SAN FRANCISCO (APBnews.com) — Late in the afternoon of Valentine’s Day 1997, the phone rang, and the case of the Zodiac killer reopened.
“Something is up,” said the voice on the phone, which belonged to my friend and former homicide inspector Dave Toschi. He said Inspectors Vince Repetto and Rich Adkins of San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) wanted to see me as soon as possible.
“Is this in connection the Zodiac case?” I asked. It was, he replied. Adkins and Repetto had just inherited the case, and they wanted to talk.
I next spoke with George Bawart, a retired Vallejo detective. He, too, had spoken with the two detectives and passed on this piece of information: ADkins told him, “After all this time, we want to close it– and we think we can.“
I called Repetto at 9 a.m. the following day. He said he wanted to meet right away. We agreed on 10:30 a.m. at the Mirabelle Cafe, the site of the former Owl and Monkey Cafe on Ninth Avenue.
I recognized the two men immediately as they crawled out of their unmarked police car. We sat at the same table where I had written Zodiac back in 1976-1986– to the right of the front door, just as you enter off Ninth Avenue.
But I thought I saw a slight slump to their shoulders, as if in the last hour and half something had changed.
They sat down and told me their story. The previous day, Adkins and Repetto had gotten DNA results of a first run. They had discovered that genetic markers on a Zodiac letter had matched Arthur Leigh Allen’s. It looked as if there might actually be a break in the case, which stretched back nearly 30 years.
However, a call to Repetto that morning offering sobering news: A second run had showed no DNA match. Repetto had heard this daunting bit of news between the time I spoke with him and the time he had picked up his homicide partner.
Cloud the false positive had come from a close relation?
Meanwhile, we looked over the copies and originals of Allen’s writing I had brought along.
Repetto was especially firm in his belief that the Zodiac killer was Allen. Adkins believed so as well. But Allen’s handwriting did not match, the testing showed he had not sealed the letter they had tested.
Another detective on the case
Early in March, Lt. Tom Bruton, an SFPD homicide investigator, called me. He had now inherited the Zodiac investigation and needed some help. And I had some questions for him. I asked him about the DNA test, and he told that Allen’s DNA sample had come from brain tissue or a brain fragment released by the coroner. Allen had died in 1992.
But then came the key question: “Which letter did they test?” I had in mind one of the early letters that contained bloodstained squares of a victim’s shirt, one that absolutely identified the sender of that communication as the cipher slayer.
“We used the 1978 letter,” Bruton replied.
“The one virtually everyone believed to be a forgery?” I said in dismay. They had tested a hoax letter.
One theory remains alive
As it turned out, the dubious 1978 letter was the only one to offer a decent DNA sample. No samples good enough could be obtained from the earlier, confirmed Zodiac letters, Bruton said.
While there has yet to be any forensic evidence identifying Allen as the Zodiac killer, at least one theory remains alive: the possibility that two men were involved, one killing and one writing.
(Robert Graysmith is an expert on the Zodiac killer. He is the author of the book ZODIAC, among other nonfiction crime books. His interest in the case developed when he was a political cartoonist at the San Francisco Chronicle when the Zodiac killer began writing to the paper.)
* Graysmith expressed his “dismay” upon learning that police had tested the 1978 letter for DNA, stating, “They had tested a hoax letter.” Among the many law enforcement agents, handwriting experts and others involved in the case, Graysmith was among only a handful who believed that the 1978 letter was an authentic Zodiac communication. In fact, Graysmith was the most vocal of those to endorse this document as authentic, going so far as to create elaborate theories about Zodiac’s method of writing based on this letter. Graysmith also cited the gap between the last authenticated Zodiac letter in 1974 and the 1978 letter as evidence which implicated Allen, stating that this gap coincided with Allen’s prison sentence. In his book, Graysmith had declared that the 1978 letter was authentic yet he reversed his upon based only on the fact that the DNA taken from this letter did not match his suspect. In the years after he wrote the above article, Graysmith moved back and forth between two mutually exclusive opinions, at times stating that the 1978 letter was a “fake” and, at other times, he stated that the letter was authentic.
* The Zodiac left a hand-written message on the door of a victim’s car, and the handwriting matched the handwriting used in the Zodiac letters– a strong indication that one man was responsible for the Zodiac crimes as well as the Zodiac letters. Every single handwriting expert who ever examined Allen’s writing had concluded that Allen did not write the Zodiac letters and no credible evidence implicated Allen in the Zodiac crimes.
* Graysmith hoped that authorities would test one of the authenticated Zodiac letters, preferrably one which had accompanied a piece of a victim’s clothing. Several years after Graysmith wrote the above article, police obtained a DNA sample from an envelope which had contained one of the blood-stained scraps of the shirt belonging to Zodiac victim Paul Stine. When this DNA did not match Allen, Graysmith began claiming that the DNA had been contaminated, that the lab work was unreliable, that the letters had not been stored properly, or that others had licked the Zodiac stamps and envelopes for Allen. During one interview, Graysmith admitted that no evidence would deter him from his belief in Allen’s guilt.
* Graysmith claimed that the “first run” of DNA testing had implicated Allen and that police then contacted him for a meeting to discuss this development. According to Graysmith’s account, Inspector Repetto had received a phone call on the morning of the meeting and learned that a “second run had showed no DNA match. Repetto had heard this daunting bit of news between the time I spoke with him and the time he had picked up his homicide partner.” Graysmith’s scenario is not plausible, as DNA testing can take a matter of weeks and months, even with today’s technology. A “second run” of DNA testing would require more than a few hours or even one day; this fact alone casts doubt on Graysmith’s version of events. Graysmith’s claim that a second run had produced different results was also suspicious given the fact that a “false positive match” is not only extremely rare but cannot happen as the result of a simple error in testing.
* A document from the SFPD crime lab from the time in question reveals that the lab was able to find some cells on various Zodiac letters, including the suspected 1978 letter. In later years, DNA taken from other letters did not match Allen. This document states that the 1978 letter is not considered to be an authentic Zodiac communication, meaning: San Francisco police had already classified the 1978 letter as a forged hoax letter BEFORE they had allegedly contacted Graysmith to discuss the fact that DNA allegedly taken from this letter had allegedly matched Allen’s DNA.
* 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.
* In 2000, SFPD Inspector Vince Repetto 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. According to Repetto, Graysmith’s entire scenario was pure fiction.