The ‘DEATH BECOMES US’ True Crime Festival in NYC


[A Note to the Reader: Like many of you, I have been focused on many other priorities during the Covid crisis, and I haven’t had as much time as I’d like to work on this website. I recently began the process of updating various pages and adding links, and I noticed some unpublished posts which had been written before the crisis began, including this article about my trip to New York City for a live episode of the Monster podcast at the “Death Becomes US” true crime festival.]

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The final episode of the true crime podcast MONSTER: The Zodiac Killer titled “Legacy” looks at the issues surrounding the public tragedy of this unsolved mystery. As the Zodiac story ended its fifth decade without answers, the families of the victims live with grief and the search for the killer continues. Efforts to obtain DNA from stamps and envelopes sent with suspected “Zodiac” communications raise hopes that new technology and forensic genealogy could finally close the case even if the families of the victims may never find the mythical solace often described as “closure.”

Every true crime murder story begins with the death of a human being, and the victims are forever trapped in the foundation of the narrative. For the families and loved ones, this second tragedy compounds and amplifies the first horror. The final episode of Monster examined the cold realities of unsolved murders and our collective need to confront the violence in modern society. The growing public fascination with true crime stories creates questions about the impact on victims and the need for standards in media with the increased demand for content.

The human element of true crime entertainment was a central theme at the recent “Death Becomes Us” true crime festival in New York City. The 5-day event offered much more than entertainment and featured informative presentations, panel discussions, live podcasts, and Q&A sessions with true crime investigators, experts, writers, and others. Several true crime cases were examined, including the Zodiac mystery, the Atlanta child murders, the West Memphis Three case and the killings in “Robin Hood Hills,” the saga of “the Golden State Killer,” and more. 

On March 24th, 2019, I was part of a panel assembled for a live bonus episode titled MONSTER: From Atlanta to the Zodiac, with producer/narrator Matt Frederick, producer/host Payne Lindsey, executive producer Donald Albright, and producer Meredith Stedman. The first segment focused on Zodiac while the second examined the Atlanta child murders.


The MONSTER crew: Creative producer Meredith Stedman, producer/narrator Matt Frederick (iHeartMedia), Michael Butterfield (, executive producer/host Payne Lindsey, and executive producer and co-founder of Tenderfoot TV Donald Albright. Photo by Nicholas Karlin, Karlin Villondo Photography.

A Q&A session included some interesting questions from the audience about the reasons why the murders of victims deemed less important often remain unsolved. Donald Albright replied, “I think I can give you a nice, simple answer– We have to care about those who don’t look like us.” Referring to the victims in the Atlanta child murders case, Albright explained, “They were forgettable victims to the eyes of law enforcement… referred to as ‘street thugs,’ ‘hustlers’.” I also noted that the same problem plagued other infamous serial killer investigations, including the cases of the ‘Green River killer,’ Jeffrey Dahmer, and John Wayne Gacy. Meredith Stedman hoped that true crime podcasts could bring attention to forgotten or neglected cases. “I think that’s where podcasts shine, actually, in a lot of ways,” Meredith said. “Some people just don’t care if the victims are on drugs, or a person of color. It doesn’t make any sense. But we can bring this to our platform, and report on these unreported cases.” One audience member asked if new technology and forensic science would someday put an end to crime. The panel agreed that crime was most likely inevitable, in some form, and Donald Albright provided the best answer when he said, “You can’t underestimate evil.”

The final episode of Monster noted the fact that the Zodiac case remained unsolved on the 50th anniversary despite the growing interest in this true crime story. The crimes, letters, threats and clues of the Zodiac continue to fascinate and haunt, but the killer himself continues to escape justice. Each passing anniversary increases the pressure to solve the case as television documentaries and news stories review the mystery. The public fascination grows and and the Zodiac story spreads by media, but few people stop to think about the politics behind the realities of law enforcement. Investigators can solve crimes with the necessary resources which require funding from taxes paid by the public, but law enforcement budgets are often controlled and allocated by local officials who are elected by the public. Law enforcement agencies are often unable to afford the forensic testing and other services necessary to process evidence, including DNA which could identify the perpetrators and also minimize the other costs incurred investigating and clearing suspects. Those who are interested in true crime and support police efforts to solve cases, identify killers, and find some sense of justice for the victims need to demonstrate that support with their votes for candidates who will work to provide proper funding for law enforcement agencies. During the “Death Becomes Us” Q&A session, I was asked about the issues surrounding the growing interest in true crime stories. “Hopefully, this renewed interest will manifest itself in support for law enforcement to give them the resources they need to solve these cases of sexual assaults, assaults, homicides, because– Wouldn’t it be great if we could make true crime stories obsolete?… There are thousands of back logs of DNA rape kits all over the country, and maybe somewhere in those backlogs is a serial killer, and if they could find that person, they could solve the case, and maybe save someone’s life.” I added, “I hope this isn’t just entertainment– I hope that it becomes social responsibility and awareness.” [Listen to a bonus audio clip: “Monster” Live @ The “Death Becomes Us” true crime festival in New York City.]

The true crime festival was an informative and inspiring event with insights from many diverse individuals, including journalists, investigators, and others involved in true crime stories. Damien Echols and Amanda Knox talked about their murder convictions and releases with FBI profiler John Douglas. Writer Harold Schechter and author Cara Robertson joined author Sarah Weinman for a discussion about true crime stories, including the case of accused ax-murderer Lizzie Borden. The closing show was titled Murder She Wrote: The Ladies of True Crime, with authors Carolyn Murnick, Piper Weiss, and Leah Carroll, moderated by author Sarah Weinman.

The Monster show included a look at the first season of the podcast about the Atlanta child murders in the early 1980s. I appreciated the opportunity to listen as Payne Lindsey, Matt Frederick, and Donald Albright shared their experiences studying the Atlanta case and their own conclusions about the prime suspect Wayne Williams. In 1981, I was 12 years old and worked as a paperboy. I remember preparing the newspapers for delivery and being terrified by stories about the ongoing murders and the search for the killer. My fears became a reality when a young paperboy disappeared in my hometown. Everyone believed that the boy had been abducted and murdered but his body was never found. The reality that a killer was prowling our streets and stalking children was frightening enough, but the unfolding story of the Atlanta killings proved that the monsters were everywhere. I continued to follow the Atlanta case over the years, and I collected documentaries, books, and other material, including the controversial television mini-series produced by the respected producer and writer Abby Mann (Judgment at Nuremberg). I read the essays about the case collected in James Baldwin’s book The Evidence of Things Not Seen, and I also studied the book written by former police officer Chet Dettlinger and writer Jeff Prugh. In The List, Dettlinger and Prugh questioned the evidence, the alleged links between the victims, and the possible guilt or innocence of the prime suspect Wayne Williams. My interest led me to contact Dettlinger to discuss his opinions and conclusions. After years of following this story, I still had some questions and was not convinced that Williams was responsible for all of the murders attributed to the so-called “Atlanta child killer.”

