Forty-one years ago today, Vallejo residents awoke to the news of a late-night shooting at Blue Rock Springs Park.
In the decades since, this tragedy has become the grassy knoll of the Zodiac caseâ€“ the focal point for every bizarre theory, absurd claim, persistent myth, and tall tale. Unlike the murders on Lake Herman Road, the attack at Lake Berryessa, and the killing of cabdriver Paul Stine, the true story surrounding the shootings at Blue Rock Springs Park has been forgotten in a haze of revisionist history.
Darlene Ferrin was twenty-two years old, a wife, a young mother who worked for a living and enjoyed life. Her husband Dean described his wife as vivacious and popular. â€œShe was well liked… She was just outward, outgoing, and happy.â€ On the night of July 4th, 1969, Darlene had gone out to get fireworks to celebrate Independence Day when Dean returned home from work.
Police briefly interviewed Darleneâ€™s friend, survivor Michael Mageau, on the night of the shooting and then again as he recovered in the hospital. Mageau also spoke with a reporter in mid-August 1969. His account was consistent and in keeping with the known facts. He said that Darlene had called him at 4:00 pm on Friday afternoon, and the two made plans to see a movie in San Francisco later that evening. Darlene called again around 8:00 pm to say that she was going to the Miss Firecracker contest with her sister and would call him afterwards. At 10:30 pm, she called again to say that she would soon be at Michaelâ€™s home, but she did not arrive until approximately 11:30 pm or shortly thereafter. Michael climbed into Darleneâ€™s Corvair and the pair decided to drive to Mr. Edâ€™s diner for some food. As they headed west on Springs Road, Darlene told Michael that she wanted to talk to him about something. Once they were near the diner, Michael suggested that they drive to Blue Rock Springs Park to talk. Darlene drove directly to the park and pulled the Corvair into the parking lot.
Darlene turned off the ignition and the headlights, but left the radio playing. A few minutes passed, and then three vehicles entered the parking lot. The occupants of the vehicles were laughing and celebrating by setting off firecrackers. Minutes later, the three vehicles drove away. Soon, another car approached from the direction of Springs Road, entered the parking lot, and stopped behind Darleneâ€™s car. The driver turned off the headlights of the vehicle, then pulled around the left side of the Corvair, and waited. Michael asked Darlene, â€œDo you know who that is?â€ Mageau said that Darlene dismissed the strange vehicle as harmless and replied, â€œOh, never mind.â€
Michael was unable to get a good look at the mysterious car, and could only say that the vehicle was similar to Darleneâ€™s Corvair. Only one person appeared to be inside the car. Suddenly, the car drove out of the lot and sped away on Columbus Parkway towards Springs Road. Five minutes passed and a car pulled into the parking lot. This time, the driver stopped the car approximately ten feet behind and to the right of the Corvair. The headlights of the vehicle remained on as the driver stepped out and walked towards the Corvair carrying a large, high-powered flashlight. When the man walked up to passenger side of the Corvair and shined the bright light inside, Darlene and Michael assumed he was a police officer who wanted to see their identification.
Michael reached for his wallet, but, as he did so, he heard a muffled sound and instantly experienced severe pain in his back and neck. The sounds continued and as he again felt pain in his body, Michael realized that the man was shooting at him. In an attempt to escape the shower of bullets, Michael threw himself backward into the rear of the Corvair. A bullet hit his leg as he fell onto the backseat. The gunman then turned on Darlene and shot her several times as she sat helpless behind the steering wheel.
The shooting then stopped, and the man walked back to his vehicle. In pain and shock, Michael cried out. The stranger then walked back to the Corvair and again opened fire, hitting Michael in the back and the leg, Darlene was shot two more times before the stranger casually walked away. As the stranger climbed back into his car, Michael reached outside the Corvair, pulled the door handle and fell out onto the ground. The gunmanâ€™s car backed up and then proceeded forward onto the Columbus Parkway. Michael caught a glimpse of the car, and could only say the man may have been driving a light colored car with a California state license plate. The mysterious car once again sped off in the direction of Springs Road.
