We have become trained to recognize the contours of most true-crime documentary series: A compelling individual is introduced, his strange case is unveiled and then we follow the filmmakers as they go digging into the salacious evidence. Binge-watching ensues.
No doubt FX’s The Most Dangerous Animal of All, at least on paper, seems of that ilk. Based on the New York Times bestseller, this four-part series presents us with Gary L. Stewart, a successful middle-aged businessman who grew up in a happy home in Baton Rouge. Then one day, he learned that he was adopted, which left him unmoored: Why did his birth parents abandon him?
Stewart started getting answers as he was nearing 40: He found his biological mother Jude, who informed him that his birth father, Earl Van Best Jr., had married her when she was only 14, leading to his arrest. (Jude told Stewart that Van Best abandoned him in a stairwell when he was still a baby, eventually reportedly spending time with friends of the Manson family and getting interested in the Church of Satan before his death in 1984.) But the more digging Stewart did, the more he developed a theory that was even more disturbing: Could Van Best actually be the Zodiac Killer, the notorious murderer who struck fear across the Bay Area in the late 1960s and early 1970s? After all, Van Best resembled a police sketch of the killer — and both men had a fascination with ciphers. Stewart kept investigating, and with the help of true-crime author Susan D. Mustafa, he turned his findings into a book that laid out his intriguing case for being the son of a serial killer.
Enter director/executive producer Kief Davidson and executive producer Ross M. Dinerstein, who were interested in developing the book into a documentary series that would vet Stewart’s claims and also serve as a portrait of Stewart, who’s burned through several marriages in his two-decade obsession with proving that Van Best is the Zodiac. But while making the film, Davidson and Dinerstein discovered something alarming.
[Note: Major spoilers follow for The Most Dangerous Animal of All.]
The filmmakers hired a private investigator, who shot holes in several pieces of Stewart’s evidence. A so-called expert in handwriting, who found connections between Van Best’s scrawl and the Zodiac Killer’s from the letters he sent the media, is debunked by another handwriting expert, who breaks down the mistakes the first expert made. Fingerprints that supposedly match are proven to be misleading. Other evidence, including the pivotal appearance of a random San Francisco bus, is torn apart. Stewart’s publisher never bothered to corroborate his claims — as a representative of the company explains on camera, there’s a certain amount of creative license that’s allowed in speculative books like this.
And so, instead of watching just one more true-crime series, we realize we’re witnessing a series that subverts the genre, questioning why we accept so many “facts” in programs of this kind. It’s not that Stewart is deceiving us as much as he’s stubbornly clung to this belief for so long that, even when the filmmakers confront him, he doesn’t budge, insistent that he’s right and that they’re misinformed. It’s gripping television, but also heartbreaking. Gary L. Stewart has spent so many years trying to prove something that probably isn’t real — and yet he keeps on investigating in the hopes he might still be right.
With The Most Dangerous Animal of All currently streaming on FXNOW and Hulu, I reached out to Davidson and Dinerstein to talk about the revelations in their series — and what’s happened to Stewart since filming concluded. Davidson is the Oscar-nominated director of the documentary short Open Heart, and Dinerstein has produced documentary series such as Netflix’s The Innocent Man. Over the phone, they discussed their initial skepticism about Stewart’s assertions, what it was like to tell him he was wrong and why he’s held onto this alarming belief that his dad was a serial killer.
Going into this project, how skeptical were you of Stewart’s claims?
Dinerstein: I was probably the biggest believer of the [creative team], frankly, and I think Kief was probably on the other side of the spectrum. I think that’s why we’re a good team.
What made you such a believer?
Dinerstein: It was from reading the book and spending time with Gary and [being around] Gary’s steadfast belief and conviction. I guess that’s what really had done it for me: As we got into [the project], it really became about “As long as Gary believes, that’s all that matters,” and Gary truly believes.
Davidson: I read the book, and I thought, “You know what? There’s some compelling evidence in here.” I can’t say that I was totally sold, but I was really coming at this from “Is Gary a compelling-enough character?”
I was compelled by the book, but it wasn’t until I actually met Gary — Ross and I flew to Baton Rouge to meet with him, and it became very apparent to me right away that he was someone that was struggling with an identity crisis and was certainly very obsessed about the story. It’s something that’s consumed his life. So for me, what Gary was going through and the psychology behind it was really where my fascination was.
At the beginning, it wasn’t about, “Let’s debunk Gary, because we don’t believe.” It was more of like, “All right, let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and start investigating and see where it goes.” But I’d say I was very much on the fence as to whether he’d gotten it right or not.
I assume, from the start, you told Stewart, “Listen, we’re going to do our own research to see if your theory holds up.”
