The Zodiac Killer and the CIA

An agent for the Central Intelligence Agency moved into a dairy and cotton farming community of 4500 people situated within the San Joaquin Valley of California. Shortly after his arrival, the town became the epicenter of a shocking event that almost wrecked the Democratic Party’s effort to win back the White House. [1]

Democratic prospects for the 1976 election brightened as the approval rating of incumbent President Gerald Ford sank to a new low of 37% (according to a Gallup poll), [2] following revelations of scandalous illegalities committed by the CIA during his and Richard Nixon’s administrations. According to a New York Times article by Seymour Hersh that came out on December 22, 1974, a special unit of the CIA had collected files on 10,000 American citizens in order to stem antiwar marches and rallies. This was a violation of the agency’s statutory charter restricting its activities to foreign intelligence. [3] In response to the article, the president created a commission to investigate the CIA, headed by Vice President Nelson Rockefeller. Believing that the Rockefeller Commission was essentially a whitewash, Democratic Senators Hubert Humphrey and Frank Church called for an independent congressional investigation. On January 27, 1975, the Senate voted 82 to 4 to establish a committee to investigate not only the CIA, but also the FBI, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and the National Security Agency. Senator Frank Church was the chairman, Senator John Tower was vice-chairman, and Senator Walter Mondale was one of the members on the panel.

One month later, Daniel Schorr reported on CBS News that the CIA was involved in assassination plots against foreign leaders. This disclosure became an additional matter to be investigated by the Church Committee. President Ford feared that further disclosures could result in the crippling of the CIA. William Colby, Director of the CIA, said on May 12, 1975, “These last two months have placed American intelligence in danger. The almost hysterical excitement surrounding any news story mentioning CIA or referring even to a perfectly legitimate activity of CIA has raised a question whether secret intelligence operations can be conducted by the United States.”

Democratic candidates critical of the CIA such as Hubert Humphrey, Jimmy Carter, Frank Church, and Fred Harris were gaining in popularity, while prospects for the Republicans were looking dim. As the president struggled to improve his public image, his expected opponent in the primaries, ex-Governor Ronald Reagan, was having a difficult time persuading voters that he had a firm grasp of the complexities of national and world affairs. Although he could be a rousing speaker, an October 30, 1975 column by Evans and Novak said that “a succession of stunningly inept performances by Reagan” had revealed that he was “still unprepared for the demanding change from banquet speaker to presidential candidate.” For example, at a press conference in New Haven, Connecticut, Reagan “was uncharacteristically at a loss for words when asked this predicable question: How could he support federal aid to Lockheed Aircraft but not New York City?” More stumbles occurred during a speech for the World Affairs Council in Philadelphia, where Reagan “flubbed repeatedly and eight times referred to the Third World as ‘the Third World War’ (describing his error as ‘Freudian’).”

If the Democrats win the White House, the CIA had much to lose. It might be severely restricted in its activities, or it might even face total abolition, as called for by former Senator Fred Harris. What was needed to revive the power and prestige of the CIA as a bulwark of national security was a dramatic and headline-grabbing event to change the course of national politics.

By the spring of 1976, Jimmy Carter had garnered enough delegates during the primaries to win the nomination. On Thursday morning, July 15, 9:00 am EST, Carter told assembled reporters at the Democratic National Convention in New York City that he was accepting his party’s nomination and that he had chosen Senator Walter Mondale, a former member of the Church Committee, to be his running mate.

Nine and a half hours later, near the town of Chowchilla, a team of kidnappers wearing nylon stockings over their heads stopped a school bus travelling on a country road. They herded the driver and twenty-six children off the bus and into two vans, one green and one white. There were at least four men, according to ten-year-old Jeffrey Brown and his eight-year-old sister Jennifer. One man sat in the driver’s seat of the white van while two other men stood on each side of the rear double-entry doors. After filling the white van with captives, they herded the remaining captives into the green van driven by a fourth man. The captives were transported to a rock quarry in Alameda County, where they were put inside a buried moving van. Although the abductors were careful in securing the access hole with a pair of one-hundred-pound truck batteries and an enormous mound of dirt, they did not count on the ingenuity and industry of the driver and children in finding a way to escape. Once they got out, they gave law enforcement authorities specific details on the physical appearance of their abductors.

