Links and False Links– The Gay Murders of San Francisco

When it finally comes time to present the fruits of my labors in trying to unravel the Gay Murders of San Francisco, I will present cases between 1968 and 1982. There are some 60 cases that need sewing together or tearing apart in order to reveal or to bury JACK THE KNIFE, the DOODLER, or any other serial that might have been afoot during this period.

As an example of both the difficulties and the prospects, I want to touch on two cases here. These two cases are just after the cutoff– they occurred in 1983, but they accentuate a truth that applies to the time period in which occurs the glut of Gay Murders. The truth is easier to see here because the environment for murder had changed. The stats show that Gay Murders suddenly drop this year. Casual or public sex had become very dangerous due to the rise of AIDs. Pickups by tricks and strangers wasn’t happening as much anymore, and it is within that world that DOODLER and potentially any other serial had stalked. But it is also within this world that almost all of the unsolved killings had occurred since 1968.

Free of the sheer excess of the 1970s’ boomtown Swingin’ Seventies’ nightlife/sex life, the cloud that confuses evidence had lifted. What this means is that potential perps were far fewer in number. The police were able to gather more evidence, refine more evidence, investigations could be more focused.

Though few murders go unsolved, these show how easy it is for more than one killer to stealthily move by night and leave no real trail. . .if . . .if he confined himself to the world of tricks and pick-ups. Two murders in particular link, blur, unlink and blur yet again. They embody the danger of taking things on surface appearance. Both happened after a pick-up. They occurred in public. The tryst was in a car at a park, near a major cross street. The victim was middle-age. This in itself argues for a young trick as the perp . . . but–

The first victim was on April 10, 1983, Nicholas Rubicam, age 53. He grew up in Washington State, born Nicholas Gregg Rubicoma (family name listed interchangeably with Rubican/Rubicam). At present, he lived on Belgrave Avenue, San Francisco. He was the manager for Western Community Mortgage and a Vice President for its financial parent company. April 10 was a Sunday. He had encountered his killer somewhere Saturday night.

Rubicam, as seen in high school in 1946.

They were at the rest area near where Arguello Blvd and Conservatory Drive meet, at the edge of Golden Gate Park. The murder was by a very personal method, one seen usually in those murders which occurred in apartments during the spate of killings in the mid-to late 1970s. This was the slow, agonizing death of strangulation.

Rubicam was found by police early Sunday morning. They saw him laying by a swank new gray Mercedes 300 station wagon. They thought he was drunk and shouted at him. Then they realized he was dead. He was spread-eagle. His shirt was unbuttoned. His jacket was near his right foot. Abrasions and cuts about his neck proved he had been strangled.

Motive wasn’t robbery. His wallet was there and intact. According to the police, the murder must have happened between 1:10 a.m. (parking area last checked) and 3:30 a.m. (when found). According to his boyfriend, young 20-year-old Kurt Pokorny, Rubicam left home at midnight, in Pokorny’s estimate too drunk to drive. They had been at Sausalito’s star restaurant Valhalla. We don’t need to dissect the public claims. But the circumstances, as presented, suggest Rubicam went out and met a trick.

There had been public strangulations of Gay men before in public– always in a park– but that was the exception to the Gay Murder M.O. One would have to say it was a young trick’s safe way of murder– safe because he need not carry an identifiable weapon. The only advantage was to murder during the tryst. This was the only way to get a man off guard and incapable of defending himself.

(Rubicam was short, but he was athletic, lean and strong.)

The circumstances or, perhaps, staging of Rubicam’s murder underscore that the M.O. of trick murder in public isn’t one easily solved. A year later the S.F. Examiner reports there were no suspects.

Suspect remains publicly unpresented in Rubicam’s murder. But on November 16, 1983, a Wednesday, a similar scene presented itself to SFPD. The body was in John McLaren Park, by a rest area, near the corner of Mansell and John Shelley Drive. This is in the southwest of South Francisco, coming close to the border with South San Francisco.

