Isn’t that what books should be about?” — Robert Graysmith
History will forever link the name of Robert Graysmith to the notorious Zodiac murders. This, of course, is no accident. For more than twenty years, Graysmith has seized every opportunity to exploit the tragedy for his own benefit. With the re-release of ZODIAC: UNMASKED, Graysmith is once again claiming that he has identified one of America’s most elusive serial killers, and once again, he is determined that the truth should not stand in his way.
Graysmith’s two books about the still-unsolved case have been widely discredited by critics, researchers, investigators, witnesses and others, yet his largely fictional accounts have served as the basis for a new major motion picture directed by David Fincher (Se7en, Fight Club). As the cartoonist-turned-crime writer is immortalized on film, audiences are entitled to know the true story behind the career and character of a Zodiac scavenger.
The Making of a Book
When the Zodiac crimes first began in the late 1960s, Robert Graysmith was a political cartoonist employed at the San Francisco Chronicle. The killer who called himself “the Zodiac” sent many letters to the Chronicle from 1969 to 1974. Graysmith was not involved in the case or the investigation.
By 1976, Graysmith obtained a copyright for his own book about the Zodiac case. In December of 1980, Graysmith had said that his book would be published by Norton and available in 1981. The last entries in Graysmith’s book are dated around this time. In 1983, columnist Herb Caen wrote an article stating that Graysmith’s book, then titled “THIS IS THE ZODIAC SPEAKING,” would be published by St. Martin’s Press and available in the fall of that year. It would be three more years before the book appeared with the title ZODIAC. When released in 1986, ZODIAC was a best seller, and became known as the definitive account of the case. However, Graysmith’s story of the Zodiac’s murders, methods and motives was incomplete, and major portions of the book are now obsolete.ZODIAC promised to present “the complete text” of the Zodiac letters, going so far as to guarantee readers, “In this book, for the first time, is every word Zodiac wrote…” On page 152, Graysmith proves otherwise. When describing the Zodiac’s thirteenth letter, Graysmith claims the letter is “reprinted completely here for the first time,” yet immediately seems to forget this promise and proceeds to delete the first portion of the text. Graysmith makes other, similar omissions throughout the book.
Graysmith claimed that investigators had escorted him to the crimes scenes to describe how the attacks had happened. Despite this assistance, Graysmith’s book inaccurately identified the locations of three of the Zodiac’s four crimes.
As an amateur sleuth, Graysmith concocted many unsubstantiated theories, including the idea that Zodiac was killing according to some astrological pattern. Graysmith told readers of ZODIAC that he had finally solved one of the Zodiac’s mysterious codes; however, FBI cryptographers stated that his solution was not valid.
Armistead Maupin, a San Francisco Chronicle columnist and author of the popular series “Tales of the City,” had been an unwitting participant in a scandal concerning a forged “Zodiac” letter. In an interview with United Press International writer Richard M. Harnett, Maupin said, “I think the public has already been terrified far too much by this boogeyman story,” and expressed concerns that Graysmith’s book would revive the hysteria surrounding the unsolved mystery. Maupin’s words proved prophetic when, shortly after the publication of Zodiac, more hoaxes and forged letters plagued police and the public.
The boogeyman story began all over again on the other side of the continent when a man responsible for several shootings in New York began to send letters to local newspapers and claimed to be the Zodiac. Police eventually captured the copycat, and a search of his belongings produced a well-thumbed copy of Graysmith’s book. Some critics argued that the crime spree might have been avoided had Graysmith not provided such a sensational and glorified portrait of the Zodiac as inspiration.
Richard Harnett’s review of Zodiac appeared in The Los Angeles Times on February 9, 1986, and offered some of the only media criticism of the book. Harnett wrote that a “good account of all the facts in the Zodiac affair would have been a valuable contribution … but Graysmith, a newspaper cartoonist, took on the role of amateur sleuth rather than historian … He neglects those parts of the historical record that don’t fit into his scenario.”
Most of Graysmith’s scenarios revolved around Arthur Leigh Allen, a convicted child molester who first came to the attention of authorities in 1971 when an estranged friend told police Allen had confessed his intent to commit crimes similar to those of the Zodiac. The former friend had once complained to Allen’s brother that the suspect had made improper advances toward his young daughter, but the friend did not reveal this allegation to police. Investigators did not question the suspect or the accuser about this possible motive to implicate Allen. The subsequent investigation by police in San Francisco and nearby Vallejo included the search of a trailer owned by Allen; however, investigators failed to uncover any evidence to link Allen to the Zodiac crimes. Allen once again came under scrutiny when the California Department of Justice conducted a review of the original Zodiac investigation, but authorities found no evidence to link Allen to the unsolved murders.
After Graysmith’s book and its thinly veiled portrait of Allen made the suspect the subject of local curiosity, another man from Allen’s past came forward and claimed Allen had confessed his intent to commit a Zodiac-like crime. Police had arrested Allen and the accuser more than 30 years earlier during a fight between the two men. The informant had committed several armed robberies and hoped to avoid a prison sentence by implicating Allen. The Vallejo police captain and a retired detective launched another investigation and eventually searched Allen’s home. This investigation also failed to connect Allen to the Zodiac crimes but Allen’s identity as the prime suspect in the unsolved murders reached the newspapers, local television news and even the syndicated tabloid shows A Current Affair and Geraldo Rivera’s Now It Can Be Told.
In interviews conducted shortly before he died in 1992, Allen repeatedly declared his innocence and complained of harassment from the police and others. News reports of Allen’s death often quoted Graysmith’s book and repeated erroneous information about the suspect, further blurring the distinction between Allen and his fictional counterpart.
Graysmith’s questionable efforts to link Allen to the crimes began in the introduction to Zodiac, where he informed readers that “one of the Zodiac’s victims may have known his true name” and “this victim, in the act of turning Zodiac into the police, had been murdered.” According to Graysmith, the victim in question, Darlene Ferrin, engaged in an intense argument with a mysterious stranger Graysmith believed to be a man identified only as “Lee,” the nickname often used by Arthur Leigh Allen. In Graysmith’s scenario, a car chase to Blue Rock Springs Park ended when the stranger approached Ferrin’s vehicle, uttered her nickname, and proceeded to open fire on the victims. Ferrin’s companion lived to tell a very different story and the original police reports effectively refute Graysmith’s version of events.
Graysmith would later claim that a witness and his sister had heard Ferrin and her killer arguing just before the shooting occurred. The witness in question never claimed to have heard such an argument and he told police a very different story. The witness did not have a sister.