A man named “Jerry” was 5 foot 7, 23 to 27 years old, very thin, collar length brown hair, light complexion, moustache, goatee, hairy mole on the right side of his chin. He wore white gloves, a white T-shirt, blue corduroy pants, cowboy boots, and silver watch. A blue-green tattoo was on his right wrist. An all-points bulletin issued by law enforcement authorities on July 18 identified this man as Jerry McCune.

Jeffrey Brown got a good look at the man who took over the driver’s seat of the bus and drove it to a slough by the side of the road, where the two vans waited to load the captives. The driver of the bus, Jeffrey said, “had a straw dress hat on and black thick-framed glasses. He had a round chin and looked kind of skinny, scrawny. He had black hair. He had sideburns, a one-inch scar on his right cheek, and a chipped front tooth.” Other witnesses said he was about 5 foot 6 and between 28 to 45 years old. He wore white gloves, a blue-checkered shirt, brown pants, and blue tennis shoes. Underneath his shirt was a pillow to give him an obese appearance. Using information given by Jeffrey, a deputy in the Alameda Sheriff’s Department drew the composite sketch below, released on July 19. It shows resemblance to the composite sketch of the Zodiac Killer on the right.

Zodiac Chowchilla                                Zodiac

Revelation of the existence of evidence that the Zodiac Killer was involved came from television newscaster Stan Bohrman, who announced on the 6:00 news that a ransom letter found by police bore the markings of the Zodiac Killer. As discussed in the article “Who was the Zodiac Killer?”, a Woodland Hills woman identified Robert Linkletter, son of Hollywood entertainer Art Linkletter, as the Zodiac Killer.

Leading the abduction team was a big man, 6 foot 1 or 2, about 50 years old, 220 pounds. According to Jeffrey Brown, he was “tall, kind of blocky. He was broad-shouldered, eyes far apart and baggy. The guy looked like he was real solid, and he had yellow pimples on his face. His chin was kind of square. He had light brown hair. He had kind of a pug nose that’s wide – sort of flattened out as though broken. He had a short gun. It looked like a sawed-off shotgun.” He wore white gloves, a tan short-sleeve shirt, light tan corduroy pants, light brown belt with horsehead buckle, and cowboy boots. Grayish brown hair and moustache showed through the nylon. On his right arm was the tattoo of a green wreath with the initials “N.O.W.” in the center. Investigators believed that he was the “mastermind” behind the kidnapping. [4] Using information given by Jeffrey Brown, [5] a deputy in the Alameda Sheriff’s Department drew the sketch below, which was released on July 19:

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Three days after releasing the sketches, Alameda authorities issued an all-points bulletin for the arrest of three men: Richard Schoenfeld, his brother James, and Fred Newhall Woods. That same day, District Attorney Lowell Jensen repudiated reports of additional kidnappers. He said, “Anybody who fixes the number of suspects at more than the three mentioned is dealing in pure speculation.”

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From left to right, Richard Schoenfeld, his brother James, and Fred Newhall Woods

Strangely enough, none of the suspects mentioned had gray hair, glasses, tattoos, scar on right cheek, chipped tooth, hairy mole, or went by the name of “Jerry.” Neither were they as short as 5 foot 6 or 7, nor were they older than 25. According to AP reporter Mike Dunston on July 26, “The victims’ descriptions of their abductors appeared quite different from the descriptions of the Schoenfeld brothers and Woods in an all-points bulletin issued Thursday night.… Investigators said some of the apparent discrepancies in the original descriptions can be explained, but they declined to offer an explanation.” Mae Brussell telephoned officials in Madera and Alameda Counties trying to get an explanation, but they all gave her the run-around. Whatever part these men played in the Chowchilla plot, if any, they were obviously not the ones seen by the bus driver and the twenty-six children.

