The cover of the DVD release boasted that the documentary titled His Name Arthur Leigh Allen offered “the truth” about the prime suspect– a distinction which appeared to be an open confession from the film makers that the film Zodiac did not present the “truth” about Allen.
Viewers who are not familiar with the true story of the Zodiac case and the factual distortions and falsehoods created by author Robert Graysmith may not notice the subtle and deliberate methods used by the film makers in order to preserve Graysmith’s fictional account while pretending to tell a “true story.” Throughout the film, the facts are changed, distorted or ignored to keep the story in line with Graysmith’s version and, specifically, to make Arthur Leigh Allen seem like a better suspect than the facts would permit. At the very beginning of the film, the facts are altered so that the fiction will appear credible later in the film.
During the first Zodiac attack, victim Michael Mageau is shown looking up and directly at the Zodiac, even speaking to the man, saying, “Wow, man, you really creeped us out.” At the end of the film, Mageau’s character is shown “positively” identifying Allen as the Zodiac and the film clearly lends credence to his identification. However, in reality, Mageau himself stated that he had never looked directly at the man’s face and he never spoke to the attacker at all. Before Mageau could look up, a bright light shined in his face and he was shot in the neck and jaw. He barely caught a glimpse of the man as he walked away but this was only in a profile view. Mageau was shown a photograph depicting Allen from the front– an entirely different point of view for identification purposes. Police did not consider this identification to be valid, for many reasons. Mageau had originally provided a description of the attacker which could not possibly match Allen regarding his height, weight, hair, or general appearance.
“WMA, short, possible 5’8”, was real heavy set, beefy build… not blubbery fat, but real beefy, possibly 195 to 200 [lbs] or maybe even larger… short curly hair, light brown almost blond… with a large face.”
On October 6, 1969, just months after the shooting at Blue Rock Springs Park, Allen was interviewed by a Vallejo detective who described the suspect as “6’1″, 241 (lbs), heavy build and is bald.”
During his photo-line-up more than two decades after the shooting, Mageau at first identified Allen as the Zodiac but then said that the shooter had a round face like a second man in another photograph. The version of the Mageau/Ferrin shooting in the film Zodiac also includes another embellishment: Mageau tells Darlene Ferrin that he had seen the shooter’s car earlier at Mr. Ed’s diner. Michael Mageau never made such a claim, but this falsehood was added in order to lend further credence to the film’s bogus premise that Darlene had known her killer and was followed to the scene of her murder. Later in the film, Graysmith’s character creates connections between Ferrin and Arthur Leigh Allen, and the film makers also discard the facts in order to indulge the author’s fantasy version of history. Once again, the purpose seemed clear: Alter the facts in order to make Allen appear guilty. Graysmith’s character is shown perpetuating the myth that the Zodiac had called members of Darlene’s family immediately after the murder. In a later scene, Darlene’s sister Linda identifies a “Lee” as a man who had been bothering her sister before the murder. In reality, the police reports demonstrated that Linda had originally described a “Lee” as one of Darlene’s best friends and there was no evidence that this “Lee” was Arthur Leigh Allen. Linda never told police that a “Lee” had been bothering, stalking or scaring Darlene.
By the time the film introduced the character of Arthur Leigh Allen, the foundation of distortions and falsehood had been carefully set in order to manipulate the audience opinion regarding his possible guilt. Inspector Armstrong interviews a man named Donald Cheney at his place of employment. Cheney says that his estranged friend, Arthur Leigh Allen, might be the Zodiac killer. According to Cheney, he and Allen were drinking Coors together one night when Allen was “raw” about losing his teaching job. Allen had confessed a desire to commit similar crimes and use the name “Zodiac” in letters designed to taunt the police. Cheney says that Allen had spoken of hunting humans, “like that book” – The Most Dangerous Game. Allen also allegedly claimed he would attack a school bus and shoot the “little darlings” as they attempted to escape. Cheney explains that he had made a previous attempt to report this information but police dismissed him. Armstrong asks Cheney to clarify when this conversation with Allen took place and Cheney assures the inspector that the conversation occurred on January 1, 1968.
Donald Cheney told many sensational tales over the years, and his stories often changed from one telling to the next. In the film, Cheney said that Allen was “raw” about losing his teaching job when he last saw the suspect in January 1968. Cheney was certain that he never saw Allen again after this disturbing conversation, and he was certain that the conversation took place on or before January 1, 1968. In reality, Cheney had never mentioned the story The Most Dangerous Game at all, and, he had never mentioned anything about Allen being “raw” over losing a teaching job. Allen did not lose his teaching job until March 1968– months after Cheney’s alleged conversation with the suspect. [In 2000, when Cheney did mention this and was informed of time descrepency, Cheney then changed the date of the conversation despite the fact that the timing had always been crucial and he had always claimed to be certain.] In the film, Armstrong tells Toschi that Pomona police recorded Cheney’s first attempt to report Allen on January 10, 1970. In reality, Cheney made this claim in 2000, but there was never any confirmation of this report and neither Armstrong nor Toschi possessed this information during their investigation of Allen and Cheney’s story.
