zodiac DNA

Mysteries at the Museum: Zodiac Killer

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The Travel Channel featured a new episode of the series Mysteries at the Museum devoted to the Zodiac case. An episode synopsis posted at the Travel Channel website read: “Don Wildman searches for the identity of one of America’s most notorious serial killers. He meets with a retired inspector who worked on the case, learns code breaking from an expert cryptographer and reveals a new theory on who may be responsible.”

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Don Wildman and cipher expert David Oranchak.

Host Don Wildman presented a basic overview of the Zodiac story and visited the four crime scenes. He also consulted with cipher expert David Oranchak. Wildman and Oranchak examined the Zodiac’s first coded message and the still-unsolved 340 cipher while discussing some of the killer’s methods as a cryptographer. 

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During his tour of the Zodiac crime scenes, Wildman was accompanied by theorist Mark Hewitt, who also shared his theory that the Zodiac was Ted Kaczynski, the infamous “Unabomber” responsible for several bombings and three murders.

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Zodiac theorist Mark Hewitt and host Don Wildman at the Lake Berryessa crime scene.

The episode promised a “new theory” regarding the Zodiac’s identity but Ted Kaczynski became a Zodiac suspect immediately after his arrest in 1996. Theorists Douglas Oswell and Michael Rusconi published a book about the possible “Zodiac/Unabomber connection” titled Dr. Zodiac, and others had promoted this theory over the years. The episode also included a brief recap of the theory that the Zodiac was Arthur Leigh Allen, the so-called “prime suspect” named in the books by Robert Graysmith and the 2007 film Zodiac.

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Convicted child molester Arthur Leigh Allen and Ted Kaczynski aka “The Unabomber.”

Retired San Francisco police Inspector Vincent Repetto joined Wildman at the scene of the Zodiac’s last known murder, the intersection of Washington and Cherry Streets in the Presidio Heights neighborhood of San Francisco. Repetto expressed his doubts that the Zodiac would be captured and said he believed the killer was most likely dead, but he also shared optimism that the case could be solved if new evidence was discovered or DNA identified the killer. 

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Retired SFPD Inspector Vincent Repetto at the scene of the Zodiac’s last known murder.

In the final segment of the episode, Wildman met with Gary Harmor, a DNA analyst at the Serological Research Institute who worked as a consultant on the Zodiac case. Wildman asked about the chances of finding sufficient DNA on old envelopes and stamps, and Harmor explained that new methods increased the odds of retrieving DNA from older materials. Harmor used an old envelope to demonstrate the methods used in the process. When asked about the reliability of this forensic process, Harmor replied, “It’s extremely dependable. The only thing that would hold up getting a type from the piece of evidence is not having enough good quality, reasonably good quality DNA to do the testing.”

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Gary Harmor demonstrates a method used to obtain DNA from old stamps and envelopes.

The narrator stated, “The actual Zodiac evidence was collected in a state lab in May 2018 who then sent the DNA to a genealogical lab in Florida.” Previous news reports, comments from law enforcement sources, and internet rumors indicated that investigators were still waiting to hear if the lab could retrieve usable DNA evidence, but the narrator’s statement created the impression that usable DNA had already been obtained and had been sent to a lab in Florida to be used in forensic genealogy research to identify the Zodiac. The narration may have been a simple mistake as misinformation continues to create confusion about the status of the investigation. If the narrator was correct, then attempts to identify the Zodiac using forensic genealogy may be proceeding.

Mysteries at the Museum also featured an unusual representation of the costume worn by the Zodiac during the attack at Lake Berryessa. Unlike previous recreations, the actor portraying the Zodiac appeared to be wearing a large, narrowed black bag with a white crossed-circle over the chest. This version of the costume apparently had no eye-holes, meaning the Zodiac would not be able to see during the attack.

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The Zodiac killer as depicted by Mysteries at the Museum.

The Travel Channel will rebroadcast the episode Mysteries at the Museum: Zodiac Killer on Sunday, October 7, 2018, and on Wednesday, October 10, 2018. Check local listings for channels and show times, and CLICK HERE TO WATCH PROMOS FOR THIS EPISODE.

 

The ZODIAC FILES

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The Zodiac killer is once again in the news after the arrest of The Golden State Killer. Authorities in Vallejo, Napa, and San Francisco have renewed efforts to obtain DNA from stamps, envelopes, and other evidence with hopes that the forensic genealogy techniques used to identify Joseph James DeAngelo as  the Golden State Killer could also identify the elusive “Zodiac.”