Pushing the legal machinery toward a conviction of the patsies was State Attorney General Evelle Younger. Prior to becoming the attorney general, he was the district attorney of Los Angeles County. A week after the assassination of Senator Robert F. Kennedy, Younger presided at a press conference where Deputy Police Chief Robert Houghton announced the formation of a special task force, Special Unit Senator, to investigate the case. In charge of the unit’s day-to-day responsibilities was Lieutenant Manuel Pena, a man who had close ties to the CIA. His subordinate, Sgt. Hank Hernandez, was a central figure in the CIA’s “Unified Police Command” in Latin America, interrogating opponents of brutal regimes. Routinely suppressed by Pena and Hernandez was any evidence of a second gunman shooting the senator from behind. According to Lisa Pease, CIA contractor Robert Maheu organized the assassination plot. [6]

 Cooperating with Younger on the Chowchilla case was Lowell Jensen, District Attorney for Alameda County. Jensen’s county had jurisdiction over the case, because that was where the victims were held captive. Madera County, where the victims were kidnapped, also had jurisdiction. The district attorney for that county was, until recently, James Hanhart, who had occupied the office since 1966. Three months earlier, he made a surprise announcement to the Board of Supervisors that he was resigning and going into private law practice. He left the office on May 31, leaving a deputy district attorney to take over as substitute until county supervisors could find a replacement. They had twenty-six applicants to consider. [7]

Younger contacted the Madera supervisors and urged them to hire David Minier, a private attorney with a “clean bill of health.” He was the district attorney for Santa Barbara County from 1969 to 1975, where he acquired the reputation of being a tough prosecutor, advocating maximum charges and maximum sentences, especially for drug offenders. Younger’s glowing recommendation persuaded the supervisors to hire the Santa Barbara lawyer. His appointment was reported in the Los Angeles Times on July 21, six days after the kidnapping.

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David Minier

Suspicious of the circumstances leading to the appointment, a Madera grand jury began an investigation in December of 1977. They found out that the attorney general had withheld from the supervisors information regarding Minier’s fraudulent land deals. He also failed to disclose Minier’s dealings with two convicted drug dealers. Thames Gundy, a 20-year-old college student, tried to sell LSD to an undercover agent in a Studio City motel on March 10, 1970. In his possession were 40,000 tablets of LSD, worth $250,000. Also arrested that same night was Thames’ girlfriend, Leah Wheeler, at the couple’s home in Goleta, a suburb of Santa Barbara. Inside their home was 1000 LSD tablets, plus heroin and marijuana. Although it was customary for Minier to call for the harshest of penalties, in this particular case, he went out of his way to see to it that the couple got very lenient treatment. He interceded on Gundy’s behalf with Los Angeles authorities,  resulting in a sentence of only four years of probation. Leah Wheeler got three years of probation. The grateful couple subsequently provided the district attorney three loans totaling $13,310. Another loan of $15,000 came from Leah’s father. As a result of these revelations in local newspapers, Minier lost his bid for a third term as district attorney in the November 1974 election. [8]

Ignorant of these allegations, the supervisors gladly appointed Minier to become the new district attorney with a start date of September 1. Meanwhile, the three defendants pleaded innocent to all charges. After a closed-door investigation, the Madera grand jury issued an indictment against the three men on August 26. Two months later, a change of venue motion made by defense attorneys moved the trial from Madera to the city of Oakland in Alameda County, where Minier and Jensen served as co-prosecutors.

After many delays, pre-trial hearings finally began in July 1977. It was expected that the 4800 pieces of evidence that the prosecution had collected would soon enter the public domain, including the ransom note that had the markings of the Zodiac Killer. But that was not to be. On July 25, the courtroom was cleared for four hours while defense attorneys went into a huddle with their clients. When it was over, all three defendants, in a surprise move, decided to plead guilty on twenty-seven charges of kidnapping but retained their pleas of innocence on five counts of bodily injury. According to the San Francisco Examiner, “The defense team intimated that the open-court disclosure of the ransom note and [kidnap] plans, coupled with the personal inspection of evidence at Santa Rita, prompted the change of pleas.” After hearing testimony on bodily injury to the victims, Judge Leo Deegan decided that three of the victims had indeed suffered harm. He sentenced the three men to life in prison with no possibility for parole on December 15, 1977. [9]

Fresh from a successful prosecution of the case, Minier easily won a four-year term as district attorney in the November 1978 election. His victory did not end his troubles with the Madera grand jury. It issued a report on July 5, 1979, accusing him of obstruction of justice, abusing his office, and manipulating the criminal justice system. He escaped prosecution, largely because he had the strong support of Sheriff Ed Bates, a prominent figure in the Chowchilla kidnapping case. The sheriff wanted him to stay on the job, because his prosecution of law-breakers was exceptionally rigorous and unyielding.

