The murder of Cheri Jo Bates remains one of the most controversial chapters in the history of the Zodiac mystery. Bates was murdered near the Riverside City College library on the night of October 30, 1966. One month later, someone mailed an envelope to the Riverside Press-Enterprise newspaper which contained a letter titled “The Confession.” The writer described the murder and claimed responsibility for the crime. Police believed that the killer was the author of the confession letter. Six months after the murder, three virtually identical handwritten letters were sent to the newspaper, Riverside police and the father of Cheri Jo Bates. The text read, “Bates had to die. There will be more.” (The letter to Mr. Bates began, “She had to die…”) Each of these letters featured a small symbol at the bottom of the page which appeared similar to the letter “Z.”
In October 1969, the Zodiac crimes were widely reported in the news and eventually the Riverside Police Department noted similarities to the unsolved Bates case. Chief Thomas Kinkead contacted Special Agent Mel Nicolai at the California Department of Justice, who assisted the various law enforcement agencies involved in the Zodiac investigation. Kinkead shared the details regarding the Bates murder and Nicolai directed the chief to the Napa County Sheriff’s Office. Kinkead spoke to Sheriff Earl Randoll by telephone on October 17, 1969. Kinkead then sent a letter which provided the basic facts regarding the Bates murder and the written communications from someone who claimed to be the killer. Kinkead’s letter read in part:
“There are numerous similarities in your homicide and our Inv. 352-481. I thought you should be aware that we are working a similar type homicide investigation. If you are able to determine by handwriting comparison or by any other means that your homicide suspect is the same as ours, please advice. I will notify you of the results in comparing your latent lifts with ours as soon as I hear from the FBI. I hope this information may aid in your investigation. Please be assured of our complete cooperation in all matters of mutual interest.”
Fingerprints related to the Bates case were compared to the fingerprints related to the Zodiac investigation but no match was found. However, the prints in both cases did not represent every part of every finger on both hands so the possibility existed that the prints could not be matched at all. Despite the apparent lack of a connection between the fingerprint evidence, the various law enforcement agencies strongly believed that the Zodiac may have killed Bates. Questioned Document Examiner Sherwood Morrill concluded that the Zodiac was responsible for writings attributed to the Bates killer as well as a morbid poem etched into a desk discovered in the Riverside City College library. Morrill’s conclusion would be supported and challenged by other experts in later years, but many people believed that the Zodiac was the most likely suspect in the Bates murder.
THE RIVERSIDE CONNECTION
In November 1970, the San Francisco Chronicle published a story by reporter Paul Avery which revealed the possible connection between the Zodiac killer and the Bates murder. The so-called “Riverside connection” was widely reported and, although some members of the RPD expressed skepticism or doubt about the connection, the department’s communications with the FBI and other agencies indicated an interest in this theory. In later years, Riverside authorities abandoned the suspected connection between the Bates murder and the Zodiac crimes in favor of the theory that Bates was killed by someone she had known. The department dedicated its time and resources to this theory and denied that their case was connected to the Zodiac. On May 20, 1982, the Riverside Police Department issued a press release which read in part:
In November of 1981, new information came to light which resulted in the assignment of four investigators to work full time on this case. These investigators recontacted numerous persons who were either known the victim or were known to associate with an individual we believe responsible for this crime. Current past known associates have been interviewed in depth. All of the physical evidence related to this crime has been re-evaluated and some instances forensically examined… The alleged connection with the “Zodiac” by certain media and inquisitive individuals was anticipated when a decision was made to release this information. The showing of very old composites and the review of previously examined cryptic writings by some of the media, have resulted in considerable interest by the rest of the media whose knowledge of the “Zodiac” is based on out-dated information linking this investigation with those referred to as “Zodiac” cases. Speculation and creative reporting of this kind could conceivably hamper successful prosecution. The person we believe responsible for the slaying of Cheri Jo Bates is not the individual other law enforcement authorities believe responsible for the so called “Zodiac” killings.
The Riverside Police Department blamed “the media” and “inquisitive individuals” for the notion of a connection between the Zodiac killer and the Bates murder. The RPD press release did not mention the fact that the department had previously informed the Department of Justice, the FBI and other agencies that the RPD believed there could be a connection between the Zodiac killer and the Bates murder. In fact, no one had suggested such a connection existed until the Riverside Police Department contacted the Department of Justice in 1969. The DOJ then issued a report, based in part on the information provided by the RPD, which included the Bates murder as a possible Zodiac crime.
