ALLEN: Another Investigation
Bawart and Conway traveled to Sacramento and met with Agent Fred Shirasago of the California State Department of Justice Homicide Unit. Shirasago’s division was “the receptacle for all the Zodiac cases investigated by police departments throughout the state of California.”
The next day, Bawart met with retired SFPD Homicide Inspector Bill Armstrong and discussed the search of Allen’s trailer in 1972. Armstrong told Bawart that he and Inspector Toschi did not find any evidence which linked Allen to the Zodiac murders, and added that fingerprint and handwriting comparisons had failed to yield a match.
The retired homicide investigator described the confusion that resulted when handwriting experts presented conflicting professional opinions regarding whether or not Allen had written the Zodiac letters. Conway later wrote: “Armstrong indicated that one handwriting expert, identified as Terry Pascoe, Department of Justice Document Examiner, indicated that if writing had been a product of a mental state, the writing of subject can be different when in a different mental state, or it could be a case of an intentional deception. And with the talents that Allen has (writes with both hands) this could be done. Pascoe’s recommendation was, ‘Do not eliminate this subject because of handwriting.’ Another handwriting expert, Sherwood Morrill, who examined known printing of the Zodiac, as well as Allen’s indicated he did not feel a mental state would alter handwriting. Armstrong indicated that he was never able to reconcile this problem.”
Armstrong told Bawart that “handwriting samples of Arthur Leigh Allen were submitted to handwriting experts with known writings of the Zodiac killer. Experts indicated that the handwriting was similar but definitely was not that of the Zodiac killer.”
According to Armstrong, Allen was “the most viable” suspect that he and Toschi had come across during the course of their investigation. The retired Inspector “further indicated that Arthur Leigh Allen’s name was never published in any media to his knowledge, and that the only persons who would know his name are law enforcement personnel directly related to the Zodiac investigation, or someone that Arthur Leigh Allen had personally dealt with.”
Police reports, FBI documents, search warrant affidavits, news articles, and even the books of Robert Graysmith demonstrate that many private citizens as well as members of the law enforcement community knew Allen had been a Zodiac. Allen’s family, friends, employers, and neighbors were all aware that Allen had been the subject of a police investigation concerning the Zodiac crimes. Allen also told many people that he had been a suspect.
The book Zodiac used the pseudonym “Bob Hall Starr” to portray Allen as the prime Zodiac suspect, and after its publication, the book inspired many to learn more about the mysterious man known only as “Bob Hall Starr.” According to Zodiac Unmasked, Allen’s name and connection to the Zodiac surfaced in a very public fashion as early as October of 1987, immediately following the release of Zodiac.
“The leak came not from the media, but the local police department. A substitute teacher in Santa Rosa and senior high schools became concerned. ‘My occupation has given me the opportunity to observe how local teenagers have reacted to your book about Zodiac,’ he informed me. ‘I’ve seen copies pulled out at free reading time in classrooms all over town, but I never had much interest in the subject until last spring when, at various times, I overheard students and staff members discussing the book. Apparently one of the students is the son of a local policeman, and word has gotten around that the man you call “Starr” works at Friedman Brothers hardware in south Santa Rosa. Some of the kids seem to know the man’s real name, or think they do.”
Graysmith wrote that a group of high school students and another young man named Craig had learned of Allen via the Santa Rosa police department.
Bawart and Conway next traveled to Sacramento to meet with Agent Fred Shirasago of the California State Department of Justice Homicide Division. Shirasago’s division was the receptacle for all Zodiac cases investigated by police departments in the state of California.
Agent Shirasago gave Bawart and Conway the reports which documented the SFPD investigation of Allen in the early 1970’s, as well as a copy of the Manhattan Beach Police report that detailed Donald Cheney’s claims.
Mel Nicolai, a retired Department of Justice agent who had assisted in the original investigation of Allen, echoed Armstrong’s remarks, and “indicated that he had no knowledge of any media attention given to Arthur Leigh Allen…the only persons that had any information regarding Allen were law enforcement personnel.”
Based on the statements of Armstrong and Nicolai, Detective Bawart and Captain Conway concluded that “Ralph Spinelli had to have had personal contact with Arthur Leigh Allen or with a close associate of Arthur Leigh Allen to obtain the name of Lee Allen.”
Bawart then contacted psychologist Larry Ankron of the FBI’s Violent Criminal Apprehension Unit in Quantico, Virginia. Ankron was “informed of the investigation by Detective Armstrong in 1971, and the more recent information obtained from Ralph Spinelli.”
The Quantico psychologist told Bawart that the Zodiac killings would probably still be continuing if the killer was not deceased or imprisoned. He stated that most serial killers would “keep souvenirs or trophies from these criminal acts…so they can keep these in a hidden place and relive the incident many times over.” Dr. Ankron added that such killers would often store these trophies along with “journals and news clippings of the crimes themselves” in “ingenious hiding places within their residence such as, false walls, hidden safe, etc.” Bawart was also advised that it was possible that a serial killer might have a storage place at another location.