Minier continued on as district attorney until his election to another office thirteen years later. Considering that his benefactor was Evelle Younger, a man who was instrumental in covering up the facts of a CIA conspiracy to murder Robert Kennedy, it is strange to find David Minier making a serious effort to expose a CIA conspiracy behind the assassination of Robert’s brother, John Kennedy. In 1988, Minier began looking into the background of a former resident of Chowchilla, who was alleged to be an agent for the CIA and a participant in the assassination of President Kennedy.

The mysterious stranger who caught the district attorney’s attention was Claude Barnes Capehart. He moved into Chowchilla in 1976, ostensibly to start a well-drilling business. Accompanying him was his wife Roberta, to whom he had been married since 1959, if not earlier. Shortly after moving there, the couple split up and Roberta married an older man. A brief notice in the Nevada State Journal and the Reno Gazette-Journal, June 25, 1976, showed that Roberta Battey Capehart, age 53, and Cecil Newell, age 63, living in Dos Palos (26 miles from Chowchilla), got a marriage license. After the break up with his wife, Capehart led “a quiet life,” according to Dale Fore, a sergeant in the sheriff’s department, who met the newcomer either before or after the Chowchilla story broke. Fore was the sheriff’s chief investigator on the Chowchilla kidnapping case.

On February 3, 1977, the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA), a congressional probe looking into the deaths of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, was given a green light by the House Rules Committee to begin its investigations. About the same time, Capehart went to the sheriff’s office and spoke to Sergeant Dale Fore. Frightened for his life, he said that he needed police protection. Two men wearing dark suits, coming from back East, either New York or Cleveland, had been sent to kill him. He would not say why he feared these men, except that it had something to do with some work he did for the CIA in New York. During his talk with Fore, he revealed some other things. He claimed he was a hitman for the CIA. In 1963 the CIA gave him an assignment to be in Dallas on the day President Kennedy was killed. Ten years later, the CIA sent him to Chile where a military coup overthrew the government of Salvador Allende. [10]

Sgt. Fore looked into the matter but could find no trace of suspicious characters having arrived in town. He then spoke to Capehart’s girlfriend, Faye Weaver. She said that after the two men left, Capehart threatened her, evidently thinking that she was somehow responsible for their coming. Although skeptical, Fore nevertheless considered Capehart “an interesting guy.” He contacted a friend in the FBI to get further information. His friend told him not to bother. The man was a fake, he said.

A year later, Roberta dumped Cecil and moved to Las Vegas. Sometime afterwards, she and Claude got remarried. A notice in the Reno Gazette-Journal of May 24, 1978, said that “Claude B. Capehart, 53, of Chowchilla and Roberta B. Capehart, 55, of Las Vegas” took out a marriage license.

The domestic tranquility of the newly remarried couple was seriously disturbed three months later by an article that appeared in the Fresno Bee. On July 31, 1978, the newspaper ran a story on the HSCA. Included with the article were photographs of three men wanted in connection with the assassination of President Kennedy.

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One picture shows a dark-haired man sitting on a street curb in Dealey Plaza moments after the assassination. The middle picture is a side view of a man wearing a suitcoat. He has light or gray hair, an aquiline nose, and appears to be in his late 40s or early 50s. The third picture shows, according to the UPI article, a “handsome, apparently blond-haired man in his 20s or early 30s. He appears to be wearing a jacket over a dark turtleneck sweater or pullover.” The latter two men were in Mexico City in the fall of 1963 at the same time Lee Harvey Oswald was there.

In an article titled “What is CIA Hiding about Kennedy Assassination?” written on October 21, 2021 for The Fresno Bee, author David Minier provided additional details about what happened next:

Claude Barnes Capehart was living in Chowchilla in 1978. When The Bee printed a government request for information about three persons of interest in a photograph taken at the assassination scene, Capehart’s girl friend, Faye Weaver, recognized him as one of them.

