The ZODIAC KILLER: A Case Summary

by Michael Butterfield

Copyright 2011-2012 / All Rights Reserved


The Zodiac story began near Benicia, California on the night of December 20, 1968, when a motorist discovered the lifeless bodies of two teenagers at “lovers’ lane” spot along Lake Herman Road. Victims Betty Lou Jensen and David Faraday had been out on their first “official” date, although they had been seeing each other for at least two weeks. Earlier that evening, David and Betty Lou had promised Mr. and Mrs. Jensen that they would return by 11:00 PM, but witnesses had seen the couple sitting on Lake Herman Road as late as 11:10 PM. By the time they were found, Betty Lou was dead from five gunshot wounds in her back and David Faraday was dying from a gunshot wound to his head. Shell casings were recovered at the scene and one witness reported seeing a vehicle parked next to Faraday’s Rambler at the time of the shooting. [View the crime scene photos and crime scene sketches]. The subsequent investigation explored the possibility that the crimes were somehow drug-related but the evidence indicated that neither of the victims were involved with drugs. Faraday was allegedly involved in an incident with a local pot dealer; the teenager threatened to report the man’s activity to police but investigators concluded that the altercation was not connected to the murders. Another teenage boy was briefly considered a suspect due to his relationship with Betty Lou Jensen but he had an alibi and authorities concluded that he was not responsible for the shootings. The investigation produced no viable suspects and continued into the summer of 1969.

More than seven months after the murders of Faraday and Jensen, on the night of July 4th, 1969, a gunman attacked a second young couple at the nearby Blue Rock Springs Park, Northwest of the crime scene at Lake Herman Road. Darlene Ferrin died from multiple gunshot wounds, but her friend Michael Mageau survived wounds to his leg, neck and jaw. Mageau told police that Darlene had picked him up at his home and the two had intended to drive to Mr. Ed’s diner but decided to go to the park instead. Darlene parked her Corvair in the parking lot of Blue Rock Springs Park and the two were talking when a vehicle pulled into the parking lot. The occupants laughed and set off fireworks in celebration of Independence Day before driving away. Soon after, another car pulled into the parking lot and stopped behind Darlene’s Corvair. The driver waited for a moment and then drove off. Minutes later, the car returned and parked. The driver stepped out and held a bright light as he approached the puzzled occupants of the Corvair. Mike and Darlene thought that the man was a police officer. The stranger walked to the passenger side and pointed a gun at the occupants of the car. The gunman fired several shots, hitting both Mike and Darlene. He then turned and began walking back to his vehicle. Mike cried out in pain and the gunman returned to fire several more shots at the already-wounded victims. The stranger then climbed back into his car and drove away. He later used a payphone just blocks away from the Vallejo Police Department and called the station. When police dispatcher Nancy Slover answered, the caller spoke in a low, monotone voice, as if he were reading from a prepared script.

“I want to report a murder. If you will go one-mile east on Columbus Parkway, you will find kids in a brown car. They were shot with a nine-millimeter Luger. I also killed those kids last year. Goodbye.”

Investigators from Vallejo and Benicia realized that they were searching for the same killer and the bold, sinister phone call raised fears that the gunman would strike again.

According to Nancy Slover, the voice of the man who called the Vallejo Police Department indicated that he was at least thirty years of age or older. Surviving victim Michael Mageau was able to describe the gunman when interviewed by Vallejo police detective Ed Rust. According to Mageau, the suspect was a white male adult, “short, possible 5"8", was real heavy set, beefy build... not blubbery fat, but real beefy, possibly 195 to 200 [lbs] or maybe even larger... short curly hair, light brown almost blond... with a large face.” Mageau later viewed photographs of various individuals but he was unable to identify any possible suspects. [Read Michael Mageau's interview with Vallejo Police detective Ed Rust.]

Twenty-six days after the shooting at Blue Rock Springs Park, three envelopes arrived at the offices of three Bay Area newspapers. Each envelope contained a handwritten letter and a piece of a coded message. [View the Zodiac letters]. The writer provided a list of details regarding the two shootings and explained that the coded message which would reveal his identity. The letter ended with a warning, “If you do not print this cipher by the afternoon of Fry. 1st of Aug. 69, I will go on a kill rampage Fry. night. I will cruse around all weekend killing lone people in the night then move on to kill again, untill I end up with a dozen people over the weekend.” A crossed-circle symbol had been drawn at the bottom of the page.

Each of the newspapers complied with the demand to publish the cipher, and news of the gunman’s threats created fears that he would strike again. Experts and amateurs scrambled to decode the cipher while investigators sorted through hundreds of tips from helpful citizens, including a couple who believed they had solved the puzzle. The deciphered message did not reveal the killer’s identity but the words did offer a chilling portrait of the author’s state of mind. “I like killing people because it is so much fun... I will not give you my name because you will try to slo(w) down or stop my collecting of slaves for my after life …”

When authorities expressed doubts concerning the writer’s claims, another letter arrived and began with the words which would forever send chills throughout Northern California.

“Dear Editor - This is the Zodiac speaking. In answer to your asking about the good times I have had in Vallejo I shall be very happy to supply even more material.” The writer provided more details about the attacks and then took issue with some factual errors in news reports about his crimes.

Weeks passed and as the manhunt continued, the Zodiac moved north into the Napa Valley and California wine country where he stabbed a young couple on the banks of Lake Berryessa. Cecelia Shepard later died from multiple stab wounds but her friend Bryan Hartnell survived. He told investigators that the attacker had worn a black, squared hood with a white crossed circle over his chest. To prove he was responsible for the crime, the Zodiac used a black marker to draw a large crossed-circle on the door of Bryan’s car. Below his symbol, the killer listed the dates of the two shootings and added the notation, “Sept 27 69 6:30 by knife.”

At 7:40 pm, the Napa Police Department received a call placed from a telephone booth located a few blocks away. Officer David Slaight listened as the caller said in a low, monotone voice, “I want to report a murder- no, a double murder. They are two miles north of park headquarters. They were in a white Volkswagen Kharmann Ghia.” Slaight asked the man to provide his location, but the voice only grew more distant as the caller replied, “I’m the one who did it.”

Investigators from Napa met with detectives in Vallejo and Benicia and compared notes but were unable to develop any solid leads. The Zodiac may have believed that the three law enforcement agencies were not up to the task and he invited the San Francisco police department to join in the hunt.