In 1999, Riverside police hoped to solve the Bates murder and end speculation of a possible Zodiac connection. Investigators obtained samples from their suspect for DNA comparisons with evidence found at the scene of the crime. Riverside police sent requests to the FBI and the Department of Justice for assistance. These documents revealed the results of forensic tests.
DOJ / FBI – Submission by Riverside Police Department – 4-1-99
Victim murdered at City College, died of multiple stab wounds to neck. Possible forged letter by Zodiac claiming responsibility for homicide. Suspect hair removed from victim’s hand at autopsy. DNA extracted from hair. Whole blood sample taken from suspect.
The document also specified the evidence as “mitochondrial” DNA discovered in the “Hair from blood clot found at base of Cheri Jo Bates’ right thumb.” Samples taken from the suspect were then compared with this evidence and the results were reported in a subsequent FBI document dated June 21, 1999.
The four (4) brown Caucasian head hair fragments found in specimen Q1 are microscopically dissimilar to hairs in the submitted known head hair sample (K3). Accordingly, these hairs could not be associated to CHERI JO BATES, the identified source of the K3 hairs. These hairs have been preserved on a glass microscope slide for possible future comparisons. No hairs microscopically dissimilar to hairs in the submitted known head hair sample from the victim (K3) were found on the Q4 glass microscope slide. No other hair and fiber examinations were conducted.
Further information was reported by the Bureau on March 13, 2000:
Results of examinations: A mitochondrial DNA (mt DNA) sequence was obtained from the Q1.1 hair from the blood clot at the base of CHERI JO BATES’ right thumb and the K1 blood sample from [REDACTED] (positions 73-340). The mtDNA sequence obtained from specimen Q1.1 is different from the mtDNA sequence obtained from specimen K1. Therefore, [name REDACTED] can be eliminated as the source of the Q1.1 hair. There was insufficient mtDNA present for a mtDNA sequence to be obtained from K3.1 and K3.2 head hairs from CHERI JO BATES. No other mtDNA examinations were conducted.
Riverside investigators had hoped that the DNA comparison would finally link the suspect to the Bates murder, but the results proved that the suspect was “eliminated as the source” of the hair found in the hand of the victim. Some sources had claimed that other damning evidence had implicated the RPD suspect in the murder of Cheri Jo Bates. All of the so-called “evidence” consisted of stories told by individuals who did not report this seemingly-important information to authorities at the time of the original investigation. According to some sources, these witnesses also submitted to polygraph examinations and the results were either inconclusive or indicated some degree of deception. The lack of credible and substantial evidence implicating the suspect in the crime seemed even more troubling after the DNA a comparison had excluded the suspect. The exclusionary evidence was obtained from the hairs found on the victim’s hand, a strong indication that the hair belonged to the killer. This hair was not similar to the hair of the RPD suspect and the DNA testing proved that the hair did not belong to him. Common sense, logic, the facts and the evidence indicated that the RPD suspect did not kill Cheri Jo Bates and, instead, pointed to other potential suspects and an alternate theory of the crime.
THE REST OF THE STORY
I made my first trip to Riverside in January, 1999, before the RPD conducted the DNA comparisons. I contacted Steve Shumway, the detective then in charge of the case, and stated the purpose of my inquiry. Shumway replied, “Is this the same Michael Butterfield who wrote this article I have in front of me?” He then said, (paraphrase), “You’re taking some pretty tough shots at us here.” I did my best to explain my position on the issues but the detective was clearly not interested in discussing any possible link between the Zodiac and the Bates murder.
At the time, rumors had circulated that the department was developing a strong case against their favored suspect, a man identified on the Internet by the name of “Bob Barnett,” who was first identified as a suspect in 1968. According to the police version of events, Barnett had dated Bates in the weeks before her death. Barnett himself denied that he had ever dated Bates at all. Police sources claimed that Barnett had fought with the victim in public and even slapped Bates across the face in front of witnesses. Further, on the night of the murder, Barnett purportedly told others, “That bitch is going to the library.” Bates was killed near the Riverside City College library on the same night.
According to some sources, unidentified witnesses allegedly told police that Barnett had confessed to killing Bates, and, one witness allegedly claimed that he had visited the crime scene with Barnett on the night of the murder. Other rumors linked Barnett to a watch which was similar to the one found at the crime scene and the military boot prints found near the victim’s body. Despite this seemingly damning evidence against Barnett, police never filed charges against Barnett, and the reason may have been simple– the evidence and witnesses were questionable, at best.