The film makers made every effort to ignore and gloss over the evidence which proved that Don Cheney had invented his stories in order to implicate Allen in the Zodiac crimes. In the DVD documentary His Name Arthur Leigh Allen, retired investigator George Bawart expressed his doubts about Cheney’s credibility and honesty, even going so far as to question Cheney’s possible involvement in the Zodiac murders. Bawart had previously been one of the few who had promoted Cheney had a reliable and credible informant, despite the evidence to the contrary. Cheney had been caught inventing false stories about Allen using information he had obtained from Graysmith’s books and other sources, and his credibility was further damaged by his ever-expanding and increasingly incredible claims. By the time the film makers encountered Cheney, the evidence clearly demonstrated that he was not a credible and reliable informant. Yet, the film makers decided to ignore this problem, portray Cheney as a credible and reliable witness, and then invent and/or distort the real life facts in order to maintain their manufactured illusion.
In the film, Armstrong meets with the brother and sister-in-law of suspect Arthur Leigh Allen. The brother learns that Allen is a Zodiac suspect. Armstrong asks the couple whether it is true that Allen has molested children. The couple says it is true and that Allen has been troubled for some time. When asked if he knows Donald Cheney, the brother asks if Cheney was the one who reported Allen to police. Armstrong replies that that information is confidential, and the brother says that Cheney is a responsible person and that if he had said something he would believe it was true. The sister-in-law then interrupts to tell Armstrong that Allen had once sent them a card with the same misspelling used by the Zodiac– “Christmass.” In reality, Detective Jack Mulanax was present during the interview with the Allen’s brother and sister-in-law. His police report stated: “(Allen’s brother) did say that he was well acquainted with the sources of information who had originally given statements to police indicating Arthur Leigh Allen was a prime suspect. [Allen’s brother did not know the full story of Cheney’s statements at this time.] (He) stated that they were responsible people who would not have made such statements if they were not true. He further stated that he had received a complaint from Cheney that his brother had made improper advances toward one of his children. This might be a motive why Cheney would make such an accusation against Arthur Leigh Allen. This is RO’s (reporting officer’s) observation and not [that of Allen’s brother].”
In reality, three key pieces of information were revealed during the interview: 1: Allen’s brother knew Donald Cheney and said that he was a trustworthy person. 2: In the same breath, he said that Cheney had complained that Allen had attempted to molest one of Cheney’s children. 3: Allen’s sister-in-law told Armstrong about the “Christmass” misspelling. In the film, the scene presented the first piece of information, then skipped the second important detail and jumped straight to the third. This omission created the false impression that Donald Cheney had no reason to invent his tale about Allen. Viewers may have reached different conclusions regarding the veracity of Cheney’s claims had they known all the facts. When they were informed that Allen was a suspect, his brother and his sister-in-law told police that they did not believe he could be the Zodiac. The opinion of the couple never changed, but the film (like Graysmith’s books) tries to convince viewers that Allen’s family suspected that he was the Zodiac and insisted that police take action. In fact, once they became aware of the facts, Allen’s family always believed that Don Cheney had invented his stories about Allen because the suspect had attempted to molest Cheney’s daughter. This possible ulterior motive is never mentioned in the film which studiously ignores this issue while portraying Cheney as an honest man without any possible ulterior motives.
In the film, Inspector Armstrong is shown once again talking with Allen’s sister-in-law, who is concerned that police are not pursuing the investigation of the suspect. She says that Allen was using a trailer in Santa Rosa. In reality, the sister-in-law did not contact police and she did not ask that they continue the investigation. The sister-in-law had told Armstrong about the Santa Rosa trailer in the fall of 1971, more than a year before this scene in the film is dated. The information about the trailer is placed in late 1972 in an apparent attempt to help explain why police had failed to investigate Allen or obtain a search warrant after learning, in the summer of 1971, that Allen had been excluded as a suspect by handwriting and fingerprint comparisons. Police could have obtained a search warrant at any time, and, when they did request a warrant, their request was based solely on information they had gathered during the first few weeks of investigation in the summer of 1971. By moving the revelation about Allen’s trailer one year later, the film is able to explain the gap of police disinterest in Allen and creates the false impression that they rushed to search Allen’s trailer as soon as they learned about its existence, when, in fact, they had no interest in doing so for over a year. By inventing the false request of Allen’s sister-in-law, the film makers further the falsehood that Allen’s family suspected that he was the killer and had reported him to authorities.
