BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - In his first-ever television interview, a man said his search for his birth family roots led him to a grim realization in which he claims he is the son of one of America's most infamous serial killers.
In his new book, the Baton Rouge man claims to have solved one of the biggest cold cases in the US. The Zodiac Killer had five confirmed victims and several more suspected. He terrorized San Francisco beginning in 1968, taunting the public through strange letters and ciphers sent to newspapers. The cases have never been solved. The Zodiac's identity was never known. Now, 40 years later, Gary Stewart claims to have found him.
"Knowing I was adopted, that desire to have a true identity, it bothered me, plagued me all my life," Stewart said.
However, the identity he discovered would change his life forever.
His story began on a railroad line into downtown Baton Rouge. In 1963, at just four weeks old, the infant arrived in the Capital City on a train. His biological father, Earl Van Best Jr. made the two-hour trip from New Orleans with just one goal in mind.
From the train depot, Van Best walked to a building on North Boulevard, which was an apartment complex at the time. It was as good a spot as any to abandon his son.
"He went up this first flight of stairs and wrapped me up in the receiving cloths, laid me in corner, put the pacifier in my mouth and walked away," Stewart explained.
The story made headlines and the baby would soon be adopted by Lloyd and Leona Stewart. Van Best and Gary Stewart's biological mother, Judy, were arrested in New Orleans. However, by 1965 Van Best was out of prison and headed back to San Francisco. Stewart grew up and led a normal life, until one day when his adopted parents got a phone call.
"I don't remember my life before 2002, when I first met my biological mother," Stewart said.
Judy told him she had no say in Van Best's decision to abandon him. She was just 15 at the time. Over the next two years, the two grew closer and Stewart began to ask questions about his real father. Since Van Best had been arrested in San Francisco, he had a criminal record. Detectives released his mugshot and basic information, but when pressed about the full contents of the file, they convinced Stewart to drop it, allegedly saying the information was too sensitive and too heinous.
"On July 31, 2004, having dropped it, all thoughts of my father purposely pushed out from my mind, I turned on the TV, flipping channels and came across an A&E cold case file with Bill Curtis at the time," Stewart said.
"I settle in my chair and they flash the San Francisco wanted poster from 1969 and my heart just stopped. I went into my office and got the only photograph that I had of my father. It was my father's mugshot and it was an exact match. That was the epiphany," he added.
Disturbed by the revelation and left numb by emotion, Stewart set out to disprove what he saw. Over the next 10 years, his research would do just the opposite.
"From a writer's standpoint, a true crime writer, this kind of thing just doesn't come along every day," said co-author Susan Mustafa.
In his quest for hard evidence, Stewart enlisted the help of Mustafa, a writer and journalist who had written two previous books on serial killers.
"We've recreated Gary's father's life in this book and if you read the Zodiac letters, everything he talks about in this book are in Gary's fathers past. So, between circumstantial and forensic, we have more than anybody's ever had on the zodiac suspect," Mustafa added.
The Zodiac said his name could be found in his cryptic ciphers. Gary claims to have found his father's name, Earl Van Best Jr. in two of those ciphers. A handwriting expert compared Van Best's handwriting in two marriage certificates to the Zodiac's letters. The expert declared with "virtual certainty" they were all written by the same person. Also, a scar on a bloody fingerprint taken from a zodiac crime scene appears to match a scar on Van Best's fingerprint when he was arrested in San Francisco in 1962.
"I found out that he actually died. He drowned in his own vomit at a bar at a hotel in Mexico City," Stewart said.
Van Best died in 1984 at the same hotel where he met Judy in 1961. An unmarked lump of earth is where he lies today.
"I can't extend forgiveness for anything he'd done to others, but I told him I forgave him and I told him I loved him and I told him although he laid me on the ground and walked away never to see me again, that I'd never leave him. And I went back a couple years ago with my wife and we put flowers on his grave and said our goodbyes and now I can let him go. I can abandon him," Stewart stated.
Gary Stewart is proof that nurture can overcome nature, even if the most dangerous animal of all is never tamed.
His DNA has been taken for comparison. However, Stewart alleges in his book a grand cover-up by the San Francisco Police Department. To this day, he said his calls to investigators go unreturned.
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