A private man in all things but the Zodiac case, Gareth Penn, now 68, has rarely written or spoken about his personal life, a tumultuous affair that has turned quiet with age. “The last 28 years have seen setbacks and hardships,” he says, “but there have been triumphs and delights as well.”
Penn has no grandchildren, unless you count his son’s dog. “In my presence, he talks to his Boston terrier about me in the third person, describing me as ‘grandpa,’ knowing it will make me wince.”
Penn says he met his first wife, a pretty Berkeley co-ed named Sandy Scott, “in a class on modern German literature taught by Berkeley’s latest proud acquisition, Heinz Politzer.”
A Franz Kafka scholar and close friend of Kafka’s longtime editor Max Brod, the Jewish Politzer —like Berta Margoulies before him—fled German oppression in wartime Europe. Described in a Berkeley memoriam as a “desolate man” who, even in illness, never lost his “impeccable refinement,” Politzer dropped his guard around his handsome, articulate student.
For a final exam, Penn says he turned in a translation of Gottfried von Strassburg’s Tristan so perfect Politzer “ran up and down the corridor, sticking his head into other professors’ offices, showing off my blue exam book.”
After he left Berkeley for Germany on a Fulbright scholarship in 1962, Penn’s marriage to Scott (left)—then pregnant with his daughter Christiane—soured. She divorced him in Berlin little more than a year after their marriage and returned to the states. He says he did not see Christiane, now a San Francisco city attorney, for 23 years.
A 1965 draft notice forced Penn—who had returned to Berlin, he thought permanently—into the U.S. Army. Describing military life, he borrowed a page from The Castle, Kafka’s story about a land surveyor named K. permitted to work only as a school custodian. A faceless authoritarian power adds a sneering caveat to torment K.: He will at least be allowed to use his surveying skills to plot the school's flower garden.
“I trained at Fort Sill (Okla.) to become an artillery surveyor, but I never did any surveying,” Penn says. “Just to perfect the parallel with K., someone at battalion headquarters suggested planting a flower garden. Since a military flower garden would have to be laid out with utter precision, my first sergeant nominated me to do it. But nobody ever followed up, so even this much surveying was denied me.”
A few years after their divorce, Sandra Scott married UC Berkeley associate president Patrick Hayashi, a well-known diversity advocate and coincidentally, an alum of O’Hare’s current employer, the Goldman School. After calling the now-retired Hayashi to the phone, Scott wouldn’t speak to me other than to say she “had heard rumors” of her former husband’s involvement in the Zodiac case.
War and relevance
On leave from active duty in October 1966, Penn met a grade school English teacher named Mary Ann Winterrowd at a going away party in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district for mutual friend and fellow U.C. Berkeley graduate David R. McCann, who now directs the Korea Institute at Harvard University. Penn and Winterrowd were married two days before Christmas that year.
In a series of poignant posts from May to July 2005, one or more of Mary Ann Winterrowd’s students remembered her at RateMyTeachers.com:
She let me write about The Catcher in the Rye when that book was outlawed.
She led values discussions long before most teachers could get beyond plot.
I have never forgotten how well she taught symbolism in literature through the story The Scarlet Ibis and the three kinds of irony through the play Arsenic and Old Lace.
They called us boneheads and troublemakers, but she cared about us and believed we deserved to know good stories.
I loved Miss W. She read some great books to us: The Pearl, The Odyssey, Sailor on Horseback, The Good Earth, and she let me do a book report on The Catcher in the Rye—censored.
Best teacher ever at Castro Valley High School.
Penn and Mary Ann wandered around Europe after he was discharged from active duty in Oct. 1967. When they returned in the summer of 1968, she took a job teaching in Vallejo and for a second time, he went back to grad school at Berkeley, where he wrote a paper with renowned Germanic linguist Frederic Tubach, again about the 12th-century Celtic hero Tristan.
“Fritz said it was so good I should publish it, but that since I was too lazy or cowardly or whatever, he would do it for me,” Penn says. Publish it Tubach did. The Constellation of Characters in the Tristan' of Gottfried von Strassburg appeared in a 1972 issue of the University of Wisconsin’s Monatshefte: A Journal of German Language and Literature.
On his way up in academe, Penn abruptly quit his doctorate. Military service, he said, had changed him. Listening to students chanting about Cambodia outside a classroom window during his oral Ph.D. exams, he retorted sarcastically to a question about 13th century German history and failed. He walked out with a master’s degree in Medieval German, giving up the academy, he says, for reality.
“Those were the days when everybody was talking about what was relevant,” Penn said. “What I was doing didn’t seem relevant at all.”
