Perhaps one of the biggest mysteries in all of true crime is the identity of The Zodiac Killer, a serial murderer who terrorized the San Francisco Bay Area throughout the 1970s and 1980s. A new FX docu-series explores one man's belief that his father was the infamous killer — while also shining light on his father's sordid relationship with his mother.
"The Most Dangerous Animal of All" focuses on Gary Stewart and his quest to prove that his father, Earl Van Best, Jr., was the Zodiac Killer. He wrote a book of the same name on the subject. Early on in his investigation of his father, who abandoned him at a young age, he learned about Van Best's kidnapping and statutory rape of his mother in the 1960s, which was dubbed the "Ice Cream Romance" by the media at the time.
What Was The "Ice Cream Romance"?
Stewart says in the documentary that he'd grown up not knowing his parents, only hearing that they gave him up at birth for adoption. So he was surprised that his birth mother Jude Gilford, who was previously known by the name Judy Chandler, ended up reaching out to him in 2002 wanting to connect for the first time.
After meeting her, Stewart recalls her telling him the broad contours of meeting Van Best when she was a young teenage runaway. However, Stewart told the documentary producers he had suspicions that his mother was withholding information from him.
"'It's been a long time and I've spent a lot of my life trying to forget that time,'" Stewart recalls his mother telling him.
"The more questions I asked her about my father; the more she said she didn't remember," Stewart tells the filmmakers. "Over the next 12 years, my desire to find my father consumed me."
Stewart recalls that his repeated questions about the subject eventually led him to the story of "The Ice Cream Romance": a pithy tabloid name for what was actually a case of sexual abuse, kidnapping and statutory rape.
"My father first met my mother when she was getting off of a school bus," Stewart recalls in the documentary, repeating "she was getting off of a school bus" to highlight how his father pursued a child.
"He invited her into an ice cream shop and that's where the romance began," Stewart grimly recalls of his then-27-year-old father preying upon his then-14-year-old mother in 1962.
His mother called her relationship with Van Best "jumping out of the frying pan into the fire," after noting that she was initially "impressed" by him and that she was trying to escape an abusive father.
"I thought that I loved him, I didn't know he was a conman," Gilford tells the filmmakers in the docu-series. At some point, the two got married.
“I can’t help the difference in our ages,” Van Best told The San Francisco Chronicle in 1962. “I love Judy and she loves me. … It was love at first sight.”
“I’d marry her again tomorrow,” he told the newspaper.
The brief marriage was soon annulled while Van Best was in jail on statutory rape charges and Gilford was sent to juvenile hall, the Chronicle reported. Gilford's family put her in a juvenile hall facility and called the police on Van Best and had him arrested. Archival footage of Van Best's sentencing from the San Francisco City Archives indicates that he had eloped with Gilford in Reno, Nevada.
Gilford's sister Lyn Overton was unsparing toward Van Best, calling him a pedophile. "He was grooming her," she told the filmmakers.
But it wasn't the end of the illegal relationship, with the documentary recounting how Van Best sprang Stewart from juvenile hall and ran off to Mexico about a week after his arrest in February 1962. It was there that his mother became pregnant with him, Stewart said.
The two were caught multiple times and Stewart notes that San Francisco Chronicle reporter Paul Avery wrote a story that painted Van Best in a "very humiliating" light after speaking with him in jail. Van Best and Gilford eventually fled San Francisco entirely and the scandal became a national story while they hitch-hiked their way to Louisiana over the next year.
Gilford recalls the relationship soon became abusive to the point that Van Best began asking her to prostitute herself for money — all while she was heavily pregnant. In the documentary, Gilford recalls she was only 15 years old when Gary Stewart was born and that Van Best wasn't present for the birth of his son.
"I knew Van was having a hard time with the baby," Gilford recalled of the time. Stewart notes that he did his own investigation and found police reports that documented Van Best allegedly locked him in a footlocker because he cried.
Not long after Stewart's birth, Van Best chose to abandon baby Stewart in the stairwell of a Baton Rouge apartment building in March 1963, Stewart emotionally recalls in the documentary –– his father not giving him up for adoption as he had once thought.
"I had just assumed I was legally made available for adoption," he said.
For Gilford, this was the thing that convinced her to leave Van Best.
"By this point, my mother had enough of Earl Van Best Jr., and when my father learned she had flown the coop — he called the authorities on her," Stewart told the documentary. This resulted in both Stewart and Van Best getting arrested and extradited back to San Francisco — leaving infant Gary Stewart to be adopted by the Louisiana family that ended up raising him.
"When the authorities contacted my mother, she said 'She can come home, but the baby can't,'" Gilford recounted. "They told me I was never going to see him again."
"My father was once again placed in county jail and my mother was sent to a correctional home for wayward girls. ... By the time the 'Ice Cream Romance' had reached its bitter end, they had been on the run for 15 months," Stewart said of Van Best's arrest in 1963.
Van Best spent 90 days in Atascadero state mental hospital before being transferred to San Quentin to serve out his sentence, Stewart told the docu-series.
What does this have to do with the Zodiac Killer?
Paul Avery's coverage of the "Ice Cream Romance" for the San Francisco Chronicle in 1962 came just before he became one of the lead reporters on the Zodiac killings around 1969. The paper itself became a frequent recipient of mocking letters from the Zodiac Killer alongside demands to publish his ramblings. Stewart believes this is no coincidence because of his father's connection to Avery.
The story that humiliated Van Best would later lead him to go after Avery and his newspaper when he allegedly became the Zodiac Killer, Stewart theorizes in the documentary.
Clippings of media coverage about the "Ice Cream Romance" are included in a section of Stewart's website entitled "The Evidence."
The Zodiac Killer even sent Avery a threatening Halloween card in October 1970 which read ""Peek-a-boo! You are doomed!" He was the first reporter targeted by name at the time, the Chronicle reported.
The San Francisco Chronicle itself doesn't appear to buy Stewart's belief that his father was the Zodiac Killer, calling it a "conspiracy theory" in a 2014 article. They also spoke to investigators who knocked down Stewart's allegations that authorities were withholding evidence from him.
“He was a very nice man, very well spoken. And I think he was sincere in his belief that his father was the Zodiac, but there wasn’t enough to move quickly on. And the reality is that without hard evidence it’s hard to prove a case," a Zodiac investigator and former police officer John Hennessy told the Chronicle about Stewart.
In the piece, Stewart continues to assert (as he does in the documentary) that authorities are trying to cover up information.
“If it was something that would be defined as what they called it, heinous — wouldn’t he be caught and convicted for it?” Stewart told the Chronicle in 2014. “There was something in there they wouldn’t share with me. I can speculate all day long … if I only knew.”
However, even Stewart admits that his mother doesn't agree with his theory, according to the Chronicle.
The true identity of the Zodiac Killer remains unknown. Authorities say he is responsible for killing five people and wounding two others, according to The New York Times.
Van Best died in 1984, according to CNN.
All four episodes of "The Most Dangerous Animal of All" debut Friday, March 6 on FX. It will be available to stream on Hulu on Saturday, March 7 — the next day.
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