ALLEN: The Prime Suspect
Once the identity of the prime suspect in the Zodiac murder case had become public knowledge, media attention focused on Allen. His name spread throughout the Bay area, and news reports revealed that the suspect was, in fact, the basis for the character, Bob Hall Starr. More than 20 years after his name first entered the Vallejo police files, Allen was in the spotlight of curiosity, scrutiny, and suspicion.
Allen’s neighbors had already witnessed the search of his home and the subsequent removal of several items, and some had even been interviewed by police. Allen had lived in the neighborhood for most of his life, and many of his neighbors had not only known him for years, but some had even been interviewed by police during the years of relentless investigations. The news that the aging man could be one of the most elusive and notorious killers in the annals of American crime history was a shock to some and simply confirmation of the worst fears of others.
Graysmith’s portrayal of Allen had served to prejudice the jurors in the court of public suspicion, and the actions of the Vallejo police created an atmosphere in which Allen was presumed guilty. The order of events seemed to indicate that police had uncovered some evidence during their search, and that this evidence had been the basis for the ensuing rumors that he was the Zodiac. Few people were aware that the spark that had renewed and ignited the long dry investigation had been the incredulous claims of a convicted felon seeking to escape a 30 year prison sentence.
The assumption that police must have obtained some evidence which linked Allen to the Zodiac murders would ultimately prove more troublesome than beneficial for Vallejo police. After the initial wave of press coverage began to wane, the absence of a resulting arrest was puzzling to many, and the fact that police had seized items in Allen’s home had created expectations which police were unable to meet. Soon, many observers wondered if the Vallejo PD was accusing the wrong man, and others, who knew that there was virtually no evidence against Allen, quietly made their opinions known.
Staff writer Jacqueline Ginley interviewed Allen while writing an article which would later appear in The Vallejo Times Herald. Allen complained about the February search of his home. “These guys tore the whole place apart…I phoned them asking when I was going to get my stuff back, and they phoned back two weeks later and said there was some damning new evidence.”
Aware of the fact that Ralph Spinelli was responsible for resurrecting the investigation, Allen explained, “He phoned down from Tahoe and said we had a conversation in 1969, and I told him that I’d go down to San Francisco and shoot a cabbie…He’s a punk and a hood…I’ve never talked to him in my life.”
The article stated that Allen claimed police had pressured him to submit to a polygraph examination even though Allen claimed to have done so in the 70’s. He said, “I took a 10 hour lie detector test and passed the…damn thing…So, they tell me, ‘Well, you’re a sociopath and you can cheat on lie detector tests.” The article then paused to reminded readers that the Zodiac was thought to be a sociopath.
Allen was understandably upset by the accusation that he was the Zodiac. If he was the wanted killer, the police and media attention could put him in prison; if Allen was innocent, he was living a nightmare. “This crap has haunted me for the last 22 years.” Ginley wrote, “Allen said he wants to hire an attorney but can’t afford to hire one on his $500 a month disability checks. He said he’s considered contacting Marvin Belli, the famed San Francisco attorney who got a plea for help from the Zodiac in the 70’s.” Allen was optimistic: “I’ve been thinking about it, but then again, this has always blown over when they don’t find anything.”
The famed San Francisco attorney Allen had mentioned was, of course, Melvin Belli. After receiving a letter from the Zodiac, Belli had publicly promised to help the killer if he surrendered. Those who were convinced that Allen was the Zodiac found his comments incriminating. Perhaps, once he had been wrongly accused, the one suspect in the Zodiac case had simply thought of the one lawyer who had promised to help the Zodiac.
When the article appeared under the headline “Signs point to Vallejo Man,” former SFPD Homicide investigator David Toschi was said to have”declined to discuss why Allen was dismissed as a suspect, but said that he had looked very good. Vallejo Police Chief Gerald Galvin offered a prophetic answer to the obvious question: “Do I expect an imminent arrest in regard to Zodiac? No, I do not.”
Those who were desperate for other suspects may have been amused, if not disappointed, when Geraldo Rivera’s tabloid TV program, Now It Can Be Told, broadcast the results of its “investigation” into the Zodiac murders. Author and conspiracy theorist Maury Terry had concluded that a satanic cult was responsible for the Zodiac’s crimes, and in an attempt to dismiss the prime suspect, Allen was interviewed in silhouette as he stated his innocence, “I’m not the Zodiac. I’ve never killed anyone.” A correspondent reported that the Vallejo police department was the only agency which believed Allen was the Zodiac.
The publicity surrounding Allen proved an embarrassment for the Vallejo Police Department, which was under pressure to produce some evidence against its so called “prime suspect.” Allen was placed under surveillance, and police often sat in parked cars outside his Fresno Street address. A friend of Allen described the somewhat comical series of events that followed as Vallejo police conducted frequent, unannounced raids on Allen’s home in the futile attempt to catch the suspect engaged in illegal activity or uncover incriminating evidence.
An FBI memorandum indicates that Allen was questioned on several occasions in the months after the search of his home. The memo stated that Allen was always “very cooperative, but continues to deny that he is the Zodiac.”
For his part, Allen used every available opportunity to protest his innocence. In further interviews with television media, a frustrated Allen continued to appear in silhouette sitting in his basement room. “They haven’t arrested me because they can’t prove a thing. I’m not the damn Zodiac…the only way I can clear myself would be for the real Zodiac to confess, if he’s still alive.” Allen spoke softly, “I am not the Zodiac. I’ve never killed anyone…these guys almost, well, they, they had me questioning myself.”
On March 6, 1992, Allen was featured on another nationally syndicated tabloid television show, A Current Affair. The segment titled “Branded a Butcher” stated that families in one particular community were living in fear because their neighbor was a suspect in a string of unsolved killings.