To Penn, relevant meant finishing a library science degree, also at Berkeley, and settling into an uneventful librarian’s job in Vallejo. “Helping people look up information and find good books seemed more necessary,” he told me. It also helped pay the bills for a new baby, his son Felix born in 1971.
Reflecting on Penn’s choice these many years later, Fritz Tubach seemed hesitant, almost regretful. “I remember Gareth very well,” Tubach told me. “He was brilliant, but unfortunately he was never able to harness his brilliance to suit the narrow confines of academe.”
Outside those confines, Penn “created his own space for thinking and speculating,” Tubach said, a state of mind he well understands.
In 2001, Tubach published a best-selling book about an unusual friendship between a Nazi soldier’s son who grew up hating authority—himself—and a Hungarian Jew, Bernat Rosner, who survived the ultimate expression of the authoritarian state, Auschwitz. Recognizing his old professor in An Uncommon Friendship: From Opposite Sides of the Holocaust, Penn contacted Tubach a few years ago and congratulated him.
“During my academic career at Berkeley, I had about half a dozen students who were truly geniuses,” Tubach remembered. “Gareth Penn was one of them.”
Of domes and Dukes
Penn’s life started to unravel after he quit the library and moved his young family—which now included a daughter, age 2—into a “geodesic dome home” he built but never finished on an isolated, wind-swept Napa ridge.
All the seventies rage for environmentally conscious DIY’ers, dome houses were hard to build and harder to inhabit. Penn recounted his own 3-year ordeal—again as “George Oakes”—in Domebuilder’s Blues, a widely reprinted story from Bolinas, Calif.-based Shelter Publications that often pops up in online discussions about the pitfalls of green living.
Wife Mary Ann (left, with Penn and children) recounted her own blues during the 1982 divorce proceeding that ended their 16-year marriage. Commuting early each morning to Solano Junior High School in Vallejo—where she taught for nearly 20 years—Winterrowd left daughter Amanda under Penn’s care while he worked on their home.
It was to be a refreshing respite from life on the move—Berkeley to several addresses around Vallejo and Napa. But Penn was no pioneering do-it-yourselfer like Eugene O’Hare.
In trying to show how her client’s divorce differed from a 1980 precedent-setting case, In Re: Marriage of Duke, Penn’s own lawyer, Susan Wilkinson, described a family living amidst “fire, safety, and health hazards” including exposed wires; a fungus-covered solar water heater; a rusting and rickety porch canopy; an unsecured staircase; and sheep defecating near a well, “endangering the purity of the family’s water supply.”
“The sheep, it was originally hoped, would eat the weeds surrounding the house, thus providing a fire break,” Wilkinson wrote in a trial brief for the Superior Court of California in Napa County. “They have thus far been unsuccessful; there is only one sheep left.”
Stress drove Winterrowd to a psychiatrist. Poverty drove the family to sympathetic relatives. “Our finances is (sic) a trauma,” Winterrowd testified, adding that she had out-earned her husband “each and every year of our marriage.” During their separation, Penn used food stamps and credit cards to survive. He was “in dire need,” Wilkinson told the court, with “no savings of any kind.”
In dire need, but still dogging Michael O’Hare. After hiring Whit Caldwell, a Massachusetts-based private investigator, to track the professor’s comings and goings, Penn formed “Zodiac Associates, Inc.” a California corporation dedicated to “exploiting the commercial possibilities” of a movie project that produced a screenplay entitled 12:22—the presumptive time of Cheri Jo Bates’ murder—but that Wilkinson wrote “produced no income.”
But producing income wasn't the goal of the quest, say people close to the situation. Working 24/7 on almost nothing else, with reams and reams of scratch paper supposedly deciphering the coded life of Mike O'Hare, Penn was given to “bullying” and “nasty tantrums,” ultimately turning off anyone who showed interest or tried to help.
Penn sued his former sister-in-law Lorna Winterrowd, whom he says raided his childrens' inheritance as the trustee of Mary Ann's estate. “She spent $32,500 of my kids' money to buy herself a Mercedes,” and left her sister's inurned ashes in a tool shed, Penn says. Winterrowd did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
All the litigation doesn't surprise a close family friend, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Dysfunctional family drama went back many years. "Gareth's stepfather Miles physically abused and humiliated him," the friend said. "Gareth developed a nasty temper and can be ruthless and vindictive in creative ways for all manner of slights. He's a bully."
After Penn and Mary Ann divorced, he worked again as a librarian, this time for NOAA in Tiburon, Calif. He later married Marin artist Diane Merrill, whom he met as a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism, a medieval re-enactment group. But that marriage also collapsed, another casualty of Penn’s obsession. According to court documents, Penn used his daughter to serve divorce papers on Merrill and argued over who had custody of season tickets to the San Francisco Opera.