In the film, Detective Jack Mulanax accompanies Inspectors Toschi and Armstrong to Allen’s place of work where the suspect is called to a room for an interview. Allen (actor John Carroll Lynch) is shown wearing black boots which are virtually identical to the boots reportedly worn by the Zodiac during one attack. In reality, none of the investigators had ever claimed that Allen was wearing such boots during this interview and no credible evidence existed to indicate that he had ever worn Wing Walker boots at all.
In the film, Inspector Toschi consults handwriting expert Sherwood Morrill, who examines Allen’s handwriting and declares, “This suspect is not your Zodiac.” Toschi is not happy to hear this news, and questions the expert regarding ambidexterity. Morrill explains that even the ability to write with both hands could not produce writing so different as to avoid detection. In reality, Allen was ambidexterous and Morrill and other experts had examined samples made by both his right and left hands. Every single handwriting expert who had ever been consulted by authorities had concluded that Allen did not write the Zodiac letters. In the film, Morrill is portrayed as a rigid man who may be allowing his pride to interfere with his conclusions. Once the film’s Morrill determines that Allen did not write the Zodiac letters, other characters such as Graysmith and Toschi refer to him as “Morrill? Who drinks?” as if the document expert was a drunk and his exclusion of Allen was somehow unreliable when, in fact, the expert’s conclusion regarding Allen had been affirmed by many other experts.
In the film, Toschi and Armstrong search Allen’s trailer. Toschi discovers a pair of black, size seven gloves, and remarks that Allen and Zodiac share the same boot and glove size. In reality, a pair of black gloves had been found in the cab belonging to Zodiac victim Paul Stine. A report on the Zodiac crimes prepared by the Department of Justice stated that the gloves found were men’s size seven gloves. A size seven glove is the smallest glove size available, worn by men with below average size hands. The suspect described by the witnesses was most likely too large to wear a size seven glove, and Allen was said to have large, even “massive” hands. Graysmith’s book Zodiac stated that Toschi discovered that the gloves belonged to a female passenger who had been in the cab earlier on the day of the murder.
In a scene previously cut from the theatrical version but included in the director’s cut of Zodiac, San Francisco police listed the “evidence” said to implicate Allen in hopes of obtaining a warrant to search the suspect’s trailer. Inspector William Armstrong (portrayed by actor Anthony Edwards) offered a rather compelling yet totally false bit of information concerning Allen and a nosy neighbor.
ARMSTRONG: “Suspect is Arthur Leigh Allen. Lives in Sunset Trailer Court in Santa Rosa, California. Physical description. Allen is similar in height, weight and build to a man seen at Lake Berryessa on the day of the stabbings.”
DA (on speaker phone): “I understand he doesn’t look much like the San Francisco composite.”
ARMSTRONG: “True, height and weight are sketchy, but lumbering Caucasian with a crew cut is right on.”
TOSCHI: “We never had much confidence in the composite from the kids. The patrolman who saw Zodiac that night said he didn’t look much like the sketch.”
ARMSTRONG: “Military boot prints. Allen was in the Navy. Wears a size 10-and-a-half. Same size as the prints in Berryessa.”
DA: “What about the gun?”
ARMSTRONG: “Cheney says Allen owns several firearms. We’ll list them in the warrant.”
DA: “And the ciphers?”
ARMSTRONG: “Could be code training in the Navy and people have seen Allen with ciphers in the past.”
DA: “Really? Who?”
TOSCHI: “That would be his sister-in-law and a man named Phil Tucker that he worked with at a public pool in Vallejo.”
ARMSTRONG: “And Phil Tucker told us about a conversation that he had with Allen about how to attach a flashlight to the barrel of a gun.”
CAPTAIN LEE: “That gives us two sources on the ciphers and two on the flashlight.”
DA: “What about his threats on children?”
CAPTAIN LEE: “Suspect worked for elementary schools and was fired for molestation in March, April ’68. Could give him motive.”
ARMSTRONG: “At the very least, it’s home turf. He’d have knowledge of bus routes, which the two major threats centered around.”
DA: “What about the bomb?”
ARMSTRONG: “Allen works as a chemist.”
CAPTAIN LEE: “Take him through the geography.”
ARMSTRONG: “Vallejo murders. Allen lives in Vallejo with his mother in her basement. Berryessa murder. On the day that the two kids were stabbed his neighbor saw bloody knives in his truck which he claimed were used to kill a chicken.”
DA: “Does he have any alibis?”
ARMSTRONG: “He claimed he did, but he’s been unable to produce the names of the couple he supposedly met on the day of Berryessa.”
TOSCHI: “The bottom line is that Allen can’t alibi up on anything. Riverside, Vallejo, the lake or us. You want to tell me about the name?”
DA: “What name?”