Davidson: Once I decided to come aboard, the conversation we had early on was that we’d actually be hiring a private investigator to investigate his claims. And instead of Gary being nervous about that, he seemed to embrace the idea, because he felt that hiring a P.I. would help solve the case. He believed that the P.I. would help conclude that everything he’s saying is right. It was further evidence to all of us that he really believed that his father was the Zodiac Killer — otherwise, he wouldn’t put his neck out there. So, I was pretty compelled by the idea of him embracing us so openly.
Dinerstein: We were very upfront with him from Day One: “We’re not just adapting the book. We’re using the book as a guide and as a resource, but we are going to tell the full, unbiased, 360-degree-view from 30,000 feet.” And Gary said, “Bring it on.”
Most people wouldn’t want it to be known that their dad was a serial killer. It would be a stain on the whole family. Why did Stewart hold onto this theory so strongly?
Davidson: We definitely asked him that, and his answer would generally be, “I’m right, but if you can prove me wrong, please do so. I want nothing more [than] to be able to move on, and this isn’t what I want for my family. This isn’t what I want for my kids or grandkids. Please do prove me wrong.” But he didn’t believe that would be the case.
My feeling in all of this — because he still believes that he is correct, even after everything that’s happened — is that the Zodiac case is now infused with his identity. The answers that he’s come up with have fused with who he is. Perhaps we’ll never be able to convince him otherwise. But if you’ve spent the last 17-plus years believing that your father’s the Zodiac, and then all of a sudden, [they] take that away from you…
It’s very complicated, and there’s been some follow-up with Gary after the fact. He seems to be very back-and-forth on how he’s handling things at this point.
Watching Stewart squirm on camera when you present this counter-evidence that dismantles his case is really uncomfortable. He doubles down and simply refuses to believe what you’re telling him. That couldn’t have been easy to film.
Davidson: We certainly weren’t looking forward to that day. The investigative part for us was a good long process — it wasn’t like we came to [these] conclusions immediately. We’d get little bits and pieces, and then very slowly we started to get answers [about] the claims that Gary had made. But there was certainly a point, like a month or so beforehand, where we basically knew where this was going and really just wanted to get the interview done. We didn’t like sitting on that information, but we knew it was something that we couldn’t share with him [yet].
I would’ve thought with Gary, when you start pointing out all of the counterclaims out there, that he’d go back to that idea that I’d said earlier: “Look, prove me wrong. There’s nothing I’d rather do more than to be proved wrong so I can move on.” In our opinion, we did prove him wrong, and it should be a way for Gary to move forward. But that wasn’t exactly the case with him. He still kept going, no matter what you threw at him. He said, “Look, I know what I know. I don’t need any more proof.”
It’s important to know it was never our intent to approach this as “We’re going to prove Gary right or wrong.” It was more about telling the whole story, so we weren’t looking for a “gotcha” moment. Quite frankly, I was hoping that Gary would be able to take this [new] information and find some peace and closure — as opposed to [what he says] in the film, which is that he could spend the next 10 years investigating this and still not feel good about himself.
My hope in all this is that he’d be able to move past this very dark chapter of his life. But it seems, up until this moment, that’s not the case. He’s still holding onto what he believes.
As The Most Dangerous Animal of All rolls along, it starts to become almost a commentary on the true-crime format itself: how we blindly accept the evidence presented to us, especially when it’s done through re-creations, and accept the people who are presenting it to us.
Davidson: We certainly didn’t set out from the very beginning to take that turn and make that sort of statement and turn the true-crime genre upside down, which is hopefully what we did. It wasn’t really until we started to find out some answers, poke holes in some of Gary’s theories and start to realize that everyone was complicit in this. It wasn’t just Gary — it was the book publisher and those people feeding into Gary’s belief system. We started to realize that there was a much bigger story and a commentary that we can make, just on the genre and how nonfiction works. How do you validate the truth?
This is hardly the first film made about the Zodiac Killer. We seem perpetually obsessed with his crimes and uncovering his identity. Why can’t we get enough of this case?
Dinerstein: It’s the manner and the way he terrorized people, using the press. In a time before the internet and social media, he became sort of the first viral media sensation. He threatened children, he taunted the police directly, he called out certain members of the media by name. He wasn’t just out there to kill — he was out there for attention, and out there to create fear. You can argue that his actual body count is pretty low for a serial killer, but his effect on the world and on the true-crime space is exponentially greater because of [how] he did it.