During our off-time that weekend in Manhattan, Matt Frederick and I continued our conversations in the bar at the FreeHand hotel. We discussed the Atlanta murders and the Zodiac saga, exchanged stories about our own journeys exploring both cases, and laughed at some of the more bizarre tales. Matt has a good sense of humor and a unique perspective. He offered insights and raised many interesting questions. As we talked, I noticed a familiar face passing in the background behind Matt– it was John Douglas, the retired FBI agent famous for his work on the Atlanta case as well as his groundbreaking methods and profiles of serial killers (now dramatized in the popular TV series Mindhunter). I pointed to Mr. Douglas and whispered to Matt, “That’s John Douglas (!!).” I did not have the courage to approach Mr. Douglas, but Matt fearlessly called out to the legendary profiler and walked toward him with a hand extended in greeting. Matt introduced us and John Douglas graciously joined our conversation to share his memories of the Atlanta investigation. He noted that his profile of the killer proved controversial when he predicted that, contrary to popular theories, the person responsible for the Atlanta murders was most likely a black man. This prediction proved prophetic when police arrested Wayne Williams, later convicted of two murder of adult males but also linked to the child killings in a trial filled with drama and doubt. Douglas accurately predicted that Williams would expose his violent nature in an angry, emotional outburst in court. In our conversation, Douglas said that he believed Wayne Williams was responsible for some of the crimes, but he also expressed his doubts that Williams was responsible for all of the murders attributed to the Atlanta child killer. “He didn’t do all of them,” Douglas stated. He was optimistic that the reopening of the Atlanta case might provide some new information. We also discussed his work regarding the case of the so-called “West Memphis Three,” including Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley. Douglas believed that the three men were not responsible for the murders of three young boys in the early 1990s, and he believed that the step-father of one victim remained a logical suspect. Douglas also shared his thoughts about the explosion of true crime media along with his hopes that the growing interest in true crime stories would generate more support for the investigation of cold cases. I was grateful for the rare opportunity to meet Douglas and to hear his opinions and conclusions in person. This chance meeting was the highlight of the entire event.


MONSTER producer/narrator Matt Frederick, retired FBI profiler John Douglas, and Michael Butterfield ( Photo by John Edward Douglas Jr.

Unfortunately, I arrived in New York too late to see one of the most popular events of the festival. Writer Billy Jensen and retired forensic scientist and cold case investigator Paul Holes talked about the search for and arrest of the suspected “Golden State Killer” Joseph DeAngelo, and the launch of their new podcast The Murder Squad. Paul Holes also discussed investigation strategies and techniques with Jax Miller & Sarah Cailean from the HLN network. In 2009, I was fortunate to spend several days with Paul Holes as we filmed the History Channel series MysteryQuest. Ten years later, at the true crime festival, a problem with an elevator led to my chance reunion with Paul Holes. Very late on my first night in the New York hotel The Freehand, my card key would not activate the elevator, and I was therefore trapped going up and down as other guests climbed aboard and pressed the buttons for their respective floors. I decided to go back down to the lobby and get a new key, but the elevator doors opened to the celebrations on the bar floor and several people stepped inside. Then, I heard someone shouting my name and I looked up to see one of the festival creators smiling and waving at me to come out of the elevator. She grabbed my arm and turned me around to face Paul Holes. We shook hands, and I told Paul that I was one of the many people who were incredibly impressed by his work in helping to identify the Golden State Killer. I also congratulated him on his new book and podcast series, and then joked that he had not aged much in the last ten years while the rest of us were not so lucky.

During the New York trip, I used some of my free time to visit some of my old haunts, including the famous Washington Mews, Washington Square Park, and even my old apartment building in the East Village.



Photos by Michael Butterfield.


So many memories flashed through my mind as I walked the same streets, so much of my early life was spent in those neighborhoods so many years ago. One of the most vivid memories resurfaced as I walked through Manhattan at night. I moved to New York in the early 1990s, shortly after a serial killer started shooting people there and sending letters claiming to be the Zodiac killer. At first, many people feared that California’s elusive “Zodiac” had returned, but eyewitness descriptions identified the New York killer as a black man while the original Zodiac killer had been described as a white man. I remembered seeing the newspaper headlines reading, “ZODIAC II.” Then, the New York attacks stopped and everyone wondered where the new Zodiac had gone and whether or not he would return. I watched a television news report narrated by John Miller which examined the shootings, the possible suspects, and the killer’s mysterious disappearance. The show was very disturbing, and I remember riding my bike through the streets of New York, knowing that another Zodiac was somewhere out there. Then the New York killer resurfaced and some people wondered if he was just another copycat, a third killer– “ZODIAC III.” One night, comedian George Carlin appeared on a late night TV show and joked about the bizarre situation. “How many Zodiac killers do you need?”

The joke illustrated a problem with the increasing public fascination with the Zodiac mystery and the media coverage. The New York copycat “Zodiac” seemed to have been inspired in-part by the sensational media coverage and the often-glorified image of the Zodiac killer, a situation which raised troubling questions about the standards of journalism and the irresponsible exploitation of true crime stories. Years later, police in Japan found a note in the mouth of a decapitated victim which featured a cross symbol similar to the Zodiac’s infamous crossed-circle symbol. Shortly after the release of the 2007 film Zodiac, a man killed his pregnant girlfriend in a North Carolina hotel room and staged the crime scene to divert suspicion from himself by leaving a “Zodiac” message on the bathroom mirror. The media was not responsible for the acts of lone killers, but all of the copycat killers were somehow inspired and influenced by the media. In 1974, the writer of one suspected “Zodiac” letter complained about the glorification of violence and wrote:

Sirs- I would like to expression my consternt consternation concerning your poor taste + lack of sympathy for the public, as evidenced by your running of the ads for the movie “Badlands,” featuring the blurb: “In 1959 most people were killing time. Kit + Holly were killing people.” In light of recent events, this kind of murder-glorification can only be deplorable at best (not that glorification of violence was ever justifiable) why don’t you show some concern for public sensibilities + cut the ad?

The film Badlands was a fictionalized account of the real-life killing spree by Charles Starkweather. The irony of a murderer who used the media to brag about his crimes criticizing the media for glorifying violence was clear, even if the writer’s complaint was nothing more than sarcastic mockery. The glorification of the Zodiac continues today yet the victims paid the ultimate price for his status as America’s most infamous bogeyman. The Zodiac would undoubtedly lose much of his mystique if he were finally exposed as a seemingly average human being, just as the accused “Golden State killer” Joseph DeAngelo looked like an old man instead of a deadly predator who terrified citizens for decades. The identification of the Zodiac would also end decades of speculation and theories which cloud the true story and fuel sensational coverage.

George Carlin asked, “How many Zodiac killers do you need?” and the answer is none. The Zodiac story remains one of the most compelling and baffling mysteries in American true crime history, but the major reason we are even talking about all of this today comes down to the basic fact that some loser killed a lot of innocent people, bragged about his crimes, and got away with it. San Francisco Chronicle writer Kevin Fagan delivered one of the most memorable lines of the entire Monster podcast series when he said, “Yeah— wacky ciphers and letters that taunt and say, ‘I like hunting the most dangerous game.’ Yeah, great. The guy belongs in freakin’ prison.” When the New York true crime festival ended, I boarded the Long Island Railroad train for the JFK airport and headed back to my everyday life. All the renewed attention, media events, and more were certainly appreciated for attracting attention to this cold case, but none of it would necessary if the case could be solved. I remember wondering if 2019 would be the year that we might finally see the end of this story. After so many years have passed, I have to admit that I never really thought we would still be talking about this case being unsolved. A decades-old mystery may still be fascinating but the Zodiac case is also a dark and depressing chapter of history which deserves a final resolution.