The Zodiac claimed that he was responsible for the shooting at Blue Rock Springs Park and the bizarre phone call to police on the night of the crime. Later rumors suggested that the killer had also placed several hang-up calls to members of Darleneâ€™s family shortly after the shooting, but Darleneâ€™s brother Leo reportedly admitted that he made these calls in his efforts to locate Darlene that night.
Detective Ed Rust interviewed Michael Mageau as he recovered in the hospital. His report read:
(Reporting Officer) questioned Michael as to a possible motive, if he had had any arguments or trouble, etc. with anyone recently, or if there was any reason at all that anyone would want to harm him. He stated he could not recall anything at all, having any arguments or anything to give anyone reason to do anything like this. Also states that Darlene did not say anything about any trouble that she has had. States they have always been very truthful with each other and confided very closely in each other’s problems and he is sure if she had known about someone after her or had a hate for her enough to do something like this, she would have said something about it. States as far as he knows, the only type of trouble that Dea has had was sometimes her friends got mad at her. There [were] sometimes petty jealousies between her and her friends. Sometimes some possibly boyfriends, not exactly dating type boyfriends, but friends, just acquaintances, would become jealous over just petty things.
Darleneâ€™s friends, the members of her family, her co-workers and others were interviewed, but no one provided any information which indicated that anyone had any reason to harm either Darlene or Michael Mageau. Darleneâ€™s sister Pam was unable to name any viable suspects and she knew of no reason for anyone to harm Darlene. Darleneâ€™s sister Linda was also unable to identify or recall anyone with reason to harm Darlene, but she did provide the names of three of her sisterâ€™s best friends, including a man named Lee who used to bring her presents from Mexico. Police identified only one man said to have bothered Darlene. George was a frequent customer in the restaurant where Darlene worked and he apparently made unwanted advances toward her on several occasions. Investigators interviewed George and saw no reason to suspect that he had killed Darlene. Even Darleneâ€™s ex-husband became a suspect after her family told several stories which appeared to implicate the man. Police eventually excluded the ex-husband as a suspect.
This turn of events marked the beginning of a pattern, a cloud which would follow the case for decades to come. The murder of Darlene Ferrin remained unsolved, and speculation grew regarding the possible motives behind the crime and those involved. Despite the evidence which indicated that Darlene and Michael had been the victims of a random attack, some people preferred to believe that she was the deliberate target of an orchestrated conspiracy to silence her for unknown reasons.
Darleneâ€™s mother spoke with Christopher Harris, the West Coast Representative of the famous psychic Joseph Delouise. According to Harris, the woman claimed that Darlene had said that she would be in the newspapers the day after she was killed. Harris and Vallejo Mayor Florence Douglas appeared at a press conference at the Statler Hilton Hotel in Los Angeles. Douglas was a candidate struggling to win the Democratic nomination in the Governorâ€™s race against incumbent Ronald Reagan. â€œI believe some clues were overlooked in the murder of Darlene Ferrin,â€ Douglas told reporters. She denounced the Vallejo police investigation and called for a new examination of the case. Harris complained that police were unwilling to listen to the new claims from Darleneâ€™s family. â€œI observed while in Vallejo that the police disregarded the ridiculous,â€ he said. â€œI am now a firm believer that in the ridiculous, especially in the case of Darlene Ferrin, lies a storehouse of clues. The police should have done a complete character sketch of Darlene Ferrin. There are too many questions into her death that have not been properly tied down.â€
Police had investigated virtually every single scrap of information they had received, including tips and stories from Darleneâ€™s family, yet no one had mentioned the new claims when they had been interviewed many times before. Some members of Darleneâ€™s family began to tell strange stories which indicated that Darlene may have known the killer and had witnesses a murder. These stories circulated and evolved over time to include stories of a mysterious yet unidentified stranger who had stalked Darlene in the weeks and months before her death. By the mid-1970s, Darleneâ€™s sisters, Pam and Linda, were telling a very different story, one that became the popular myth which still dominates the public perception of this case today.
