By Cody Worsham
Gary Stewart has made headlines before. That was before he was Gary Stewart, of course.
Then, he was Baby John Doe, a month-old child discovered alone in a North Boulevard apartment building in 1963. His mysterious abandonment made headline news first in Baton Rouge, and eventually across the nation.
Now, 51 years later, Stewart is again on the front pages, because of the man who first abandoned him.
Earlier this month, the Baton Rouge resident released “The Most Dangerous Animal of All,” a personal memoir detailing his story of desertion, adoption, and the journey to discover his father’s identity. Since its release, it’s flown off the shelves, racking up Amazon sales and debuting on the New York Times Best Seller list last week, as readers the world over dissect Stewart’s shocking discovery:
He believes he is the son of the Zodiac Killer.
‘The Greatest Parents in the World’
In May 1963, Loyd and Leona Stewart received the phone call they’d awaited for so long. It was from the state child welfare agency, and they had a baby boy for the Stewarts.
Unable to conceive a child of their own, the Stewarts turned to adoption, bringing a baby girl into their home in 1960. They would lose little Sheryl Lynn only 10 months later in a tragic car accident on Highway 190, but brought another little girl, Cindy Kaye, into their home the next year. Still, they wanted a son complete their home, and when the state called, they were elated.
The Stewarts, who would later conceive another daughter, had no idea their child was the newsworthy Baby John Doe. It was a sealed adoption, but nonetheless, the Stewarts raised Gary as their own without concealing the fact that he wasn’t.
“They always opened with me about the fact I was adopted,” Stewart said in an interview with DIG, “long before I knew what that meant.”
Like all children, however, he eventuallly did figure out what that meant, but suppressed the curiosity that came with the realization.
“I loved and respected my adoptive parents so much that my desire to know who I really was and where I came from had to take a back seat,” he said, “because I didn’t want to hurt them. I don’t think it was going to hurt them, but I didn’t want to risk it, because they’re the greatest parents in the world.”
Everything changed in 2002, however, when the Stewarts received a call from a woman named Jude Gilford claiming to be Gary’s mother. Gilford had somehow accessed Gary’s sealed placement file to track down her son after 39 years, and though the Stewarts heard her out, they weren’t sure what to do.
“I was still their baby boy and their only son,” Stewart said, “and they worried about potential harm that bringing back the past may have on me.”
In the end, they leveled with Gary, telling him about the phone call and putting the decision in his hands.
“My life changed that moment,” he said. “That’s when I began my journey.”
‘The Little Bastard’
Stewart literally stopped what he was doing, accepting a job offer he had just turned down that allowed him to get to San Francisco immediately and meet his birth mother. After spending a day together getting to know each other, Stewart asked Gilford about his father.
“And that was the moment she had been dreading for all these years in her search for me,” Stewart said.
Gilford told Stewart what little she could remember of his father: his name was Van, he was 28, and she was just 14 when he took her from San Francisco, impregnated her, and abandoned Gary while running from the law in New Orleans.
The authorities seized both parents shortly after, imprisoning Van and placing Judy in a delinquent girls home. At the advice of her mother, who had just given birth herself and was married to an abusive man, Judy relinquished her son to the state.
“Honey, you would have always beeen considered the little bastard,” Stewart’s maternal grandmother would tell him years later, “and I didn’t have the heart to see you grow up that way.”
Upon hearing this story, Stewart decided he was content not meeting Van, his birth father.
“My dad, Loyd Stewart, is the best man in the world,” he said. “So I don’t want to know this man, my father. And I was content with that. That settled with me for two, three weeks, before it started eating at me. I just had to know.”
“I Don’t Care if He Shot JFK”
Stewart informed Gilford of his desire to meet his father, so Gilford enlisted the help of the San Francisco Police Department. Her deceased husband, Rotea Gilford, was the SFPD’s first African-American homicide inspector, and she used his network of friends to track down Stewart’s father.
He soon had a name – Earl Van Dorn Best, Jr. – as well as his date of birth, social security number, and a small photograph. He also had a warning.
“Judy,” heeded Harold Butler, the internal affairs officer who provided them the information, “there are things in Gary’s file that I cannot share with you.”
“I expected that,” Stewart said. “After all, why would he be with a 14 year old at 28 years old? I didn’t think anything of it. I never thought my father could have had a criminal record.”