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CLICK HERE to view photos from the “Death Becomes Us” true crime festival in New York, featuring FBI profiler John Douglas, ‘Golden State Killer’ investigator Paul Holes and writer Billy Jensen (The Murder Squad), MONSTER executive producer Payne Lindsey, producer/narrator Matt Frederick, creative producer Meredith Stedman, executive producer and co-founder of Tenderfoot TV Donald Albright, writer Michael Butterfield (], true crime historian and author Harold Schechter, Cara Robertson (author of The Trial of Lizzie Borden), Carolyn Murnick (author of The Hot One), Piper Weiss (author of You All Grow Up And Leave Me), Leah Carroll (author of Down City), Sarah Weinman (author of The Real Lolita), author Damien Echols (‘The West Memphis Three’), Amanda Knox, Jax Miller & Sarah Cailean (HLN), Martinis & Murder hosts John Thrasher and Daryn Carp, Wine & Crime podcast hosts Amanda, Kenyon, and Lucy.


BREAKING NEWS: The Zodiac’s “340 Cipher” has been solved


Written by Michael Butterfield / Posted: December 11, 2020 / 6:00 AM EST

Over the years, I have heard many rumors about some break in the case and proposed solutions to the Zodiac’s unsolved ciphers. Every amateur codebreaker is certain that their solution is correct but the evidence debunks their claims. The result is immediate skepticism whenever someone declares that they have unlocked the secrets of a Zodiac cipher. One learns not to get too excited about such claims in order to avoid the inevitable disappointment. 

Several years ago, I came to rely on David Oranchak for guidance when trying to understand the many complex issues surrounding the Zodiac’s ciphers. A computer programmer, David’s approach to the ciphers was refreshing and his analysis was informative. I often receive emails from people who claim to have solved the ciphers and I always refer them to David for his examination and conclusions. He always provides a fair assessment of proposed solutions and encourages people to bring new ideas to the discussion. His website has been a valuable resource for anyone seeking information about the ciphers.

For these and other reasons, I was not immediately skeptical when I received a message from David on the morning of Saturday, December 5th, which read: “I and two other programmers have a solution for the 340 cipher. No joke. I just sent off the solve to the FBI. I’m pretty sure it’s correct.” 

I believed that David would not make such claims if he could not back them up with clear evidence, so I was instantly intrigued by the thought that such evidence was obviously forthcoming, and I was not disappointed. I soon learned the incredible story behind the solution, a story about the pursuit of a seemingly random clue in a mundane search of data.  

The mystery was finally solved with the collaborative efforts of three individuals in different countries across the globe. From his home in Flanders, Belgium, computer programmer Jarl Van Eycke has worked online with David Oranchak in the United States, and Sam Blake in Melbourne, Australia.


David Oranchak, Sam Blake, and Jarl Van Eycke.

As members of Mike Morford’s forum at, the trio shared information, examined possible decryption methods, and searched for any clue which could crack the Zodiac’s three unsolved ciphers. Van Eycke created AZdecrypt, described by David as “a fast and powerful cipher solver,” and a modified version of this software helped Van Eycke and entrepreneur Louie Helm set a world record for deciphering of a bigram substitution of the shortest cipher length.

Studying the Zodiac’s 340 cipher, Sam identified and collected information about variations in the cipher text, which ultimately proved to be the key to cracking the cipher. “My main contribution here was actually enumerating many possible reading directions through the cipher, in total over 650,000,” Sam explained. “David and I both ran these through azdecrypt and zkdecrypto respectively. Interestingly, only azdecrypt was able to find the fragments of the complete solution. It was a needle in a haystack. Even finding the right haystack to search in was lucky.”

“Just one very partial solution, in a sea of 650,000 cipher variations I was running,” David added. That one partial solution was not completely correct but instead suggested information about the cipher’s construction. “By luck, we discovered that (Zodiac) split it into three pieces and rearranged the message in a predictable diagonal pattern in the first two pieces.” When the words ended at the right side of the text block the diagonal message would continue in the next line at the left side. The Zodiac made an obvious effort to thwart attempts to decipher the message by constructing the cipher in this way, and the resulting block of text may have been intended to encourage the false assumption that the 340 cipher was constructed with the same methods used to create the killer’s previous cipher, which was a simple message reading from left to right as normal text. By rearranging the message into three parts disguised as one block of text, the Zodiac may have believed that most people would never look beyond its appearance to discover the actual method used to hide the real message.

David explained, “Cracking it required undoing those arrangements then trying to discover his substitution key. That wasn’t enough because he made some mistakes in the second piece. Jarl discovered the mistakes and corrected them, which greatly cleared up the second piece.” After Jarl’s corrections were included and the proper adjustments were made, the decryption process quickly produced actual results. “We had a nugget of a solution on Thursday. I took Friday off and worked on it all day. My teammates Sam and Jarl also worked on it a lot. By (Saturday) morning, Jarl had worked out the remaining bit and it was finally complete enough to send off to the FBI. They responded almost immediately.” David said that he had received three telephone calls from the Bureau on Saturday morning. “When I talked to the FBI, they only needed to make one change to the solution.” David and his team had deciphered a section of six letters to read, “soo her.” “We couldn’t figure out the part that says, ‘soo her,’ [but] their cryptanalyst called me and she said she thinks it’s supposed to say, ‘sooner’” instead.

The solution was also examined by Dan Olson, Cryptanalyst Forensic Examiner for the FBI’s Racketeering Records Analysis Unit in Washington, D.C. Oranchak said, “They are running the solution up the chain now. Dan says it looks solid. I was happy to hear Dan Olson tell me personally that he thinks it’s solid.”


During his appearance in the 2009 History Channel series MysteryQuest, Dan Olson shared his theory that the text block of the Z340 may have been intended to be separated into two parts in order to be deciphered. The cipher was actually separated into three parts and the message was found in the first two parts.

The FBI experts were so confident that the solution was valid that the bureau would essentially close the file on the 340 cipher. “FBI is amending their original report to include our solution as the actual solution,” David reported, “Then they’ll submit it back to the San Francisco Police Department (the original requestor of assistance with the cipher in 1969).”

The solution revealed a message which seemed consistent with the Zodiac’s persona and character as displayed in his previous communications, including the deciphered text of the 408 symbol cipher. In that message, the killer wrote that he was killing people in order to collect slaves to serve him during his afterlife in “paradice.” The Zodiac also included the same misspelling in text using the words “paradice” and “slaves” to form a cross. In the solution to the 340, the writer returned to this theme and declared that he was not afraid of death.


David noted that, unlike other proposed solutions, this new solution revealed a clear and discernible message. “(We) didn’t have to do too many steps, and yet a coherent message pops out.”

The writer apparently referred to the Bay Area television talk show, The Jim Dunbar Show, and an episode featuring famous attorney Melvin Belli.  On October 22, 1969, someone called the Oakland police station and claimed to the Zodiac. The caller demanded that Belli, or Boston attorney F. Lee Bailey, appear on the show with host Jim Dunbar.


TV host Jim Dunbar and attorney Melvin Belli talk with the Zodiac impostor “Sam.”

During the broadcast, a man called several times but kept hanging up in an effort to prevent police from tracing the calls to his location. The caller agreed to be referred to as “Sam,” and he complained that headaches had driven him to murderous impulses. “Sam” expressed his fears of being “hurt,” and Belli promised to help the caller avoid “the gas chamber.” After the broadcast, a recording of the caller’s voice was played for the three people who had spoken to the Zodiac. Surviving victim Bryan Hartnell and police dispatchers David Slaight and Nancy Slover all concluded that “Sam” was not the Zodiac. Police reports, FBI files and other accounts indicated that “Sam” later called Melvin Belli’s home several times and that police were finally able to trace those calls to a patient in a mental institution. Investigators concluded that the man was not the Zodiac, but the incident became an often misunderstood chapter of the story and some people continued to believe that “Sam” was actually the killer.

