Famous Cases

L to R: Frank Falzon & Jack Cleary

Read About Frank Falzon’s Most Notorious Cases

Night Stalker

I extracted the identity of Night Stalker suspect Richard Ramirez from his best friend in 1985 by tracking a gold bracelet Ramirez stole in a San Francisco burglary two days before he shot a local accountant to death and brutally raped his wife. It broke the case after months of unsuccessful efforts by Southern California law enforcement agencies to identify Ramirez, who killed 15 people during a months-long crime spree.

Dan White

My longtime friend escaped a premeditated murder conviction in the city hall shootings with a surprisingly lenient verdict that touched off a city riot. He served only five years, then made a shocking post-prison confession to me: He had other prominent targets that day. I also happened to be on call when White committed suicide while on parole.

Zebra Murders

The so-called Zebra killers known as Death Angels murdered eleven people over the winter of 1973-1974. One night while out working on a different case with my partner, Jack Cleary, we happened upon one of the Zebra shootings moments after it occurred. As the victim died in Jack’s arms, I directed responding officers to the area where the shooter fled. They quickly caught the suspect. I took the man’s confession, contributing to the conviction of four men.

Street Corner Shootout

I was off duty, driving to a night class at City College when I saw an armed robbery in progress. I survived an Old West-style, face-to-face shootout with the suspect, who fired five times at me from a few feet away. All of them missed. I returned fire with two shots, killing the gunman. This 1977 encounter earned me a Gold Medal of Valor, the department’s highest award, and Policeman of the Year honors.

“There were times I thought I’d seen everything. I was almost always wrong.”

– Frank Falzon

Savagery on Potrero Hill: A stolen antique wedding ring helped me solve what many still consider the city’s most horrific home invasion case in 1974. The intruder savagely bludgeoned a young husband to death, then raped and beat the man’s wife for hours, slit her wrists, doused her and the room with paint thinner, and set the house afire. Amazingly, she survived and, with my support, has successfully fought the killer’s parole bid sixteen times.

Paper Bag Killer: Using guns hidden in paper bags, the deranged 24-year-old son of a prominent San Francisco psychiatrist fatally shot two random middle-aged men on the street two months apart in 1973, thinking they both resembled his fiancée’s rapist. I describe in detail how we caught this so-called “Paper Bag Killer,” my first experience confronting someone with a multiple personality disorder.

Holocaust Survivor: In 1978, Auschwitz concentration camp survivor Miriam Slamovich startled an intruder who had climbed through a back bedroom window into her San Francisco home. When she screamed, he shot her in the face. He ran out the front door, pursued by her husband, Henry, another Holocaust survivor who had been on German industrialist Oskar Schindler’s list of Jews he saved from the death camps. The shooter escaped, Miriam died, and the case remained unsolved for six years until San Francisco’s new fingerprint computer made its first match – a single print from the outside glass on the Slamovichs’ bedroom window.

Other top cases:

Candle Shop Killing

Fire fighters arriving at a blaze in the La Santa Cruz Light Shop in San Francisco’s Mission District find Elsie Cabatic’s burning body in the back of the store. She had been hit over the head and choked before she was doused in flammable liquid and burned alive. In a time before computerized fingerprint databases, it takes thirty painstaking hours to identify three fingerprints found on the can of lighter fluid the killer used.

True Believer

Chol Soo Lee was convicted of a Chinatown gang murder in 1973 and later killed a fellow prison inmate, earning a trip to Death Row. He won a new trial based on the testimony of a questionable witness. That witness wasn’t called during the new trial. However, the defense showed that the original ballistic test was inaccurate. The jury acquitted Lee. The judge gave Lee credit for time served for the in-prison killing and set him free. Years later Lee was involved in a bizarre arson-for-hire with tragic results. Lee’s case was the basis for the acclaimed film, True Believer.

Bonnie and Clyde

Van Wesley Purcell and Cheryl Lynn Southall, a modern-day Bonnie and Clyde who robbed at least nine grocery stores and pharmacies, shoots and kills a member of the Cala Foods grocery chain family when he tries to thwart a holdup. Anthony Cala, one of nine brothers whose family ran the ten-store chain, had a plan if his store was ever robbed. His plan cost him his life.

Lucky Luigi

When a group of Hells Angels celebrating a birthday in Luigi Aranda’s neighborhood bar knocks him unconscious and dumps him in a trash can, he vows revenge. Someone later executes the birthday boy. Aranda is convicted of the murder, but ten years later my partner and I develop new evidence in the case, and we testify before the Parole Board. The board agrees and frees Luigi from prison.

Popeye” Jackson, Sara Jane Moore, and Tribal Thumb

When two gunmen shoot ex-con and prison reformer Wilbert “Popeye” Jackson and a Vallejo schoolteacher to death execution-style in a parked car late one night, witnesses describe one of the shooters as a young, thin black man with a large Afro. Our ten-month investigation takes twists and turns through the radical underground that involve the Patty Hearst case and Sara Jane Moore, who had taken a shot at President Ford. The suspect we finally catch and who is convicted wasn’t black after all. And the Afro? It was a wig.

