Hoax theorist Thomas Horan wrote: “Everything everybody ‘knows’ about the Zodiac killer comes from Robert Graysmith’s book, Zodiac (1986). Every movie, every documentary, every book, every website.”
The above statement is demonstrably false. Many researchers long ago abandoned Graysmith’s book as a source and instead refer to the actual police files, FBI files and other official documents, interviews with original investigators and others involved in the case, and much more.
The truth is that many people have used Graysmith’s book as a primary source, and many people have perpetuated many myths and falsehoods from Graysmith’s version of the story. However, the notion that Graysmith created the Zodiac killer is not supported by the facts. Since the very first “Zodiac” letter in 1969, people have believed that a “Zodiac killer” actually existed. Many of these believers were members of law enforcement. Many of the “standard facts” about the case which appeared in Graysmith’s book were first collected and included in police files and in a report prepared and distributed by the California Department of Justice in the early 1970s, more than a decade before Graysmith’s book was published.
In this report, Special Agent Mel Nicolai listed the facts of the case as they were known at that time. The information contained in this report is accurate in most instances. Nicolai’s report included most of the accurate information which later appeared in Graysmith’s book. With few exceptions, the factual errors, exaggerations, distortions and falsehoods which appeared in Graysmith’s books cannot be attributed to Nicolai’s reports or any of the official documents. The image of the Zodiac killer was solidified back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, long before Robert Graysmith had any influence on public perception regarding the mystery.
The media– including television, radio, newspapers and books– took most of its information from details released by law enforcement and from the information gathered by reporters and other sources. Soon, the story was additionally altered and embellished when citizens, attention seekers, and amateur sleuths came forward with theories, claims, and accusations against various suspects. As the media absorbed more information and created its own version of the story, the image of the Zodiac became more sensational and inaccurate. Eventually, the public image of the Zodiac killer was very different than the reality. The new image became the legend and that legend became the basis for Robert Graysmith’s version of the Zodiac story.
Horan wrote that “the story of the killer wiping down the cab is an exaggeration by Graysmith, and not what the witnesses actually reported at the time.” In his book Zodiac, Graysmith wrote that the killer “seemed to be wiping down the interior of the taxi” and “leaned forward to wipe off the area of the dashboard again.” SFPD Officer Armand Pelissetti was the first officer to arrive at the crime scene. He spoke to the witnesses that night and reported the information in a report dated October 12, 12:30 AM, less than three hours after the murder. Pelissetti’s report stated: “The suspect then appeared to be wiping (fingerprints) on the interior of the cab, leaning over the victim to the driver’s compartment. The suspect then exited the cab by passenger side front door, also wiping with a white rag possibly a handkerchief.” The story of the Zodiac killer “wiping” down the cab appeared in the very first police report describing the first statements of the only eyewitnesses.
Graysmith’s best-selling book is not a reliable source, and he has created and perpetuated many myths about the case, but the facts debunk the claim that everything everyone knows about the Zodiac case comes from Robert Graysmith’s book.