According to Pam, Darlene warned that she had witnessed a murder and that the murderer had been following her. Pam suspected that Darlene may have been involved in a satanic cult. Both Pam and Linda claimed they had attended a painting party in Darleneâ€™s home, and that they had seen an unidentified man who arrived wearing a suit. Darlene was reportedly afraid of this man and warned Pam to stay away from him because, â€œShe said he was a bad man… Sheâ€™d seen him kill somebody.â€ Soon, others said that they had been at the party, too, including Vallejo police officer Steve Baldino, who also claimed that he had heard a recording of the Zodiacâ€™s phone to call police on the night Darlene was killed. The story of the painting party expanded over time and eventually became a key component of many theories. When asked about this party, Dean Ferrin said no such party had ever taken place in his home and that he had painted the entire house by himself. Former Vallejo police dispatcher Nancy Slover spoke to the Zodiac on the night of the shooting and adamantly denied that any recording of the call had ever been made. According to Slover, the police department did not possess recording equipment in July 1969.
Neither Pam nor Linda ever mentioned any of these stories, or the mysterious and murderous stranger, when interviewed by police, and authorities quickly determined that Darleneâ€™s sisters were not reliable or credible witnesses. A report written by VPD Detective Jack Mulanax, dated August 18, 1969, stated that Darleneâ€™s sister Pam appeared to be â€œinfluencedâ€ by the â€œpower of suggestion.â€ Many other investigators would later describe Pam as an attention seeker prone to prevarication. Dean Ferrin refuted all of Pamâ€™s stories, as have many others, including Deanâ€™s cousin, Sue Ayers. For many years, Pam told people that Sue Ayers had visited Michael Mageau as he recovered in the hospital and that he confessed that he and Darlene were followed to the scene of the crime and the killer called Darlene by name just before the shooting began. This story also evolved over time to include an argument at Darleneâ€™s place of work that night and another argument with the killer at Blue Rock Springs Park. In March 2007, I spoke with Sue Ayers and she refuted the entire story told by Pam.
Pam and Linda also offered conflicting descriptions and information concerning the unidentified stalker they claimed to have seen on several occasions. Despite the fact that she had originally described the man named â€œLeeâ€ as one of Darleneâ€™s friends, she later suggested that he could have been the stalker. Robert Graysmith used Lindaâ€™s original statements about Darleneâ€™s friend Lee to connect the victim with his suspect Arthur Leigh Allen. Graysmith would later claimed that Leigh had known Darlene and all of the other Zodiac victims. Graysmith then used the stories about the chase to Blue Rock Springs Park, the stalker, the story of the painting party, Baldinoâ€™s claim of a Zodiac recording, and many more myths in his best-selling book ZODIAC, which later inspired the feature film of the same name.
Pam told various reporters that she was also the subject of harassment and stalking by one or more men. She claimed that someone had left a message on her home indicating the police code for murder, that someone had left a burning cross on her front lawn and a coffin at her front door. She also claimed that someone had written â€œPam Diesâ€ on the walls inside her house and even knocked her unconscious in order to steal a collection of documents she was about to give to television producers. Pam appeared on The Sally Jessy Raphael Show and claimed that Darlene had known Zodiac victim Betty Lou Jensen and had possibly witnessed her death and even the murder of suspected Zodiac victim Cheri Jo Bates. Pam also appeared on the Geraldo Rivera tabloid television program NOW IT CAN BE TOLD in segments which were produced by satanic conspiracy theorist Maury Terry. Pam confronted a bewildered Mageau, who said his memory had faded over time. Pam persisted, pointing her finger in Mageauâ€™s face and repeating, â€œI know you know who did it!â€ The show linked Darleneâ€™s murder to cult activity as part of the theory that she had been the deliberate target of an orchestrated conspiracy to silence her before she revealed some shocking and terrible truth about the crimes she had witnessed. Pam also told her stories during interviews for other television tabloid shows such as HARD COPY and A CURRENT AFFAIR.