The Zodiac’s next attack occurred in an upscale neighborhood in San Francisco known as Presidio Heights on the night of October 11, 1969. Twenty-nine year old cabdriver Paul Stine picked up the Zodiac and was directed to the intersection of Washington and Maple Streets. However, the cab was later found parked one block further West at Washington and Cherry Streets. Paul Stine’s lifeless body was discovered inside the cab, dead from a gunshot wound to the head. [View the crime scene photos]. Fingerprints found inside the cab and on its exterior were photographed and collected. On the driver’s side of the vehicle, police found fingerprints which appeared to contain traces of blood. Investigators believed that these fingerprints may have been left by the killer. Three young witnesses watched the crime in progress from a house directly across the street and contacted police. According to the witnesses, the killer was last seen standing in the exact area where the fingerprints were discovered, and, he was apparently touching the cab and using a piece of the victim’s blood-stained shirt to wipe at its surface.

San Francisco investigators believed that cabdriver Paul Stine was the victim of a routine robbery until the Zodiac began to send scraps of Stine’s blood soaked shirt to prove they were mistaken. An envelope postmarked October 13, 1969, contained one scrap of Stine’s shirt, and a chilling letter. The letter ended with another terrifying threat of violence. “School children make nice targets I think I shall wipe out a school bus some morning just shoot out the frunt tire + pick off the kiddies as they come bouncing out.” Patrol cars and aircraft followed buses to and from schools and armed officers rode onboard for added protection.

A description provided by the three young witnesses produced a composite sketch of the man seen exiting Stine’s cab. This sketch was later amended, reportedly to accommodate corrections by witnesses. The following description was distributed to the public: White Male Adult, in his early forties, 5'8", heavy build, reddish-blond ‘crew cut’ hair, wearing eyeglasses, dark brown trousers, dark (navy blue or black) ‘Parka’ jacket, dark shoes.” The amended description read: “WMA 35-45 years old, 5'8" Reddish brown hair, Crewcut, Heavy Rim Glasses, Navy blue or black jacket.”

SFPD Officers Eric Zelms and Donald Fouke were responding to the police call when they reportedly passed a white male adult who matched description and was walking away from the area of the crime scene. Fouke later provided the following description of the suspect in his official report:

“The suspect that was observed by officer Fouke was a WMA 35-45 Yrs about five-foot, ten inches, 180-200 pounds. Medium heavy build- Barrel chested- Medium complexion- Light-colored hair possibly greying in rear (May have been lighting that caused this effect.) Crew cut- wearing glasses- Dressed in dark blue waist length zipper type jacket (Navy or royal blue) Elastic cuffs and waist band zipped part way up. Brown wool pants pleated type baggy in rear (Rust brown) May have been wearing low cut shoes. Subject at no time appeared to be in a hurry walking with a shuffling lope, Slightly bent forward. The subject’s general appearance- Welsh ancestry.”

Officer Fouke stated that he and Officer Zelms did not stop to question the man they observed that night due to a mistake in the police broadcast which described the suspect as a Black Male Adult.

The ongoing mystery attracted the customary crackpots, wild tips, false confessions and hoax letters. Infamous defense attorney Melvin Belli entered the story during a televised phone conversation with a man claiming to be the Zodiac. Police traced subsequent calls to Belli’s home and identified the crazed impostor as a patient in a mental hospital. [During one call to Belli's home, the Zodiac-imposter declared "Today's my birthday!" The so-called "Belli Birthday Call" has since become the subject of controversy.] As if to reclaim the publicity, the killer mailed a letter to Belli and included another blood soaked scrap of the cabdriver’s shirt to prove that he was the real Zodiac. Despite Belli’s public offer to help the killer, the real Zodiac never contacted the famous attorney again.

Another communication from the killer was postmarked on November 8, 1969. The Zodiac sent a greeting card which read, "Sorry I haven't written, but I just washed by pen... and I can't do a thing with it," an apparent play on the catch phrase from a popular shampoo commercial of the time. The envelope also contained another coded message consisting of 340 symbols. This time, experts and amateur code-breakers were unable to decipher the so-called "340 Cipher" and the Zodiac's message remained unknown. * SEE READER'S NOTE BELOW.

The Zodiac followed with another letter postmarked November 9, 1969. In six pages of rambling text, the killer declared that he was angry with police for "telling lies" about him and that he would "change the way the collecting of slaves" by staging his crimes to appear to be “routine robberies, killings of anger and a few fake accidents." The Zodiac also refuted police claims that he had left fingerprint evidence behind at the scene of the Stine murder, and, he announced that he was wearing a disguise during his crimes. The letter included a formula to build a fertilizer bomb and a hand-drawn diagram of the proposed device. * SEE READER'S NOTE BELOW.

[* NOTE TO THE READER: The San Francisco Chronicle published an article on December 28, 1969, which stated, in part, “A few days after the Stine killing, Zodiac sent a letter to San Francisco newspapers and also included a swatch from Stine’s shirt. Another letter and another piece of Stine’s shirt was sent to a newspaper on Nov. 11.” According to a document produced by the SFPD and sent to the FBI in 1978, the Zodiac's letter of November 9, 1969, was accompanied by a portion of Paul Stine's bloodstained shirt. In the late 1990s, the SFPD produced another document which read, in part, "11/9/69 SF CHRONICLE HANDWRITTEN NOTE ‘THIS IS THE ZODIAC SPEAKING’ BOMB DIAGRAM (PIECE OF STEIN’S PER KEEL)." The last line referred to Alan Keel, the former chief of the SFPD crime lab who resigned in 1991 amid controversy and criticism. According to the ABC television show PRIMETIME LIVE, a “Zodiac DNA” sample was obtained from the back of a stamp affixed to the envelope which had contained the Zodiac’s notorious “Dripping Pen” card, mailed on November 8, 1969. The program also stated that this communication was accompanied by a piece of Stine's shirt. Despite the apparent confusion regarding which Zodiac communication was accompanied by a piece of Stine's shirt, the available information indicates that the Zodiac included a piece of the bloodstained shirt with one of these two communications: the November 8 "card" or the November 9 "letter." The first shirt piece was sent with the October 13, 1969 letter (which claimed credit for Stine's murder) and the other piece was sent to attorney Melvin Belli with the letter of December 20, 1969. If the Zodiac included a portion of Stine's shirt with the communications of November 1969, three pieces of Stine's shirt accompanied three Zodiac communications.]