Capehart first denied it, then confirmed it was he. He told her he had worked as a “hit man” for the CIA on numerous occasions, retiring in 1975. He told Weaver he was present with Lee Harvey Oswald at the scene of the JFK assassination. He said two others were with Oswald, and it was not Oswald who shot the president.

 Weaver related this to Chowchilla’s resident deputy sheriff, Sgt. Dale Fore. She told Fore that Capehart was “paranoid” about his photograph in The Bee, and left Chowchilla a few days later, after threatening her not to talk. Weaver said Capehart had passports bearing his photo but assumed names, and numerous firearms, including a high-power rifle with scope and a silenced handgun. She also saw items taken form the CIA spy ship Glomar Explorer and the Soviet nuclear submarine K-129, which the spy ship had secretly raised from the ocean floor. Capehart carried a pistol both on his person and in his car, Weaver said.

 Sgt. Fore had met Capehart on several occasions, and Capehart told him he had retired form the CIA. He operated a well drilling business, and Fore noticed he always had “a bundle of cash.” When Weaver showed Fore The Bee photograph of three persons of interest, Fore found one to be a “dead  ringer” for Capehart.

Minier did not say in his article which photograph of the three persons of interest represented Capehart. A comparison of two pictures of an older Capehart on the findagrave website shows that the “dead ringer” must have been the blonde-haired man.

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Pictures of Capehart must be exceedingly rare, for, according to Weaver, Capehart was absolutely “paranoid” about having his picture taken.  Even his California driver’s license, she said, lacked a picture as required by law. Fore  made an inquiry with the Department of Motor Vehicles. Yes, they said, his license indeed lacked a picture, but no one could explain why. Convinced that the man was not a fake as his friend in the FBI led him to believe, Fore took a statement from Weaver and tape-recorded the interview.

She said that Capehart had a handgun with silencer, automatic weapons, a cyanide pistol, [11] and passports under an assumed name. Among his private papers were several pages of ciphers or codes. [12] Weaver made copies of these codes on separate sheets of paper and turned them over to Fore. She said that Claude worked on the Glomar Explorer, a deep-sea research vessel built under the sponsorship of the CIA. Claude told her that he had been “in” on the plot to kill Kennedy and that he was inside the Texas School Book Depository. Lee Harvey Oswald, he said, did not fire any of the shots. Weaver feared that making these statements put her life in danger, so she cautioned Fore to keep her name confidential. When he telephoned the HSCA office to relay this information, he told them emphatically not to make Faye Weaver’s name public. [13]

Several months later, Fore was in Washington DC for a training course with the FBI. Since the office of the HSCA was nearby, he met with Dick Billings, the editorial chief for the final report. Also at the meeting were some officials from the FBI. Fore loaned them the newspaper article with the alleged photo of Capehart, a tape recording of his interview with Faye Weaver, interview notes, and the cypher sheets. When they met for a second time, several weeks later, Billings and the FBI men returned some of Fore’s  evidence, but they refused to give him the cypher sheets, claiming they were “classified government codes.” Fore then returned to Madera. Afterwards, he heard that someone burglarized the HSCA office and stole the cypher sheets.

Fore retired from the sheriff’s department in 1987 and became a private investigator. He told District Attorney Minier about his experience with Capehart. Intrigued, Minier did some additional research. He interviewed Weaver and found her to be credible. He found sources that confirmed her husband’s assignment on the Glomar Explorer. An FBI contact also confirmed that he was indeed employed by the CIA. After gathering this information, Fore and Minier were prepared to interview Capehart himself. Having learned that he had just moved into a new home in Pahrump, Nevada, they arranged to have a meeting with him on January 3, 1989. A few hours before their arrival, Capehart, at age 64, dropped dead of a heart attack. The death of his wife in 1992 dried up another source of information. The only source left that could confirm Capehart’s employment with the CIA was the CIA itself.