ARMSTRONG: “Zodiac. Allen wears a watch that bears both the word and crosshair symbol. And he mentioned Zodiac to Cheney a year and a half before it appeared in any letter.”
CAPTAIN LEE: “John…”
DA: “That’s pretty good, guys.”
CAPTAIN LEE: “We think so, too.”
DA: “Let’s take it to a judge.”
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 them 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 and the police reports confirm her account.]
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, SFPD Inspector William Armstrong 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 as fact in Fincher’s film during a scene in which San Francisco police are listing the “real” evidence against Allen.
Other elements of this scene were equally troubling. Armstrong’s character states that Allen resembles the description of the Zodiac, saying, “True, height and weight are sketchy, but lumbering Caucasian with a crew cut is right on.” In reality, Allen did not match the description at all– Allen was at least 6 feet tall and weighed at least 200 lbs or more. Witnesses described the suspect at that crime scene as approximately 5 feet 8 inches tall, or, 5 feet nine inches tall. This suspect was described as having reddish-brownish hair worn in a crew cut; just five days before this crime, a Vallejo detective described Allen as “6’1″, 241 (lbs), heavy build and… bald.” The witnesses at the crime scene provided this description of the man who killed cabdriver Paul Stine: WMA 35-45 years old, 5’8″ Reddish brown hair, Crewcut, Heavy Rim Glasses, Navy blue or black jacket. The officer in question, Don Fouke, provided this description of the Zodiac suspect: White Male Adult, in his early forties, 5’8″, heavy build, reddish-blond ‘crew cut’ hair, wearing eyeglasses, dark brown trousers, dark (navy blue or black) ‘Parka’ jacket, dark shoes. Witnesses at two different Zodiac attacks had described the killer as approximately 5 feet 8 inches tall with blondish hair. Two different witnesses at one crime scene had described the killer as being 5 feet 8 inches tall with reddish-blond hair– and these witnesses had a better and longer view of the suspect than the witness at the other crime scene, surviving victim Michael Mageau. These facts all indicated that the Zodiac was much shorter than 6 feet tall and much shorter than Arthur Leigh Allen. Don Fouke had even stated on several occasions that Allen was not the man he had seen near the crime scene that night. Yet, the film makers ignored all of these facts and instead tried to create the false impression that Allen could match the descriptions of the Zodiac by focusing on his ethnicity and walk while implying that Allen had a crewcut just days after a homicide detective described him as “bald.” If the film makers had been honest, they would have presented the facts which proved that Allen did not match any of the descriptions of the Zodiac.
The film makers also stated that Allen’s job as a school janitor somehow meant that “He’d have knowledge of bus routes, which the two major [Zodiac] threats centered around.” Janitors do not drive school buses and have no direct knowledge of bus routes. This bizarre inference is similar to Graysmith’s claims that Allen’s job as a janitor somehow meant that he would know when kids were out of school for summer recess or the holidays. Graysmith seemed to overlook the more obvious fact that anyone who had ever attended school would possess such knowledge, and, that this knowledge was readily available to virtually everyone, even those who did not attend or work at a school.
The film’s fictional liberties were 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 the facts, or, worse, they have no interest in the facts at all. 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.
Fincher, Vanderbilt and company also changed other facts in order to make Allen seem guilty, but this ulterior motive is most evident in the scenes concerning the televised Dunbar show, and in later scenes in which Graysmith claims that the Zodiac had called Belli’s home on the date of Allen’s birth and declared, “Today’s my birthday.” Most viewers may not even notice the subtle and deliberate manner in which the facts have been distorted beyond recognition to accomodate Graysmith’s myth of the Belli-birthday call. In reality, the call to Belli’s home occurred sometime in mid-January, 1970; Allen’s birthday was December 18. Police were alerted after this call and then placed a tap on Belli’s phone. The man called back several times and, in mid-February, police finally traced the calls to the Napa State Hospital. The calls were made by a man named Eric Weil, a patient sufferening from mental illness. Police determined that Weil was not the Zodiac, and, they also concluded that Weil was the same man who had called in to the Jim Dunbar show several months earlier. In short, someone claiming to be the Zodiac had called the Dunbar show but police were unable to trace the calls. When the same man called Belli’s home, police traced the calls to the hospital and to Weil. Police then determined that Weil was the Zodiac imposter “Sam” but that he was not the Zodiac. FBI reports and other accounts confirmed this chain of events, and anyone involved in the original investigation would have known about these facts.