The November 9 letter also contained what would become the Zodiac's most sensational and controversial claim-- that he had been stopped and questioned by two San Francisco police officers who then allowed him to escape.

p.s. 2 cops pulled a goof abot 3

min after I left the cab. I was

walking down the hill to the

park when this cop car pulled up

& one of them called me over

& asked if I saw any one

acting suspicious or strange

in the last 5 to 10 min & I said

yes there was this man who

was runnig by waveing a gun

& the cops peeled rubber &

went around the corner as

I directed them & I disap

eared into the park a block &

a half away never to be seen


The Zodiac conspicuously marked this section on the margin of the page and wrote “must print in paper.” The San Francisco Police Department refuted the Zodiac’s claim. The only two police officers who had reportedly seen the suspect were Eric Zelms and his one-time partner that fateful night, Donald Fouke. Zelms was killed in the line of duty on January 1st, 1970. Fouke adamantly denied the Zodiac’s version of events but the story became one of the many persistent myths which dominated public accounts in the years to come.

The Zodiac also demanded that the people of the Bay Area wear “some nice Zodiac buttons” bearing his chosen symbol, the crossed circle. When the public did not comply with his wishes, he wrote that he had “punished” them “by shooting a man sitting in a parked car.” Press reports linked the Zodiac to many other unsolved crimes, including the March 1970 abduction of a young woman. Kathleen Johns told authorities that she had accepted a ride from a mysterious stranger who resembled the Zodiac, but the man had turned menacing and threatened her life. Johns claimed that she managed to escape by jumping from the man’s car. The Zodiac later claimed that he was responsible for the failed abduction in a subsequent letter.

In one letter, the killer included long, rambling descriptions of his fantasies of torture along with selected passages from the Gilbert and Sullivan musical, The Mikado. Some letters also featured a box score which credited the Zodiac with an increasing number of victims followed by the notation “SFPD = 0” and the taunt, “I hope you have fun trying to figgure out who I killed.” Given the killer’s apparent freedom to do as he pleased, one particular passage was difficult to refute. “The police shall never catch me because I have been too clever for them.” The failure to catch the Zodiac was a constant source of embarrassment for his chosen nemesis, the San Francisco police department. Each new letter became a liability as the psychotic pen pal wrote, “Hey blue pig, doesn’t it rile you to have your nose rubbed in your boo-boos?” and, “I have grown rather angry with the police for their telling lies about me.”

Reporter Paul Avery received a Halloween card from his new, “secret pal,” the Zodiac. Avery later learned of a possible link between the Bay Area killer and the unsolved murder of a young girl in Southern California several years earlier. The California Department of Justice and the Napa County Sheriff’s Department had considered the possible Zodiac connection at the request of Riverside authorities who believed that the Zodiac may have been responsible for the crime. College student Cheri Jo Bates was murdered near the campus of Riverside City College on the night of October 30, 1966. Someone who claimed to be the killer had sent letters and notes to the police, a local newspaper, and the father of the victim. Questioned document examiner Sherwood Morrill of the Department of Justice and FBI experts concluded that the Zodiac may have written these messages. In a letter mailed to The Los Angeles Times on March 13, 1971, the Zodiac wrote that he was impressed by the police work which had linked him to the other case, but he claimed that there were still more victims yet to be found. Tired of playing with his apparently inferior pursuers, he challenged them and wrote, “If the Blue Meannies are evere going to catch me they had best get off their fat asses + do something.”

Correspondence from the killer ceased and the trail of the killer grew cold by the summer of 1971. As the Zodiac disappeared, someone like him began to appear on movie screens everywhere with the release of the Clint Eastwood action classic, DIRTY HARRY. Shot in San Francisco, the film featured Inspector Harry Callahan, a character reportedly based on SFPD Inspector Dave Toschi, one of the investigators assigned to the Zodiac case. Callahan tracked a Zodiac-like villain named “Scorpio” who hijacked a school bus and met a violent demise in a final shoot out with Eastwood. The Hollywood version delivered for audiences the justice which reality had refused to provide.

The Zodiac resurfaced with a series of letters in the spring of 1974. The letter postmarked January 29, 1974 offered a review of the satanic blockbuster, THE EXORCIST. The writer described the film as “the best saterical comidy” he had ever seen. This letter also contained another quote from the musical, THE MIKADO, “He plunged him self into the billowy wave and an echo arose from the sucides grave.” The Zodiac demanded that the letter be printed in the newspaper and warned, “or I’ll do something nasty, which you know I’m capable of doing.” The writer did not use the name Zodiac, as if to underscore the suicide theme and suggest that he had abandoned the persona in favor of some new and perhaps improved alter ego as a social critic. The San Francisco Chronicle then received a suspicious card postmarked February 14 1974. The text read: "Dear Editor Did you know that the initials SLA (Symbionese Liberation Army) spell "sla," an old Norse word meaning "kill." The card was signed, "a friend." In a letter postmarked May 8 1974, the writer expressed his “consternation” regarding what he considered the “murder glorification” in “deplorable” advertisements for the film, BADLANDS, which depicted the bloody crime spree of young lovers Richard Starkweather and Carol Ann Fugate. Another letter postmarked July 8 1974 demanded the termination of a San Francisco Chronicle columnist because he suffered from “a serious psychological disorder.”

Once again, the killer vanished. Headlines such as “Cops No Closer to Zodiac’s Identity” and occasional articles reporting tenuous links to other unsolved cases kept the story alive over the years. The Zodiac crimes grew into local legend, and, the ghost of the killer became a modern boogeyman in the serial killer pop culture phenomenon of the late 1970s. A new breed of monster, the multiple murderers, had given birth to a lucrative market for graphic and often lurid crime books. The gruesome careers of John Wayne Gacy, the Son of Sam, Ted Bundy and others provided a limitless supply of material for the so-called “true crime” genre, but many of the resulting books were often more fiction than fact.

Almost a decade after the first brutal shootings along Lake Herman Road, Robert Graysmith, a cartoonist employed at The San Francisco Chronicle, was at work on his own book about the Zodiac case. After conferring with SFPD Inspector Dave Toschi, the celebrity cop in charge of the investigation, Graysmith had developed his own theories as well as a suspect named Arthur Leigh Allen. Toschi and his partner Bill Armstrong had investigated Allen in 1971 and 1972 but abandoned the suspect when they failed to produce any evidence to link Allen to the Zodiac crimes. Allen’s fingerprints did not match the suspected Zodiac fingerprints found at the scene of the Zodiac’s last known murder in San Francisco. Sherwood Morrill, questioned document examiner assigned to the case by the California Department of Justice, had concluded that Allen did not write the Zodiac letters. Morrill’s conclusions would be confirmed by other experts in later years.