The writer of the cipher text stated, “That wasn’t me on the the TV show.” The incident with Sam occurred on October 22, 1969, and the cipher was sent two and a half weeks later in November. On December 20, 1969, the Zodiac sent a letter to Belli’s home in an envelope which also contained a piece of a victim’s bloodstained shirt to confirm the writer’s identity as the real killer. The tone and text of the letter’s message seemed somewhat insincere, and the message could be interpreted as mockery of Sam’s imposter version of the “Zodiac” character. [To learn more, read the ZodiacKillerFacts article MELVIN & SAM: The Strange Saga of a Zodiac Impostor or listen to the audio version of the article ZODIAC: A TO Z – Ep# 10 – Melvin & Sam: The Strange Saga of a Zodiac Impostor.]

David said that, at first, he did not expect much to come from the possible decipher method, but everything changed when a message materialized before his eyes. “When ‘that wasn’t me on the TV show’ popped out during the solve, I jumped out of my chair and said, ‘Holy ****!’ since that show happened like a few weeks before the cipher was received. That’s when I knew it was on the right track.”

After more than fifty years, the mystery of the 340 cipher had finally been solved, thanks to the extraordinary efforts of three men working together from different parts of the world. “It’s exciting. We were really lucky to come across this solution,” David said. “It was only a handful of words to start with. Could have very easily ignored them and moved on. But ‘gas chamber’ really stood out.”

When David explained to me how the cipher was solved, I was reminded of his previous statements in interviews for my podcast series about possible decryption methods and different theories about the construction of the ciphers. I said to him, “This really bolsters so many things you said in your interviews.” David replied, “Yeah, the statistics in the cipher text really did turn out to reflect the way it was constructed.”

In November, 2019, David and I were discussing the Zodiac’s 340 cipher for the podcast ZODIAC: A TO Z – Ep. #8 – 340: The Mystery. Approximately 15 minutes into the show, David essentially predicted how the Z340 was actually constructed when he described possible encryption techniques. “Route transpositions are things like, read the message from left to right and then right to left and then left to right, kind of like a snake pattern, back and forth, a zigzag pattern. That’s an example of a route transposition. Or like, a diagonal, reading off the message diagonally. So in those situations, you’d end up with a plain text that doesn’t look like it makes any sense. And then the last step there would be to encrypt it using the same kind of substitution used in the first cipher. So the symbols are assigned to each of the letters.”

For years, I stated my belief that the Zodiac may have been somewhat disappointed that his first cipher was solved so quickly and, therefore, he may have intended that the next cipher was more difficult to solve. Some people had speculated that amateur codebreakers Donald and Betty Harden were able to solve the original 408 cipher so quickly because the Zodiac was little more than an amateur who possessed only a basic understanding of cryptography. I asked David if this new cipher solution cast doubt on those theories about the Zodiac’s knowledge of cryptography. “Yes, either he knew codes, or had a good intuition about how to make them.” David also agreed with my theory. “He definitely reacted to the Hardens solution and made it much harder.”

David thanked Mike Morford, owner of, and stated that “the site played a crucial role” in the events leading up to the solution. “It gave us a forum to collaborate. Me and the other nerds used it extensively… This could have only happened with the two other guys I worked with. Sam (Blake) sent me the 650,000 variations. One of them turned out to be extremely close to the right answer. And Jarl built the codebreaking software, and also helped fix up the solution. No way I could have done any of this without them.” Jarl Van Eycke said, “It is unbelievable how everything came together so perfectly between the three of us. And I am so happy to be a part of it.”

David was concerned that media coverage about the solution could be confusing. “It may be hard to convey to the general public because it does require additional steps— diagonal reading, splitting into three seconds, fixing the mistakes, and rearranging letters in the last two lines.” He has produced a new episode of his YouTube video series “Let’s Crack Zodiac with more details about the new solution and the methods used to decipher the message.

While the new solution did not provide any apparent clues to the killer’s identity, the deciphered message revealed another glimpse into the mind of the Zodiac. Whether or not he actually believed that his dead victims would serve as his slaves in his afterlife, the repeated theme was somehow important to the killer. In 1969, the Zodiac claimed that he was killing victims to become his slaves, and, more than half a century later, he remains significant because those victims were sacrificed to achieve his infamy. As his story continues to unfold in the pages of the history books, we are still haunted by the ghost of the Zodiac.


FBI Statement: The FBI has a team of cryptanalysis experts that decipher coded messages, symbols, and records from criminals known as the Cryptanalysis and Racketeering Records Unit. CRRU regularly works with the cryptologic research community to solve ciphers. On December 5, 2020, the FBI received the solution to a cipher popularly known as Z340 from a cryptologic researcher and independently verified the decryption. Cipher Z340 is one of four ciphers attributed to the Zodiac Killer. This cipher was first submitted to the FBI Laboratory on November 13, 1969, but not successfully decrypted. Over the past 51 years CRRU has reviewed numerous proposed solutions from the public–none of which had merit. The cipher was recently solved by a team of three private citizens. The Zodiac Killer case remains an ongoing investigation for the FBI San Francisco division and our local law enforcement partners. The Zodiac Killer terrorized multiple communities across Northern California and even though decades have gone by, we continue to seek justice for the victims of these brutal crimes. Due to the ongoing nature of the investigation, and out of respect for the victims and their families, we will not be providing further comment at this time.

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Michael Butterfield is a writer who has conducted extensive research on the Zodiac case since the 1990s. As a recognized leading expert on the unsolved crimes, he has served as a media source and consultant for news articles, television documentaries, the History channel series The Hunt for the Zodiac Killer, and director David Fincher’s major motion picture Zodiac. Michael Butterfield appears in the Zodiac documentary Case Reopened, the History Channel series MysteryQuest, the E! Canada series The Shocking Truth, the Reelz channel documentary The Real Story of Zodiac, the HLN series Very Scary People, the documentary produced for Japanese television Darkside Mystery, and the podcast series Monster: The Zodiac Killer. He is also the producer of the podcast series Zodiac: A to Z and he is a contributing author for True Crime: Case Files, True Crime Magazine, and the two volume collection of essays titled A History of Evil in Pop Culture. Michael Butterfield is also a co-host with author/host Alan R. Warren for The House of Mystery on NBC News radio.


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ZODIAC DNA: What if?


Rumors about efforts to obtain DNA from suspected “Zodiac” communications generated speculation about the possible outcome which could lead to the identity of the elusive “Zodiac killer.” Some people believe that the DNA will match a known suspect while others, including myself, believe a more likely scenario that the Zodiac will be identified as someone who has never been identified as a suspect, although I would welcome being proved wrong. Those who have accused known suspects may have a vested interested in a preferred outcome, but those of us who have no pet theories or suspects would be happy to see the case solved in any scenario.

I was recently asked, “What are you gonna do if the DNA matches [known suspect] Arthur Leigh Allen?” The question was clearly inspired by my many criticisms of the claims naming Allen as the Zodiac and the alleged evidence said to implicate him in the Zodiac crimes. For some reason, the debates about these issues are falsely framed as two opposing points of view: 1) the accusations that Allen was the Zodiac, and, 2) the claim that Allen was innocent. Over the years, I have been identified as perhaps one of the loudest critics of the Allen-as-Zodiac theories and claims, and, apparently, I am therefore branded as someone who claims Allen was not the Zodiac. This label is not accurate, as I do not argue about Allen’s guilt or innocence, largely because that is an issue which we cannot litigate or resolve, especially in online discussions. We cannot determine whether Allen was guilty or innocent based on the available evidence and those who make claims from either end of the spectrum cannot possibly offer any substantiated resolution. If the questions about Allen’s guilt or innocence cannot be resolved then we must change the nature of the debate.