The stories regarding the life and death of Darlene Ferrin invaded virtually every news report about the case and inspired more stories and theories about the stalker, satanic cults, the painting party, and other unstoppable myths. Linda later identified suspect Larry Kane as the mysterious stranger and Pam implicated various people over the years. The legends spread and the sensational spotlight attracted others who were eager to create more confusion and myths. Don Cheney, the man who had originally accused Arthur Leigh Allen, claimed that Allenâ€™s brother and sister-in-law had been at the painting party with the suspect, and that Allen had worn a suit. Blaine Blaine, the man who originally accused Richard Gaikowski, claimed that his suspect had been arrested after an altercation with Darlene. Deborah Perez claimed that her father was the Zodiac and had known Darlene. Connecting Darlene Ferrin to a suspect was standard practice for any budding Zodiac theorist or opportunist.
In 1991, retired Vallejo police detective George Bawart met with Mageau and displayed an array of six suspect photographs. According to Vallejo police Lt. (and later Capt.) Joann West, Mageau initially pointed to a photograph of suspect Arthur Leigh Allen and said, â€œThatâ€™s him.â€ However, when asked if he was sure, Mageau then said that he was â€œpretty sureâ€ and then pointed to the photograph of a different suspect and said that the shooter had a round face like that individual rather than Allen. Mageau then said Allen was the man who had shot him and assessed his own level at certainty on a scale of 1 to 10 as an 8. Allen did not match the original description of the shooter as provided by Mageau in the hours, days and weeks after the shooting in 1969.
Mageau was interviewed for the documentaries which accompanied the DVD release of the feature film ZODIAC, based on the books by Robert Graysmith. Michael Mageau told a story which contradicted his previous accounts yet was now in keeping in with the popular myths rather than the facts. According to Mageauâ€™s new version, he and Darlene were followed to Blue Rock Springs Park, and Darlene indicated that she knew the shooter. Mageau claimed that the man was named â€œRichard,â€ and that this murderous stranger would kill them if he knew that Darlene was with Mageau. In this interview, Mageau said that the strangerâ€™s car resembled a Cadillac. In 1969, he said that the car resembled Darleneâ€™s Corvair. The two automobiles do not appear at all similar. During the same interview, Mageau expressed his hope that police would someday identify and capture the Zodiac. Mageau had apparently forgotten that he had â€œpositively identifiedâ€ the Zodiac more than 15 years earlier, and that the man he had identified (Allen) had been dead since 1991.
After forty-one years, I believe that the investigation and study of the Darlene Ferrin murder, and the Zodiac case itself, has been contaminated and derailed by the many myths which have emerged over the years. The evidence strongly indicates that the gunman had selected them at random, that Darlene did not know the killer, and that the details of her life will not further the investigation in search of the Zodiacâ€™s identity. Darlene Ferrin, like the other Zodiac victims, was simply in the wrong place at the right time. Michael Mageauâ€™s statements to police and others in 1969 clearly indicate that the many stories which developed in the years that followed are not credible or accurate. Like so many unsolved mysteries, the murder of Darlene Ferrin generated rumors, rampant speculation, and a legend which continue to cloud the truth. Various message boards and websites feature sensational theories linking Darlene Ferrinâ€™s death to countless conspirators, cult killers, sinister strangers, bizarre plots, and more, and some amateur sleuths keep the myths alive with new accusations, new suspects, and new stories which only serve to further victimize and exploit the dead.
The theories linking Darlene to the Zodiac distract from the facts, providing a far more entertaining and titillating version of history while burying reality in a maze of fiction. Had the Zodiac intended to create confusion in order to avoid detection, he could not have invented a better plan, or a more enduring diversion.