In April 1978, The San Francisco Chronicle received what appeared to be another letter from the Zodiac. The new letter mentioned Inspector Toschi by name, and rumors spread that the publicity-conscious cop had forged the letter. The subsequent media scandal caused great embarrassment for the San Francisco police department.

Sherwood Morrill had retired after the Zodiac’s last known communications in 1974. San Francisco police contacted John Shimoda at the US Postal Service Crime Lab and requested a review of Morrill’s analysis of the Zodiac letters. Shimoda believed that the 1978 letter was an authentic Zodiac communication, and he also examined the writings in the Riverside case which Morrill had previously concluded were the work of the Zodiac. An FBI memo dated May 18 described Shimoda’s conclusions. “...On May 11, 1978, Mr. Shimoda examined, for the first time, these Riverside, California letters and formed the opinion that they were not authored by ‘Zodiac.’ We are requesting this additional examination to settle the disputed authorship due to the seriousness of the case.” The memo stated that police had also contacted Michael Bertocchi of the State Bureau Department of Justice (CI&I). Bertocchi said that further examination of all the Zodiac letters was warranted.

Robert Prouty, chief of the Questioned Documents Section of the State Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation was asked to analyze the 1978 letter. “I examined the photographs of the April letter and those of previous letters attributed to Zodiac,” Prouty said. “My first impression was that it was in the same general style as previous letters, but after closer examination my ultimate conclusion was that there were so many differences that it was not written by the same person who wrote the previous Zodiac letters ... Several letter characteristics in my opinion did not match the style used by Zodiac. The slant of some letters was not consistent with previous Zodiac communications.”

Other experts later agreed with Prouty’s conclusion. Keith Woodward, former head of the documents department at the Los Angeles Police department wrote that the April letter was “a carefully drawn copy of the true Zodiac printing. The general over all construction in the questioned documents indicates the letter was constructed by a person that had access to printed letters of Zodiac.” Woodward added that the letter was “a poor attempt by an unknown writer to copy the true hand printing of Zodiac.” CI&I documents examiner Terrence Pasco also concluded that the writing was the work of a forger. Even John Shimoda of the US Postal Service crime lab reversed his previous opinion that the letter was authentic and declared the letter a fake. “I am of the opinion that the letter of April 24 was an attempt to duplicate Zodiac letters and is not authentic.”

One expert believed the 1978 letter was written by the Zodiac- Sherwood Morrill. “The last letter was by the real Zodiac. There is no question in my mind,” Morrill declared. He said the writing was “definitely by the Zodiac we knew in the past. I examined it. The characters and handwriting are just dead-bang the same.” Throughout his career, Morrill stated that he believed that the Zodiac was using his normal handwriting when preparing the Zodiac letters. However, author Robert Graysmith later claimed that Morrill had endorsed Graysmith’s theory that the Zodiac was using an over-head projector and sample of handwriting belonging to other people in order to create the infamous style of the Zodiac’s writing. If Graysmith’s claim was correct, then Morrill’s conclusions were rendered suspect as his endorsement of the cartoonist’s so-called “projector theory” was in direct conflict with Morrill’s stated opinions regarding the method used to create the Zodiac letters and the handwriting of the killer.

In an attempt to clear the apparent confusion and conflicting opinions regarding the authenticity of the 1978 letter, police filed yet another request with the FBI and its findings contradicted those of some previous examinations yet confirmed others. “The ... letters show a wide range of variation and various writing speeds. Additionally, portions of the material, particularly the Riverside letters, may have been disguised or deliberately distorted. For the above reasons, the hand printing examination of these letters was inconclusive. However, consistent hand printing characteristics were noted in the [examined] letters which indicate that one person may have prepared all of the letters and the message found on the desk top in the Riverside case.”

The FBI analysis appeared to confirm the findings of retired handwriting expert Sherwood Morrill regarding the Riverside letters and desk as well as the 1978 letter. However, Morrill’s conclusions regarding the Riverside writings were refuted by John Shimoda of the US Postal Service Crime lab, and at least four other experts had rejected Morrill’s opinion and concluded that the 1978 letter was a forgery. The results of the analysis did little to clear the cloud of confusion surrounding the authenticity of any suspected “Zodiac” communications.

At a press conference held on the afternoon of July 11, 1978, Chief Gain announced that Inspector David Toschi had been removed from the Zodiac case and transferred to the pawn shop detail. Gain then further stunned reporters. “The continuing investigation of the Zodiac case by our Zodiac investigation team [SFPD Inspectors Deasy and Tedesco], established in April 1978, had led to the conclusion that there is reason to doubt whether Zodiac in fact wrote the April 24 letter.” According to Gain, Toschi was not a suspect in the forgery case and the police investigation had cleared Toschi of all suspicion. A memo produced by the San Francisco Police Department Crime Lab stated that the suspected Zodiac forgery of April 1978 was not an authentic Zodiac communication. If the 1978 letter was, indeed, a forgery, then the Zodiac had fallen silent in 1974 and had not communicated since that time.

The Zodiac story faded from the headlines in the years that followed the scandal surrounding the 1978 letter. The 1986 release of Robert Graysmith’s book immediately generated a new wave of news coverage that forever changed the public perception of the case and altered the course of the Zodiac investigation. Titled ZODIAC, the book read like a screenplay featuring the author-turned amateur sleuth at the center of the ongoing drama from the beginning, sharing secrets with investigators and hot on the trail of the killer. The cartoonist claimed that he had deciphered a Zodiac code, proved that the killer had used a projector to disguise his own handwriting, and discovered an astrological pattern to the crimes.

United Press International writer Richard M. Harnett’s review of ZODIAC appeared in The Los Angeles Times on February 9, 1986, and offered some of the only media criticism of the book. Harnett wrote that a “good account of all the facts in the Zodiac affair would have been a valuable contribution ... but Graysmith, a newspaper cartoonist, took on the role of amateur sleuth rather than historian ... He neglects those parts of the historical record that don’t fit into his scenario.”