Pump Station Murders

When Roland Luchini fatally shoots two of his San Francisco Water Department co-workers at their desks in the Lake Merced Pump Station in 1979, his case draws wide comparisons to city hall killer Dan White. Their motives and psychological defenses align in many ways, but Luchini’s sentence is much different than the former cop and fireman who killed the mayor and a fellow supervisor. I was involved in both trials at the same time.

Death Wish

Robert Lee Massie, a condemned prisoner who pursued his own demise for years, finally gets his wish granted in 2001, more than three decades after Governor Ronald Reagan stayed his first scheduled execution. But in 1979, after just eight months on parole, Massey kills a man during a liquor store robbery. As the inspector on that case, I take his confession. Massey is convicted and sentenced to death again, but the State Supreme Court reverses it on appeal because his lawyer hadn’t approved the plea deal. After a new trial and a new conviction in 1989, the judge sentences him to death a third time. I am there at San Quentin Prison on March 27, 2001 to witness Massey’s execution by lethal injection.

Justice for Laura Stanton and Mary Frances Bennett

The murders of two young women less than five months apart in 1979 – the rape and beating of a bartender and the vicious stabbing of a jogger – both remain unsolved for more than twenty years. Then advances in DNA science tie the victims to their killers, both already serving prison terms for other crimes. The bartender case is linked to a rapist who is just two weeks away from being paroled in 2004, and the other confirms what police long believed but couldn’t prove, that the jogger was slain by the serial murderer known as the Trailside Killer.

Tragedy on Campus

High school sweethearts Catina Rose Salarno and Steven Burns’ families were friends and next-door neighbors in 1979. But when Catina graduates, she breaks it off with Steven, saying she wants to date other men in college. Outraged, he follows Catina to the University of the Pacific and shoots her in the head outside her dormitory with a gun he stole from her father’s store. Catina’s mother later launches Crime Victims United and remains active in the organization.

Road Rage

Sean Donnelly and Charles McKelvie were best friends. The two 16-year-old high school students are headed to a party in the Sunset district one Saturday night in 1981 when they begin hot-rodding with another car with two men inside. When both cars stop at an intersection, words are exchanged, bullets fly. One of the five shots fired at McKelvie’s car kills Donnelly, the son of a retired police detective. Our investigation stalls for months until a Chinese youth gang leader identifies the two assailants from his own gang to avoid prison on unrelated charges.

The 49er

Bruce Rhodes was a star football player at Woodrow Wilson High School and San Francisco State University in the 1970s before he earned a free agent spot on the roster of his hometown San Francisco 49ers as a defensive back. But in his second season he broke his leg in two places in a game against the Houston Oilers, effectively ending his career. Then one night in 1981 he is gunned down in a cocaine deal gone bad, a tragic end for a once promising athlete.

Witch Killers: A Match Made in Hell

Suzan and Michael “Bear” Carson, gripped by a folie à deux, or shared psychotic disorder, and believing it was their duty to kill people they decided were witches, terrorize Northern California in 1981. They beat their Haight-Ashbury roommate to death with an iron skillet and stab her multiple times. When finally arrested after two more killings, they insist on holding a rambling, hours-long press conference in San Francisco to attract more media attention.

Celebrity Chef

Chef Masa Kobayashi, owner of an eponymous trendy San Francisco restaurant, is murdered in his apartment in 1984 by a man who apparently knew martial arts and broke a bone in Kobayashi’s neck before striking him in the head with a gun the chef carried for protection. We identify a suspect who admits to being the last person to see Masa alive and fails a polygraph test. But polygraphs are inadmissible, and we have no conclusive evidence, so he is never charged.


In late 1984, an ex-convict with a long history of violence lures teenage boys to his campsite inside a cave at the Lands End area at the westernmost edge of San Francisco. One of the boys is killed, cut into pieces, and his body parts and head are placed into two separate graves. When he is captured a month later, he shows us where he had buried the torso and the severed head.

Juan Corona’s Pens

When the central California community of Yuba City needed help gathering evidence in the machete murders of 25 migrant farmworkers by Juan Corona in 1971, my partner and I identified the unique Italian-made Corona pen used to log his victims’ names in a ledger.

Body in the Bay

In the summer of 1972, a young couple sitting on the edge of a pier is startled to see the body of a man floating about two feet below water level in San Francisco Bay. His hands were hogtied behind his back and a 50-pound concrete slab was bound to his waist.

Hells Angel’s Lip Service

When I questioned a Hells Angel in a shotgun murder, he wouldn’t say a word. I pressed him, demanding to know if he wished to tell his side of the story. He slowly pulled down his lower lip. There, tattooed on the inside, was a message for me and anyone else who confronted him.