During our conversation, Detective Shumway claimed that Cheri Jo Bates was the victim of a “rage-killing” and had been killed by someone she had known. To support that theory of the crime, Shumway claimed that Bates had been stabbed as many as forty-two times. This scenario was disturbing, for a variety of reasons. If the detective’s claim was true, the RPD had managed to withhold those details over decades. The savagery and overkill attributed to the Bates killer was not compatible with the Zodiac crimes. The Zodiac did not engage in acts of overkill or torture and his behavior indicated that he did not inflict wounds in order to satisfy a sadistic appetite. That fact would suggest that the Zodiac was not responsible for the Bates murder but the RPD never mentioned this during the many years spent denying any connection existed. If Bates had been stabbed over forty times, that fact did not necessarily indicate that she had known the killer– many killers have inflicted such violence on victims they did not know prior to the moment of the attack.
After my trip to Riverside, the report detailing the autopsy of Cheri Jo Bates surfaced on the Internet. The report clearly refuted the scenario that Bates had been stabbed as many as forty-two times. The report indicated that the actual number of stab wounds was far less than forty-two, and, despite the violence unleashed on the victim, the notion that the murder was an act of personal rage by someone who had known Bates was not supported by the facts. The theory endorsed by the Riverside police no longer seemed plausible. In fact, the autopsy report did more to support the version of the crime as described in the anonymous “confession” letter.
In its communications to the Department of Justice and the FBI in 1999, the Riverside Police Department referred to a “possible forged letter by Zodiac claiming responsibility for homicide.” The wording appears to make a clear distinction between a Zodiac “hoax” letter and a letter written by the Zodiac. The word “forged” indicates that the RPD believed that the Zodiac had written the “confession” letter and other writings to claim responsibility for a crime he did not commit. In this RPD scenario, Barnett had killed Bates but the Zodiac wrote to declare that he had done so. Ironically, the author of the confession wrote that Bates had dismissed him for “years,” thereby implicating someone who had known Bates just as the RPD later believed.
In its 1982 press release, the RPD complained that the media and other “inquisitive individuals” had incorrectly linked the Zodiac to the investigation of the Bates murder. According to the RPD, those who claimed a connection existed between the two cases had based their conclusions on “out-dated information”. However, the wording of the 1999 FBI/DOJ document indicates that the RPD believed the Zodiac was responsible for the “confession” letter and other “cryptic writings” associated with the Bates case. If correct, that conclusion clearly demonstrated a substantial link between the Zodiac and the Bates case, even if the Zodiac did not kill Bates. In 1966, the RPD concluded that the author of the “confession” letter possessed knowledge of the Bates murder which was known only to the killer. In 1999, the RPD appeared to concede that the Zodiac may have written the “confession.” Even if the Zodiac did not kill Bates, his interest in the case and his apparent access to sufficient information needed to “forge” a convincing “confession” would undoubtedly be of interest to anyone investigating either of the two cases. If the Zodiac did send the Riverside writings, forensic testing of those documents could produce evidence which could identify the Zodiac. The fact that one of the most notorious serial killers in modern American history apparently began his career by mailing letters claiming responsibility for the Bates murder would strongly suggest that a thorough investigation would explore the potential connections between the Bates murder and the Zodiac killer.
SIGNS OF THE ZODIAC
At the time of the original Zodiac investigation, Special Agent Nicolai prepared a report for the Department of Justice which included information about the crimes linked to the Zodiac. The Bates case was cited along with the other four known attacks in the San Francisco Bay Area. The DOJ report referred to the writings related to the Bates murder.
“Suspect mailed typewritten confession letter from Riverside to the Police Department and Riverside Enterprise newspaper on November 29th, 1966, claiming to the perpetrator of the crime. Three additional handprinted letters were mailed in Riverside by the suspect on April 30th, 1967, again claiming the Bates homicide and indicating there would be more.”
After the Bates murder, Riverside police, the local newspaper and Bates’ father received three virtually identical handwritten letters in April 1967. The Zodiac’s first written attempt to communicate consisted of three virtually identical handwritten letters mailed in July, 1969. The author of the Riverside “Confession” wrote, “SHE SQUIRMED AND SHOOK AS I CHOAKED HER, AND HER LIPS TWICHED.” In his letter of July 26, 1970, the Zodiac wrote: “Some I shall tie over ant hills and watch them scream + twich and squirm.” Theories regarding a possible link between the Zodiac and Bates crimes did not appear in news reports until three month after the Zodiac had misspelled the same word in the same manner as the author of the “Confession.”