The author’s prime suspect, named in the book as Bob Hall Starr, was actually a convicted child molester named Arthur Leigh Allen. Reported as a possible Zodiac suspect in 1971, Allen had been the subject of a brief investigation which had failed to produce any evidence linking him to the crimes. According to Graysmith, this man was a suspect in another string of killings, had confessed his guilt to friends, terrified his family, taunted police, and even described details of the crime before they occurred. Along with other convincing tales, these stories appeared to prove that Allen was, in fact, the elusive Zodiac.

Unsuspecting readers of the book could not have known that most of the stories regarding the Graysmith’s suspect were not true, or, that his theories, code solution and other claims were equally dubious. Despite its many factual errors and falsehoods, the book became a best-seller and the media anointed the author as the expert on the seemingly solved case. Newspaper articles, television news reports and documentaries used the book as a definitive reference source and often repeated its myths as fact while helping to convict the child molester in the court of public opinion.

After the publicity surrounding the release of the book ZODIAC, a man claiming to be the Zodiac killer surfaced with a series of shootings and letters in New York City during the early 1990s. Authorities dismissed the possibility that the original Zodiac killer had actually returned. The New York gunman responded with an angry declaration that he was the real Zodiac.

This is the Zodiac

The note Sent to the Post not to any of The San Francisco Zodiac letter you are

Wrong the handwriting look different it is

One of the same Zodiac one Zodiac

In San Francisco killed a man in the park with a

Gun and killed a women with a knife and killed

A man in the taxi cab with gun

Like his inspiration, the New York Zodiac seemed to vanish. When he returned to claim more victims, some observers doubted that he was the real “copycat” killer, leading to confusing nicknames used in media reports such “Zodiac II” or “Zodiac III.” Four years after his reign of terror began, police arrested unemployed high school dropout Heriberto “Eddie” Seda. A search of Seda’s possessions revealed a “well-worn” copy of Robert Graysmith’s book ZODIAC. Unlike his predecessor, Seda was convicted and sentenced to serve 83.5 years in prison.

Shortly after the copycat Zodiac resurrected the Zodiac story in the news, aging career criminal Ralph Spinelli contacted the Vallejo police department in hopes of trading information for a deal to avoid a thirty-year prison sentence. In exchange for his total freedom, the helpful felon was willing to testify that Arthur Leigh Allen had accurately predicted that the Zodiac would kill a cabdriver in San Francisco. Spinelli had a history of antagonism with the suspect that dated back decades when a fistfight between the two men resulted in their arrests. Vallejo Police Captain Roy Conway rejected Spinelli’s offer but used his claims to launch a new investigation of Allen conducted by retired detective George Bawart. Information later surfaced that the police department had purchased dozens of copies of Robert Graysmith’s book as a factual reference.

The second investigation failed to produce any evidence to implicate Allen, but searches of the suspect’s Vallejo home led to a media circus and a spotlight on the accused man. Allen professed his innocence during interviews with reporters and even appeared on a segment of the tabloid television program A CURRENT AFFAIR. In the spring of 1992, freelance writer Rider McDowell interviewed Allen in his home while researching an article for The San Francisco Chronicle. McDowell described the ill and aging suspect as disarmingly friendly and wrote that Allen had “acknowledged that he had spent time in jail and gotten away with ‘a lot of bad things,’ but he denied any involvement in the Zodiac case.” Allen told McDowell, “It wasn’t me... and that’s the truth. And if people want to believe it was me, well, that’s their problem. I was cleared on every angle, including the handwriting tests. Plus, I don’t look anything like the guy.” Reporter Rita Williams repeatedly asked Allen if he was the Zodiac and whether he was ready to confess. Allen declared in obvious frustration, “I’m not the damn Zodiac.”

After the media revealed his status as the prime suspect in California’s most notorious unsolved murder, Allen died amid a flurry of unsubstantiated rumors linking him to the crimes. News reports described Allen as “the man most investigators believed was the Zodiac,” an epitaph that could have been etched onto his tombstone.

Lingering doubts about Allen’s guilt and the credibility of Graysmith’s sensational book ensured that the case remained an ongoing media mystery for years to come. Like London’s Jack the Ripper mystery, the Zodiac case became an irresistible lure for many other amateur sleuths ready to peddle new theories and a list of suspects no writer of fiction could have conceived. A wealthy San Francisco businessman, a former Harvard lecturer, and a cast of unlucky men were wrongfully accused, while other theories linked the Zodiac to the “Unabomber,” members of the murderous Manson “family,” Texarkana’s “Phantom Killer,” Wichita’s “B.T.K. Strangler,” and other notorious crimes throughout history. The Zodiac story found its way to the Internet, where websites featured updates on the case, police files, and crime scene photographs, as well as public message board debates regarding the various suspects and theories.

Publicity surrounding one website devoted to suspect Arthur Leigh Allen inspired Graysmith to write a sequel to his first work titled ZODIAC UNMASKED. The second book offered little more than another highly fictionalized account of the case as well as many unsubstantiated or factually inaccurate claims concerning the evidence said to connect Allen to the Zodiac crimes. Shortly after the publication of the book, the San Francisco Police Department submitted the known Zodiac letters to its newly developed crime lab for forensic testing. Attempts to extract DNA from the letters proved successful and Dr. Cynde Holt and others were able to develop a partial genetic profile. According to the ABC television documentary program PRIMETIME LIVE, the sample in question was obtained from the back of a stamp affixed to the envelope which had contained the Zodiac’s notorious “Dripping Pen” card, mailed November 8, 1969. Members of the SFPD believed that the DNA profile belonged to the Zodiac and was valuable evidence useful in eliminating suspects. Critics, skeptics and theorists with pet suspects excluded by DNA comparisons claimed that the profile was unreliable while citing aging or contaminated biological material on the letters and envelopes as cause to dismiss the findings. Arthur Leigh Allen was among those suspects excluded by DNA comparison, yet this seemingly important fact, and the lack of credible evidence to link him to the Zodiac crimes, did little to deter his accusers.

In April 2004, the San Francisco Police Department made a stunning announcement. “The case is being placed inactive,” said San Francisco police Lt. John Hennessey, head of the department's homicide unit. “Given the pressure of our existing caseload and the amount of cases that remain open at this time, we need to be most efficient at using our resources.”