Nickolaus Crumbley, 41, was visiting San Francisco from Texas. He had met his trick and they went to this unlikely location. Here with pants and underwear down, Crumbley was murdered by strangulation, apparently in his rental car. Then the body was thrown out and the killer escaped with his car. I don’t go into salacious details, but to be as anodyne as possible– anal smears proved DNA was present from another man.

Nick Crumbley

The general circumstances are very similar to Rubicam’s murder, though both body locations are relatively far from each other. Rubicam’s murder has the stench of a set-up around. But Crumbley’s was more in line with the M.O. of Polk Street hustlers, those who had once hung out at The Trap on Eddy, waiting for gullible out-of-towners.

Crumbley’s case went unsolved for over 20 years until 2009. Then a DNA hit matched a local– William Payne, BMA. He had been 19 years old at the time. In 2012 he was arrested. He denied it all, and was carted off by the police. This got a lot of attention, and so did his trial. But there were problems. Payne now admitted to having had sex with Crumbley. When first questioned by police back in 1983, he didn’t admit to it because he didn’t want his religious family to know about his bisexual trysts. The defense attorney was able to introduce that swabs from the victim’s underwear proved that DNA from two unknown men was present. The fingerprints on Crumbley’s rental car, found later (pushed) in Lake Merritt, also didn’t match Payne’s. The jury hung at 9-3 in favor of acquittal. Judge Andrew Cheng declared mistrial. Another trial was arranged, of course, but elaborating on that is not the purpose here. Safe to say the court of public opinion remains divided.

Essentially, on the surface, Crumbley’s murder fit a trick M.O. The location may suggest it was more random, and the goal ultimately was robbery. (Crumbley’s pants pockets were inside out.).

Here on the surface we have two very similar M.O.s– park corners, the evidence (in part or toto) of a tryst, murder by strangulation of a middle-age man. But it very well could be that two different perps were involved.

The two victims were very different. Crumbley was a bit frumpy; Rubicam was dapper, short, athletic. He was a local, far more affluent. His car wasn’t stolen. Nor was his money.

Prior to this, some S&M tricks had stolen their victim’s car from their own driveway after having killed them in the house. In a notable murder in 1979, septuagenarian victim Quirinio Paolazzi was murdered in his York Street home and the killer drove the car back to Buena Vista Park area. In Crumbley’s case, Lake Merritt is in Oakland across the Bay.

That very night Rubicam was murdered, the S&M era came to a dramatic end. Harry Diethelm, the owner of the main SOMA leather bar, The Brig, was strangled in his own basement (on Bemis Street) in sado. The place had been set up for a sado laboratory. There was a chair, described like a dentist’s chair, in which Diethelm was bound by the wrists, then choked to death. Then one of the perps, Jeff Van Tongeren, lit him afire. Van Tongeren then took Diethelm’s car with some valuables in it. The house didn’t burn sufficiently to cover the clues and Van Tongeren was arrested.

Hank Diethelm with members of the The Brig’s leather contest men.

There was no connection to Nick Rubicam’s murder. Maybe there is no connection between Rubicam’s murder and the murder of Nick Crumbley.

Muddled, blurred edges like these exist throughout the massive murder wave of Gay Murders of San Francisco between 1968 and 1982. It takes much information to be able to divide bone and marrow to determine any links or break any apparent links that tempt us on the surface.

These two cases from 1983 have more public evidence than many of the others, and together they reveal a still-lurking complexity in those older cases during the boomtown days of Swingin’ Seventies nightlife.

After this point, the edges become clearer. Young tricks– the Polk Street hustlers– were killing older, gay men. If caught they’d claim “homosexual panic,” and in a couple of cases even get acquitted. Drugs and money would come to dominate and make for very clear motives for the murders hereafter.

*         *        *

Since 1990 Gian J. Quasar has investigated a broad range of mysterious subjects, from strange disappearances to serial murders, earning in that time the unique distinction of being likened to “the real life Kolchak.” However, he is much more at home with being called The Quester or Q Man. “He’s bloody eccentric, an historian with no qualifications who sticks his nose into affairs and gets results.” He is the author of several books, one of which inspired a Resolution in Congress.

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