The Tardy Times


Judy's photo was cropped

1963: Paul Avery, Judy Williamson
 and Frisco's last newspaper war 

THEY WENT AHEAD and made a movie about the Zodiac and Paul Avery. It wasn't easy. After 30 years, the serial murderer’s identity is still a matter of guesswork.
    As for the late Chronicle reporter, his discontinuity from convention must have confused director David Fincher. The script for “Zodiac” depicts Paul as an investigative tosspot and not, more accurately, as an obsessive maverick and relentless newspaper reporter.
    Given the short-term memory of the newspaper business  (who was “Herb Caen” anyway?), today’s journalistic moviegoers might naturally assume that failure to track down the cryptic killer of 1966-1968 would seem to stand as the most frustrating disappointment in Paul’s long career of extraordinary achievements. Perhaps. But he never forgot about Judy.
      In the next decade, Paul (at right) would have the satisfaction of closure in the 1974 kidnap and transformation of Patty Hearst. With Vin McClellan, he would cap off his coverage with “The Voices of Guns,” a superb book on the Symbionese Liberation Army and its prize hostage.
     He never wrote a book about the now-forgotten case of Judy Williamson.   
     Nevertheless, her disappearance led to his first shot at the Big Story, the name of a once-popular radio and TV series (1949-1958). For three weeks in November 1963, the face of the 18-year-old student dominated the Bay Area's front pages. Then she was all but erased from public memory. Forgotten. Except, of course, by Paul.  More than 30 years later, as he sipped Jim Beam in the M&M bar, he told a friend he could still remember her innocent young face.
JUDY'S PHOTO appeared on the front page of the Chronicle on Nov. 1, 1963.  It was a picture worth ten thousand street sales. Hers was a face that launched a thousand scoops. Some were accurate.
   Then an ambitious, straight-arrow crime writer, Paul was dispatched by the Chronicle city desk to the unobtrusive East Bay suburb of Albany. For no apparent reason, the public couldn’t get enough news, or non-news, about the mysterious disappearance of Judith Gail Williamson as she walked to the bus that would take her to her first-year classes at UC Berkeley.
  Newsracks emptied every day for weeks in what would be the final epic battle in the Bay Area’s storied history of newspaper rivalry. Of course, nobody knew at the time that the Examiner vs. Chronicle circulation wars were about to end in an ugly betrayal of the troops.
   In less than a decade, the Chronicle had climbed from third to first place in daily circulation in San Francisco and Northern California. In 1960, it passed the long-dominant Examiner while publishing outdoors writer Bud Boyd’s fake but entertaining “Last Man on Earth” series.
  Fresh in the memory of circulation managers in 1963 was the 1955 abduction and murder of 14-year-old Stephanie Bryan, an unfortunate Berkeley girl whose three-month disappearance sold papers by the wagonload.
  Sales jumped even higher when the Examiner’s resident Pulitzer Prize winner, Ed Montgomery, drove about 300 miles north of Berkeley to Trinity County. He hired a local dog handler. Followed up a hill by photographer Bob Bryant, the hounds discovered the girl’s foot protruding from the dirt. It was about 100 yards from a mountain cabin owned by Burton Abbott, 28, of Alameda. She had been beaten, strangled and buried on a nearby hill. (Consult an outstanding true-crime book, “Shallow Grave in Trinity County” by the late Harry Farrell, written in 1997 after he retired from the San Jose Mercury.)
    Bud Abbott, protesting to the end, was convicted and eventually executed in an endless spate of 120-point headlines.
AT THE EXAMINER'S city desk, eager to cover the story and conscious of heavy pressure to recapture the lead in sales, Judy’s disappearance must have seemed like a Stephanie replay. Ed Montgomery was meeting privately with Police Chief Ralph Jensen by the time the Chronicle team arrived in Albany, waiting impatiently with the other reporters in an improvised pressroom.
    Infuriated, Paul was determined to out-scoop Ed. But the stakes were much bigger for the proprietors of the Examiner and Chronicle.  
    Everybody knew that the leader in daily circulation gets the bulk of national advertising and, almost as important, the respectful attention of politicians and business leaders in the days when newspapers reigned.
  What nobody knew was how the Chronicle’s slight edge in circulation gave publisher Charles Thieriot a big edge in supersecret negotiations that same month.