By 2007, Robert Graysmith’s books served as the basis for the major motion picture ZODIAC directed by David Fincher, the man behind the serial killer cult film, SEVEN. This telling of the Zodiac story followed the cartoonist, portrayed by BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN star Jake Gyllenhaal, as the unlikely hero who pursues suspect Arthur Leigh Allen and unlocks the mystery of the Zodiac crimes. Fincher told a reporter working for The New York Times, “It was a difficult thing to make a movie that posthumously convicts somebody.” Gyllenhaal told reporters that he portrayed Robert Graysmith, the man “who solved the case.”

Retired Napa County Sheriff’s Investigator Ken Narlow, assigned to investigate the Zodiac attack at Lake Berryessa in 1969, served as a consultant on the film. In an interview with reporter Marsha Dorgan of the Napa Register, Narlow said the film did not focus on the crimes. “It is based on Chronicle cartoonist Robert Graysmith’s book ZODIAC.” He explained, “The movie is about the obsession the Chronicle guys and the two San Francisco inspectors had in trying to solve the case... It took over their lives. The Zodiac would kill and then send these letters in code to the Chronicle and law enforcement challenging them to find him. The movie is about the pursuit of the suspect, not focusing on the Zodiac killings.” Retired Napa County Sheriff’s Deputy Dave Collins also served as a consultant for the film and was on the scene of the 1969 stabbing at the lake. Collins was not impressed by the ongoing attempts to “posthumously convict” Arthur Leigh Allen in the court of public opinion, and remarked, “We don’t believe that Allen is the Zodiac. There is not enough evidence to prove that. The sheriff’s department considers the case to still be open.” Ken Narlow was still waiting for the story to end. He told a reporter, “As time goes by, I have my doubts that the Zodiac is still alive. But I still think the case can be solved. That will happen only when some citizen remembers something and comes forth.” Narlow remained determined to identify the elusive killer. “I really wanted to solve that case before I retired. I will never give up hope.”

Under the title “SFPD Not Thrilled About Spotlight on Zodiac,” San Francisco Examiner columnist Ken Garcia wrote, “It’s been nearly four decades since the last murder. The case has officially been listed as inactive. And yet the public fascination with the “Zodiac” killer seems to just grow with time, a true story that has expanded into urban myth. And now the movie … Up until a few years ago, police were getting calls on the Zodiac on almost a daily basis, but it took so much time and attention away from ongoing homicide cases that they put it on the inactive list until the day they get a lead that might actually go somewhere. But they were definitely hoping it wouldn’t go to Hollywood, backed by a marketing campaign. It’s a legend in the (movie-) making.”

While preparing for an article about the release of the new film, employees at The San Francisco Chronicle discovered what appeared to be a long-forgotten communication from the elusive pen pal. Postmarked in Eureka, California in December 1990, the red envelope was overlooked amid the many hoax letters and forgeries that plagued the newspaper after the release of Graysmith’s first book and the sensational media coverage surrounding the crimes of a “Zodiac copycat” killer in New York. If the card was an authentic Zodiac communication, the killer was still alive as late as 1990, still taunting, and still at large more than sixteen years after his brief appearance in 1974. If the killer was aware of the New York impostor, the 1990 card may have been an attempt to reclaim his murderous persona.

Addressed to The Chronicle in pencil and with an eerily familiar style, the envelope bore a 25-cent stamp depicting a Christmas tree and contained a holiday greeting card. On the front of the card, a Snowman wearing a Groucho Mark nose, moustache and glasses stands in a snowstorm as a small rabbit watches. The text of the card was reminiscent of the Zodiac’s Halloween card to reporter Paul Avery more than twenty years earlier.



The inside of the card read:



The writer had also included a Xerox of two keys on a chain attached to a small pen-like cylinder. Marked USPS for the United States Postal Service, the keys had identification numbers of undetermined significance, leading to speculation that the Xerox might lead to a post office box containing the identity of the Zodiac, or some other clue that could provide the solution to the case.

In the years which followed the release of the 2007 film ZODIAC, public interest in the unsolved crimes continued to grow, as did the cottage industry of books, websites, television shows and movies. The version of the story as told in the books by Robert Graysmith, and the movie adaptation, found a new generation of followers and believers of the theory that Arthur Leigh Allen was the Zodiac killer. The sensational spectacle also attracted a new generation of crackpots, opportunists, amateur sleuths, and another copycat killer.

On June 21, 2008, the assistant manager of a Fairfield Inn by Marriott in Fayetteville, North Carolina was called to investigate a foul odor inside room 143. The man discovered a large crossed-circle drawn on the bathroom mirror in lipstick and a decomposed corpse in the tub. The victim was later identified as Megan Lynn Touma, a twenty-three-year-old Army dental specialist stationed at the nearby Ft. Bragg military base. An autopsy revealed that Touma was pregnant at the time of the murder. As news of the killing spread, the killer issued his own press release. The envelope arrived at the offices of the local newspaper, The Fayetteville Observer, on June 24. The typed letter had been signed with a crossed-circle symbol and read:

“To whom it may concern. The following is to inform that I am responsible for the dead body that was found on Saturday June 21 @ 1130 in room 143 at Fairfield Inn by Marriott off Skibo RD. It was a master piece. I confess, that I have killed many times before in several states, but now I will start using my model’s signature. There will be many more to come. Fayetteville law enforcement are very incompetent. I basically sat there and watch while investigators were on site.”

Police later arrested and charged the man who was reportedly engaged to marry Megan, Sgt. Edgar Patino Lopez. A member of the 18th Engineer Brigade, Patino studied psychological operations tactics, including propaganda methods using print, radio and television news media as well as other unconventional techniques. Police stated that a type-writer found in the suspect’s home matched the Zodiac-like letter sent to The Fayetteville Observer. In 2010, Lopez agreed to plead guilty to second-degree murder in exchange for a lesser sentence of 16-20 years.

In the summer of 2008, Dr. Lawrence P. D’Antonio surfaced with claims that he had solved the Zodiac case by creating an amazing new technique for discovering hidden messages and images on the Zodiac letters. According to D’Antonio, these messages and images were planted by the infamous Zodiac suspect, Arthur Leigh Allen. D’Antonio said that he first came up with this discovery after watching the movie ZODIAC and staying awake for three days in a row. D’Antonio then posted his sensational claims on various Internet message boards. He claimed to be “working with” the SFPD and the FBI, and claimed that his “evidence” proved Allen’s guilt despite the overwhelming evidence of his innocence. D’Antonio repeatedly announced that he had discovered even more damning evidence against Allen and he repeatedly claimed that authorities were close to closing the case. However, as time passed, authorities dismissed D’Antonio’s claims and evidence. D’Antonio later ended his public campaign and his days as an amateur crime-fighter.