In Jamie Vanderbilt’s fantasy version of the Zodiac story, SFPD Inspector David Toschi tells Robert Graysmith that the Zodiac had called attorney Melvin Belli. In another scene, Graysmith sits in the home of Melvin Belli, waiting to meet with the famous attorney. Melvin’s housekeeper brings the cartoonist some refreshments while he moans about the length of his wait. He tells her that he is writing a book about the Zodiac case and the housekeeper says, “I talked to him.” Graysmith asks, “With Mr. Belli, about the case?” and the housekeeper replies, “With Zodiac, when he called.” She tells Graysmith that the caller had said it was his birthday. When asked to recall the date of the phone call, the housekeeper says, “Mr. Belli was away for Christmas, gone for a week…then the letter arrived.” She further states that Belli “came back on Christmas.” Graysmith deduces, “So, the call came before December 20,” and says to himself, “So, he (Belli) left on the 18th.” After the scene with Belli’s housekeeper, the film shows Graysmith as he breathlessly dials Toschi for confirmation on the “birthday” call. Toschi is evasive but then tells the cartoonist that, had his partner checked on the call, he would have to “put that in a report” for the Department of Justice. Graysmith is then shown speaking with Agent Mel Nicolai of the State Department of Justice in Sacramento, California. Nicolai states that none of the suspects had been born on December 18, the day Graysmith believes the “birthday” call took place. The agent says, “Armstrong checked this out.”
The facts told a very different story: Graysmith never interviewed Belli’s housekeeper, and he did not learn of this so-called “birthday” call until 1999 with the release of the FBI files on the Zodiac case. These files demonstrate that the phone calls to Belli’s home occurred in early 1970, and that these calls were traced to the patient in a mental hospital. Any reports Armstrong had filed with the Department of Justice would have stated that the phone calls to Belli’s home were traced to a mental patient and were not made by the real Zodiac. Toschi therefore had no reason to tell Graysmith otherwise, as shown in the film. In the film, Mel Nicolai states that none of the suspects had been born on December 18 and says, “Armstrong checked this out.” Had Armstrong “checked this out,” he would have known that his own suspect, Arthur Leigh Allen, was born on December 18. Obtaining a suspect’s date of birth and other vital statistics is usually the first thing on an investigator’s list of things to do. Near the end of the film, Robert Graysmith appears at the home of SFPD Inspector David Toschi, proudly produces Arthur Leigh Allen’s drivers license, and cites the December 18 “birthday” call to attorney Melvin Belli. Toschi seems impressed by Graysmith’s discovery concerning Allen’s date of birth and the date of the “birthday” call. In reality, Toschi knew that the “birthday” call did not occur on December 18, and that the call was placed by a patient in a mental hospital, not the Zodiac. This entire thread throughout the Zodiac screenplay seems to be designed solely to create a fictional universe in which the facts made Allen look guilty.
Such factual distortions may go unnoticed by many viewers, and some people may ask, “What’s the big deal?” Altering the facts in order to make a suspect look guilty is a serious issue and should be a serious issue to anyone who cares about the truth. The subtle yet deliberate manner in which the film makers have distorted reality in order to implicate Graysmith’s pet suspect is a serious and disturbing departure from the facts, especially for film makers who praised themselves for their research, factual accuracy, and objectivity. The “Belli-birthday” call thread in the film serves as the foundation for the structure which is built throughout the fictional story so that the final deceptions will seem legitimate in the minds of viewers. Yet, all of these elements are dependent on one simple and disturbing departure from the truth regarding the Jim Dunbar show.
As seen in the film, “Sam” calls in to the show and then surviving victim Bryan Hartnell is shown with police dispatchers Nancy Slover and David Slaight as they listen to recordings of Sam’s voice. Then, Inspector Bill Armstrong informs them that the calls were traced to a mental hospital. According to the film’s fictional version of the story, Sam’s calls and the trace had all occurred on the same day, within a matter of hours. In reality, police were not able to trace the call’s until several months later when Eric Weil called Belli’s home. Furthermore, Harntell, Slaight and Slover had all stated that Sam’s voice was not the voice of the Zodiac. The film makers deliberately misled viewers by creating the impression that police had quickly determined that “Sam” had been traced to a mental hospital on the same day of the Dunbar broadcast when, in fact, this process took several months. The film makers also departed from the facts, and the original video taped broadcast, by creating the false impression that two different people had called in to the Dunbar show– the Zodiac imposter, and another caller with a much deeper and far more sinister voice similar to the voice of the Zodiac as portrayed in the film (Allen is also portrayed with a deep voice). Only one person had called the Dunbar show and claimed to the Zodiac, as the taped broadcast proved, and police had always known that the man who called in to the show was not the Zodiac.