Stewart used what information he did have to do some digging of his own. He soon discovered his father was dead, buried in an unmarked grave in Mexico City, and had left behind three other children in Vienna, Austria.
Stewart went back to his mother with his findings, wanting more answers.
“He’s dead now,” Stewart had aruged. “It’s not going to ruin his reputation, and I’m the only one left. I don’t care if he shot JFK. I just need to know.”
But when Gilford passed on the message, Butler balked again.
“Judy, what was in that file was so heinous it would destroy you and Gary,” Butler said. “The information in that file would make what Gary’s father did to him and you inconsequential. Please have Gary drop this thing.”
And so he did.
“I was really tired,” Stewart said. “I had been running hard trying to find my father and find myself. And so I let it go. I purposefully pushed out all thoughts and dreams and hopes of finding out more about my father.”
Until his father found him.
Three months after giving up the search, Stewart was watching television, when the 1969 police sketch of the Zodiac Killer flashed on the screen.
“That’s when my world came to a complete screeching halt,” Stewart said. “My son heard me – I guess I made a sound. My son came into the room and said, ‘Dad, what’s wrong?’ And he sees me staring at the television, and he said, ‘Hey Dad, it’s you.’ I said, ‘No Zach, it’s not me. It’s my father.’”
Stewart grabbed the one photograph he had of his father and compared it with the police sketch. The resemblance was uncanny.
“I’m probably the only guy you know who framed a mugshot,” he said. “I thought it was my dad’s DMV photo, and it was all I had of him.”
That night was a dark one for Stewart.
God, what am I supposed to do with this? he thought to himself. You raised me in a Christian home, and now I believe I might have serial killer DNA. How is this supposed to turn out okay?
The next morning, he emailed Butler and his mother. The latter balked at the idea, who merely said, “I hope you’re wrong.” Butler never responded, and Stewart has yet to hear from him since.
With little help from San Francisco, Stewart decided to investigate himself.
“I thought, I’m going to disprove this, and then I’ll let it go and get on with my life,” he said. “And that began what would become basically a ten year search.”
“The Most Dangerous Animal of All: Searching for My Father…and Finding the Zodiac Killer” details that ten-year journey, one that continues to this day for Stewart.
“I continued to find out things up all the way until the book hit shelves,” he said. “It’s the story that never ends. It could go on and on. And everywhere I looked, my father was there.”
Co-authored by award-winning journalist Susan Mustafa, the book is divided into three parts.
The first part, “The Ice Cream Romance,” details how Stewart’s parents met, an ordeal chronicled well in its duration by San Francisco Chronicle journalist Paul Avery. Part two, “Signs of the Zodiac,” reconstructs the five murders attributed to the killer.
“The Truth Deciphered,” the book’s final part, details the entirety of Stewart’s investigative work, liking his father to the killings.
“That is where the big reveal comes,” Stewart said. “It closes the case. And it is the most emotional, gut-wrenching, heart-wrenching human interest story, because it involves the Stewarts and the price and the sacrifice they made to accept and adopt and love this unwanted, discarded bastard little boy into their home.”
For Stewart personally, the project was equal parts discovery and therapy. Whether or not the SFPD uses the book to close the long-opened case – the department did indicate it would investigate the book’s findings – Stewart believes the book has helped close a major chapter in his life.
“It’s been a great character builder for me,” he said. “Sure, I think about [the fact that my father was a serial killer]. There are times I get really…where I struggle. My wife knows, and she alone knows what I’m dealing with. As you can tell, I’m getting emotional now, and it’ll never go away. But I’m telling you what, my friend – I am the perfect example of nature verus nurture. God blessed me with Loyd and Leona Stewart, and I believe that nurture won.”
While Stewart is certain his facts and findings are the truth – publisher Harper Collins had the text thoroughly vetted by attorneys – he understands that the book will be met with as much skepticism as intrigue.
“I would have never published this at all if I weren’t completely certain I’m right,” he said. “But it’s proven you can’t force anyone – including my own biological mother, or the SFPD – you can’t force people to be truthful with you. There are places out there I’m getting slammed. But you know, I sleep very, very well at night, because I’ve done the right thing with the right conscience.”
The right thing, for Stewart, was to tell his story, no matter how painful it might be.
“The hope and the grace that God gave me, from being at the hands of my evil father, to being accepted as their own and loved and adopted by the Stewart family, is such a great story of hope. I knew that’s why God put me here and why I had to share this story.”