In November 1991, Minier became the newly elected Municipal Court Judge of Chowchilla. Three months later, he submitted a request to the CIA through the Freedom of Information Act to produce any documents regarding Capehart’s employment with the agency. In June 1994, he expanded his request to include records concerning his activities, assignments, actions, and whereabouts during the month of November 1963. The CIA denied his request on the grounds of national security. Undeterred, Minier filed a lawsuit against the CIA at the federal district court in Fresno. Acting as “a private citizen engaging in historical research,” he said in his court papers, “The CIA should not be allowed to continue its bad faith hide-and-seek game of publicly proclaiming openness while stonewalling legitimate requests for information relating to the assassination.” When the CIA got a summary judgment on January 20, 1995. Minier took his suit to the appellate court in San Francisco. His appeal was turned down on July 8, 1996. At this point, it seemed that the Capehart records would never see the light of day, but in 1998 the CIA released a smattering of documents, providing a small amount of details about his life and employment history. [14]

Two pages of a biographical resume dated November 20, 1963 shows that Claude Barnes Capehart was born on October 15, 1924 in Okemah, Oklahoma; his address was 4815 Carmen Blvd., Las Vegas, Nevada; his wife’s maiden name was Roberta Battey; his height and weight were 6 feet 1 inch and 220 pounds; his hair was brown; and his eyes were blue. Another document shows that he graduated from a high school in Tranquility, California (a small town about 47 miles south of Chowchilla). He joined the army in 1943 and served for three years, attaining the rank of sergeant. From 1961 to 1972, he worked intermittently as a drilling operator, motorman, derrickman, and heavy forklift operator for Reynolds Electrical and Engineering, a Las Vegas corporation that managed the Nevada Test Site, where nuclear devices were tested. In September 1972 he and his wife moved to New Jersey, where he worked in nearby New York City on the North River Pollution Control Project as supervisor on a barge equipped with drilling equipment. He left this job in June 1973. In October 1973 he began working for Global Marine, which designed, built, and operated the Glomar Explorer. He departed from Global Marine on July 9, 1975.

From what can be gathered from the extant documents, the CIA had destroyed or suppressed any information confirming his employment with the CIA. Also erased was any mention of his activities in Mexico City, Dallas, or Santiago, Chile. Of course, documents of greatest interest to Fore and Minier, had they surfaced, would be the ones referring not to November 1963 but July 1976. As investigator and prosecutor in the Chowchilla kidnapping case, they must have known they were putting patsies in prison so that the real culprits could go free.

In 1963, Capehart was working for Reynolds Electrical and Engineering in Las Vegas. It was probably in between intermittent periods of employment that the CIA sent him to Dallas to take part in the assassination of President Kennedy. He told his wife that he was inside the Texas School Book Depository at the time of the shooting. He might have been the gunman seen at the most easterly window of the fifth floor, not the sixth (as claimed by the Warren Commission). According to a spectator on the street, Carolyn Walther, the gunman was a blonde or light-brown haired man, wearing a white shirt, visible through the open lower part of the window. He had a rifle in his hands. It did not have a telescope sight nor a leather sling. Standing next to the blonde-haired man was another man wearing a brown suitcoat. Walther could not see his face, for it was obscured by the closed upper portion of the window. Confirming Walther’s observations were two more spectators, Ronald Fischer and Robert Edwards, who saw a man with light-colored hair and a light-colored open-neck shirt at a window on the fifth floor. Since Capehart had blonde or light-brown hair, he might be one of the two unaccounted-for strangers inside the building. As for the other man wearing a brown suitcoat, he took an elevator down to the first floor and ran out the back door, running in a southerly direction. Another witness who saw him said he had black hair, was 5 feet 8 to 10 inches tall, 155 to 165 pounds, age about late twenties or early thirties. This could not have been Capehart, who according to his biographical resume was 6 foot 1 inch, 220 pounds, in his late thirties and had brown hair. Evidently, there were only two strangers in the building. The remaining people who were inside the building that day had legitimate business and were all accounted for by the police.

Capehart told Fore he had an assignment in Chile when the government of Salvador Allende was overthrown. Records released by the CIA shows missing time from June 1973 to October 1973. In this time slot can be put his CIA assignment to Chile. According to the Berkeley Barb, September 1974, 234 Special Forces personnel (Green Berets) and 14 Army Rangers, under the direction of 34 CIA agents, stormed the Moneda palace in Santiago and murdered President Allende. The military task force trained at a super-secret base near Fort Ord and at Fort Gulik in the Panama Canal Zone.

