More than 20 years ago, the publication of the sensational and largely fictional book Zodiac inspired a legion of amateur sleuths who claimed they had identified the Zodiac, holding press conferences, peddling books, accusing suspects and telling tall tales. Things really have changed since then– actually, nothing has changed at all.
The years since 2007 have been a nightmare for anyone who cares about the case and the truth, and it’s more than clear why those in law enforcement did not welcome the production of David Fincher’s revisionist history film, Zodiac, a film based on the largely fictional book by Robert Graysmith. The effect of the film has been much like the effect its source material had on the case and society more than 20 years ago– meaning, the film and its opportunistic exploitation of the many already-debunked myths about the case only served to inspire others with even less shame. When society praises and rewards those who exploit the case with no regard for the truth, the clear message is: “Exploiting the Zodiac case for your own fame and profit at the expense of the truth and the victims is perfectly acceptable behavior.”
To be fair, it’s not as if the makers of Zodiac invented the exploitation of the Zodiac case– that began almost as soon as the first victims took their last breaths more than four decades ago. This is, after all, America, where the mantra often seems to be, “Who cares as long as it doesn’t effect me.” Translated into simple, everyday language, this means, “When something bad happens to me, it’s tragedy,” and “When something bad happens to someone else, it’s entertainment.” This logic has fueled the recent wave of those coming forward with claims that they have identified the Zodiac killer.
Years ago, a debate broke out on the old true crime message board regarding the publication of the book Daddy Was The Black Dahlia Killer. Janice Knowlton told a wild story in which her father had not only killed the infamous Hollywood murder victim Elizabeth Short but was part of an underground sex ring that served the Hollywood elite. The book, written by Michael Newton, caused a splash in the media and Knowlton did her best to earn her fifteen minutes, peddling her bizarre, wholly unsubstantiated tales as much as possible. Her campaign led her to the message boards where she and Newton defended their book against the crowd of skeptics and critics who viewed their efforts as little more than shameless opportunism that only further muddied the story of the Black Dahlia killing. As one who had read the book and studied the claims made by the author and Knowlton, I raised questions regarding the veracity of the claims as well as the motives behind the book. In my opinion, it was clear that Knowlton was mentally-ill and that Newton was morally corrupt, eager to exploit the woman for whatever she was worth with little regard for her emotional well-being. In short, it was a quick buck, but Newton did his best to justify his work and boost the sagging credibility of his co-author. No matter how bizarre or unsubstantiated her claims may have been, everyone seemed happy to ignore that obvious reality as long as Knowlton didn’t start accusing little green men from Mars, too. My exchanges with both characters left me convinced that the entire episode was a sad commentary on the world– the whole book was total crapola and Knowlton had no credibility whatsoever, but that kind of talk just interfered with the business of selling books and making money. Who wants to stop and admit that the whole story is pure nonsense when there are talk shows to book, contracts to sign, movie rights to sell. Crapola sells, and people who sell crapola are not interested in selling substance.
After Knowlton faded from the spotlight, no one stopped to care about how she had been effected by the entire episode. The media machine chewed her up and spit her out on cue when she was no longer profitable. When she died in an apparent suicide, Knowlton once again became marketable and, on cue, the media returned to milk the most out of her breakdown and demise. Today, the Janice Knowlton saga is just a sad footnote in the never-ending spectacle that is the Black Dahlia story; this legendary murder case had also fallen victim to the distortions of Hollywood many times over, including director Brian DePalma’s fictional film. Now, others have come forward to accuse their own dead fathers of the crime while the media machine gobbles them up and marches mindlessly forward in search of more mentally ill attention seekers or morally challenged morons to consume.
William Beeman called a press conference and disgraced himself back in the ’80s when he accused his brother Jack. Beeman sold a book about his amateur investigation for fifty bucks; later, he admitted that he was wrong.
Blaine Blaine pestered every law enforcement agency in Northern California and more with his claim that his estranged friend Richard Gaikowski was the Zodiac; Blaine lived in an alternate universe where he was a credible individual and, unfortunately for him, every one of the members of law enforcement he encountered lived in another universe where Blaine was a brandied fruitcake, and never the two shall meet.
Gareth Penn launched his now-decades-old campaign against Michael O’Hare, accusing the former Harvard lecturer of the Zodiac and other crimes using his own twisted interpretations of the Zodiac’s writings and codes; today, Penn is still at it but, in a fitting bit of irony, he now stands accused of the Zodiac crimes by someone who used his same dubious methods. [O’Hare recently wrote an online article about the sorry saga, almost thirty years after it began.
Then there was the guy who murdered his friend in what he claimed was a re-enactment of a Zodiac crime, the New York Zodiac or ZODIAC II, the Zodiac killer in Japan, the Zodiac copycat in North Carolina, and any number of other losers inspired by the glorification of the killer and his crimes. Harry Martin with his 9,745 part special series about the answer to the Zodiac crimes, involving Robert Hunter, Charles Manson, Larry Kane, the Illuminati, the Freemasons, E. Howard Hunt and Hanger 18. Charles Clifton Collins thought his daddy might have been the Zodiac, and he had to go on national television before he’d face the fact that doing so might have been a bad idea.
And now we have even more lunatics adding their names to the list of funny fellows, comic men and clowns of private life who have disgraced themselves in their efforts to exploit the unsolved mystery. Dennis Kaufman has been accusing his now-deceased step-father Jack Tarrance of the Zodiac crimes since 2000; back then, his wild claims and tales did little to impress those who studied the case or those in law enforcement. For some reason, those who are in charge at Sacramento’s CBS 13 television station have taken on the role as Kaufman’s unabashed PR firm; reports from CBS 13 seem to be little more than talking points handed down by Kaufman and unverified by any of the so-called “journalists” at the station.