Even Belli himself stated that there was no doubt that he had spoken to one man during the show and then spoke to the same man on a private line off camera. Police knew, on the day of the show, that the three individuals who had spoken to the Zodiac had all stated that “Sam” was not the Zodiac. Several months later, in February 1970, police identified Eric Weil as “Sam,” and concluded that he was not the Zodiac. Therefore, David Toschi, Bill Armstrong and everyone else involved in the investigation had known, for decades, that the person who had called the Dunbar show was the same person who had called Belli’s home and that person was not the Zodiac. Yet, for reasons which should be obvious but are never explained by the film makers, these facts have been abandoned in favor of a completely ficticious version of reality in which the real Zodiac most likely called the Dunbar show and David Toschi tells Robert Graysmith that the Zodiac had called Belli’s home. Then, Mel Nicolai confirms this fictional reality and even cites Armstrong’s non-existent investigation of a “birthday” call to Belli’s home by the real Zodiac on Allen’s birthday.
Then, Graysmith is shown confirming this falsehood in a conversation with Belli’s housekeeper which never took place in reality. Then, Graysmith reveals the “fact” of the Belli-birthday call to Toschi, yet, the fictional Toschi should have known about this information already in the fictional universe. The real Toschi already knew that the Zodiac had never called Belli and the real Toschi never told Graysmith so in the first place.
These facts may seem like an overwhelming collection of “so-what’s” to those who are eager to excuse fictional liberties for the sake of dramatization, but, again, these facts were altered for a specific purpose and apparently served solely to make Allen seem more guilty than the real-life facts would permit. The film makers may offer up some self-serving explanation, but these factual changes and the manner in which they are used in the film betray their true purpose and intent. This agenda is evident in the film’s version of the televised Zodiac hoax on The Jim Dunbar Show. Screenwriter Jamie Vanderbilt, producer Brad Fischer and director David Fincher used the actual video tapes of the original television broadcast as the source for this scene, going so far as to reproduce the set, the clothing, and much of the dialogue from the original broadcast. However, the film makers apparently made a deliberate decision to alter the dialogue during one specific segment, for reasons unknown. In reality, host Jim Dunbar asked “Sam” if he had called in to the television show during a previous broadcast featuring Melvin Belli.
DUNBAR: Sam, let me ask you a question. Did you, um, did you attempt to call this program one other time when Mr. Belli was with us? And, you called –
DUNBAR: Did you try to call us one other time about, oh, two or three weeks ago when Mel Belli was with us?
DUNBAR: And you, uh, well –
BELLI: You couldn’t get through, and we were talking?
DUNBAR: And you couldn’t get through, the phones were tied up, is that it?
In the fantasy version of reality written by screenwriter Jamie Vanderbilt, the same sequence had been changed as follows:
DUNBAR: “Did you attempt to call one other time when F. Lee Bailey was with us two or three weeks ago?”
DUNBAR: “And why did you want to talk to Mr. Bailey?”
BELLI: “Why do you wanna talk to me, Sam?”
[Here, Dunbar is shown looking at Belli as if he disapproves of the attorney’s attempt to focus on himself.]
The film makers altered the dialogue in this scene, changing the name “Mel Belli” to “F. Lee Bailey.” The individual who originally called the Oakland police department had claimed to be the Zodiac and demanded that Belli or Bailey appear on Dunbar’s program. However, Dunbar himself referred specifically to “Mel Belli” as the guest on a previous show and “Sam” replied that he had tried to call during that specific program. Belli himself confirms that he was a guest on a previous show by saying, “You couldn’t get through, and WE were talking?” The film makers changed this dialogue for a reason, yet that reason is not explained in the director’s commentary or in the production notes.
In reality, Dunbar had asked “Sam” if he had tried to call during a previous broadcast featuring Melvin Belli, and Sam replied, “Yes.” In the film’s version of the same dialogue, Dunbar’s character asked Sam if he had tried to call during a preivous broadcast featuring F. Lee Bailey, and Sam replied, “Yes.” Given the undeniable fact that the film makers had direct and unfettered access to the actual video of the original broadcast, the change in the dialogue stands out as a deliberate decision made for a specific yet unexplained purpose. The film makers had already tried to create the false impression that two different people had called in to the Dunbar show– the Zodiac imposter and the real Zodiac. Later, the film makers tried to create the false impression that the real Zodiac had called Belli’s home on Allen’s birthday. In reality, Sam/Eric Weil had confessed that he had called during Belli’s previous appearance on Dunbar’s show, and, the calls to Belli’s home were traced to a mental hospital and Eric Weil. The real-life facts demonstrated that Zodiac imposter Eric Weil had an apparent obsession with Belli which drove him to call the attorney. The film tried to obscure the evidence of Weil’s obsession with Belli by creating the false impression that the Zodiac imposter was fixated on F. Lee Bailey, instead. This change smoothed over the troubling facts and paved the way for the later false claim that the real Zodiac had called Belli on Allen’s birthday. In short, this change created the false impression that the Zodiac imposter was interested in Bailey and the real Zodiac was focused on Belli. Even the Zodiac seemed to have commented on the Zodiac imposter by sending a letter to Belli along with a piece of a victim’s clothing, as if to say, “That other person is an imposter. I’m the real Zodiac.”
