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2021 Excellence in Audio Digital Storytelling, Limited Series finalist

The Doodler

About the Project

More than 45 years ago, a serial killer wreaked havoc in San Francisco. He sketched men in gay bars, enticed them away with his drawings and then stabbed them to death. He became known as the Doodler, and he was never caught. The case would likely still be virtually unknown today, if not for a phone call three years ago from the lead cop on the case, San Francisco Police Detective Dan Cunningham, to San Francisco Chronicle reporter Kevin Fagan.

That call launched Fagan on a years-long investigation and became the seed of an eight-episode podcast produced by The San Francisco Chronicle in partnership with Sony Music, Ugly Duckling Films of London and Neon Hum of California.

As Fagan investigated the killings, he came to see this case as more than a murder mystery yarn. He was fueled by a passion to show how the LGBTQ discrimination of the 1970s let the Doodler get away with his crimes and how two bold Black homicide inspectors rose above the racism of the times to sleuth the case out. He was also inspired to illuminate the long-forgotten victims of the Doodler, showing who they had been before their lives were cut short.

Fagan recruited retired Chronicle crime reporter Mike Taylor into the effort, and together they filed public records requests, pored over hundreds of documents and interviewed more than 100 people in California and around the world as they stitched together what happened so long ago and why this case came so close to being solved but fell short. They tracked down relatives of all five previously known murder victims and discovered a possible sixth victim. They followed leads to other likely Doodler killings outside San Francisco and unearthed crucial clues to the mystery that had confounded cops for half a century: the identity of a doctor who took a confession from the leading suspect.

Fagan narrated and co-wrote the eight-part podcast, and a team of more than a dozen producers contributed to the script editing, created original music for the series and mixed sound. “The Doodler” reached No. 4 on the Apple podcast chart, and was covered by NPR, The Guardian and New York magazine.

Fagan also published a series of stories on SFChronicle.com to accompany the podcast episodes, along with video and never-before-seen photos of the murder scenes and victims. With new facts, distinct details and different styles, the articles complement the audio and offer the audience a second avenue to explore the story. The result is a history lesson on racial and LGBTQ struggles and triumphs, an ode to the dead, and a hunt for truth in what can now be acknowledged as one of the nation’s most notorious unsolved crimes.