Host Alan R. Warren and writer Michael Butterfield discuss the Golden State Killer investigation and the search for Zodiac DNA in the latest episode of HOUSE OF MYSTERY: The ZODIAC FILES. Previous episodes are now available at the new YouTube channel The Zodiac Files with Michael Butterfield.

The new issue of True Crime: Case Files magazine features the new article Devil in the Dark: DNA and the Hunt for America’s Most Elusive Serial Killers.

ZodiacKillerFACTS now includes a collection of selected audio interviews featuring Zodiac cipher expert David Oranchak, podcast host/webmaster Mike Morford, and writer Michael Butterfield.

NEWAIRTALK – “DNA: Zodiac and the Golden State Killer w/ host Larry Mantle – Guests: Anita Chabria, social justice reporter, Sacramento Bee, and Michael Butterfield. [Aired May 4, 2018, NPR affiliate KPCC California]

ZODIAC DNA: The Silver Bullet

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Joseph James DeAngelo was probably very surprised when he was surrounded by police officers and arrested on April 24, 2018. The 72 year old resident of Citrus Heights, California, seemed rather ordinary but authorities held a press conference to announce that DNA evidence proved DeAngelo was the “Golden State Killer,” a prolific serial rapist and killer responsible for at least 12 murders, 50 sexual assaults, and more than 100 burglaries. DeAngelo may have believed that he had escaped justice for decades but a new method of DNA research has quickly become the greatest threat to elusive serial killers who remain at large.

In 2014, investigators in Arizona used an unconventional approach to identify the man responsible for murders attributed to the so-called “Canal Killer.” Two young women were murdered along a canal in Northwest Phoenix in the early 1990s. DNA linked the crimes but investigation failed to produce evidence implicating any viable suspects. Years later, detectives consulted forensic genealogist Colleen Fitzpatrick. Using a Y-STR, or a short tandem repeat of the Y-chromosome found only in men, Fitzpatrick compared the profile to information available on genealogy websites and narrowed the field of patterns to a spectrum of possible relatives of the killer. Fitzpatrick told investigators that the Canal Killer was most likely named “Miller.” Police reviewed the files and identified a suspect named Bryan Patrick Miller, previously arrested at the age of sixteen for stabbing a woman at a mall and again accused of stabbing a woman in Washington state. At the time of the murders in Phoenix, Miller lived in the area and frequently rode his bike along the canal where the bodies of the victims had been dumped. A DNA comparison proved that Miller’s DNA matched the DNA found on the victims of the Canal Killer. Miller was arrested in January 2015 and he denied any involvement in the crimes. He is currently in jail awaiting trial. [To learn more about the identification of the Canal Killer, read the article Shock Waves by Michael Butterfield in the fall 2017 anniversary issue of the magazine True Crime: Case Files.]

Authorities launched a new effort to identify the Golden State Killer using a similar method of DNA research. Retired Contra Costa County investigator Paul Holes had studied the crimes for years and was determined to catch GSK. Holes acknowledged that he had developed an “obsession” with the case, and he was a central character in the best-selling book about the crimes written by the late Michelle McNamara titled I’ll Be Gone in the Dark.

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Retired Contra Costa County investigator Paul Holes and writer Michael Butterfield (ZodiacKillerFacts.com) visit two Zodiac crime scenes (History Channel series MYSTERYQUEST, 2009).

After exhausting other avenues of investigation, Holes turned to GEDmatch, a genealogy website with genetic information obtained from over 950,000 individuals. According to the Washington Post, Holes then narrowed his search to the killer’s great-great-great grandparents, and investigators then assembled a list of at least 25 family tree including thousands of relatives. From there, public records, census reports, obituaries and criminal databases helped narrow the search to relatives who fit the profile of GSK such as age, background, and whereabouts during the crimes. This information led investigators to Joseph James DeAngelo. Police placed DeAngelo under surveillance and retrieved an item he had discarded for DNA comparison. DeAngelo’s DNA matched the DNA recovered from GSK victims and he was arrested.

News of DeAngelo’s capture inspired praise of law enforcement as well as debate about the ethical and legal problems raised by the use of public genealogy information in criminal investigations. The success and identification of long-elusive murderers also inspired other investigators to use similar methods to identify other notorious serial killers. SFGate.com, The San Francisco Chronicle, and The Sacramento Bee reported that authorities in Napa, Vallejo, and San Francisco, California were evaluating evidence which could possibly be used to identify the infamous “Zodiac killer” who terrorized citizens of Northern California with a series of murders and bizarre letters from 1968 to 1974.