A photo of “The Butcher,” clad only in shorts, was shown on the screen, and his face was obscured by pixilated squares. In the sensational style that made the program famous, reporter Mike Watkis narrated in breathless script, “Arthur Leigh Allen, a long time Vallejo resident and former professional student, is the man many still believe to be the dreaded Zodiac, and for nearly half his adult life, Allen has lived with the Zodiac’s loathsome label attached to his name. Now, for the first time ever on national television, Allen tells A Current Affair his side of the story.”
Once again, Allen sat in his basement room and was shown in silhouette. “Well, they weren’t able to get me for the simple reason that I, I’ve never killed anyone in my life and don’t intend to…There are a lot of people around, with, with all this bad publicity that think I’m, I’m Zodiac. People who know me? No problem…Thank God for our constitution because that says a person is innocent until proven guilty.”
The reporter quoted from Graysmith’s book, and erroneously reported that “his own family, at one time, found him terrifying.” Allen scoffed “I enjoy a good tussle, but hey, even odds.”
Of the accusations against him, Allen explained, “There were coincidences that, that tended to point towards me…and killing, just for the pleasure of it? It’s just totally foreign to me.”
Police were frustrated by the media attention which portrayed Allen as little more than an odd man who was harassed by the Vallejo Police Department. Retired Detective George Bawart and Captain Roy Conway hoped that an eyewitness might be able to identify Allen and that such an identification would justify Allen’s arrest.
Department of Justice Agent Jim Silver had asked Bryan Hartnell to observe Allen as he worked in the Vallejo hardware store. Hartnell watched the suspect carefully and, at one time, spoke with him briefly. Hartnell reportedly stated, “I can’t say that that isn’t him.”
Surviving victim Michael Mageau virtually disappeared after the shooting at Blue Rock Springs Park. Although he was shown photos of several suspects in the weeks after the crime, law enforcement officers apparently never bothered to locate Mageau and show him a photo of Allen during the 20 years of their various investigations. Mageau had seen the killer in “profile” and thought that he might be able to identify the suspect from that view, although he admitted that he had been unable to get a good look at the suspect in the darkness.
Producers of Now It Can Be Told apparently had no trouble finding Mageau, and the second edition of their so called investigation into the Zodiac murders featured Mageau under hidden camera surveillance. Years of alcohol and drug abuse had left the 44-year-old survivor gaunt, and the struggle to put the traumatic shooting behind him seemed to have taken its toll. Darlene Ferrin’s sister confronted a nervous and confused Mageau and quizzed him regarding the name of a mysterious man who was said to have stalked Darlene in the weeks before she was killed. Mageau was unable to offer any answers and shrugged, “I don’t know, I can’t remember a lot of those names.”
The program was titled “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” and the video footage of a bewildered Mageau was coupled with the claim that he was the one man who could identify the notorious Zodiac killer. Although there is some evidence to suggest that he may have been given names and photographs of some suspects at that time, Mageau was not said to have made any identification. It seemed Mageau did not know as much as the program had led viewers to believe.
Retired Vallejo police detective George Bawart had located Mageau in August of 1991and presented him with photos of several men, including Arthur Leigh Allen. Mageau was asked if any of the men could be the man who had shot he and Darlene more than twenty years earlier. According to an FBI memorandum, Mageau was said to have positively identified Allen as the Zodiac killer. Bawart described the identification and stated that Mageau saw Allen’s photo and declared, “That’s him. That’s the man who shot me.” Bawart’s report to the Vallejo Police Department stated that Mageau was asked to assess the certainty of his identification of Allen on a scale of 1 to 10, and Mageau replied that his level of certainty was an 8. He also pointed to the picture of another man in the photo lineup and stated that the face of that individual was similar to the face of the Zodiac.
The eyewitness identification of the prime suspect seemed to be damning new evidence, yet Mageau’s original description of the killer did not match Allen. As a witness, Mageau left much to be desired. He had abused alcohol and drugs for many years. Retired detective Ed Rust had interviewed Mageau in the days after the shooting and did not believe he could have identified the gunman in 1969, let alone do so some twenty-two years after the shooting.
Allen’s health had begun to deteriorate, and diabetes had caused his kidneys to fail. The disease forced Allen to undergo renal dialysis on a regular basis, and the treatments left him thin, sickly, and frail. Complications of the disease had also rendered Allen legally blind. He also nursed a large abscess on his foot, which made it difficult for him to move about, and he was no longer able to work. He, therefore, spent most of his time at home. In order to earn extra income, Allen had rented the upper portion of his house to a young woman, although he continued to reside in the basement room.
In the spring of 1992, freelance writer Rider McDowell interviewed Allen in his home while researching an article for The San Francisco Chronicle. McDowell described the ill and aging suspect as disarmingly friendly and wrote that Allen had “acknowledged that he had spent time in jail and gotten away with ‘a lot of bad things’, but he denied any involvement in the Zodiac case.” Allen told McDowell, “It wasn’t me…and that’s the truth. And if people want to believe it was me, well, that’s their problem. I was cleared on every angle, including the handwriting tests. Plus, I don’t look anything like the guy.”
Vallejo police continued to pressure Allen to submit to another polygraph examination, and, by late August of 1992, Allen apparently considered taking such a test in the hope that the results would clear his name. He used his home computer to draft an agreement regarding the police request and then used his printer to produce a copy of the document. A previous polygraph examination had indicated that Allen was truthful when he denied any involvement in the Zodiac murders, and Allen may have been confident that he would be able to pass the lie detector test a second time.
The test never took place, and Allen never had the chance to prove his innocence.
NEXT – ALLEN: The End