Arguments that Allen was the Zodiac must be substantiated by credible evidence. To date, the evidence cited by Allen’s accusers has been questionable, exaggerated, distorted, and sometimes even invented. The issue of Allen’s guilt or innocence cannot be resolved and that means the point becomes how we talk about this issue. In a fact-based, reality-based discussion, we must question the evidence and the veracity of the claims. I do not argue that Allen was innocent; instead, I address the flaws and shortcomings of the claims about his guilt. Arthur Leigh Allen may have been the Zodiac, but that is not what the evidence indicates, and we need to be honest about that fact. Things would obviously change if someone were to present credible evidence implicating Allen in the Zodiac crimes.

Some people seem to misinterpret my criticisms of the claims about Allen as sympathy for the suspect. If Allen was guilty, then everything that happened to him was just the consequence of his crimes. If Allen was innocent, then the police investigation, the ongoing accusations, the publicity, and more, must have been a horrifying experience for him, even if one accepts the argument that he had earned all of his problems because he molested children. Arthur Leigh Allen was a deviant sexual predator who harmed many child victims, and his short sentence at Atascadero State Hospital for molesting one boy could not possibly constitute justice for all of his crimes, both known and unknown. Regardless of his criminal history, Allen was still entitled to due process under the law. Even as an unsympathetic pedophile, Allen was protected by constitutional rights. The ability to understand or even empathize with Allen’s predicament should not be mistaken for sympathy or an attempt to minimize the seriousness of his crimes against children.

As I have stated many times in writing and in public interviews, I do not have a pet theory or suspect and do not favor any outcome in the search for the Zodiac’s identity. I do not care who the Zodiac turns out to be as long as he is identified and hopefully incarcerated. I would be very happy to see the case solved, even if Arthur Leigh Allen was identified as the Zodiac. So, the answer to the question is very clear when someone asks, “What are you gonna do if the DNA matches Arthur Leigh Allen?” I replied, “Have a party. What are you gonna do?”



On March 24th, I will be a guest at the “Death Becomes Us” true crime festival in New York City for a live episode of the podcast Monster: The Zodiac Killer with executive producer Payne Lindsey and narrator Matt Frederick, followed by a Q&A session including producer Meredith Stedman and Monster executive producer and Tenderfoot TV co-founder Donald Albright. The 5-day event also features Golden State killer criminalist Paul Holes and legendary FBI profiler John Douglas. Sponsors include: HLN, Audible, Oxygen, and Stitcher. Details below, some tickets for some events are still available.

Tuesday March 19: “Pre-Game” show in partnership with Strand Bookstore: Cara Robertson, author of The Trial of Lizzie Borden, and Harold Schechter, author of Hell’s Princess: The Mystery of Belle Gunness, Butcher of Men talk with Refinery 29’s Leah Carroll, author of Down City: A Daughter’s Story of Love, Memory, and Murder.

Wednesday March 20: Official Death Becomes Us – True Crime Festival Opening Party @ Bar Schimmi, followed by the Yellow Tape true crime trivia show.

Thursday March 21: Death row survivor and author Damien Echols talks about life after serving 18-years in prison, with friend and actor Dave Hill. Then, writer Billy Jensen talks with criminalist/investigator Paul Holes about their work on the Golden State killer case, the completion of Michelle McNamara’s book, and the arrest of Joseph James DeAngelo. Later: a screening of David Fincher’s 2007 film Zodiac.

Friday March 22: Criminalist Paul Holes talks with HLN’s Jax Miller & Sarah Cailean about strategies and investigation techniques in a new true crime series. Later: Forensic Files Uncorked w/ Wine & Crime podcast hosts Amanda, Kenyon, and Lucy.

Saturday March 23: Legendary FBI profiler John Douglas (Mindhunter) talks about wrongful convictions with Amanda Knox and Damien Echols. Later: a live episode Oxygen’s true crime podcast Martinis & Murder hosted by John Thrasher and Daryn Carp.

Sunday March 24: A live episode of Monster: The Zodiac Killer, with producer Payne Lindsey, host Matt Frederick, and writer Michael Butterfield, followed by a Q&A session with producer Meredith Stedman and Monster executive producer and Tenderfoot TV co-founder Donald Albright. Then, the closing show, Murder She Wrote: The Ladies of True Crime, with authors Carolyn Murnick (The Hot One), Piper Weiss (You All Grow Up And Leave Me), and Leah Carroll (Down City) discuss women in the true crime genre, moderated by Sarah Weinman, author of The Real Lolita.

MONSTER: The Zodiac Killer


Season 2 of the popular true crime podcast MONSTER features a 15-episode series devoted to the Zodiac mystery. Rolling Stone magazine published a brief article about the series, and The Wrap posted also posted a story about the premiere. The series features retired Vallejo police detective Ed Rust, photographer Tom Balmer, former San Francisco Chronicle reporter Duffy Jennings, criminal psychologist Eric Hickey, San Francisco State University historian and lecturer Peter Richardson, cipher expert David Oranchak, writer Michael Butterfield, and others, with audio clips of surviving victim Bryan Hartnell, Leslie, the daughter of Zodiac codebreakers Donald and Bettye Harden, possible Zodiac victim Kathleen Johns, SFPD Inspector David Toschi, park ranger William White, and many others involved in the case.

Listen to all 15 episodes of MONSTER: THE ZODIAC KILLER at iHeartRadio.

Episode #1 premiered on iHeartMedia News/Talk radio stations on January 2, 2019. According to several reports, MONSTER: THE ZODIAC KILLER reached more than 12 million downloads in the months of January and February 2019. On March 24th, a live episode of MONSTER was recorded at the Gramercy theater in New York City, including a Q&A session with the audience.


LAKE HERMAN ROAD: 50 Years Later


“Fifty years is a long time.”

I have heard these words several times in the last few weeks whenever I mention the fact that this December 20th will mark the 50th anniversary of the Zodiac murders on Lake Herman Road. On that night in 1968, two teenagers set out on their first date together but they never came home again. For whatever reason, someone decided to kill the young couple as they sat in a parked vehicle at a lovers lane spot. The search for the killer eventually became the hunt for one of the most elusive and terrifying serial killers in American history. Half a century after the two teenagers were murdered, many people can remember the events but the names of the victims are often lost in the margins of the history books.


David Faraday and Betty Lou Jensen

David Faraday was the all-American kid, seventeen years old, a good student, a Boy Scout, a handsome young man. According to some reports, David once confronted a marijuana dealer and threatened to report the man to police. Like many teenage boys, David began dating and soon found himself attracted to a young girl. Betty Lou Jensen was sixteen years old, a talented artist and a popular student with many friends. Betty Lou and David met at a youth function and soon he was visiting her at school. The relationship blossomed but also aroused jealousy in another young boy who liked Betty Lou. The boy confronted David and they argued over the girl. David was determined to continue the relationship and planned to take Betty Lou out on her first date. 

The couple talked about attending a Christmas event and they promised Betty Lou’s parents to return by 11:00 PM. According to some accounts, David and Betty Lou were planning to attend a party with some other students but, for some reason, the couple traveled to Lake Herman Road and parked David’s Rambler station wagon at a lovers lane spot. Passing drivers noted the presence of the Rambler, but one driver stopped his vehicle and stepped out onto the cold ground. No one knows exactly what happened that night, the precise chain of events unknown, but the evidence revealed that the two teenagers were trapped in a violent attack. 