D’Antonio’s press releases stated that he was represented by Larry Garrison, the public relations man behind the next Zodiac publicity stunt. Garrison also represented a San Francisco real estate agent named Deborah Perez, who became the subject of worldwide attention when she called a press conference in April 2009 to declare that the Zodiac was her deceased stepfather Guy Ward Hendrickson. Accompanied by Kevin McLean, a former associate of famed attorney Melvin Belli, Perez told reporters that she first suspected her father was the Zodiac when she saw a sketch of the killer while watching a 2007 episode of the popular crime series AMERICA’S MOST WANTED. “I recognized the individual as my father... I researched the Zodiac killer, and to my surprise I found cards and letters that were in police custody that were written by my father or myself.” Perez claimed that she had written the now-infamous Zodiac letter sent to Melvin Belli in December 1969. Perez explained, “I was a child and just thought I was helping my father.”

Deborah Perez was met with skepticism and ridicule by a collection of Zodiac-buffs who had gathered at the press conference. San Francisco Chronicle writer Kevin Fagan attended the conference and wrote that some in the crowd were shouting, “Guilty! Guilty!” and “Bullshit! Bullshit!” Self-professed Zodiac victim Sandy Betts, known for her own claims that the Zodiac had been stalking her for decades, also attended the conference and reportedly told Fagan, “They’re gonna get the guy, but it’s not who she says- I have the real Zodiac’s picture in my car, and he is alive... He fired shots at me.” Perez produced a pair of glasses which she believed were taken from the Zodiac’s last known victim, cabdriver Paul Stine. Police met with Deborah Perez and apparently determined that her claims did not warrant further investigation. Guy Ward Hendrickson joined the long list of men who had been wrongfully accused and named as the Zodiac killer. In 2008, a Google search for the name Guy Ward Hendrickson would have produced nothing to stain his reputation. The same Google search later produced approximately 831,000 results in 0.23 seconds-- virtually all of these listings identified Hendrickson as a Zodiac suspect, casting a permanent and dark cloud over his memory. Members of the Hendrickson family refuted the claims made by Deborah Perez and others questioned her motives and credibility. According to several sources, including true crime writer M. William Phelps, Perez had also claimed that she was the daughter of President John F. Kennedy. Perez eventually vanished from the glare of the spotlight but her brief appearance had further clouded the public perception of the unsolved mystery.

Dennis Kaufman claimed that his step-father Jack Tarrance was the Zodiac. Kaufman also claimed that he had searched his father’s possessions and discovered several incriminating items, including a roll of film which he believed depicted possible murder victims and a bizarre, hooded costume similar to that used by the Zodiac. After years of promoting himself on the Internet, Kaufman was featured in the cable television program TRUE CRIME, hosted by crime writer Aphrodite Jones. Authorities investigated Kaufman’s claims and examined his evidence but found nothing to implicate Jack Tarrance in the Zodiac crimes. Kaufman’s public campaign continued as other men came forward to accuse their own fathers. Retired LAPD detective turned crime writer Steve Hodel published a book titled BLACK DAHLIA AVENGER in which he claimed that his father, Dr. George Hodel, was responsible for the infamous “Black Dahlia” murder in the late 1940s. After the success of his first book, Hodel returned with a sequel titled MOST EVIL; he now claimed that his father was also responsible for the “Chicago Lipstick Murders” as well as the Zodiac crimes. Many who had studied the Dahlia and Zodiac cases dismissed Hodel’s theories and claims. Steve Hodel had once enjoyed the endorsement of famed writer James Ellroy (author of the book BLACK DAHLIA) but Ellroy retracted that endorsement after Hodel’s theories expanded. Steve Hodel began work on a third book and continued to post new theories and claims at his website.

In 2008, another suspect was named by Tom Voigt (of the website and an informant known by several aliases. Voigt had a long history of promoting individuals who were known as unreliable sources and informants, including Robert Graysmith, Zodiac/Manson conspiracy theorist Howard Davis, self-professed Zodiac victim Sandy Betts, and others. Since the late 1980s, Blaine T. Blaine aka “Zakatarious” aka “Goldcatcher” had claimed that his former friend and associate Richard Gaikowski was the Zodiac. According to Blaine’s account, Gaikowski confessed that he was the Zodiac killer and invited Blaine to join him in ongoing acts of shocking violence in what he called “the Golden Calf Killings,” named for the Golden Calf and the subject of a book which Blaine had written some years earlier. Blaine claimed that he had actually watched as Gaikowski killed a San Francisco cab driver. Blaine contacted various law enforcement agencies and claimed that he had solved the Zodiac codes and identified Gaikowski as the killer. Every single law enforcement agency dismissed Blaine’s claims, and the late San Francisco Police Inspector Mike Maloney reportedly referred to Blaine as “one of the top three Zodiac kooks.” As the years passed, Blaine occasionally reappeared to tell his story but few were willing to listen. After Richard Gaikowski died in 2004, Tom Voigt posted public messages on the Internet in an attempt to solicit information about Blaine Blaine and Gaikowski. Eventually, Voigt met with Blaine and then launched a public campaign naming Gaikowski as a viable Zodiac suspect. Many people who had known Richard Gaikowski were angered by the accusations and defended his reputation. Despite the lack of credible evidence to implicate Gaikowski in the Zodiac crimes, this theory was later featured in the 2009 television documentary MYSTERYQUEST.

Theorist Gareth Penn self-published his 1987 book titled TIMES 17 which named former Harvard lecturer Michael O’Hare as the Zodiac killer. Penn claimed that O’Hare committed the Zodiac crimes as part of an elaborate, intellectual “art” project which used the locations of the attacks to create giant, invisible geometric formations. Penn also believed that O’Hare planned more attacks in the future and intended to end the Zodiac story with his own suicide. According to FBI reports, Penn had sent several bizarre messages to O’Hare in an apparent attempt to provoke a response. Penn’s odd behavior over the years led some observers to suspect that he might be the Zodiac killer, and this theory later dominated many discussions on Internet message boards. Penn’s response to these accusations only fueled the suspicions of his accusers. Another Zodiac theorist named Raymond Grant spent two decades creating what eventually became his theory that Penn and O’Hare had worked together to commit the Zodiac crimes with the assistance of their parents. Grant self-published the first editions of his book The ZODIAC MURDERS- SOLVED! in the early 1990s. Two decades later, in 2010, Grant began posting the ever-changing editions at the two websites devoted to the online promotion of his ever-expanding theories and claims.

