. He scoured the parking lot to the left to be sure he was alone and unobserved.
Climbing up two steps, Van turned the knob on the back door and walked into the building unseen.
Jonau and Fournier headed to Pirate’s Alley, an appropriate area in which to find their subject. Legend says that the one-block-long alley, which runs from Chartres Street to Royal Street, was once a safe haven for pirates, although its very location, with the historic St. Louis Cathedral to the right and the Cabildo, the site of the Louisiana Purchase transfer, in 1803, to the left, contradicted the tale. The Faulkner House, where William Faulkner wrote his first novel, is located near Royal Street in Pirate’s Alley and attracts thousands of tourists each year. During the day, the alley is welcoming, filled with artists and street performers, but in the wee hours of the morning, when sin runs rampant in the Quarter, Pirate’s Alley takes on an eerie cast. Its salvation, perhaps, is the huge cathedral that overlooks the alley, reminding the sinful below that God is in this place.
Van might have been looking for a safe haven when he chose to visit the cathedral, some absolution for his sins before he was forced to pay his penance. Or perhaps he wanted to view the cathedral’s organ and the artwork of Italian painter Francisco Zapari, who mimicked Michelangelo by painting the arched ceilings of the church in the bright colors of the Renaissance before adding his own Baroque signature.
Van walked to the front of the church and exited through a side door into an alley. The rectory was directly in front of him, and he went inside.
When Fournier and Jonau arrived at the rectory, they learned from the receptionist that Van was still there. He did not resist when they took him into custody.
Van admitted to being cruel to me, locking me in his footlocker, and abandoning me because he and Judy had decided they didn’t want me. “We didn’t have the money to feed it,” he told the officers, who noted that this father had referred to his son as “it.” They took him to the First District station and booked him as a fugitive.
The next day, April 20, the headline in the San Francisco Chronicle read, “Love on the Run: Ice Cream Romance’s Bitter End,” and Paul Avery detailed the capture of the runaway couple. Another headline announced, “Ice Cream Romance Ends on Bourbon St.” All across the country, newspapers repeated the tale of the lovebirds who had become fugitives to be together, only to be torn apart by the product of their love.
By the middle of the decade, music in the San Francisco area was evolving as groups like the Warlocks (later the Grateful Dead) and Jefferson Airplane, whose signature psychedelic sound would embody the hippie movement, moved into Haight-Ashbury and honed their skills in local clubs, the same clubs where my father had honed his a decade before. Van listened with interest as the doo-wop sound of the fifties turned grittier, dirtier, and more instrument-oriented. Loud guitars replaced harmonies, and lyrics about sex and drugs gave teen- agers permission. On the flip side, folk groups like the Mamas and the Papas and the Youngbloods would gain the same audience through lyrics about love and peace. Even John Lennon and Yoko Ono would visit the Haight, finding inspiration in the revolution against the establishment that was occurring there.
Older, and a conservative dresser, Van did not fit in with the kids in the Haight, but he was accepted in the music scene because of his talent. He soon resumed his business dealing in antiquities, in spite of having been convicted of fraud, and on his return trips he jammed with local musicians, including LaVey.
On April 30, 1966, Anton LaVey officially declared that the Age of Satan had started. Over the years, his audience had grown, and his Magic Circle had increased to include celebrities such as underground filmmaker Kenneth Anger. His followers from the Lost Weekend tavern formed much of the membership of LaVey’s new Church of Satan. The group now met in his house on California Street, which had been painted black and featured a main ritual chamber where church meetings were held. Ever the showman, LaVey regularly performed black magic for his enthralled congregation. In this room, LaVey’s teaching far surpassed the rebellion taking place against the government in the Haight.
On the streets, the rebellion was against traditional thinking. Against society’s rules.
In LaVey’s church, the rebellion was against God.
Lake Herman Road was well known by local teenagers as a great place to make out. The entrance to the Benicia water- pumping station was perfect—isolated and surrounded by rolling hills. A locked gate prevented kids from entering the pumping station, but a small area to the side of the road, at the entrance, invited them to park there. Teenagers could see lights from approaching cars from a distance and would usually wait until they passed to resume their inexperienced groping.
David and Betty Lou weren’t paying attention to the passing cars. It was dark, foggy, and cold outside—about forty degrees—a perfect night to snuggle, to experience the excitement of a first kiss. Betty Lou sat in the front seat of David’s 1960 brown Rambler station wagon, her pretty head resting on his shoulder while they talked. Absorbed in each other, they didn’t pay attention when a vehicle pulled over and parked parallel to their car.