Davidson: Everyone seems to have their own theory [about the identity of the Zodiac Killer] and embrace it. When you go through these [message] boards, this is something that people are very passionate about. And I think because it’s an unsolved case after all these years — no one can figure it out — that it’s been intriguing for people. There’s so many people out there who feel like, “You know what? I could solve this. I’m going to do everything I can to figure it out. I’m smarter than everyone else.”
Also, the story has been so sensationalized over the years. You look at a lot of the documentary films on the Zodiac, most of them are very, very sensational. And that starts to seep in. That’s one of the things that I didn’t [want] to do with this, which was over-sensationalize — if anything, [I wanted to] have a commentary on the sensationalism. But [the mystery] continues to intrigue people — and I don’t know if that’s going to stop any time soon, because it’s unlikely that the case will ever be solved.
What’s fascinating is how handwriting and fingerprints are shot down as conclusive pieces of evidence — they’re hardly airtight. That surprised me.
Dinerstein: I’ve done a couple things in the true-crime space, and I’ve learned a ton about junk science. I mean, hair evidence is used to convict and sentence people to death, and it’s absolute garbage. But the biggest surprise for me was handwriting. I thought handwriting was as unique as DNA and fingerprints, because I, personally, have interesting handwriting. So I was very surprised to hear the one [handwriting] expert explain how the other handwriting expert wasn’t following the guidelines that are created to prevent [mistakes] like this from happening.
Davidson: It was most surprising to me — because I knew enough about the Zodiac case, but I certainly wasn’t an expert by any means — to really find out just how badly the case was botched during the time of the investigation, how none of the different jurisdictions in the Bay Area were communicating with each other. This was largely botched due to ego and cops trying to outdo each other — everyone tried to be the one that’s going to solve this thing. I mean, the detectives were taking the Zodiac letters to their kids’ schools for show-and-tell: “Here’s the Zodiac letter!” Like, you’re contaminating this evidence. It was so thoroughly botched that, for me, it was an intriguing thing to look into how that could’ve happened.
The film doesn’t really touch on this, but I was curious how Stewart’s obsession with his biological father being the Zodiac Killer might have informed him being a father himself.
Dinerstein: I mean, he had an amazing adopted family, and his adopted father, Lloyd, really encouraged him to go on this investigation and to write the book. And I think he really had a turning point in his life when his [own] son was born, and then his grandson, and then recently, he’s got a new grandson.
Having spoken to Gary sort of off-camera, as a friend, hearing him talk about his family — from his adopted family to his biological family — he truly loves them and gets emotional every time he speaks about it. And I do think it’s a result of his upbringing — not meaning that it was bad, but meaning him always wanting answers. Not finding out who your biological mother is until you’re close to 39 years old, it just had such a traumatic effect on him. And then never being able to meet his father and telling his father to his face, “I did great. I didn’t need you. Thanks, but no thanks.”
Davidson: I don’t know if we could fully comment on how good of a dad he is, because we’re not spending every day in-and-out with him. I certainly don’t feel like he’s a bad dad — I think, actually, quite the opposite. He seems like he really cares about his family, and he’s been genuinely concerned about what this [film] is going to mean for his son, which seems to be part of the reason why he may have taken him to Mexico City to see his father’s grave with him, just so he could try to put this behind him.
[Stewart] has certainly given every indication that he wants to just have a normal life. And I don’t know — hopefully, through all this, maybe it will help him in the long run. It’s hard to know, but he seems to have a very strong family unit. It’s hard to imagine that someone with such a strong family unit would still be so inclined to spend so many years looking into something like this. I think a lot of people would just be like, “You know what? I have something great here. Let’s just not mess with it.”
After seeing the film, I have an enormous amount of sympathy for him — he simply can’t let this belief go. It seems pretty obvious to me that you two feel the same.
Davidson: I certainly have compassion for Gary. It’s hard to present someone with counter-evidence to the stuff that they truly believe. It’s very hard to put yourself in his shoes. I do think he means well. Through all this, we set out to tell the truth. We never set out to ever hurt him, and I do feel like some of the comments that we’ve received thus far [about the film] is that there’s compassion there. I’ve been personally happy that people have picked up on that, because it’s a sad story — not just for Gary, but what happened with his mother Jude.
To me, the film is talking a lot about the danger of denial — the danger of the utter assurance of your own worldview.
Dinerstein: I mean, honestly, my heart kind of breaks for Gary when you say that, because his refusal to accept it and refusal to really look at the facts and just move on is what upsets me. He’s accomplished a lot in his life, professionally and personally, and I think this is sort of an albatross around his neck — the fact that he won’t just move on, regardless if it’s true or not, and just let it go.
That’s what I hope for him — that he’s able to get on with his life and stop thinking about his biological father, who he never met. Because he arguably did him a favor by abandoning him.