   As the reporters and editors fought for scoops, their bosses decided to change the historic duel of the Examiner vs. Chronicle into a board game. Monopoly. (It took two more years to work out the moves.)
    The merger talks at the time weren't revealed to Paul or anybody without a  key to the corporate boardrooms. Instead, the fight over circulation intensified.
   The Bay Area’s dailies shrilled with banner headlines every single day over breathless non-stories now remembered as pointless, meaningless and cynically tawdry.  
WHEN PAUL arrived in the old bungalow that then housed the tiny Albany Police Department, he was an up-and-coming 29-year-old with a reputation as a demon reporter during four years at the Chronicle. Shorthaired, clean-shaven and fragrant with Old Spice, he wore a dark suit and a knitted Ernst wool tie. It was neatly knotted and, like its owner, fashionably narrow. Paul didn’t wear a hat; that was for older guys. As he introduced himself, he said he lived in a Novato tract home with his little family. For all we know, he voted Republican.
    Paul had moved around as a kid in a Navy family, and that was how he began his newspaper career at the age of 20. He covered the news  from Vicksburg to Victoria (Texas), to Anchorage, Honolulu and San Luis Obispo before arriving at 901 Mission St., a seasoned journeyman at age 24.
  Fellow reporter Duffy Jennings remembered the old Paul was “not above a little skulduggery to beat a competitor to an exclusive or usurp someone else's turf.” Duffy said pipe-smoking Charley Howe, a Chron writer uncomfortable with aggressive scoopery, wasn't nearly so polite about Paul. He called him “Unsavory Avery.”
   To the Chronicle's longtime city editor, Abe Mellinkoff, the relentlessly resourceful Paul was the logical choice to get the inside story of a very pretty girl who vanished soon after dawn on what was otherwise a normal autumn day. All the police knew was that Judy Williamson said goodbye to her mother, put on a black cardigan, picked up a white umbrella, packed her textbooks and left for class at about 7 a.m. on Oct. 29, 1963. From her home on Albany Hill, she walked down Castro Street toward San Pablo Avenue and the bus that would take her to Berkeley. Someone later recalled that a white convertible was “creeping” along San Pablo Avenue. 
   She never boarded the bus.
THE BUNGALOW'S PRESS ROOM soon became a daily two-shift stakeout for Paul, his Chronicle colleagues and bored reporters from the Examiner, Oakland Tribune, News-Call Bulletin, Berkeley Daily Gazette, Richmond Independent and both wire services. They mingled in a journalistic caucus of bulky television cameras, Speed-Graphics and news-radio microphones.
   They stood back when Montgomery strode into the press room. A tall man, he resembled an FBI agent with his brown suit, eyeglasses and the fedora that rarely left his head. Winner of a Pulitzer in 1951 for exposés of tax frauds, he left note-taking to others. Instead, as Paul would later discover, Chief Jensen had promised that Ed would get the scoops, if any, before anybody else.
     A few discoveries kept the story on the front pages every day. Judy’s textbooks, stained with blood, were found in a campus trashcan at Sather Gate. Blood had pooled under parked cars in a student garage near the campus. Judy’s white umbrella turned up in a trashcan at an El Cerrito shopping center. Someone reported that a man and woman had appeared to be struggling that morning inside a white convertible on hilly Fish Ranch Road.
     Paul worked hard, sharing bylines with a rewrite man of uncommon elegance and bedrock cynicism, George Draper (a once-idealistic volunteer with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade).The Sunday Chronicle, which was still lagging in circulation behind the Dick Tracy-wrapped Sunday Examiner, came out one Sunday with a Draper-Avery banner story that smirked over reports that Judy was, or had been, a “party girl.”
   Paul interviewed Judy’s doctor. Years later, he said the doctor had tried to rebut the “party girl” allegation by letting slip a medical observation that was supposed to be confidential information. In a Draper-Avery party-girl sequel, the Chronicle hit bottom the next Sunday with a 120-point front-page headline. It  proclaimed exclusively that the missing coed was a virgin.
   In the meantime, Paul learned from Albany’s two detectives that the police chief had found a very likely suspect. He owned a white convertible. He had been dating Judy. But his lawyer wouldn’t allow him to take a lie detector test or answer questions. He was also, ahem, the son of a city councilman who had been the mayor of Albany and, as such, was the police chief’s boss.
    And if that wasn't bad enough, another young suspect looked equally guilty. Jensen was silent. So was Ed. So was Paul.