Perhaps my father had been watching Betty Lou. Her mother would later report to police that the gate to their home had been found open on several occasions when it should have been closed. The young girl resembled Judy—the way she had looked when Van had forced her to dye her hair black to avoid recognition while they were on the run. Betty Lou, cuddled up next to David, had no way of knowing that my father perceived that as a betrayal.
Van had carefully prepared for this night. Realizing that he would not be able to sight his gun if his prey took off running, he had taped a small penlight to the barrel of his .22-caliber semi- automatic pistol.
David and Betty Lou were oblivious to the man standing just feet away, until bullets started ripping through the car—through the back passenger window, through the roof, and then suddenly their attacker was on the driver’s side, aiming his gun through the window. He shot David, whose exit had been slowed by Betty Lou’s escape, just behind his left ear at point-blank range. David’s body slammed sideways and he fell out of the passenger side of the car.
In his left hand, he clenched the class ring he had planned to give Betty Lou that night.
Betty Lou ran for her life but could not escape the five bullets that ripped into her back. She had managed to run about twenty-eight feet when the last bullet felled her.
She died there, on the side of a dark road, at the hands of a man who had once loved a girl who looked like her.
A few days later, on April 6, 2004, I was out celebrating a victory with my co-workers when my phone rang. My company had just successfully completed its first major project engineered and executed by my employees in our Baton Rouge office, and we had gathered at the Lager’s Ale House, on Veterans Boulevard in Metairie, a suburb of New Orleans. When I saw my mother’s number on the caller ID, I left our noisy table and went into the bathroom to answer the call.
“Hi, honey,” she said. “How are you?”
“I’m fine. I’m out celebrating our first grand-slam project.
My boss is here from California, and we’re doing great. How are you?”
“Well, I just left the coffee shop where I met Earl. He says he can’t tell us what your father did. He says what your father did was so heinous it would destroy us. I know this is not what you wanted to hear, but he begged me to tell you just to drop this thing with your father. He was very adamant about that.”
I could hear how upset she was.
“It’s okay, Mom. I know you’ve done everything you can. So we will never know. So what? We still have each other, right?”
“Honey, I think we just need to let go now.”
“I guess you’re right. Besides I have the best gift of all—you. That’s good enough for me,” I said, trying to cheer her up.
Inside, I was conflicted. Something wasn’t right here. Why did Earl Sanders care about what would destroy me? We had never met. And why would Harold Butler say that what was in that file would make what Van had done to Judy seem inconsequential? The more I thought about it, the less it made any sense at all. Police officers had to give people bad news all the time.
Why was this different?
I couldn’t just let it go. But I wish now that I had.
“Can you bring a DNA kit down here?” he said.
A few minutes later, an officer walked in, the sound of his clanking handcuffs preceding him. At five feet eleven inches, the man was slender and graying but handsome, with strong Irish features.
“First of all, he hasn’t done anything wrong, so we’re safe,” Hennessey joked as the man nodded toward me.
“So what are we doing here?” the forensic analyst asked, his accent distinct.
“Well, you see, Gary here, um, well, he is voluntarily submitting a DNA sample,” Hennessey said.
“What for, then?” the analyst persisted. This was very un- usual, and he wasn’t going to let it slide. “Do you have a case number for him?”
Hennessey didn’t want to say that this was to be charged to case number 696314, the Zodiac case, because it was officially closed at the time. But testing my DNA would cost the department about fifteen hundred dollars, and the forensic lab needed a case number to justify the expense.
“Come with me,” Hennessey told the man, leading him from the room. A few minutes later they came back.
“We have a case number,” Hennessey said, obviously pleased.
“We’ll just need your information here, and then you sign here stating that you voluntarily offered a sample of your bodily fluids for DNA analysis,” the analyst said, pointing to the items on the form I needed to sign.
I filled in the information and signed it without reading any- thing, excited by the fact that Hennessey seemed to believe me sufficiently to spend the money for the expensive DNA test.
The analyst put on a pair of latex gloves and pulled a buccal swab kit out of his shirt pocket. “Now, just open your mouth,” he instructed.
He swabbed the inside of my cheek twice and placed the swab in a crime scene bag, sealed it, thanked me, and left the room.
“We will have to be patient,” Hennessey said. “Our backlog of DNA samples waiting on analysis is extremely long, due to underfunding and so many new crimes.”
“I understand,” I said, getting up and shaking the lieutenant’s hand.
“I’m going to visit Butler and try to get your father’s file for review,” Hennessey promised.
“Thank you so much for taking the time to listen to my story.”
“If I didn’t believe you and what you’ve told me, I would not have taken your DNA,” Hennessey assured me. “We’ll get to the bottom of this. I hope for your sake that your father was not the Zodiac.”
“So do I, sir.”