Sandy Betts claimed that the Zodiac had been following and harassing her for decades; she even claimed that the killer had left his hooded costume in her car back in the 1960s. Yet, of course, Betts could not produce this costume when asked to do so. Howard Davis claimed that the Zodiac’s hooded costume was discovered among the possessions of the so-called “Manson family” and then destroyed as part of an elaborate conspiracy to conceal the family’s involvement in the Zodiac crimes. Davis claimed that his ex-district attorney/ex-brother-in-law told him of the nefarious plot; apparently the source was mistaken– more than three decades later, Dennis Kaufman discovered the Zodiac’s hood in an old piece of stereo equipment among his late step-father’s possessions.
After he failed to convince authorities that he had identified the Zodiac as Richard Gaikowski, Blaine Blaine produced a scan of a book which bore the signature “Paul Stine.” According to Blaine, this book was found among Gaikowsk’s possessions; of course, Blaine claims he no longer has the actual book. Deborah Perez produced a pair of old glasses which she claimed her step-father had taken from Zodiac victim Paul Stine.
Despite what can only be described as an undeniable lack of credibility, each of these theorists and accusers still manage to convince others that their claims have merit, and these converts then work to endorse, promote and protect the theorists. Deborah Perez garnered the assistance of a disbarred attorney who once worked with the infamous lawyer Melvin Belli. Perez’s PR machine called a press conference and spoke of a film in the works. Previously, Perez had approached true crime writer William C. Phelps with her story in the hope that the author might embrace her tale as a potentially profitable endeavor. Phelps later wrote that he believed Perez and her story were credible until she also claimed that she was JFK’s illegitimate daughter. Phelps later wrote that he felt as if he had been “duped.” Even on the surface, Perez’s claim that she had accompanied her father during several Zodiac attacks was dubious at best. Those who had studied the Zodiac crimes immediately noticed several problems with Perez’s story, and even those who knew little about the case could quickly recognize the fact that Perez’s wild tale was simply too sensational to be true. The fact that Phelps considered Perez credible only until she allegedly claimed to be JFK’s illegitimate daughter suggests that Phelps might still be convinced of Perez’s credibility if she had simply been a better liar peddling a better lie. The scenario was reminiscent of author Michael Newton’s relationship with Janice Knowlton and the book Daddy Was The Black Dahlia Killer; Newton was apparently happy to embrace and promote Knowlton’s absurd story as long as her lies remained subtle and almost plausible.
Dennis Kaufman seems to have television reporter Cris Pickel wrapped around his finger and he has now attracted the support of a university professor in Arizona. The professor believes that his geographical analysis of suspected murder sites confirms Kaufman’s claims concerning several unsolved crimes. While the professor was happy to add his own endorsement of Kaufman, the professor’s university was quick to note that the professor spoke for himself and not for the institution. Another man stayed awake for several days until he became convinced that the Zodiac’s letters contained hidden messages that further implicated already-exonerated suspect Arthur Leigh Allen. According to the sleep-deprived amateur sleuth, the hidden messages only became visible when viewed on a computer monitor that was tilted to a certain angle. This theorist sought out his fifteen seconds of notoriety and discovered that the media was eager to oblige. Other men and women have come forward with their own claims; these individuals would have remained anonymous thrill-seekers without a media ready to provide a forum for the latest crackpot.
Steve Hodel entered the world of sensational true-crime exploitation with claims that his father, now-deceased doctor George Hodel, was responsible for the infamous “Black Dahlia” murder in 1947. Eventually Hodel’s theory appeared in the book Black Dahlia Avenger. While some embraced Hodel’s theory as the solution to the mystery, others rightfully noted that Hodel’s entire theory hinged on what could only be described as tenuous speculation and assumptions; in some instances, Hodel’s “evidence” was discredited. Yet, Hodel remained undeterred and he has now released his latest attempt to cast a dark cloud over the memory of his dead father– the book Most Evil: Avenger, Zodiac and the Further Serial Murders of Dr. George Hodel, in which Hodel claims that Dr. George Hodel was also the Zodiac. That George Hodel was approximately sixty-years-old at the time of the Zodiac murders was apparently the first fact to be thrown out the window as Hodel attempted to exploit yet another unsolved tragedy for personal gain. Some are thrilled to see a new Zodiac book and happily promote Hodel’s latest effort, and once again, the contrast is clear: anyone who actually cared about the Zodiac case would not welcome the publication of yet another book peddling yet another bad theory and yet another bad suspect. Once again, so many of those who claim to care about this case seemed far more interested in serving themselves.
In 2014, Harper-Collins published a book titled The Most Dangerous Animal of All, written by Susan Mustafa and Gary Stewart. The book claimed that Stewart’s estranged and conveniently-deceased father Earl Van Best, Jr. was the Zodiac. Harper-Collins kept the book secret until the publication date, a strong indication that the publisher had little-to-no faith in the book’s claims to have solved the case. Stewart’s solution relied on handwriting comparisons which later proved completely wrong when the handwriting samples attributed to Best turned out to be the handwriting of another person. The rest of Stewart’s so-called “evidence” was equally invalid, although he continued to claim that he had produced more evidence than anyone else to identify the Zodiac. Authorities were not impressed by Stewart’s claims and Stewart faded from the public view after several desperate public statements attempting to explain the complete collapse of his solution to the mystery.
While the men and women of law enforcement worked to catch the killer, the media, the public and, most notably, the theorists blamed investigators and cling to pet theories and suspects. Innocent men stand accused by crackpots armed with little more than a three-ring binder filled with contrived coincidences, strained speculation and nonsense.