From October 1973 to July 1975 he was employed with Global Marine. The company built a ship specially designed for the CIA to recover sunken vessels. It was used in 1974 to recover a Soviet submarine, the K-129, that sank in the Pacific Ocean. It was probably also used to recover treasure from the Awa Maru, a Japanese freighter that was authorized by the Red Cross to serve as a hospital ship. It was sunk in the Taiwan Strait on April 1, 1945 by the Queenfish, an American submarine. Out of 2009 people on board the ship, only one survivor was picked up. The Awa Maru reportedly had $5 billion dollars-worth of diamonds, artifacts, cash, gold, platinum and other metals. In 1977 the People’s Republic of China successfully located the site of the wrecked ship and three years later launched one of the biggest salvage efforts in history. No treasure was found.

Nothing regarding Capehart’s activities, assignments, actions, or whereabouts after his departure from Global Marine in July 1975 was among the documents released by the CIA. For this period, we have the statements made by Fore and Minier to the press and the HSCA. Claude Capehart was in Chowchilla in 1976, where he met Fore either before or after the seizure of the school bus. The run-up to the kidnapping began during the fall of 1975 with the purchase of the vehicles used in the kidnapping. His departure from Global Marine on July 9, 1975 gives him time to be involved in the preparation, planning, and financial outlays for the operation. It is significant that his age, height, weight, and hair color – 51 years old, 6 foot 1 inch, 220 pounds, light brown hair – are a perfect match for the mastermind of the kidnapping.

That such heavy hitters as the Zodiac Killer and a CIA assassin would be among the members of a team committed to the kidnapping of schoolchildren is an indication of the importance and urgency of the operation. [15] The team acted in obedience to an executive order that must have come from the highest levels of government and society. The goal was to stop the momentum of the Democrats in the presidential race by committing a headline-grabbing atrocity and using the press to channel the blame toward leftist terror organizations such as the Weatherman or the New World Liberation Front. If the kidnapping plan had succeeded, Jimmy Carter would be forced to go on the defensive trying to distance himself and his party from leftist radicals prone to violence. The Republicans would regain the initiative and probably surge on to victory in the November election. Riding on their coattails would be the CIA. No longer battered by revelations of scandals, the CIA would once again be able to conduct its covert operations unfettered. These hopes fell apart with the unexpected escape of the bus driver and the children. The voices of the victims quickly turned on the true culprits of the crime, who turned out to be ultra-right, white supremacist ideologues. When the driver and school children dug their way to freedom, they not only saved themselves they also saved Jimmy Carter and the Democratic Party.

Capehart memorial picture

Capehart memorial picture (Roberta)