What I found in the Morning Advocate broke my heart—a picture of a baby held in the arms of a Baton Rouge police officer. The headline, on March 16, read, “Tot Abandoned Here Is Put in Hospital for Observation.”
I could barely breathe as I looked at my picture plastered on the front page of the newspaper. The caption underneath the photo stated, “ABANDONED BABY BOY—Mrs. Essie Bruce of the city Juvenile division holds a blond, blue-eyed baby boy after he was found abandoned on a stairway landing in an apartment house on North Boulevard. Police are attempting to find a new home for the child and to determine the identity of his parents.”
I stared at the article in disbelief. There was no mention of a church. I had been found unexpectedly by a lady named Mary Bonnette, on the stairs in her apartment building.
Stunned, I searched for more articles and found a headline on April 19 that read, “Teenager may be the mother of abandoned tot.” This article indicated that a fifteen-year-old had been picked up for vagrancy in New Orleans and may be the mother of the abandoned infant.
An article on April 20 stated, “Nab Father of Child left here.” It reported that Earl Van Best Jr., twenty-eight, of San Francisco, had been arrested for abandoning his two-month-old son in Baton Rouge.
I realized the newspaper had it wrong. I had not been two months old.
I had been only four weeks old when my father abandoned me.
Slowly, I got up from the microfiche machine, collected the articles I had printed, and made my way to my truck. I got in, started the engine, and steered it toward downtown Baton Rouge. I knew North Boulevard well. I had driven on that street many times.
I had not been left in a safe haven by people who had loved me but simply couldn’t care for me. I had been thrown out like the trash, left there to be found or not.
An intense feeling of rejection washed over me as I looked for the address the paper had listed: 736.
“Hallo, I’m looking for Gary Stewart,” a heavily German- accented voice said in perfect English.
Gripping the handset, I said, “This is Gary speaking.”
“This is Guenevere. What’s this about you being my brother?” I could tell she was smiling by the sound of her voice, and I let go of the breath I had been holding.
Our conversation lasted forty minutes. Guenevere asked why I thought we were brother and sister. I explained that I had been adopted and what Armstrong had told me.
Guenevere told me that she had a baby, Karl, who was two, and her second child was due in March. She explained that she had moved from the address where I had sent the letter because she and her husband needed a larger home for their growing family. She had not received the e-mails because she had not been to her office.
My heart soared. She had not been ignoring me.
I told her about my family, both families, and repeated the information I had sent her in the letters.
“Can you tell me about our father?” I asked.
“I didn’t know our father,” she said. “He abandoned us when I was a baby.”
Her words shot through me. Van had done the same thing to my siblings that he had done to me. I knew well the sadness she must have experienced when she learned that.
“So is our father’s criminal past the reason why you devoted your life to helping those like our father seek asylum?” I asked, my voice full of empathy.
There was silence on the other end of the phone.
“What do you mean, ‘our father’s criminal past’?” Guenevere said, the tone of her voice no longer cheerful.
I knew I had just misstepped. “I just assumed, if you worked for the asylum board, that our father might have been running from something in the U.S.”
“My career has nothing to do with my father,” Guenevere said coldly. “It’s just what I went to university for, that’s all.”
As we said our good-byes and exchanged contact information, I knew I had stuck my foot in my mouth. I hoped I had not done too much damage, but the Guenevere who said good-bye was not the friendly Guenevere who had greeted me.
For almost two months we waited anxiously for the results. Finally, on December 9, 2012, we got our answer. Wakshull had generated a sixty-five-page report, complete with comparative exhibits and analysis, and had concluded that he was virtually certain that the person who filled out the marriage certificate was the writer of the Zodiac letters. He explained that he couldn’t say he was absolutely certain, because the rules of his profession do not allow him to make that determination without original documents. “Strong probability” and “virtually certain” were the strongest words he could use to encapsulate his professional opinion.
As I stared at the exhibits he’d generated, I got chills. He had overlaid my father’s handwriting onto the Zodiac’s, and the results were stunning.
I had that final piece of evidence—forensic evidence that would stand up in a court of law.
A few weeks later, Wakshull sent another exhibit. He had decided to overlay my father’s face onto the two pictures in the Zodiac sketch to see how closely they matched. The result was indisputable.
When Susan finally told him my whole story, he went a step further. He noticed that the signature on the Cheri Jo Bates letters—the Z with the squiggly top line—looked like an E and a V. He compared the E’s from Van’s signature on his marriage licenses against the squiggly line and got another match.
By this time, he was getting just as excited as we were.
“You realize you are going to have to defend your findings,” Susan told him.
“I would defend them in a court of law,” Wakshull responded, and he put it in writing.