9 – FACT vs. FINCHER – CONCLUSION

This then was the case against Allen, fully and thoroughly presented by his accusers, uninterrupted by counsel, and unrestrained by the rules of evidence. The accusers claim that this evidence is compelling. An examination of this evidence reveals a rather weak circumstantial case against the suspect. A moderately competent defense attorney would have little difficulty winning an acquittal had this case been tried in a court of law.

The court of common sense soundly discounts the evidence used to convict Allen in the court of public opinion. The astute reader will have ascertained by now that, had Allen lived, it is unlikely that any reasonably intelligent and responsible district attorney would have attempted to prosecute Allen using the available evidence and witnesses.

The results of handwriting and fingerprint comparisons have consistently demonstrated that Allen’s handwriting and fingerprints do not match those believed to belong to the Zodiac. Recent palm print and DNA comparisons have also failed to implicate Allen. This apparent exculpatory evidence and the absence of credible evidence to link Allen to the Zodiac crimes indicate that the case against Allen would leave any modestly objective juror with reasonable doubts as to his guilt. A scenario in which Allen was the Zodiac would require jurors to accept a multitude of implausible impossibilities, while a scenario in which Allen was not the Zodiac would be consistent with virtually all of the known facts.

Allen professed his innocence, and stated, “I’m not the damn Zodiac.” Had he lived to stand trial, a jury may have believed him.

For years to come, viewers of David Fincher’s Zodiac will become armchair jurors as they render judgment on Allen’s character using the facts selected and presented by his eternal accusers.

A famous quote reads, “A good prosecutor can convict a guilty man, but it takes a great prosecutor to convict an innocent man.”

If the evidence presented in the film Zodiac proves sufficient to “posthumously convict” Arthur Leigh Allen, history may remember David Fincher as a great director.

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NOTE: The first draft of the screenplay ended with a long monologue by Graysmith’s character as he addresses agents of the California State Department of Justice. In this scene, the cartoonist offers a long list of reasons why Arthur Leigh Allen must be the Zodiac. Graysmith’s monologue is a blend of fact, fiction, fantasy and pure nonsense. Screenwriter James Vanderbilt has stated that, before he wrote this early draft, he spoke with Graysmith, read the author’s books, and conducted his own research. Vanderbilt’s first draft reveals that the writer had simply accepted most of Graysmith’s version as fact and simply repeated many myths, exaggerations and falsehoods when writing this final scene. Once Graysmith’s character finishes his final speech, he is asked to stay and continue to educate the DOJ agents, but instead decides to spend time with his kids. Audiences were spared this ridiculous scene in the final version of the film, but the screenplay is available online. [ Click Here to read the original and absurd ending of Zodiac. ]

UPDATE on the Director’s Cut

The big screen re-telling of Graysmith’s now infamous “Yellow Book” account of the case was released on DVD format on July 24, 2007. While this version did not provide any extra material, such as documentaries or even the original film trailer, a second release of a two-disc “Director’s Cut” contained a wealth of special features. Director David Fincher, actors Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr., screenwriter James Vanderbilt, and James Ellroy, author of LA Confidential and My Dark Places, all provided audio commentaries for the film. An “exhaustive” documentary presented a “behind-the-scenes” look at the production, including footage from the sets, photos of evidence, and interviews with producer Brad Fischer, Vanderbilt, Downey, Gyllenhaal, Graysmith and others. David Toschi made a rare and brief appearance with his on-screen counterpart, actor Mark Ruffalo. “This Is The Zodiac Speaking” featured interviews with many of the real-life individuals portrayed in the film, such as surviving victims Michael Mageau and Bryan Hartnell, investigators Ken Narlow, George Bawart, retired officers Armand Pelissetti and Donald Fouke, and more, as well as crime scene photos and archival news footage. A third featurette, titled “His Name Was Arthur Leigh Allen,” focused on the prime suspect and offered interviews with witnesses Santo Panzarella, Donald Cheney, Ralph Spinelli, and Allen’s long-time friend, Norman Boudreau. Additional featurettes examined the visual effects and recreations of the crimes. In one segment, Bryan Hartnell travels to the Napa County Sheriff’s Office to examine the door of his old car, and the handwritten message left by the Zodiac. Handwriting expert Sherwood Morrill also appeared in a brief clip from archival news footage.

The documentaries also offered the occasional glimpse of actual evidence. A rare photograph of victim Betty Lou Jensen, lifeless on a morgue table, put an end to speculation regarding the location of the gunshot wounds to her back. The five small yet brutal holes in the young girl’s back led from her lower right back to her upper right shoulder, not in the “tight pattern in the upper right portion of her back,” as Graysmith had described in his first book. The author had repeatedly cited this “tight pattern” as proof that the Zodiac was an expert marksman.

Documentary director David Prior attempted to address several subjects of debate and clear confusion regarding the crimes, the evidence, the investigation and the suspects. Retired police officer Donald Fouke once again denied that he and his partner Eric Zelms had stopped the Zodiac on the night of the Stine murder. Bryan Hartnell explained that he had not asked to be stabbed first. Retired Vallejo police officer Richard Hoffman denied that he had attended the infamous “painting party” in the home of victim Darlene Ferrin as described in Graysmith’s book. Despite the efforts of Prior and others, the interviews with those involved in both the case and the production also contained puzzling and problematic statements that created new confusion and minor controversies.