    Nonetheless, screamer headlines continued for three weeks, news or no news. It was counterpoint to the argument that newspaper journalism was a lot better in the competitive days of yesteryear.
     And then, on a November day, bells on the teletype machines began to ring and ring and ring in the Examiner's dingy cityroom on Third Street. John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. Rich Jordan, seemingly unsentimental, began to weep. So did Jerry Belcher and John Todd.
     The next day, Paul’s report on the search for Judy Williamson landed with the truss ads on Page Umpty-ump. Then the coverage vanished as completely as she. It was all but forgotten except by her parents, Chief Jensen and a greatly disappointed Paul Avery. 
SAN FRANCISCO'S great reporters of the scoop era also included Charles Raudebaugh, Mary Crawford, George Murphy, Bill Boldenweck, Baron Muller, Jerry Belcher, Ernie Lenn, Bill O’Brien, Hadley Roff and on-deadline rewrite wizards like Jane Eshleman Conant, Hu Bernhard, Andy Curtin, Dan Frishman, Carolyn Anspacher and George Draper.
    With Royal typewriters and No. 2 pencils as their weapons, these combatants were double-crossed on the Labor Day weekend in 1965. At the Examiner, sledgehammers broke through the brick walls of the upstairs composing room on Third Street in an annex to the Hearst Building. Cranes hoisted the Linotype machines into waiting trucks. The presses were dismantled. The stunned weekend crew was packed off to the News-Call Bulletin plant on Howard Street, where the picture of crusading editor Fremont Older was soon taken down and never seen again. The News-Call appeared with a never-say-die headline, something like “The Examiner Joins Us in the Afternoon Field.” And died.
   It was a fait accompli. A Chronicle-Examiner joint agency had taken over the non-editorial functions of the Monarch of the Dailies and the Voice of the West in what, in effect, was a business monopoly. The News-Call plant soon became a parking lot and, more than 30 years later, the site of the third piece in the Moscone convention complex. The staff was merged with the Examiner’s. In the Sunday paper, the Examiner news and sports sections were combined in a hybrid mess with the Chronicle’s arts and feature sections. Layoffs were decreed on the basis of seniority, which insured a newsroom of graying men. The Examiner editorial departments soon moved to an annex of the Chronicle Building to share the same composing room, advertising departments, circulation manager and presses. To the Chronicle, the Joint Operating Agreement would mean life in the morning; to the Examiner, death in the afternoon.
THREE YEARS LATER, two woodcarvers drove to a remote ravine in the Santa Cruz Mountains. They hoped to find redwood burls. They found Judy's bones. Her breastbone had been pierced. So had the black cardigan, with 15 tears in the fabric. A paring knife was found nearby. A resident on the unpaved one-lane road belatedly reported seeing a white convertible on the day Judy vanished.
    Ho hum. The discovery barely made the front pages. Cults, drugs and the Pied Pipers of the weed-and-acid culture had come in mid-decade to the years now romanticized as The Sixties. By 1966, police in the Bay Area were benumbed by distressed parents searching for hundreds, if not thousands, of runaways, teenage dropouts, Moonie recruits and flower children. 
    In the meantime, the Chronicle and Examiner's journalists continued to compete, but after the 1965 merger it wasn't the same. Besides, they had too much to cover. If the Sixties had their share of banners, the Seventies never calmed down. Here's a summary of the more sensational events in the Bay Area, thanks to former Chron reporter Duffy Jennings:
    The short list included the shocking Patty Hearst kidnapping, Hibernia bank robbery, Symbionese Liberation Army manhunt and L.A. shootout; the random Zebra murders on the streets of San Francisco; the San Rafael courthouse shootout and murder of Judge Harold Haley; the Golden Dragon restaurant massacre in Chinatown; the mass murder and suicides of more than 900 people – mostly from the Bay Area – in Jonestown, Guyana, and the killing there of local Rep. Leo Ryan and four others, including Examiner photographer Greg Robinson; the City Hall assassinations of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk; and the subsequent murder trial of Supervisor Dan White and its riotous aftermath.  Hardened reporters, including combat veterans and others who had seen more than their share of human tragedy, marveled at the relentless magnitude of it all and wondered what else could possibly happen next.