In the late 1990s, San Francisco police submitted the suspected “Zodiac” communications to the crime lab for forensic testing. Robert Graysmith, author of the book Zodiac, wrote a story published on the website APB.com titled “The Day They Thought They Nailed Zodiac.” Graysmith claimed that police obtained a “Zodiac” DNA sample which matched “the prime suspect,” convicted child molester and Vallejo resident Arthur Leigh Allen. Graysmith also claimed that SFPD Inspector Vince Repetto then stated that the match was a “false positive” result. According to Graysmith’s account, SFPD Lieutenant Tom Bruton explained that the suspected “Zodiac” DNA was obtained from a letter sent to the San Francisco Chronicle in April 1978. Several handwriting experts had concluded that this letter was a forgery and not an authentic Zodiac communication. In his article, Graysmith expressed his dismay that police had used the 1978 for DNA testing and wrote, “They had tested a hoax letter,” despite the fact that Graysmith was one of the few individuals who claimed that the April 1978 letter was authentic.

In 2000, SFPD Lt. Tom Bruton denied that any DNA testing had ever produced any “false positive” results which matched Allen or any other suspect. SFPD Inspector Vince Repetto also denied that any DNA testing had ever produced any “false positive” results which matched Allen or any other suspect. Repetto further denied that he had ever told Graysmith or anyone else about any such false positive results from DNA tests. A document from the SFPD crime lab from the time in question revealed that the lab was able to find some cells on various Zodiac letters, including the suspected 1978 letter. This document also stated that the San Francisco police department did not consider the 1978 letter to be an authentic Zodiac communication.

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Retired San Francisco police inspector Vince Repetto and Lt. Tom Bruton in interviews for the Reelz Channel documentary ZODIAC: THE REAL STORY (2017).

During interviews for the recent Reelz channel documentary titled Zodiac: The Real Story, Vince Repetto and Tom Bruton described the investigation and efforts to obtain “Zodiac” DNA and exclude suspects. According to Repetto, suspected “Zodiac” DNA was obtained from a Zodiac communication. Repetto’s partner believed the DNA would implicate Allen. “We knew we had Arthur Leigh Allen’s DNA, and then we had DNA from one of the suspected letters.” The results of the DNA comparison were negative, and Allen’s DNA did not match the suspected Zodiac DNA. Repetto said his partner was “pretty upset it turned out not to be Allen.” Tom Bruton explained that the same DNA evidence was compared to other suspects, including Larry Kane. “We had compared handwriting and fingerprints with what we had in the crime lab, and there was no matches there. The last big hope was the DNA comparison.” The results of the DNA comparison were negative and Kane’s DNA did not match the suspected “Zodiac” DNA.

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SFPD Inspectors Kelly Carroll and Mike Maloney (ABC documentary PRIMETIME LIVE, 2002).

At the turn of the century, Inspectors Kelly Carroll and Mike Maloney were assigned to the Zodiac case. In an interview with this author in 2000, Carroll stated his belief that modern forensic science could identify the Zodiac killer. “If the Zodiac case is ever solved,” Carroll said, “it will be solved by someone in a white lab coat.” Carroll and Maloney submitted the Zodiac communications for further testing. The ABC television show Primetime documented work conducted by Dr. Cyndi Holt of the San Francisco police DNA lab. Envelopes and stamps were examined, and Holt stated that a partial genetic profile was obtained from a stamp, reportedly on an envelope sent in November 1969. The partial genetic profile could be used to exclude suspects but was not sufficient to conclusively identify any individual as the Zodiac.

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Dr. Cyndi Holt, San Francisco DNA Lab

In public interviews, Cyndi Holt and Kelly Carroll both expressed confidence in the “Zodiac” DNA partial profile, but some critics claimed that the entire DNA spectacle was staged for the media. Mike Maloney reportedly expressed some doubts about the methods used to obtain the DNA and questioned its value in eliminating suspects. Despite the alleged concerns about the evidence, the San Francisco police department announced that the suspected “Zodiac” DNA did not match suspect Arthur Leigh Allen. Allen’s accusers argued that the DNA was not sufficient to outweigh the so-called “mountain of circumstantial evidence” against the suspect, but no credible evidence linked Allen to the Zodiac crimes. Several years later, Vallejo police submitted evidence to a lab for testing, including two envelopes which contained some of the first letters sent by the killer in July 1969. The results reportedly revealed a partial genetic profile which was not sufficient to positively identify anyone as the Zodiac. This DNA profile did not match Arthur Leigh Allen.