The Rambler’s passenger door was open. A bullet had penetrated the roof of the vehicle, and another bullet passed through a back window. Ten shell casings were found around the crime scene. David’s body was found on the ground near the back wheel on the passenger side. One bullet had penetrated his skull behind the left ear and entered his brain. Betty Lou’s body was found further away from the station wagon, an indication that she tried to run away but the killer shot her five times in the right side of her back. Betty Lou died in the darkness, but David was still breathing when police officers later arrived at the scene. He was unresponsive and died before reaching the hospital.


Friends of the victims organized a reward fund to help identify the killer.

The murders horrified the community afraid that a mad gunman was on the loose. An investigation led to the young boy who argued with David Faraday over his relationship with Betty Lou. Investigators learned that the boy had an alibi, so the search for the killer continued as the case faded from the headlines. By the summer of 1969, many observers wondered if the mystery would ever be solved yet they had no idea that the nightmare had just begun.

On the night of July 4, 1969, twenty-two year old Darlene Ferrin and her friend, nineteen year old Michael Mageau, sat inside a brown Corvair at Blue Rock Springs Park, located approximately two miles northwest of the crime scene on Lake Herman Road. Shortly after midnight, another vehicle parked behind the Corvair and the driver stepped out. Michael and Darlene initially thought the figure approaching the passenger window with a bright light was a police officer, but they were shocked by a sudden burst of gunfire and a swarm of bullets flying into the car. Michael was shot in the jaw and leapt into the backseat only to be hit again. Bullets hit Darlene as she sat behind the steering wheel. The gunman started to walk away but returned when Michael cried out in pain. The man fired several more shots into the car and then walked back to his car and drove away. At 12:40 AM, Vallejo police dispatcher answered a call from a man who claimed he was responsible for the shooting at Blue Rock Springs Park. The dispatcher was surprised when the man claimed he was also responsible for the murders on Lake Herman Road. The possible link between the two shootings was fueled by a subsequent letter from someone who claimed to be the killer.


The payphone used by the Zodiac and the letter taking credit for the Lake Herman Road murders.

The man who called himself “The Zodiac” took center stage in the following media frenzy surrounding the ongoing crime spree.  The fact that the murders remained unsolved was accepted as a simple consequence of the harsh realities in the sensational and seemingly endless Zodiac mystery.

On December 20th, 1968, David Faraday and Betty Lou Jensen set out on their first date together as typical American teenagers and ended the night as tragic characters in a legendary true crime story. Had they lived, David and Betty Lou might be in their late sixties today, senior citizens looking back on a long and happy life with their children and grandchildren. Instead, one is left to contemplate all the events they never experienced, the high school graduation, the college years, the first job, marriage, or building a family. The families and friends of the victims have grown old without them, keeping their memories alive and waiting for answers. The continued hope for justice is tempered by the disappointing knowledge that the murders of David and Betty Lou may only be solved if and when the identity of America’s most elusive serial killer is finally revealed. Half a century after the brutal killings on Lake Herman Road, the newspaper headline from 1968 is a sad reminder that the story remains the same: TEENAGERS’ SLAYER STILL AT LARGE.

* * *

Learn more about the unsolved murders of Betty Lou Jensen and David Faraday with newspaper articles, crime scene photographs, police reports, and more at

LAKE HERMAN ROAD: Photographs, Videos, Newspaper Articles and Official Documents


David Faraday and Betty Lou Jensen


The Scene of the Crime: 1968


The Crime Scene: December 20, 1968

The Crime Scene: Police Sketches


Shell Casings and Jensen Dress

The Rambler


The Investigators and Others


Newspaper Articles and Other Material


Death Certificates and Morgue Photographs

Benicia Police Dept: Report by Capt. Daniel Pitta (2 pages)

Solano County Sheriff’s Office Report (76 pages)

CA Dept. of Justice / CII Report – Ballistics (3 pages)


The Funeral of David Faraday

Mysteries at the Museum: Zodiac Killer


The Travel Channel featured a new episode of the series Mysteries at the Museum devoted to the Zodiac case. An episode synopsis posted at the Travel Channel website read: “Don Wildman searches for the identity of one of America’s most notorious serial killers. He meets with a retired inspector who worked on the case, learns code breaking from an expert cryptographer and reveals a new theory on who may be responsible.”


Don Wildman and cipher expert David Oranchak.

Host Don Wildman presented a basic overview of the Zodiac story and visited the four crime scenes. He also consulted with cipher expert David Oranchak. Wildman and Oranchak examined the Zodiac’s first coded message and the still-unsolved 340 cipher while discussing some of the killer’s methods as a cryptographer. 


During his tour of the Zodiac crime scenes, Wildman was accompanied by theorist Mark Hewitt, who also shared his theory that the Zodiac was Ted Kaczynski, the infamous “Unabomber” responsible for several bombings and three murders.


Zodiac theorist Mark Hewitt and host Don Wildman at the Lake Berryessa crime scene.

The episode promised a “new theory” regarding the Zodiac’s identity but Ted Kaczynski became a Zodiac suspect immediately after his arrest in 1996. Theorists Douglas Oswell and Michael Rusconi published a book about the possible “Zodiac/Unabomber connection” titled Dr. Zodiac, and others had promoted this theory over the years. The episode also included a brief recap of the theory that the Zodiac was Arthur Leigh Allen, the so-called “prime suspect” named in the books by Robert Graysmith and the 2007 film Zodiac.


Convicted child molester Arthur Leigh Allen and Ted Kaczynski aka “The Unabomber.”

Retired San Francisco police Inspector Vincent Repetto joined Wildman at the scene of the Zodiac’s last known murder, the intersection of Washington and Cherry Streets in the Presidio Heights neighborhood of San Francisco. Repetto expressed his doubts that the Zodiac would be captured and said he believed the killer was most likely dead, but he also shared optimism that the case could be solved if new evidence was discovered or DNA identified the killer. 


Retired SFPD Inspector Vincent Repetto at the scene of the Zodiac’s last known murder.

In the final segment of the episode, Wildman met with Gary Harmor, a DNA analyst at the Serological Research Institute who worked as a consultant on the Zodiac case. Wildman asked about the chances of finding sufficient DNA on old envelopes and stamps, and Harmor explained that new methods increased the odds of retrieving DNA from older materials. Harmor used an old envelope to demonstrate the methods used in the process. When asked about the reliability of this forensic process, Harmor replied, “It’s extremely dependable. The only thing that would hold up getting a type from the piece of evidence is not having enough good quality, reasonably good quality DNA to do the testing.”


Gary Harmor demonstrates a method used to obtain DNA from old stamps and envelopes.

The narrator stated, “The actual Zodiac evidence was collected in a state lab in May 2018 who then sent the DNA to a genealogical lab in Florida.” Previous news reports, comments from law enforcement sources, and internet rumors indicated that investigators were still waiting to hear if the lab could retrieve usable DNA evidence, but the narrator’s statement created the impression that usable DNA had already been obtained and had been sent to a lab in Florida to be used in forensic genealogy research to identify the Zodiac. The narration may have been a simple mistake as misinformation continues to create confusion about the status of the investigation. If the narrator was correct, then attempts to identify the Zodiac using forensic genealogy may be proceeding.

