Tuesday, October 6, 2009
With Malice Aforethought
For three decades, a highly regarded Berkeley professor has stood accused of America’s most notorious serial murders. Why won’t he fight back?
By Michael J. Martin
Tuesday, October 6, 2009
Between 1966 and 1981, U.C. Berkeley public policy professor Michael Henry O’Hare (left), a Harvard-educated architect who regularly holds court at an Edge-style intellectual blog called The Reality Based Community, committed first degree murder with malice aforethought on seven separate occasions.
On or around Nov. 28, 1981, he bludgeoned to death 25-year-old Harvard architecture student Joan Lucinda Webster, dumping her body in a Massachusetts field, where it was found in 1990.
Twelve years earlier, on October 11, 1969, O’Hare fired a point-blank shot into the head of 29-year-old cab driver Paul Lee Stine. Stine was found in his cab on a dark San Francisco street, slumped, bleeding, and dead.
On September 27, 1969, Michael Henry O’Hare, then 26 years old, did stab Cecelia Ann Shepard (below), age 22, five times each in the front and back. Turning the knife on her companion, O’Hare did stab 20-year-old Bryan Calvin Hartnell six times in the back. She died in a Napa hospital. He survived.
On Independence Day, July 4, 1969 at approximately 11:55 p.m., Michael O’Hare used a 9mm semi-automatic pistol to shoot Darlene Elizabeth Ferrin, age 22, five times. Turning the gun on Michael Renault Mageau, age 19, O’Hare fired four more rounds. Mageau, like Hartnell, lived. Ferrin died in a Vallejo, Calif. hospital.
Five days before Christmas, on Friday, Dec. 20, 1968, Michael O’Hare, supposedly on assignment in San Francisco for consulting giant Arthur D. Little and Company, did shoot David Arthur Faraday, age 17, once in the head at point blank range with a .22 caliber semi-automatic pistol. O’Hare turned the gun on 16-year-old Betty Lou Jensen and shot her five times in the back. Both Faraday and Jensen died instantly, on a Vallejo lovers’ lane.
Finally, on Sunday, Oct. 30, 1966, Michael Henry O’Hare did beat and stab to death 18-year-old Cheri Josephine Bates in a dark alleyway on the campus of Riverside City College in Riverside, Calif.
These are the accusations that Dr. O’Hare has let stand without legal challenge for nearly 30 years: That he murdered Joan Webster and before that, was a homicidal maniac with a penchant for devilish taunts in letters, cryptograms, and postcards known only as the Zodiac killer.
They are the same allegations that his long-time accuser, a retired NOAA librarian and true crime author named Gareth Sewell Penn (right), repeated in a March 2008 interview with a daily news magazine called Boston Now.
Prompted by the pending publication of this story, O'Hare broke a mysterious near-30-year silence to respond, in the May/June 2009 of the well-known political magazine, The Washington Monthly.
The Professor and the Polymath
An intellectual version of The Most Dangerous Game—Richard Connell’s famous tale of man as predator and prey—the odyssey of Gareth Penn, the Mensa polymath, and Michael O’Hare, the ascendant academic, is one of the most confounding, disturbing, and bizarre in the annals of contemporary crime.
Inspector Javert to O'Hare's Jean Valjean, Penn has chased the professor from Cambridge to Berkeley, combining a non-stop media blitz with a Zodiac-style personal harassment campaign that started as the very first public allegation in the Zodiac case and goes on to this day.
“To my mind, their relationship—or whatever it was—is the most fascinating subplot in the whole of the Zodiac story,” says Suffolk County (Mass.) District Attorney press secretary Jake Wark, who authored several articles on the crimes and spoke as a private citizen for this story. “It deserves big treatment.”
Penn—a Berkeley-educated linguistics scholar and retired research editor for the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)—may be the Zodiac killer’s biggest fan.
Through a compelling combination of absurdity and brilliance, his many pronouncements on the 20th century’s most famous unsolved homicides have held legions of investigators in thrall for decades.
Esquire Magazine film critic Mike D’Angelo acknowledged Penn’s allure in his review of the 2007 David Fincher film Zodiac, based on the Robert Graysmith book of the same name. “I think the movie erred in selecting Graysmith as its source and nominal protagonist,” D’Angelo wrote. “Zodiac buffs know well that the true obsessive is a fellow named Gareth Penn.”
Born and raised in New York City, Michael O’Hare represents the mainstream academy to Penn’s fringe infamy. With faculty appointments at MIT and Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, O’Hare’s career was rising fast when Penn took his first shot at derailing it.
Now an expert in art and environmental policy at Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy, O’Hare is a respected teacher whose friends defend his honor.
“Gareth Penn is full of crap,” wrote an ally on the Zodiackiller.com blog, in answer to a question about a Harvard University police investigation that supposedly drove O’Hare from that campus shortly after Joan Webster’s murder. “Penn spent the better part of three decades researching and writing books about a suspect he can’t place in the state of California during the Zodiac crimes, and at no time has that even given him pause.”