In one of the final scenes of the film, Toschi sits at a diner table while Graysmith continues in his attempt to sell Allen as a hot suspect and cites thirteen facts to prove that Allen was the Zodiac.
1. Allen was seen with the Zodiac ciphers.
2. Allen was in the Navy, and the killer left a military boot print at Lake Berryessa.
3. Allen and the Zodiac shared the same sizes for shoes and gloves.
4. Allen and the Zodiac were fans of the short story or movie, The Most Dangerous Game.
5. Allen owned a Zodiac watch, the only place where the name and the crossed-circle symbol appear together.
6. Allen had a background with schoolchildren and the Zodiac threatened to kill schoolchildren.
7. Allen and the Zodiac misspelled the word Christmas as “Christmass.”
8. Allen mentioned bloody knives in his car on the day of the stabbing at Lake Berryessa.
9. When Toschi says that a search of Allen’s belongings should have produced the rest of Paul Stine’s bloody shirt as well as the cab driver’s missing wallet and keys, Graysmith notes a police report, and the statements of Allen’s sister-in-law. He explains that Allen suspiciously moved his trailer to Santa Rosa in the days after he was first interviewed by police in 1971.
10. No Zodiac letters were received while Allen was imprisoned for molesting a child, and a new Zodiac letter arrived shortly after his release.
11. The calls on the night of Darlene’s murder proved that she had known her killer.
12. Graysmith had proved that Darlene also knew Arthur Leigh Allen.
13. Darlene Ferrin worked at the House of Pancakes located less than a block from Allen’s home in Vallejo.
Toschi is visibly convinced by Graysmith’s presentation, and leaves with a “thank you.” This scene suggests that the circumstantial evidence described by Graysmith is convincing and based on fact, yet, the thirteen points presented in this scene cannot withstand minimal scrutiny and cannot be said to implicate Allen in the Zodiac crimes.
A friend of Allen told police that he had seen the suspect with a scrap of paper featuring symbols somewhat similar to those used by the Zodiac. This witness told police that Allen had these symbols AFTER the Zodiac’s codes had appeared in the newspapers. Allen told police that he had followed the Zodiac story in the news when the case first began. The Zodiac’s codes marked the beginning of the media coverage surrounding the Zodiac crimes. The military boot print was only relevant if Allen could be linked to the same boots that had made the boot print. No evidence existed to link Allen to such boots, despite the fact that the film shows him wearing identical boots when interviewed by police in 1971. Allen and the Zodiac may have worn the same shoe size, but the gloves found in the cab of Zodiac’s last known victim could not have fit Arthur Leigh Allen, who, by all accounts, was a very large man.
Allen may have professed his fondness for the short story, The Most Dangerous Game, but the attempts to link the Zodiac to this story are tenuous at best. The Zodiac never used that exact phrase; in fact, the killer wrote that man was the most “hongertou” animal of all, or the most dangerous animal of all, and not, “the most dangerous game.” The short story may have inspired the Zodiac, but there is no evidence that he ever referred to the story in any of his many communications. The Zodiac watch was not the only place where the name Zodiac and the crossed-circle appeared together. Allen’s possession of such a watch might be suspicious if other credible evidence implicated him in the crimes, but such evidence did not exist. Allen’s background with schoolchildren did not link him to the Zodiac crimes. Allen’s comments concerning bloody knives were incriminating, and stand as one of the few facts said to implicate him. According to Graysmith, Allen had suspiciously cleaned and moved his trailer immediately after police alerted him that he was a Zodiac suspect. Graysmith cites a police report, and the statements of Allen’s sister-in-law, as evidence of Allen’s suspicious attempts to destroy evidence and avoid detection. Graysmith fails to mention that the very report in question states that the sister-in-law did not consider Allen’s behavior at all suspicious because the suspect had announced his plans to move the trailer BEFORE his first meeting with police.
It is a fact that police did not receive any further Zodiac letters while Allen was incarcerated. However, it is also a fact that the Zodiac also failed to send further letters during extended periods of time when Allen was not incarcerated. The last authenticated Zodiac communication was received in the spring of 1971 and then the Zodiac fell silent until early 1974– Allen was not incarcerated during this time. The “Zodiac” letter of April 1978 was initially deemed authentic by some experts, but a majority of handwriting analysts determined that the letter was the work of a forger. This fact indicated that there never was a gap in the Zodiac letters while Allen was incarcerated, and that the last authenticated Zodiac letter was received in 1974, before Allen was incarcerated, and that the letters did not resume after his release. The timing of the Zodiac’s letters did not implicate Allen.