Detective Bawart understood the underlying message behind Dr. Ankron’s comments. If Allen was, indeed, the Zodiac killer, the very evidence which could have proved his guilt may have been hidden in Allen’s home or somewhere on other property he controlled. Vallejo police needed a warrant to search Allen’s home if they hoped to recover the souvenirs or trophies described by Dr. Ankron. Yet, before police searched Allen’s residence, Bawart and Conway wanted to learn more about Allen and the house on Fresno Street.
In February of 1991, Allen still worked at the Ace Hardware store in Vallejo. Allen’s mother, Bernice Allen, had died in October of 1989. Arthur lived alone in the house and still maintained the basement room as his own. Allen also owned a 22 foot sailboat, which was stored at a friend’s house in Vallejo.
Captain Conway reviewed the information gathered by Detective Bawart and subsequently wrote an affidavit in which he “prays” that a judge grant his request for a warrant to search Allen’s home as well as one of the boats at the other location. Conway concluded the affidavit by requesting “that after the service of this search warrant that the Search Warrant Affidavit and Return of Service be sealed by the court. The reason this request is made is that the Zodiac case has had national publicity and has been one of the few case (sic) that has so inflamed the public that it would serve no purpose for the media to get information from this affidavit if no charges are filed. In the other vein, if charges are filed, the publicity from this affidavit would tend to make it difficult to have a fair trial.” Sealing the affidavit also served to conceal the identity of the informant who had set the events in motion.
Captain Conway’s prayers were answered on February 13, 1991, when Vallejo Benicia Municipal Court Judge Paul Dacey issued the warrant and sealed the affidavit. The following day, Vallejo police presented Allen with a valentine of sorts — a warrant to search the Fresno Street address.
An FBI memorandum summarized the encounter: “Investigators described this (basement) apartment as very dark and dreary, almost ‘museum like’… Allen denied any involvement in the (Zodiac) murders.” Conway and Bawart reported that Allen was “very amiable, calm and cooperative throughout their interview. He told investigators he was a ‘nice guy,’ although he did receive cruel pleasure from sadistic type pornography.”
The search uncovered a box of audio reel tapes and an audio cassette tape which Allen apparently claimed “was a tape in which he is spanking a young boy who was feigning pain.” Allen admitted that he found this tape to be sexually stimulating.
The FBI memorandum also states: “Allen was shown a piece of yellow lined paper which contained a ‘menu’ for making a bomb. Allen told investigators that he never saw that piece of paper before, and denied having left several bombs in a friend’s basement years ago.”
Allen may have denied that the bomb menu belonged to him, but it was clear that he was very interested in explosives. Among Allen’s belongings, police found four pipe bombs, one primer cord, seven impact devices, two rolls of safety fuses, nine non electric blasting caps, pipes, pipe threads and vises, fireworks, black powder, and bottles of potassium nitrate and sulfur.
Police also found a large collection of weapons, which included a Ruger .22 revolver, another .22 pistol, a Ruger .44 Black Hawk, a Colt .32 auto, a Marlin .22 rifle with scope, an Inland .30 caliber rifle, a Stevens Model 835 12 gauge double barrel shotgun and a Winchester Model 50 20 gauge automatic shotgun. Allen also kept a stock of varied ammunition and a hunting knife with sheath and rivets.
The infamous Zodiac Sea Wolf watch was confiscated, as were miscellaneous papers and news clippings regarding the Zodiac case and a “Cut letter from D. O. J. [Department of Justice].” The VPD inventory list of the items seized also mentioned two articles from The Vallejo Times Herald dated June 1, 1982, and two articles from The San Francisco Chronicle dated June 1, 1982.
Despite an extensive search of both Allen’s home and his boat, Vallejo police failed to recover any evidence which linked Allen to the Zodiac crimes. As a convicted felon, Allen could not legally possess or own any firearms, much less the arsenal found during the search. The weapons, as well as the collection of illegal explosives, provided Vallejo police with the legal cause to arrest Allen. Yet, for reasons unknown, they declined to do so.
Conway and Bawart knew that they would need to find more evidence if Allen was to be arrested for the Zodiac murders. The absence of any physical evidence left police with few options. Without a ballistics, handwriting, or fingerprint match to connect Allen to the Zodiac’s weapons, letters, or latent prints, police would have difficulty convincing a district attorney that Allen could be convicted based on the available evidence. The investigation would have to explore other avenues if police had any hope of building a case against Allen.
Whatever Conway and Bawart may have had planned, circumstances surrounding their suspect virtually changed overnight. The search of Allen’s home had not gone unnoticed by neighbors, and word quickly spread that the Vallejo police were very interested in Arthur Leigh Allen. Publisher Harry V. Martin was running a series on the Zodiac case in his biweekly tabloid newspaper, The Napa Sentinel. In May of 1991, Martin’s headline read, “After 20 years, Vallejo Police search premises of prime suspect again.” The article identified the suspect as Arthur Leigh Allen.
NEXT – ALLEN: The Prime Suspect