• Full Archive
  • Covers

Fear in the Streets of San Francisco

  • Print
  • Email
  • Share
  • Reprints
  • Related

While visiting San Francisco last week, Nelson T. Shields IV, 23, of Greenville, Del., enjoyed a game of lacrosse with friends, then gave a fellow player a hand in moving a rug. Still clad in his playing shorts, sweatshirt and tennis shoes, he leaned over the trunk of a car to make room for the rug, when three fatal pistol shots whizzed seemingly out of nowhere and hit him in the back. Shields' death was the twelfth in the series of bizarre, random "Zebra" attacks —apparently not linked with the S.L.A.—that have plagued the city for 21 terrifying weeks; six other people have been wounded. All the victims have been whites, and the Zebra killer is described as a black man who strikes in the early evening. Three days after the Shields slaying, a man who called himself Zebra robbed, beat and killed Frank Carlson, the assistant manager of a San Mateo supermarket, and raped Carlson's wife. Because the attack does not match the pattern of the others, investigators have doubts that it was a Zebra killing.

Police have pieced together a description of the man by drawing on information from eyewitnesses to the shootings. He is between 20 and 30, from 5 ft. 9 in. to 6 ft., of medium build and lean face, with a thin mustache and possibly a goatee; he may wear a knitted cap. Some witnesses claim that there are two, possibly three assailants.

With only these clues, more than 100 policemen are patrolling the streets in cars and on foot, stopping all blacks who fit the rough description. Those checked out and cleared by police are issued identification cards to spare them repeated questioning in Operation Zebra. Zebra is the code for the police-radio band used in conducting the search.

Many blacks are outraged by the sweeping man hunt. Dr. Carlton B. Goodlett, an official of the National Newspaper Publishers Association, an organization of black publishers, complains: "You can't compromise essential freedoms for temporary safety." Lawyers for the N.A.A.C.P. sought a temporary restraining order in federal court, arguing that blacks have been subject to "unlawful and indiscriminate stopping, searching, interrogation, detention and arrest without warrant or probable cause." The American Civil Liberties Union and Legal Defense Fund will also seek a restraining order; both suits will be heard next week by U.S. District Judge Alfonso J. Zirpoli.

The protests seem slightly overwrought. Police insist that they are stopping only those blacks who fit the composite picture of the Zebra attacker and that they are acting within the law. There is, of course, firm legal precedent for stopping a citizen who matches the description of a suspected criminal. The San Francisco police cite the 1969 search for the Zodiac killer, in which, similarly, any white man matching a specific description was stopped. Meanwhile, Mayor Joseph Alioto is sensibly urging residents to submit willingly to questioning.

"This is not a racial issue," he says. "All we are trying to do is hold tragedy to a minimum." At a press conference, nine black civic leaders flanked the mayor in support of his position.

Said Redevelopment Official Wilbur Hamilton:

"Blacks were not intimidated or harassed in the search. We understand what we must do to bring this horrendous thing to an end."

Connect to this TIME Story

Interact with
this story

  • Facebook

Get the Latest News from Time.com
Sign up to get the latest news and headlines delivered straight to your inbox.

Quotes of the Day »

Get & Share
JAAP DE HOOP SCHEFFER, NATO's secretary-general, on the alliance's decision to deny a path to membership for Ukraine and Georgia.

  • Full Archive
  • Covers