The phone calls to Darlene’s home, the home of her parents and the home of her in-laws on the night of her murder do not prove that Darlene knew her killer or implicate Allen. Darlene’s brother Leo stated that he made these calls and police had never believed that these calls were at all suspicious or made by the killer. Dean Ferrin did not believe that the calls were suspicious or made by the killer. The stories about the calls were inflated by Darlene’s sisters and Robert Graysmith himself. No credible evidence existed to connect Darlene and her killer, and no credible evidence existed to connect Darlene to Arthur Leigh Allen. The notion that Darlene knew a sinister man named Lee came from one witness, Darlene’s sister, Linda. In the days, weeks, months and years after Darlene’s murder, Linda never attempted to provide police with this valuable information concerning Lee, despite the fact that she had mentioned this individual within hours of the murder and described him as one of Darlene’s closest friends. In later years, Linda identified Larry Kane as the man in question – she did not identify Arthur Leigh Allen. At one time, Allen did live in his parents Vallejo home less than a block from Darlene’s place of work. However, the available information suggests that while Darlene worked at this location in Vallejo, California, Allen lived in a rented house many miles south in Calaveras County. Allen was a Vallejo resident– like many other Zodiac suspects– and this fact was not evidence which implicated him in the Zodiac crimes.
The thirteen points cited by Graysmith’s character in this final summation scene did not implicate Allen in the Zodiac crimes. The phone calls on the night Darlene was killed, the terrifying “Lee,” and the “birthday” call to Melvin Belli on Allen’s date of birth, were the lynchpins of Graysmith’s solution to the case. The film makers knew that all three of these points were easily refuted by the known facts.
The film closes with what have been described as two endings: a scene in which surviving victim Michael Mageau identifies Allen as the Zodiac, and a final title regarding the status of the case. Mageau’s character is shown a collection of photographs and he identifies Allen. He then states that the killer had a round face similar to that of another man in another photograph. He rates his identification on a scale of 1 to 10 as an “8.” This scene is relatively accurate, and this version of events was first confirmed several years earlier by my own research. After retired detective George Bawart had publically stated that Mageau had “positively” identified Allen, I contacted then-Detective Joann West of the Vallejo Police Department. She consulted the files and reported the version of events as previously described, and she noted that the department did not consider Mageau’s identification of Allen to be valid or positive by any stretch of the imagination. Mageau’s own account of the shooting indicated that he had never gotten a good look at the suspect, as he himself admitted in 1969. His identification of the shooter did not match Allen on any count, and his statements about the second photograph of a second man raised serious doubts about the validity of his identification. More than two decades had passed since the shooting and Mageau’s own statements indicated that his memory was not reliable. Yet, the film makers decided to portray Mageau’s identification as credible evidence of Allen’s guilt.
The end title stated that a DNA sample was later obtained from an authentic Zodiac letter and this DNA did not match that of Arthur Leigh Allen. According to the film makers, Vallejo authorities were allegedly preparing to charge Allen in the Zodiac crimes but were unable to proceed when he suddenly died in 1992. The title then informs audiences that the Napa County Sheriff’s Office, the Solano County Sheriff’s Office and the Vallejo Police Department still consider Allen to be the “prime and only suspect” in the Zodiac case. In reality, the Vallejo Police Department was not preparing to charge Allen prior to his death and even the Vallejo District Attorney stated that it was unlikely that Allen would ever be charged in the crimes. While spokesmen for the Vallejo police department had stated at various times over the years that Allen remained a person of interest in the investigation, all of the law enforcement agencies mentioned in the end titles of the film still investigated other suspects and other leads. Investigators from the Napa County Sheriff’s department, including Ken Narlow, did not believe that Allen was the Zodiac. The end titles made no mention of Allen’s suspect status with the one law enforcement agency at the center of the film’s plot – the San Francisco police department. At the turn of the century, the SFPD had little interest in Allen after announcing the results of DNA comparisons that appeared to exonerate the suspect, and the news that a “writer’s” palm print, found on the Zodiac’s infamous “Exorcist” letter, did not match the palms of Arthur Leigh Allen. A few investigators tied to the Vallejo Police Department believed that Allen was still a good suspect, but this was due in large part to the previous stance on the issue by others in that department. All of the law enforcement agencies involved in the Zodiac investigation considered the case unsolved and expressed no interest in Allen as a suspect. Yet, the film makers described Allen as “the prime and only suspect” in the Zodiac crimes.
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 claimed that this evidence was compelling. An examination of this evidence revealed 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 discounted 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. The evidence proves that Allen’s chief accuser, Don Cheney (portrayed in Fincher’s film as a reliable informant) had invented stories in order to make Allen look guilty. Even the detective who had once touted Cheney as a reliable informant later expressed his doubts about Cheney’s credibility and honesty. 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, the evidence indicates that 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 David Fincher believed that the evidence presented in the film Zodiac was sufficient to “posthumously convict” Arthur Leigh Allen, history may remember David Fincher as a great director.