MYSTERYQUEST: Wasted Opportunities

On Wednesday, September 30, 2009, more than forty years after the Zodiac killer first appeared, the new documentary series MYSTERYQUEST focused on the unsolved crimes.

The first episode of MYSTERYQUEST proved that the skull touted for years by the Russians as that of the notorious dictator Adolf Hitler was actually the skull of a woman. The second episode about the Bermuda Triangle was far-less revelatory, but, then again, did anyone expect otherwise? This more or less sums up my expectations regarding the third episode about the Zodiac crimes: it’s not as if the show is going to solve the case, and it’s not as if their efforts to use new technology to conduct DNA testing on the Zodiac letters and other examinations of other evidence is going to magically identify a suspect. I didn’t expect the MYSTERYQUEST investigation to uncover or present any damning new evidence to implicate Richard Gaikowski, Arthur Leigh Allen, Mr. X, or any other suspect– not that I wouldn’t welcome such evidence or the resolution to this case. Of course, I would happily accept any suspect as the Zodiac if it meant that the case would finally be solved.

The producers of MYSTERYQUEST worked diligently to obtain access to all of the available evidence in the various Zodiac cases. Those who have followed the case have had many questions for many years: Do any of the suspected fingerprints actually belong to the killer and, if so, are they of sufficient quality to accurately identify a suspect? Is the partial DNA profile previously obtained from Zodiac letters and envelopes reliable scientific evidence? Can this partial profile be completed using new technology? Can the DNA taken from one Zodiac letter be matched to DNA taken from another letter? What other evidence exists, and have authorities taken the necessary steps to process that evidence and share information? Unfortunately, MYSTERYQUEST did not answer any of these questions; the most significant new “evidence” presented was an age progressed sketch of the Stine suspect composite sketch.

As many of you had guessed, there is no audiotape of the Zodiac killer’s voice, despite the wording of the show summary on the MYSTERYQUEST website. Apparently, the individual who wrote the summary was in error, as the show did not feature any audiotape of the Zodiac’s voice.

The program gives the impression that Nancy Slover listened to the tape of Gaikowski’s voice for the first time; in fact, she heard the tape some time ago and has already stated that Gaikowski’s voice was similar to that of the Zodiac (she allegedly “identified” Gaikwoski as the man she spoke with more than forty years ago).

During the broadcast, Nancy was asked to listen to tapes of Gaikowski’s voice again and offered her opinion. “That came very close to his “Good-bye,” to me,” Nancy said of one portion of the tape. “It’s the same guy.” When asked if she was certain, she replied, “I am.” Slover added, “In my opinion, that is the man that called VPD in the early morning hours of July 5, 1969. I just know what my gut feeling is, and my reaction is.”

While some may choose to embrace Slover’s “identification,” it seems clear that such an identification cannot be considered reliable, despite the contradictory opinion allegedly expressed by Slover’s neurologist. More that forty years have passed since Slover spoke with the killer for a matter of seconds; at best, one could hope that Slover would be able to say that a voice was similar or dissimilar, but to refer to such an identification as “positive” is to ignore the obvious fact that no one could accurately identify a voice after so many decades have passed.

Unlike those who are clinging to bad theories and suspects, I see no legitimate reason to believe that the DNA evidence previously obtained by the SFPD crime lab is somehow flawed, contaminated or otherwise unreliable. If it was up to me, the DNA would match any one of the known suspects and we could all say “Case Closed.” Yet, no matter how sound the DNA evidence may be, I’m sure some theorist will come forward with a long-list of 75 retired mailmen who are willing to swear under oath that they used to walk around San Francisco licking envelopes as they made their rounds in 1969. While MYSTERYQUEST did not present any new DNA evidence, new technology may someday unlock whatever secrets the Zodiac’s envelopes may posses. According to the program, the San Francisco Police Department refused to cooperate with the efforts of MYSTERYQUEST to compare the recently obtained suspected-Gaikowksi DNA with the partial DNA profile reportedly obtained from a Zodiac envelope in 2002.

The production offered a unique experience; we visited each crime scene, and interviewed three of the original investigators: Pierre Bidou (Benecia PD), Ed Rust (VPD), and Ken Narlow (NCSO). As we traveled to the crime scene and spoke with the men who had stood on that same ground forty years to see the carnage created by this killer, as we heard their memories, studied the crime scene photos and original reports, and discussed the facts, the story of the Zodiac was more real, more terrifying than ever before. I was reminded of a scene from the television mini-series The DELIBERATE STRANGER, in which several detectives and a reporter talk about the painful price they have all paid in their pursuit of serial killer Ted Bundy.

