Authors: Gary L. Stewart,Susan Mustafa
For the man who adopted
the abandoned baby on the stairwell
and raised him as his own
The Zodiac case has been shrouded in mystery for almost fifty years. When I began my journey to find my biological father, I never envisioned that my search would lead me to a series of brutal murders that terrorized the residents of California in the 1960s and ’70s. The very idea that my father committed these acts is repulsive to me, and I try hard to disassociate myself from the horrific crimes he perpetrated upon innocent young people. After I met my biological mother, I simply wanted to find the man responsible for giving me life. I wanted to know him, love him, and even forgive him for what he had done to me. I had been raised in an adoptive home and taught that love and forgiveness are tenets by which to live one’s life.
I had been gathering information about my father for two years before I got the first suspicion that he could somehow be connected to the Zodiac killings. At the time, I did not want to believe what my instincts were telling me, so I set out to uncover the truth, to prove to myself that my father could not possibly have been a serial killer. As years went by and more and more telling evidence unfolded, there came a day when I could no longer deny that my worst fears were true. That realization prompted me to write this memoir. I felt it was my responsibility to share the truths that I had learned in a way that would leave no doubt as to the identity of this killer and the reasons why he had committed these murders.
This memoir is based upon my research over a twelve-year period, which I recorded in a journal as I went through the process of discovering the facts of my father’s life. Through conversations with my father’s best friend, family members and my biological mother, police records, newspaper articles, old Best family letters, marriage and divorce records, and other government records, I was able to create a timeline of my father’s early life, which makes up Part One of this book. The narration of that period is presented in a novelistic manner of storytelling because this was the most coherent way to tell his story. I have taken some small liberties when re-creating dialogue in this section of the book, but even those conversations are based upon the memories of my father’s family and friends and the facts of his life that were related to me. Likewise, dialogue in Parts Two and Three is based upon twelve years of investigation and the facts that investigation revealed. I should note that all of the conversations that took place between me and others, including my biological mother, my father’s best friend, and detectives at the San Francisco Police Department, are related verbatim.
The details concerning my father’s life span five decades and are complex. It seemed best to simply start at the beginning, in order to give the reader a real sense of how and why my father grew into a serial killer.
—GARY L. STEWART
The sound of the baby’s hungry cries pierced the darkness. His father angrily flung his covers aside and climbed out of bed, hurrying to the footlocker that doubled as the infant’s crib. Furiously, he slammed the lid shut.
Inside, the cries soon turned to gasps as the baby struggled for air.
Thirty-nine years. That’s how long I had waited to hear the words. Thirty-nine years spent wondering about my name, my parents’ names.
Finally, I knew.
My mother’s name was Judith.
I could see that something was bothering my adoptive parents, Loyd and Leona Stewart, the day I found out the truth. I observed them surreptitiously as I stirred the crawfish, sausage, corn, and potatoes one last time before dumping out the huge pot onto the newspapers lining the table in my sister Cindy’s backyard. Loyd wasn’t laughing and cracking jokes in his Cajun French accent like he usually did, and Leona’s pretty face was drawn tight, as though she had something serious on her mind.
It was hot, the Louisiana humidity already sucking any coolness from the spring air, but a light breeze made the heat bearable as we sat around the table pinching meat from the tails and sucking spicy seasonings from the heads of the tasty mudbugs. After I finished my pile, I began hosing out the boiling pot. I watched as Loyd and Leona nodded to each other and then began walking toward me.
Uh-oh. I could tell by the way they were so deliberate in their approach that something was very wrong. I wondered who had died.
“Hey, Geg,” Dad said.
Loyd never called me Geg. That was a shortened version of my name used only by my grandparents. His use of that nickname, coupled with the fact that he looked like he was going to cry, made me even more nervous.
I flipped the towel in my hand over my shoulder and said, “What’s the matter, you two?”
“There’s no easy way to say what we have to say, so I’m just going to say it,” Loyd said. “A couple of weeks ago, a lady in San Francisco called us and said she was your mother.”
My mother? What?
Leona slipped her arm around my waist. “When we first received the package and picture she sent, I didn’t want to believe she could be your mother, but your dad said how much you looked like the lady in the picture. I denied it with every ounce of my being. I even refused to look at the picture again for a day or two.”
I tried to swallow the lump that had suddenly formed in my throat.
“But then I prayed about it,” she continued, “and the Lord laid it upon my heart that this was your mother and that your daddy and I should be honest with you.”
“When I first saw the picture, I just knew it was your mother,” Loyd piped in. “I told your mama, and she just wouldn’t believe it.”
Seeing the tears that were welling in my eyes, Leona gave me a gentle squeeze.
I couldn’t believe it. After all these years, I would finally have an identity, a name that was really mine. I could feel a wave of excitement flowing through me, and I reached for my father and mother and hugged them tightly. I promised them that no matter what happened, they would always be my parents. At that moment, I had no way of knowing how much this day would alter the course of my life.
Leona explained that she had received the call on May Day. She and Cindy had been in the living room, visiting with Loyd’s mother, Evelyn, when the phone rang, and she went into the kitchen to answer it.
“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?
With trembling fingers, Leona opened the box. A picture clipped to a letter caught her eye. The woman who had called stared at her from the wallet-size photograph. Tears began to cloud Leona’s vision and then rolled down her cheeks. She tried as she searched the picture to convince herself that the woman looked nothing like me. But try as she might to lie to herself, the truth stared back at her from the photo.
She brought the picture to Loyd.
He held Leona’s hand as he scanned the photo.
“He sure does look like her,” Loyd said. He wanted to tell his wife that this woman could not possibly be my mother, but he knew he had to be honest.
For the next few days, they talked about nothing but this unbelievable predicament in which they suddenly found themselves. Mine had been a closed adoption. This shouldn’t have happened. Should they tell me? Should they keep this a secret? Holding hands, they prayed together, asking God to show them what to do.