Mysteries at the Museum also featured an unusual representation of the costume worn by the Zodiac during the attack at Lake Berryessa. Unlike previous recreations, the actor portraying the Zodiac appeared to be wearing a large, narrowed black bag with a white crossed-circle over the chest. This version of the costume apparently had no eye-holes, meaning the Zodiac would not be able to see during the attack.


The Zodiac killer as depicted by Mysteries at the Museum.

The Travel Channel will rebroadcast the episode Mysteries at the Museum: Zodiac Killer on Sunday, October 7, 2018, and on Wednesday, October 10, 2018. Check local listings for channels and show times, and CLICK HERE TO WATCH PROMOS FOR THIS EPISODE.




In June 2018, I traveled to San Francisco to participate in an upcoming Zodiac project. As usual, the trip included some free time between appointments and I took a walk in the city. My hotel was near the intersection of Mason and Geary, where some investigators and researchers believe the Zodiac had selected his last known victim, cabdriver Paul Stine, in 1969.


The intersection had changed in many ways in the decades since, but one thing remained the same, the PineCrest Diner, established in 1969. I decided to dine at PineCrest. Joining me that evening was software engineer and noted cipher expert David Oranchak, also the owner of the website I had communicated with Dave via emails and online chats, but this was our first in-person meeting. I quickly discovered that Dave was intelligent, insightful, and funny as we discussed various aspects of the Zodiac saga. We met again the next day for another meal and another great discussion.


As I often note in public interviews, I am not an expert regarding ciphers or cryptography, and, I rely on people like David Oranchak to help me understand the complex issues surrounding the Zodiac’s ciphers. I read Dave’s numerous articles online and watched videos of his presentations to the NSA’s Cryptologic Symposium, but talking with him in person was a very different experience. I was immediately struck by Dave’s ability to simplify some issues and offer accessible explanations. Many of us can examine and reject a proposed cipher solution but Dave could provide an easy-to-understand explanation of the solution’s pros and cons. Like many people, I am fascinated by this part of the Zodiac mystery, and I appreciated Dave’s thoughts and observations.

Shortly after my San Francisco trip, I was planning the next episode of the audio series The Zodiac Files with House of Mystery radio host and author Alan R. Warren. Al mentioned that he wanted to do an extended series of episodes about the Zodiac killer. The expanded format provided time for more in-depth discussion of various issues, and we decided to invite others to join the program. David Oranchak was a natural choice, along with Mike Morford, host of the Murder in the Family podcast and the owner of The result was a late night, 4-hour marathon recording session, and I enjoyed the interesting and sometimes amusing conversation with Mike, Dave, and Al, covering a range of topics including the Zodiac crimes, the letters, the mysterious ciphers, the theories, suspects, and much more.

The original radio broadcast aired in Los Angeles, California, and the episodes are now available online at the House of Mystery channel on YouTube, Spreaker, and other audio streaming sources.

Click on the links below to listen to The “Zodiac Roundtable” discussion with webmaster Mike Morford (, cipher expert David Oranchak (, writer Michael Butterfield (, and host Al Warren.

ZR EP #1: Zodiac suspects – Arthur Leigh Allen, Ross Sullivan, and more

ZR EP #2: Zodiac Ciphers – The Zodiac’s 408 Cipher and more

ZR EP #3: Zodiac Letters – The Zodiac’s messages and unsolved ciphers

ZR EP #4: Zodiac Connections – Cheri Jo Bates and the “Riverside Connection”

Listen to more interviews and podcasts here: ZODIAC AUDIO



The Zodiac killer is once again in the news after the arrest of The Golden State Killer. Authorities in Vallejo, Napa, and San Francisco have renewed efforts to obtain DNA from stamps, envelopes, and other evidence with hopes that the forensic genealogy techniques used to identify Joseph James DeAngelo as  the Golden State Killer could also identify the elusive “Zodiac.”

Host Alan R. Warren and writer Michael Butterfield discuss the Golden State Killer investigation and the search for Zodiac DNA in the latest episode of HOUSE OF MYSTERY: The ZODIAC FILES. Previous episodes are now available at the new YouTube channel The Zodiac Files with Michael Butterfield.

The new issue of True Crime: Case Files magazine features the new article Devil in the Dark: DNA and the Hunt for America’s Most Elusive Serial Killers.

ZodiacKillerFACTS now includes a collection of selected audio interviews featuring Zodiac cipher expert David Oranchak, podcast host/webmaster Mike Morford, and writer Michael Butterfield.

NEWAIRTALK – “DNA: Zodiac and the Golden State Killer w/ host Larry Mantle – Guests: Anita Chabria, social justice reporter, Sacramento Bee, and Michael Butterfield. [Aired May 4, 2018, NPR affiliate KPCC California]

ZODIAC DNA: The Silver Bullet


Joseph James DeAngelo was probably very surprised when he was surrounded by police officers and arrested on April 24, 2018. The 72 year old resident of Citrus Heights, California, seemed rather ordinary but authorities held a press conference to announce that DNA evidence proved DeAngelo was the “Golden State Killer,” a prolific serial rapist and killer responsible for at least 12 murders, 50 sexual assaults, and more than 100 burglaries. DeAngelo may have believed that he had escaped justice for decades but a new method of DNA research has quickly become the greatest threat to elusive serial killers who remain at large.

In 2014, investigators in Arizona used an unconventional approach to identify the man responsible for murders attributed to the so-called “Canal Killer.” Two young women were murdered along a canal in Northwest Phoenix in the early 1990s. DNA linked the crimes but investigation failed to produce evidence implicating any viable suspects. Years later, detectives consulted forensic genealogist Colleen Fitzpatrick. Using a Y-STR, or a short tandem repeat of the Y-chromosome found only in men, Fitzpatrick compared the profile to information available on genealogy websites and narrowed the field of patterns to a spectrum of possible relatives of the killer. Fitzpatrick told investigators that the Canal Killer was most likely named “Miller.” Police reviewed the files and identified a suspect named Bryan Patrick Miller, previously arrested at the age of sixteen for stabbing a woman at a mall and again accused of stabbing a woman in Washington state. At the time of the murders in Phoenix, Miller lived in the area and frequently rode his bike along the canal where the bodies of the victims had been dumped. A DNA comparison proved that Miller’s DNA matched the DNA found on the victims of the Canal Killer. Miller was arrested in January 2015 and he denied any involvement in the crimes. He is currently in jail awaiting trial. [To learn more about the identification of the Canal Killer, read the article Shock Waves by Michael Butterfield in the fall 2017 anniversary issue of the magazine True Crime: Case Files.]

Authorities launched a new effort to identify the Golden State Killer using a similar method of DNA research. Retired Contra Costa County investigator Paul Holes had studied the crimes for years and was determined to catch GSK. Holes acknowledged that he had developed an “obsession” with the case, and he was a central character in the best-selling book about the crimes written by the late Michelle McNamara titled I’ll Be Gone in the Dark.


Retired Contra Costa County investigator Paul Holes and writer Michael Butterfield ( visit two Zodiac crime scenes (History Channel series MYSTERYQUEST, 2009).

After exhausting other avenues of investigation, Holes turned to GEDmatch, a genealogy website with genetic information obtained from over 950,000 individuals. According to the Washington Post, Holes then narrowed his search to the killer’s great-great-great grandparents, and investigators then assembled a list of at least 25 family tree including thousands of relatives. From there, public records, census reports, obituaries and criminal databases helped narrow the search to relatives who fit the profile of GSK such as age, background, and whereabouts during the crimes. This information led investigators to Joseph James DeAngelo. Police placed DeAngelo under surveillance and retrieved an item he had discarded for DNA comparison. DeAngelo’s DNA matched the DNA recovered from GSK victims and he was arrested.