Several retired police officers re-surfaced with an-already dismissed suspect who had previously been named in Robert Graysmith’s book ZODIAC under the pseudonym “Andrew Todd Walker.” Authorities had originally investigated this suspect in the late 1970s and determined that no evidence linked him to the Zodiac crimes. Years later, the theory was featured in the 2011 book The SILENCED BADGE aka The ZODIAC KILLER COVER-UP. According to author Lyndon Lafferty, the Zodiac had escaped justice thanks to interference by a prominent judge who had intervened on the suspect’s behalf. Another book named another suspect as part of yet-another conspiracy plot. Author David M. Silvey claimed that he had actually known the Zodiac as well as Zodiac victim Darlene Ferrin. According to Silvey, the Zodiac crimes and Ferrin’s death were part of a secret government plot named Project: Artichoke. Silvey died before the book was published.

In 2011, student and amateur code-breaker Corey Starliper claimed that he had solved the Zodiac’s infamous “340” cipher. According to Starliper’s solution, the code identified Arthur Leigh Allen as the Zodiac killer. Starliper stated that he had produced his solution shortly after viewing the movie ZODIAC which named Allen as the likely killer. The Starliper solution was rejected by many critics and other amateur code-breakers who had studied the Zodiac codes.

Zodiac theorist Mike Rodelli believed that he had identified the Zodiac as a wealthy Bay Area business man who had lived near the scene of the Zodiac’s last known murder in San Francisco. Fearful of a potential lawsuit, Rodelli used the pseudonym “Mr. X” when discussing his suspect in public interviews and Internet postings. In 2003, Rodelli appeared on the ABC television show PRIMETIME LIVE. The broadcast included the revelation that authorities had developed a partial DNA profile obtained from the envelopes and stamps used by the Zodiac killer. This DNA profile did not match the DNA of Mr. X, who had agreed to the DNA testing and comparison in an effort to end Rodelli’s accusations. Like most Zodiac theorists, Rodelli remained convinced that he was right and the authorities were wrong. Rodelli took his theory to the Internet and later launched a website. Rodelli’s theory was featured in the book by author Mike Capuzzo titled, The MURDER ROOM: The Heirs of Sherlock Holmes Gather to Solve the World’s Most Perplexing Cold Cases. In 2011, Mike Rodelli publically posted the real name of his suspect on his website. Attorneys representing Mr. X contacted Rodelli, and Rodelli’s website then disappeared from the Internet.

Other amateur sleuths used the media and the Internet to offer more theories, cipher solutions and suspects. The identity of the Zodiac killer became the Holy Grail of true crime history. Countless men and women came forward with sensational stories only to be consumed by the endless spectacle and subsequently replaced by the next attention seeker or obsessed armchair detective. Media reports repeatedly resurrected the mystery and the families of the victims relived the tragedy which had forever changed their lives. Many law enforcement agencies were often forced to waste resources, manpower and money in order to investigate each new suspect.

Decades of investigation and advances in forensic science produced evidence which authorities believed could be used to identify the Zodiac. A partial DNA profile was obtained from a Zodiac envelope. This partial DNA profile did not match Arthur Leigh Allen, Mr. X, or any other suspects. A palm-print was “lifted” from the so-called “Exorcist letter” attributed to the Zodiac in 1974. This palm print did not belong to Allen or any other suspects. Three of the Zodiac’s four coded messages remain unsolved and, if deciphered, may reveal information which could identify the Zodiac. A majority of handwriting experts believed that the Zodiac’s handwriting could be used to identify the killer. Experts working with law enforcement concluded that Allen and other suspects did not write the Zodiac letters. The San Francisco Police Department, the Vallejo Police Department, the Napa County Sheriff's Office and other law enforcement agencies continued to investigate various leads and other attempts to gather new forensic evidence.

The debate regarding the possible fate of the Zodiac generated several scenarios. A frequently cited explanation for the Zodiac’s disappearance from the public spotlight suggested that the killer was either in prison for some other offense or that he had died without leaving behind some clue to his secret identity. This explanation had also been offered to explain the disappearance of other elusive serial killers such as the Green River Killer and the BTK Strangler. So-called “profilers” and experts on the subject of serial murder often speculated that the Zodiac and other murderers were loners incapable of maintaining steady employment or long-term relationships with women. Decades after they had seemingly vanished from the public spotlight, both the Green River killer and the BTK Strangler were identified and imprisoned. Both men had maintained steady employment and long-term relationships with women. Ridgway and Rader were not in prison while absent from the public spotlight. Both men continued to kill even after authorities and the public believed that their criminal careers had quietly ended. Gary Ridgway, aka the Green River killer, may have been responsible for more than 100 murders over the course of two decades. Dennis Rader, aka the BTK Strangler, was known as a loving husband and father who served as the president of his church. Rader and Ridgway defied the expectations of experts who believed them to be crazed loners, and disappointed crime buffs and amateur sleuths looking for diabolical geniuses similar to the fictional villain Hannibal Lector. Like the Zodiac, Rader had sent many taunting communications to the media and others, including coded messages which remained unsolved. Upon his arrest, Rader was asked to provide the solution to one of his codes but he could not remember the hidden message. Gary Ridgway led police to the remains of many victims but he failed to provide any sufficient answers for those who questioned the motives behind his seemingly senseless crimes. Dennis Rader later admitted that he had planned to leave behind evidence which would identify him as the BTK Strangler after his death. If the Zodiac was at all similar to his criminal contemporaries, the truth behind his haunting crimes may defy expectations and explanation.

The Zodiac remains the most elusive and terrifying ghost in the history of American serial murder. While some believe that the killer died long ago or is locked away somewhere in a prison cell, others believe that he is still out there, watching the world keep his story alive, enjoying his infamy, and waiting to write an ending as shocking as his unforgettable crimes.

Note: The information cited in this article was obtained from official documents, police reports, FBI files, interviews and news accounts.

Copyright 2011-2012 Michael Butterfield / All Rights Reserved

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