Similarities in handwriting also indicated that one person may have been responsible for the Riverside writings and the Zodiac communications. Questioned Document Examiner John Shimoda contradicted Sherwood Morrill’s opinion and concluded that the Zodiac was not responsible for the Riverside writings. This was not the first time that Shimoda and Morrill would reach conflicting conclusions. Morrill believed that the suspected “Zodiac” forgery sent in 1978 was an authentic Zodiac communication. Other experts disagreed with Morrill’s opinion and concluded that the letter was a forgery. Shimoda was one of the few experts to also conclude that the 1978 was authentic, but he later reversed his opinion and concluded that the Zodiac was not responsible for the 1978 letter. Adding to the confusion, an FBI expert also concluded that the same person was most likely responsible for the Bates and Zodiac writings.
In his letter to Napa investigators, RPD Chief Kinkead wrote: “The person who wrote the confession is aware of facts about the homicide that only the killer would know. There is no doubt that the person who wrote the confession letter is our homicide suspect.” The letter was clear: the RPD had “no doubt” that the killer wrote the confession. The facts known only to the killer purportedly included the references in the confession to the tampering of the victim’s car. Some skeptics have argued that these details were available in newspaper accounts published after the murder and that some unknown individual used that information in a morbid hoax. However, this argument assumed that someone had taken the time to carefully craft a clever and detailed hoax when the simplest explanation was that the “confession” was written by the killer.
Some skeptics speculated that the “Confession” may have been written by the someone who wished to deflect suspicion from an individual who had known the victim. However, the author of the “Confession” clearly stated that the murder was his way of “MAKING HER PAY FOR THE BRUSH OFFS THAT SHE HAD GIVEN ME DURING THE YEARS PRIOR.” Rather than lead authorities to a stranger, the author directed them straight to a rejected suitor, a jilted lover, an angry acquaintance or even an obsessive friend who had known the victim for “years.” A suspect who wished to re-direct the investigation would logically attempt to implicate a stranger rather than those who knew the victim. Investigators who believed that Bates knew the killer would undoubtedly investigate those who had known Bates, including the author of the confession. A stranger who wished to mis-direct the investigation would implicate someone who had known the victim, knowing full well that the investigators would never be on the right track as long as they searched for a connection between the victim and the killer.
If Bates was not killed by someone she had known, then the Zodiac, or someone very much like him, remained the most likely suspect. Handwritings experts concluded that the Zodiac was responsible for the Riverside writings, but logic also pointed to the Zodiac for other reasons. The attention to anniversaries was consistent in both the Riverside writings and the Zodiac communications. The confession letter was sent approximately one month after the murder of Cheri Jo Bates. The three other letters were mailed approximately six months after the crime. The Zodiac mailed a letter on the one year anniversary of the murders on Lake Herman Road. The Riverside writer sent three handwritten letters at the same time and so did the Zodiac. Print impressions of a military-style boot were found at the scene of the Bates murder, and military-style boot prints were also found at the scene of the Zodiac attack at Lake Berryessa. The person who killed Bates tampered with her car. The Zodiac claimed he was responsible for the abduction of Kathleen Johns, and the suspect in that crime had also tampered with the victim’s car. The person who killed Bates had apparently used a ruse and/or lie to lure the victim. The Zodiac had used a ruse in the Berryessa attack and the murder of the cab driver. The person who abducted Johns had also used a ruse. The author of the confession letter claimed that he had placed a telephone call to authorities. The Zodiac called local police after two of his attacks. The author of the confession letter mailed his communications to both the police and a local newspaper. The Zodiac contacted police by phone and sent letters to newspapers. The first Riverside communication, the confession letter, included a puzzle for a byline, “By _________________,” as if readers were supposed to fill in the blanks with the identity of the author. The Zodiac’s first communications included a puzzle in the form of a coded message which purportedly contained the identity of the author. Both writers warned of future attacks and expressed a desire to see their writings published.