Endnotes and References

  1. Much of this article came from newspaper articles too numerous to cite individually. To find sources, go to or and use their search engines.
  2. The poll was taken January 10-13, 1975. The previous poll on December 6-9, 1974 showed Ford with a 42% approval rating.
  3. Two weeks before the Chowchilla kidnapping, on July 1, Attorney General Younger wrote a letter to the Director of the CIA, George H.W. Bush, proposing that state law enforcement agencies link up with the CIA to improve methods of surveillance and intelligence gathering. Bush’s reply on August 2, 1976 requested further information on the proposal, to which he appended the following handwritten message: “Ev. Sorry we didn’t get a chance to really visit at the [Bohemian] Grove. I want to help on the above if we can get the lawyers happy! GB” In the meantime, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit on July 21 accusing Younger of coordinating a nationwide “spy club” and keeping secret dossiers on the political activities of dissident people or organizations, such as Jerry Rubin, or the Students for a Democratic Society and the Brown Berets.
  4. In earlier news reports, the leader was said to have an eagle tattoo. On July 26, the Chicago Tribune said, The man believed to be the leader of the abduction team had earlier been described as 50 years old, 6 feet tall, with gray hair and an eagle tattoo on his right arm. However, the Chicago Tribune has learned that re-questioning of the victims disclosed that the tattoo was actually a green wreath with the initials “N.O.W.” in the center.
  5. Jeffery Brown, the most observant and talkative of the twenty-six children, died at the age of fifteen in a freak accident. A news item in the Madera Tribune on June 13, 1981 said that Jeffrey was helping his father load beef into a truck for his father’s food locker business. A bolt on the truck’s hoist broke, pinning the teenager between the freshly slaughtered beef and the loading truck. Sgt. Dale Fore, Madera County Sheriff’s deputy-coroner, was mentioned as a source for this article.
  6. See Lisa Pease’s book, A Lie Too Big to Fail: The Real History of the Assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, published 2018 by Feral House.
  7. News item in the Los Angeles Times, July 21, 1976. Also “The Strange Ascendancy of David Minier” by Bill Coate in the Madera Tribune, July 2, 2016.
  8. Grand jury investigation of Minier reported in the Sacramento Bee and Fresno Bee, September 14, 1978. The unusually lenient treatment that Gundy and Wheeler received might be due to an association with an intelligence organization. According to Peter Coyote, narrating the documentary “Hippies” on the History Channel, “Some on the left even theorized that the hippies were the end result of a plot by the CIA to neutralize the anti-war movement with LSD, turning potential protestors into self-absorbed navel-gazers.” (From Black Terror White Soldiers: Islam Fascism and the New Age be David Livingstone, p 426).
  9. On November 4, 1981, California’s appellate court overturned the three counts of bodily harm. This made the defendants eligible for parole. Richard Schoenfeld was released in June 20, 2012. His brother James was released August 7, 2015. Fred Woods was denied parole on October 8, 2019. His next parole hearing will be in 2024.
  10. Sources for the story of Claude Capehart are in (1) “Judge sues over JFK information” San Francisco Chronicle July 5, 1996; (2) “Fresno judge develops own theory in JFK assassination” in Press Democrat (Santa Rosa) Nov. 27, 1994; and (3) “The Capehart Caper” in Probe magazine, November-December 1996.
  11. The cyanide pistol was mentioned by Ian Fleming, author of spy thrillers, in an interview for Playboy. He said it was “more or less a water pistol filled with liquid cyanide . . . a particular good stunt, because a man can be killed while, say, climbing stairs, and when he’s found, the cyanide dissipates and leaves no trace. It’s natural to assume that he has had a heart failure climbing the stairs.” Fritz Bauer, a former attorney general for the State of Hesse in Frankfurt and a survivor of Auschwitz, died from a cyanide spray. When he tipped off the Mossad about the presence of Adolf Eichmann in Buenos Aires, Heinrich Mueller, Nazi security chief in South America and Europe, ordered his death. According to Paul Manning in his book Martin Bormann, Nazi in Exile, “His body was found in his bathtub and listed as ‘death by heart attack’ by the Frankfurt police. The real cause: cyanide spray that induces heart stoppage without detection.” A modified version of the weapon was used either by the KGB or agents working for Reinhard Gehlen to kill two Ukrainian activists in Munich, Germany in 1957 and 1959. The American Volunteer Group, recruited by Nelson Bunker Hunt in the 1960s, used the cyanide gun to eliminate leftist or liberal politicians in the United States. (Spooks, Jim Hougan, pp. 55-56 also General Walker and the Murder of President Kennedy by Jeffrey H. Caulfield, p. 292-293). The picture below is a cyanide pistol used by the Gestapo during World War II. (Globe-Gazette (Mason City, Iowa) March 6, 1967)

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  1. The Zodiac Killer also had an interest in ciphers. He sent a three part 408-character cipher message to three newspapers on August 2 and 3, 1969 that was later partially decoded by amateur cryptologists Donald G. Harden and his wife Bettye. In November 1969 he sent a cipher of 340 characters. It is one of the greatest unsolved ciphers of all time. Its sophistication manifests military or intelligence agency training.
  2. Faye Weaver died in Chowchilla on February 25, 2003 at the age of 73.
  3. Capehart documents can be found at the website
  4. Another CIA spook associated with the Zodiac Killer, aka Robert Linkletter, was Reeve Whitson. They were partners together in the design and production of the child-proof safety cap for medicine bottles. Tom O’Neill learned this from Art Linkletter, while doing research on the Manson Family murders. Email from O’Neill, October 26, 2019. I highly recommend O’Neill’s book Chaos: Charles Manson and the Secret History of the Sixties.