The years had not been kind to fifty-seven year old Michael Mageau. Addled, animated and, at times, unintelligible, Mageau sat before a camera and while he admitted that his recall of events was cloudy at best, he told a new yet familar version of his story. Similar to the tales told by Darlene Ferrin’s sister Pam and those presented in Graysmith’s book, Mageau’s new account featured a mysterious stalker, Darlene’s fears that he would kill her, and a high-speed chase that ended at the scene of the shooting. In 1969, Mageau told police that he had no idea who would want to harm Darlene and never mentioned any chase to the crime scene. Contradicting his previous statements, Mageau now claimed that Darlene had said that she knew the man who had been following them, that he would “kill her” if he knew that she was talking about him, and that his name was “Richard.” According to screenwriter Jamie Vanderbilt, Mageau told Darlene, “I’m not getting shot for this.” He also said that the killer was approximately six feet tall and may have driven a Cadillac. In 1969, Mageau told police that the killer’s vehicle was similar to Darlene’s Corvair and was approximately 5 feet and 8-9 inches tall. Mageau said that he at first believed that the man carrying the bright light was a police officer, despite the fact that he also claimed that the same man had chased he and Darlene to the scene of the crime and that Darlene had said she knew the man. Mageau’s interview ended with his wish that Darlene’s killer would be caught and placed on “Death Row,” despite the fact that he already identified the killer as Arthur Leigh Allen and that Allen had been dead for over a decade.

The cover of the DVD release boasted that the documentary titled “His Name Arthur Leigh Allen” offered “the truth” about the prime suspect – this distinction may have been necessary as the director’s cut of the film fictionalized the facts regarding Allen. In a scene previously cut from the original version, San Francisco Police list the “evidence” said to implicate Allen. Inspector William Armstrong (portrayed by actor Anthony Edwards) offers a rather compelling – yet totally false – bit of information concerning Allen and a nosy neighbor.

In 1971, Allen told police that he may have spoken with his neighbor, an elderly man named William White, upon his return home on the day of the Zodiac attack at Lake Berryessa. White had died weeks later of heart failure, and his death was attributed to natural causes. When Vallejo investigator John Lynch questioned him on October 6, 1969, Allen did not mention his brief conversation with the neighbor. In 1971, Allen told police that he had “bloody knives” on his car seat on the day of the stabbing, but he further explained that he had used the knife to kill some chickens he had cooked and eaten while on his overnight trip to Salt Point Flats to go scuba diving. In Robert Graysmith’s book, Zodiac, the sighting of the knives was attributed to “Starr’s sister-in-law Sheila,” or Karen Allen. {In a conversation with this author, Mrs. Allen denied that she had seen any knives.}

Amateur sleuths eager to link Allen to the Zodiac crimes theorized on Internet message boards that William White may have seen the knives and that Allen had killed his elderly neighbor to prevent him from contacting police. This theory eventually surfaced in Graysmith’s sequel, Zodiac Unmasked. Graysmith’s repeated references to the timing of White’s death implied that Allen was somehow responsible for the failure of his neighbor’s heart, and the theory gained prominence in the Zodiac lore. In the director’s cut of the film Zodiac, San Francisco Police Inspector William Armstrong (Edwards) erroneously stated that a neighbor had seen bloody knives in Allen’s car. The notion that White had seen the knives was simply wishful thinking on the part of Allen accusers, but the story was presented in Fincher’s film during a scene in which San Francisco police are listing the “real” evidence against Allen.

The director’s cut of the film did more to falsely implicate Allen and perpetuate the author’s revisionist account than the theatrical version.

The film’s fictional liberties are not confined to Allen, yet the most glaring and demonstrably false examples of dramatic license pertain to the prime suspect. Some viewers may be surprised by the fictional excesses given the claims of the filmmakers, who promised that the film would confine its scope to facts in police reports and remain fair in its presentation of Allen. Throughout the DVD documentaries and commentaries, Fincher and others repeatedly attempt to distance themselves from the source material by stating that the story was told through the eyes of the characters and was not an attempt at “truth.” The explanation is oddly contradictory from the outset. The comments by Fincher and others seem to reveal that they, themselves, are often unaware of, or worse, not interested in facts. Fincher often says, “I don’t know whether or not this really happened,” or, “I know this didn’t happen this way, but we thought it worked better.” Such explanations are offered during the Belli scenes, the scene in which Avery opened the Zodiac’s Halloween card, and other fictionalized scenes. Nowhere during his commentary does Fincher make any effort to correct the historical record on any matters of real importance, and he only vaguely refers to problems with Graysmith’s revisionist account of the case. At one point, Fincher refers to the Belli Birthday Call as Graysmith’s “December 18 obsession,” but the director does not inform his viewers that he and the filmmakers knew that the obsession had no basis in fact.

In one segment of the DVD documentary, an interviewer remarks to Fincher that his film was a commercial failure. An honest assessment of Zodiac would also characterize the director’s work as a factual failure.

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Michael Butterfield is a freelance writer who has conducted over a decade of extensive research on the Zodiac case. As a recognized leading expert on the unsolved crimes, Butterfield has served as a media source and consultant for news articles, television documentaries, and director David Fincher’s major motion picture Zodiac. Michael Butterfield appears in the Zodiac documentary Case Reopened, in an episode of Cold Case Files on the A&E Network, and, most recently, in a new documentary program for History (The History Channel) titled MysteryQuest. He is also a contributing author for the two volume collection of essays titled A History of Evil in Pop Culture.

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Copyright – Michael Butterfield

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