PAST AS PROLOGUE
History has repeatedly demonstrated that many infamous killers have been linked to earlier crimes. Robert Yates was convicted of murdering several women in Spokane, Washington, but he had also killed a young couple many years earlier. Arthur Shawcross murdered many women near Rochester, New York, but he had also killed a young boy many years earlier. Dennis Rader murdered two children and their parents years before he sexually assaulted and killed several women as the “BTK” strangler. Authorities had developed their own suspects in the family slayings but a letter from “BTK” claimed responsibility for the crime. Investigators initially dismissed and resisted the possibility that the “BTK” strangler was responsible for killing the family but eventually acknowledged the connection between the two cases. The murder of another suspected BTK victim was initially linked to the killer but expert profilers were certain that he was not responsible for that crime. Years later, BTK sent an envelope which contained photographs he had taken while killing the same victim.
On March 13, 1971, the Zodiac sent a letter to The Los Angeles Times which referred to the Bates murder: “I do have to give them credit for stumbling across my riverside activity, but they are only finding the easy ones, there are a hell of a lot more down there.” The use of the word “easy” implied that the Zodiac believed his connection to the Bates murder and related writings was obvious. The handwriting similarities led some experts to conclude that the Zodiac was responsible for the Riverside writings, and, Riverside police seemed to confirm this conclusion when referring to the same material as a “possible forged letter by Zodiac“. For whatever reason, the Zodiac chose to confirm his connection to the Bates murder. Some skeptics choose to dismiss the Zodiac/Bates connection as the dishonest boast of an egomaniacal serial killer eager to take credit for crimes he did not commit while exaggerating his body count. The alternative scenario dictates that the Zodiac was telling the truth.
At the time of the Zodiac crimes, news reports linked the killer to the murders of two young girls but the Zodiac did not claim credit for that crime. Media stories also linked the Zodiac to the murder of a San Francisco police officer but the Zodiac did not claim credit for that killing. In fact, the Zodiac only communicated to confirm his connection to two crimes linked to him by the media– the Bates and Johns cases. A killer who wanted to exaggerate the number of his victims could easily achieve that goal by taking advantage of the many opportunities provided by media speculation.
The Zodiac was linked to many murders but he only claimed credit for six specific crimes:
1) the murder of Cheri Jo Bates in Riverside, CA: 10/30/66
2) the murders of Betty Lou Jensen & David Faraday near Benicia, CA: 12/20/68
3) the murder of Darlene Ferrin & wounding of Michael Mageau in Vallejo, CA: 7/4/69
4) the murder of Cecelia Shepard & wounding of Bryan Hartnell at Lake Berryessa, CA: 9/27/69
5) the murder of Paul Stine in San Francisco, CA: 10/11/69
6) the alleged abduction of Kathleen Johns near Patterson, CA: 3/22/70
A killer who wished to falsely inflate his body count also risked being discredited if he claimed responsibility for a crime he did not commit and then that case was subsequently solved. Media reports suggested that the Zodiac was responsible for the murder of two young girls but police arrested another suspect in that case. More media speculation linked the Zodiac to the murder of a police officer but authorities identified another suspect in that case. In fact, the Zodiac claimed that he was responsible for six specific crimes and all six of those crimes remain unsolved. If he did lie about his connection to those six crimes, the Zodiac had remarkable luck when selecting those crimes for which he would falsely claim credit. The Zodiac claimed responsibility for those six specific crimes and those six crimes remain unsolved. That fact, when weighed with the other evidence, serves as good reason to believe that the Zodiac may have been responsible for those crimes.
Over the years, the RPD strongly denied any connection between the Bates murder and the Zodiac killer. The RPD was always in a difficult position: If the Zodiac was responsible for the Bates murder, then the failure to solve that case left the killer free to commit the subsequent Zodiac crimes. If the Zodiac did not kill Bates, then the RPD had seemingly wasted time and resources on the continued pursuit of that theory during the earlier years of the investigation. The Riverside Police Department complained about the “speculation and creative reporting” which linked the Zodiac and Bates cases but ignored the obvious and undeniable irony. The Riverside Police Department first suggested that a connection existed between the Bates murder and the Zodiac crimes, and, ironically, the department then spent years running from its creation.
The murder of Cheri Jo Bates remains unsolved. Unless the RPD is withholding other evidence which proves that there is no connection between the Bates murder and the Zodiac crimes, the evidence indicates that the Zodiac may be the most logical suspect. The Zodiac claimed that he was responsible for the Bates murder as well as five other events– the murders on Lake Herman Road, the shootings at Blue Rock Springs Park, the stabbings at Lake Berryessa, the killing of a cab driver in San Francisco and the abduction of Kathleen Johns. Like the Bates case, all of these crimes remain unsolved, and the Zodiac remains the only logical suspect.
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