Book Review: Zebra

This book review was originally published in the October 15, 1979 issue of Time Magazine, which can be viewed online here

Kill! Kill! Kill!

ZEBRA by Clark Howard Marek; 405 pages; $11.95

Urban killing is as old as cities; today, the accounts of street crime have grown so familiar that death has lost its sting. In a book that should prove this year’s Helter Skelter, Crime Writer Clark Howard restores to this now routine event a primal horror. His pounding narrative meticulously describes the so-called Zebra killings of 1973-74, when 23 white San Franciscans were murdered or maimed by a group of Black Muslim extremists. In the retelling, the cold jargon of police files leaps starkly to life.

It is not only the murders that make this narrative so gripping, but Howard’s exploration of the group mind behind them. There are risks involved in attempting to re-create actual conversations and inner musings in the now fashionable style of the nonfiction novel. But the author’s dialogue has the shrill, soul-chilling sound of truth. The killers are followed step by bloody step from the time of their initiation into the cult, which preached a fanatical hatred of whites based less on actual injustice than on a mystic prediction of black world dominance. All the young men are impressionable, violence-prone, and this particular Muslimism appeals to their worst instincts. Three are trained in the precincts of San Quentin, where they listen to cassettes urging the destruction of whites and learn how to kill with a single blow to the larynx, chest or neck. Since all these activities come under the heading of “religion,” prison authorities are prevented from interfering.

Upon their release, the trio are invited to a meeting in a warehouse loft. There an itinerant upper-echelon Muslim urges them to start executing whites in order to achieve the elevated status of Death Angel, a role that confers a kind of perverse respectability. Each of the neophytes must kill nine men, five women or four children. Murdering the young earns more points because the act requires more “heart.” On the eve of the killing spree the loft becomes a staging arena for a combination of horseplay and unfocused hatred: ” ‘Kill! Kill! Kill!’ The chant was low, murmured, sloshing across the room like dirty water in a flooded basement. It came from mechanized mouths below mesmerized eyes, robotlike, hypnotic, uncontrollable.”

The new recruits, whose desolate backgrounds may have deprived them of a childhood, begin playing their lethal game. Victims are selected at random: women, children and frail men who cannot fight back. The murderers shoot or stab from behind, often leaving their victims in agony. They chortle over each attack, showing remorse only when they fail to kill. Then their eyes fill with tears. The more blood they shed, the more they seem to crave. One youth is picked up on the street, taken back to the loft and butchered piece by piece. The remains are trussed up like a frozen turkey and thrown into the sea. Their new-found religion forbids the recruits to rob or rape their victims, but that scarcely deters them. One of them removes a blood-specked ring from a woman he has hacked to death and gives it to a friend for his new bride.

The city is soon immobilized with fear; the police are frustrated. They cannot conduct a legal surveillance of the mosque because it is constitutionally out of bounds. While they find it impossible to infiltrate the sect, the Muslims have no difficulty placing members in the police department. In exasperation, an enterprising homicide detective, Gus Coreris, violates departmental rules by producing sketches of the killers from his own imagination. One of them resembles a real killer, who is thrown into such a panic that he considers informing on the others. Then the police launch Operation Zebra: stopping and searching black youths who bear any likeness to the sketches. Overreacting to a desperate effort to deal with a genuine menace, the American Civil Liberties Union and various black groups indignantly denounce the police action as racist. In response to a lawsuit, Operation Zebra is declared unconstitutional, but under increasing pressure, the worried informer turns himself in.

On the basis of his testimony, as well as that of surviving victims, four killers — Jesse Cooks, Larry Green, Manuel Moore, J.C. Simon — are sentenced to life imprisonment, though Howard states that other Death Angels have murdered an estimated 270 white men, women and children in California and few have been apprehended. The four prisoners have subsequently shown no sign of repentance and in prison they have been troublemakers. Yet they are up for parole in 1981.

Howard is clearly unhappy with that possibility. For the true villain of his book is a criminal-justice system that fails to protect society from its marauders. There is, however, another villain in Zebra — one that Howard somewhat slights. In concentrating on the crimes, hideous as they are, he does not really grapple with the social ecology that may drive ill-educated, rootless men to acts of such brutality. Still, Howard’s pronouncement echoes like a scream on a dark street: “California [has] a bad habit of letting its convicted killers out to kill again.”

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