News of DeAngelo’s capture inspired praise of law enforcement as well as debate about the ethical and legal problems raised by the use of public genealogy information in criminal investigations. The success and identification of long-elusive murderers also inspired other investigators to use similar methods to identify other notorious serial killers., The San Francisco Chronicle, and The Sacramento Bee reported that authorities in Napa, Vallejo, and San Francisco, California were evaluating evidence which could possibly be used to identify the infamous “Zodiac killer” who terrorized citizens of Northern California with a series of murders and bizarre letters from 1968 to 1974.

In the late 1990s, San Francisco police submitted the suspected “Zodiac” communications to the crime lab for forensic testing. Robert Graysmith, author of the book Zodiac, wrote a story published on the website titled “The Day They Thought They Nailed Zodiac.” Graysmith claimed that police obtained a “Zodiac” DNA sample which matched “the prime suspect,” convicted child molester and Vallejo resident Arthur Leigh Allen. Graysmith also claimed that SFPD Inspector Vince Repetto then stated that the match was a “false positive” result. According to Graysmith’s account, SFPD Lieutenant Tom Bruton explained that the suspected “Zodiac” DNA was obtained from a letter sent to the San Francisco Chronicle in April 1978. Several handwriting experts had concluded that this letter was a forgery and not an authentic Zodiac communication. In his article, Graysmith expressed his dismay that police had used the 1978 for DNA testing and wrote, “They had tested a hoax letter,” despite the fact that Graysmith was one of the few individuals who claimed that the April 1978 letter was authentic.

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. SFPD Inspector Vince Repetto also 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. A document from the SFPD crime lab from the time in question revealed that the lab was able to find some cells on various Zodiac letters, including the suspected 1978 letter. This document also stated that the San Francisco police department did not consider the 1978 letter to be an authentic Zodiac communication.


Retired San Francisco police inspector Vince Repetto and Lt. Tom Bruton in interviews for the Reelz Channel documentary ZODIAC: THE REAL STORY (2017).

During interviews for the recent Reelz channel documentary titled Zodiac: The Real Story, Vince Repetto and Tom Bruton described the investigation and efforts to obtain “Zodiac” DNA and exclude suspects. According to Repetto, suspected “Zodiac” DNA was obtained from a Zodiac communication. Repetto’s partner believed the DNA would implicate Allen. “We knew we had Arthur Leigh Allen’s DNA, and then we had DNA from one of the suspected letters.” The results of the DNA comparison were negative, and Allen’s DNA did not match the suspected Zodiac DNA. Repetto said his partner was “pretty upset it turned out not to be Allen.” Tom Bruton explained that the same DNA evidence was compared to other suspects, including Larry Kane. “We had compared handwriting and fingerprints with what we had in the crime lab, and there was no matches there. The last big hope was the DNA comparison.” The results of the DNA comparison were negative and Kane’s DNA did not match the suspected “Zodiac” DNA.


SFPD Inspectors Kelly Carroll and Mike Maloney (ABC documentary PRIMETIME LIVE, 2002).

At the turn of the century, Inspectors Kelly Carroll and Mike Maloney were assigned to the Zodiac case. In an interview with this author in 2000, Carroll stated his belief that modern forensic science could identify the Zodiac killer. “If the Zodiac case is ever solved,” Carroll said, “it will be solved by someone in a white lab coat.” Carroll and Maloney submitted the Zodiac communications for further testing. The ABC television show Primetime documented work conducted by Dr. Cyndi Holt of the San Francisco police DNA lab. Envelopes and stamps were examined, and Holt stated that a partial genetic profile was obtained from a stamp, reportedly on an envelope sent in November 1969. The partial genetic profile could be used to exclude suspects but was not sufficient to conclusively identify any individual as the Zodiac.


Dr. Cyndi Holt, San Francisco DNA Lab

In public interviews, Cyndi Holt and Kelly Carroll both expressed confidence in the “Zodiac” DNA partial profile, but some critics claimed that the entire DNA spectacle was staged for the media. Mike Maloney reportedly expressed some doubts about the methods used to obtain the DNA and questioned its value in eliminating suspects. Despite the alleged concerns about the evidence, the San Francisco police department announced that the suspected “Zodiac” DNA did not match suspect Arthur Leigh Allen. Allen’s accusers argued that the DNA was not sufficient to outweigh the so-called “mountain of circumstantial evidence” against the suspect, but no credible evidence linked Allen to the Zodiac crimes. Several years later, Vallejo police submitted evidence to a lab for testing, including two envelopes which contained some of the first letters sent by the killer in July 1969. The results reportedly revealed a partial genetic profile which was not sufficient to positively identify anyone as the Zodiac. This DNA profile did not match Arthur Leigh Allen.


The plastic clothesline used by the Zodiac, and a green bottle found at the crime scene.

In 2010, investigators at the Napa County Sheriff’s Office re-examined evidence in the Zodiac’s attack at Lake Berryessa, including a bottle found at the crime scene, a blood-stained blanket, pieces of plastic clothesline used to bind the victims, and the car door featuring a handwritten message left by the killer. Napa County Sheriff’s Sgt. Pat McMahon told San Francisco Chronicle reporter Kevin Fagen that the evidence was submitted to the state Department of Justice DNA lab in Richmond, California. According to The Sacramento Bee, a partial genetic profile was obtained from a mixture of DNA, but this profile could not be separated from the other DNA in the mixture and was not sufficient to identify the killer.


William White, Napa County Sheriff’s Office, with the blanket and clothesline from the Berryessa crime scene (CASE REOPENED, 1999).

In 2018, the Vallejo police department once again submitted the two early “Zodiac” envelopes for more forensic testing. According to Vallejo police Detective Terry Poyser, experts at the chosen lab were “confident” that DNA evidence could be obtained from the envelopes. Investigators in the other jurisdictions involved in the Zodiac case also re-examined other evidence with hopes that new methods might yield something which could identify the killer. The Napa County Sheriff’s Office and the San Francisco police department reviewed evidence in their cases for possible forensic testing. A complete DNA profile would be necessary in order to identify the Zodiac using the same methods used to identify the Golden State Killer. A partial profile would not be sufficient to narrow the spectrum of potential DNA candidates. The new testing could produce important evidence or a failure to discover DNA evidence would require investigators to identify the Zodiac using more traditional methods.

December 2018 will mark the 50th anniversary of the first “Zodiac” murders on Lake Herman Road in 1968. If the Zodiac is still alive, he may be watching the news about the arrest of Joseph DeAngelo with the growing fear that the next knock on his door may be cold case investigators armed with DNA evidence the killer left behind when he licked an envelope or stamp half a century ago.

Read more about the issues and potential problems in the search for new evidence in the article ZODIAC DNA: The Magic Bullet.




Michael Butterfield is a writer and a recognized  expert on the unsolved “Zodiac” crimes. He has served as a media source and consultant for news articles, television documentaries, the History channel series The Hunt for the Zodiac Killer, and director David Fincher’s major motion picture Zodiac. Michael Butterfield appears in the Zodiac documentary Case Reopened, the History Channel series MysteryQuest, the E! Canada series The Shocking Truth, and the Reelz channel documentary The Real Story of Zodiac. He is also a contributing author for True Crime: Case Files, True Crime Magazine, and the two volume collection of essays titled A History of Evil in Pop Culture.