    The front-page decade also brought us the Olympic killings, D.B. Cooper, Watergate, the Vietnam debacle, Nixon's resignation, Pol Pot, Three-Mile Island, Iran hostages, the Trailside Killer. And buried under the fold  was a short news story about a man named Joseph Otto Ebenberger Jr., the son of the ex-mayor of Albany.
FOR PAUL, the decade that defined his career began in 1966, three years after Judy’s disappearance. He knew Judy’s killer was still out there, but by then Paul was preoccupied with six unsolved Zodiac murders and the killer’s taunting cryptograms. His investigations proved no more successful than his search for Judy. Paul had rejoined the Chronicle after excursions as a correspondent covering the Vietnam War. He no longer looked like an insurance salesman. He lived for a time on a houseboat in Sausalito, first stop for many a divorced man.
   His struggle with bourbon whisky led to another exit from the Chronicle.     Years later, former Chronicle editorial cartoonist Robert Graysmith would review the evidence, guess at the identity of the Zodiac (now presumed dead) and make Paul a central character in the book that came out in 1986, The movie opened in 2007.                       
THE EX-MAYOR'S SON  turned himself in to Oakland police in November 1977 and confessed to the murder of Judy Williamson. Her schoolmate at Albany High School and at UC Berkeley, he was described as “a brilliant student.” He had sometimes driven her to the university. According to his testimony, she had resisted his vows of love that turned into deadly anger on that day 14 years before. Convinced by his lawyer to plead not guilty despite his confession, he was convicted of second-degree murder, sentenced to five-to-life and eventually set free to live with his conscience.  
    The stories appeared on inside pages.
    Also frustrated by the Judy Williamson case was Ed Montgomery. He badly needed another Stephanie Bryan triumph to soften criticisms that he spent most of the 1960s in chasing Reds under the beds of anti-war organizers and civil rights demonstrators.
    In due course, critics managed to paste an imaginary asterisk next to the phenomenal record of scoops by Ed Montgomery.
    Snooping through the warehouse of once-secret files and memos left by J. Edgar Hoover, historians and biographers had discovered that the FBI chief had more to hide than a closet stocked with high-heeled shoes.
    Hoover encouraged his minions to leak hot tips to favorite reporters, often by undercutting local police departments and giving credit to the FBI. On at least one occason, Ed submitted a draft of a story for Hoover's approval but told nobody, because that would break a lot of rules.
   In return for scoops, he would adorn the Examiner with occasional guilt-by-association stories intended to discredit liberals and civil rights activists with alleged links to Communists. The McCarthyist embarrassments ended when Hoover died in 1972. Ed retired in 1975, two years before Ebenberger talked to the police and 20 years before Ed’s death.  
BY THEN, Paul had other concerns. We last saw him in the M&M bar eight years ago. An enormously popular newspaperman with stints at the Chronicle, the Sacramento Bee and  the Examiner,  Paul was highly regarded for his investigative skills, his loyalty to his colleagues and his genial scorn at self-important big shots. He hadn't worn a suit in many years. He drank too much. He had a smoking problem, and it wasn’t just tobacco. For years he lived in and out of a jointly occupied house – a kind of a commune  just around the corner from Muir Woods in Franks Valley. His steady lover was Margo St. James, a writer who years before had briefly worked as a prostitute. She later founded and promoted an association for unapologetic sex workers. 
    His last job was at the Examiner. Bad lungs forced him to retire.
    On that day in the saloon, he was drinking bourbon-and-water. Under the table was his oxygen tank. A breathing tube was supposed to help him with his emphysema. Instead, the nose clip was shunted to the side so he could – ye gads! – smoke his deadly Lucky Strikes.
    He wanted to sip his drink, tell stories, laugh at jokes and, in the lyrics made famous by Phil Harris, smoke, smoke, smoke that cigarette!
    He soon moved to the home of a daughter in Puget Sound.  He died of emphysema in 2000, the year when the San Francisco Monopoly game turned upside down. The heirs of Michael and Charles de Young sold the Chronicle to the heirs and corporate descendants of William R. Hearst the First. Coldly, Hearstlings then sold the Examiner, WRH’s first paper, to the Fang family, who later sold it to right-wing zillionaire Phillip Anschutz, who will probably trade it for deeds to Park Place, Marvin Gardens and a get-out-of-jail-free card.
    It was the year of the millennium. Paul was 66. Judy Williamson would have been 55. Nobody has yet made a movie about her or the last of the great scarehead wars.  
                                                                               – Lynn Ludlow   

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