Joan Webster’s (right) family discovered O’Hare after Penn inserted himself headlong into the investigation of the Harvard co-ed's murder. He fired off communiques to law enforcement officials about where her body might be found.
Corresponding with the victim’s grieving mother Eleanor, Penn shared details about O’Hare’s personal life he said he had learned from a private detective named Whit Caldwell.
Eleanor Webster reciprocated. Wealthy and well connected, she investigated O’Hare on her own. Ellen Clayton, who married Joan Webster’s brother Steve, told me Penn’s relationship with her mother-in-law “really bothered” her.
“Eleanor somehow obtained an American Express authorization slip from something Michael O’Hare had charged, and sent it to Penn. She also sent an aerial photograph of Dr. O’Hare’s property in Vermont,” Clayton explains. “She was doing her own investigation at her own expense, and sharing her results with a distant stranger whose intentions I never understood.”
During a self-arranged book tour, Penn explained to reporters how O’Hare had re-offended one time three thousand miles from California, fifteen years after the first Zodiac killing. From the Boston Herald blazed the 1987 headline Author Targets Harvard Lecturer in Zodiac Case. The Beverly (Massachusetts) Times followed up in 1990 with Author links Harvard professor to Webster case.
A May 1987 radio interview prompted O’Hare to condemn Penn’s tactics. Anthony Hilder (left)—a shock jock variously described as a “radio terrorist” and “a combination of Michael Savage and Art Bell on steroids”—lured the professor onto his Los Angeles-based talk show for what Hilder said would be a “public policy discussion.”
About a third into the interview, the script took a sharp turn.
HILDER: One particular book that came across my desk in the past couple of days is called Times 17, by a gentleman out of San Francisco named Gareth Penn. Have you heard of him?
O’HARE: Have I heard of Gareth Penn? Well, Gareth Penn has been a minor bane of my existence for, gee, I guess, seven or eight years now.
HILDER: Well, I’m curious about this particular book, of course. Gareth Penn is making claims that you are, according to Gareth Penn, the Zodiac killer.
After the interview, O’Hare told author Michael Butterfield that he “had nothing to do with the Zodiac murders or any other homicides or any felony, in California or any other place. This is intended to be the most complete, inclusive, unqualified denial I can phrase. I’ve never initiated any contact with Gareth Penn and as far as I know I’ve never met him or had anything to do with him. I think his hobby is not only abusive of me but more importantly, a cruel deception of the victims’ families and survivors.”
After reviewing Penn’s “evidence,” Ellen Clayton sided with O’Hare. “Some of Mr. Penn’s discoveries about Joan’s murder were right on,” she admits. “But Michael O’Hare didn’t strike me as a logical or reasonable suspect. It was also never clear why Penn spent so much time trying to tie the Zodiac case to Joan’s murder.”
Former Suffolk County, Mass. district attorney Timothy Burke, who prosecuted a local mobster connected with the Webster homicide, Lenny Paradiso, discounts everything about Penn.
Though Paradiso was never prosecuted for Webster’s murder,” all the rational evidence points to Lenny as the culprit,” says Burke, who in 2008 released a best-selling book on the case, The Paradiso Files. “I am baffled by Mr. Penn’s claims, but even more baffled as to why Michael O’Hare lets them stand unchallenged.”
Unchallenged, Penn has remained unyielding. In an interview with San Francisco Chronicle reporter Sandra Konte after the Hilder melee, he reportedly said, “My suspect knows I’m right.”
Death in Benicia
In dozens of academic journal articles over his decades-long career, Michael O’Hare has examined alternative energy, NIMBY, artistic license, and recently for Science, how bio-fuels contribute to greenhouse gases. He argued in the Boston Globe for sophisticated safeguards to protect museum treasures post-9/11 and in the San Francisco Chronicle for a technological solution to musician compensation post-Napster.
His passion for activism runs in the family.
A well-known socialist agitator, O’Hare’s grandmother—Kate Richards O’Hare (left, center)—was a Eugene V. Debs and Mother Jones contemporary whose anti-WWI protests landed her in a Missouri penitentiary for violating the “Espionage Act” of 1917.
In From Prairie to Prison: The Life of Social Activist Kate Richards O’Hare, history professor Sally Miller wrote of Richards-O’Hare’s “fundamental commitment to the working masses,” an ideology she shared with husband Frank.
The subject of his own biography—Linfield College historian Peter Buckingham’s Rebel Against Injustice: The Life of Frank P. O’Hare—Michael O’Hare’s grandfather Francis was an early 20th century labor advocate and “one of the truly great men of St. Louis—possibly the ONLY one,” according to a Teamster newspaper.
But Frank O’Hare was also a terrible businessman whose many failures cost him his marriage.
Son Eugene—Mike O’Hare’s father—was a DIY pioneer who authored several books on woodworking and home repair. He married Berta Margoulies, a Polish-Jew who had immigrated to Belgium shortly before World War I. After the Germans invaded and imprisoned her father, Margoulies fled to Holland, to England, and then to New York City, where she became a rare commodity among artists of that time—a professional female sculptor.
Accepting commissions from the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression, Margoulies was known for her bronze interpretations of hope amidst oppression.
About her sculpture Displaced (left), curators at the Bernard Goldberg Fine Arts Gallery tell visitors to their website, “While not as angular and stylized as the figures in Margoulies’ Mine Disaster of 1942 at the Whitney Museum of American Art, Displaced is more naturalistic and simple. It captures the feelings countless displaced children would have experienced during World War II, just as the sculptor herself had three decades earlier.”
In 1946, when her son was three years old, Margoulies visited Berkeley as a Guggenheim Fellow. When she died in 1996 at her Walnut Creek home after living mostly on the East Coast, a San Francisco Chronicle obituary called her a “Bay Area sculptor” whose work had appeared at the Los Angeles County Museum during a 1994 retrospective.
By turns felon and freeman, Kate Richards O’Hare also came to California after living mostly elsewhere. Weary of poverty and Frank’s failing businesses, she left her husband for wealthy San Francisco businessman Charles Cunningham. She went to work for the California “Department of Penology,” becoming, as Kate Richards-Cunningham, one of the country’s first penal reform advocates.
The Cunninghams lived in “one of the nicest homes in Benicia,” Sally Miller told me, where Kate Richards died in 1948.
Ironically, Benicia was also ground zero for the Zodiac murders, a point Penn has woven into his narrative.
“Several things the Zodiac killer did echoed the life of his grandmother,” Penn told me. “Death in Benicia, claiming to be an escaped convict, referencing the color red—the color of her hair—in several of his letters. It was an oblique way for Mike O’Hare to identify himself, cryptic references to the most prominent member of his family.”