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The plastic clothesline used by the Zodiac, and a green bottle found at the crime scene.

In 2010, investigators at the Napa County Sheriff’s Office re-examined evidence in the Zodiac’s attack at Lake Berryessa, including a bottle found at the crime scene, a blood-stained blanket, pieces of plastic clothesline used to bind the victims, and the car door featuring a handwritten message left by the killer. Napa County Sheriff’s Sgt. Pat McMahon told San Francisco Chronicle reporter Kevin Fagen that the evidence was submitted to the state Department of Justice DNA lab in Richmond, California. According to The Sacramento Bee, a partial genetic profile was obtained from a mixture of DNA, but this profile could not be separated from the other DNA in the mixture and was not sufficient to identify the killer.

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William White, Napa County Sheriff’s Office, with the blanket and clothesline from the Berryessa crime scene (CASE REOPENED, 1999).

In 2018, the Vallejo police department once again submitted the two early “Zodiac” envelopes for more forensic testing. According to Vallejo police Detective Terry Poyser, experts at the chosen lab were “confident” that DNA evidence could be obtained from the envelopes. Investigators in the other jurisdictions involved in the Zodiac case also re-examined other evidence with hopes that new methods might yield something which could identify the killer. The Napa County Sheriff’s Office and the San Francisco police department reviewed evidence in their cases for possible forensic testing. A complete DNA profile would be necessary in order to identify the Zodiac using the same methods used to identify the Golden State Killer. A partial profile would not be sufficient to narrow the spectrum of potential DNA candidates. The new testing could produce important evidence or a failure to discover DNA evidence would require investigators to identify the Zodiac using more traditional methods.

December 2018 will mark the 50th anniversary of the first “Zodiac” murders on Lake Herman Road in 1968. If the Zodiac is still alive, he may be watching the news about the arrest of Joseph DeAngelo with the growing fear that the next knock on his door may be cold case investigators armed with DNA evidence the killer left behind when he licked an envelope or stamp half a century ago.

Read more about the issues and potential problems in the search for new evidence in the article ZODIAC DNA: The Magic Bullet.

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Copyright ZodiacKillerFacts.com

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Michael Butterfield is a writer and a recognized  expert on the unsolved “Zodiac” crimes. He has served as a media source and consultant for news articles, television documentaries, the History channel series The Hunt for the Zodiac Killer, and director David Fincher’s major motion picture Zodiac. Michael Butterfield appears in the Zodiac documentary Case Reopened, the History Channel series MysteryQuest, the E! Canada series The Shocking Truth, and the Reelz channel documentary The Real Story of Zodiac. He is also a contributing author for True Crime: Case Files, True Crime Magazine, and the two volume collection of essays titled A History of Evil in Pop Culture.

New History channel series: The Hunt for the Zodiac Killer – Video promos and articles

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The new History channel documentary series The Hunt for the Zodiac Killer begins Tuesday November 14. You can watch new video promos for the series by clicking on the links below, and the History channel website features new articles including a timeline of Zodiac crimes and letters along with a look at some of the men named as “suspects” over the years.

The Hunt for the Zodiac Killer – Episode #1 – Riverside and the Murder of Cheri Jo Bates

The Hunt for the Zodiac Killer – Sneak Peek

The Hunt for the Zodiac Killer Video Promo 1

The Hunt for the Zodiac Killer Video Promo 2

The Hunt for the Zodiac Killer Video Promo 3

The Hunt for the Zodiac Killer Video Promo 4

The Hunt for the Zodiac Killer Video Promo 5

The Hunt for the Zodiac Killer Video Promo 6

The Hunt for the Zodiac Killer Video Promo 7

The Zodiac Killer: A Timeline at History.com

Could any of these men have been the Zodiac killer? at History.com

The San Francisco Chronicle published an article with a review of the first episode exploring the possible connection between the Zodiac and the still-unsolved 1966 murder of Riverside City College student Cheri Jo Bates.

San Francisco Chronicle: Can the latest Zodiac ‘hunt’ finally solve the case?