Near the end of the film, Det. Bob Keppel (Frederic Forrest) likens Bundy’s effect on the world to that of a pebble in a pond and the many people swept into the tragedy to the ripples created by its sudden impact on a previously-peaceful surface. Keppel notes that the cost was irrelevant, and that if he played even a small part in stopping the killing, then his contribution would probably be the single most important thing he had ever done in his life. Those who are familiar with and have studied Keppel’s career know that his contribution far exceeds his uncanny ability to remain humble and still be one of the most insightful minds in the study of serial crime.

I cannot claim to have served society or contributed to the greater understanding of serial crime as Narlow, Rust, Bidou, Keppel and others have, nor can I claim to possess any special skill or indispensable insights into the human condition. At best, I’d like to believe that I have made some small contribution to this world, and this case, in my efforts to learn as much as I can about this unsolved mystery and share that information with those who care. Over the years, I have been reminded of the responsibility that comes with publicly “entering” this story, and the fact that– no matter how entertaining this murder mystery may be for some– this tragedy is all too real, and the people destroyed or traumatized by the ongoing injustice and exploitation deserve a lot better than the never-ending circus of the Zodiac saga. My unforgettable conversations with those involved in the story still haunt me; Dean Ferrin, husband of Zodiac victim Darlene Ferrin, Sue Ayers, Dean’s cousin, Darlene’s sister Pam, police dispatcher Nancy Slover, detectives Ed Rust, Pierre Bidou, Ken Narlow, DOJ Agents Mel Nicolai and Fred Shirasago, survivor Bryan Hartnell, SFPD Inspectors Kelly Carroll, Tom Bruton, Vince Repetto, suspects Michael O’Hare, Mr. X, the family of suspect Arthur Leigh Allen, and many more. These people have lived the story– the rest of us are simply moving in the margins.

The seemingly-limitless supply of circus clowns proves that there will always be those who respectfully walk around a grave, and those who see that same sacred ground as an appropriate place for a dance party. The exploitation of the Zodiac case has become a cottage industry and a full-time career for many snake-oil salesmen. Like starved and impatient patrons in a fast-food drive-thru, crime buffs can choose from a large menu of cheap and preservative-filled suspects sold by the likes of Howard Davis, Blaine Blaine, Robert Graysmith, Dennis Kaufman, Deborah Perez, and so many others. Now author Steve Hodell has joined the chorus of children accusing dead fathers; his book MOST EVIL: Avenger, Zodiac, and the Further Crimes of Dr. George Hodel will be met with praise from “respected” true-crime writers and more who are happy to promote yet another shameless and irresponsible stunt on the Zodiac stage. Each new crackpot, theory and suspect creates more confusion and inspires more crackpots with more theories and suspects. The story of the Zodiac often seem lost somewhere in the fog surrounding these fools, funny fellows, comic men and clowns of private life.

Unfortunately, MYSTERYQUEST sqaundered its opportunity to provide information and clear confusion. Instead of using the hours of material shot at the crime scenes, in which the original investigators revealed important details and debunked many myths, the program devoted an inordinate amount of time to the crackpot Blaine Blaine and his enablers; in fact, the show was little more than a protracted commercial for Blaine’s accusations. Frankly, I am disappointed; once again, valuable time was wasted on nonsense rather than focusing on important issues. In short, MYSTERYQUEST was a wasted opportunity.

Yet, there were some highlights for me. During the filming of the program I was privileged to work with criminalist Paul Holes, Chief Forensic Services Division of the Contra Costa Sheriff’s Department. The producers made the right choice when they asked criminalist Paul Holes to examine the evidence in this case. Paul’s work in the unsolved EAR/ONS [East Area Rapist and Original Night Stalker] case may someday help to convict a suspect. Paul approached the evidence in this case with the skepticism and pragmatism of a true professional, and my discussions with him forced me to re-examine some of the opinions regarding the evidence we have all heard about for so many years. My conversations with Paul left me convinced that he would follow the evidence wherever it led and that he took great pride in precision, professionalism and the process itself. As I listened to Paul discuss his past cases, his victories and the unsolved cases, I realized that, as much as I would never possess his skill, expertise and experience, I knew that we both shared one simple personality trait: we hated mysteries. Whenever I say that people look at me with a puzzled expression as if such a statement was somehow in direct conflict with my work on this case. Quite the contrary; I am attracted to unsolved crimes because they are questions in need of answers, and knowledge makes the difference. I’m sure I speak for Paul when I say that he has no interest in walking away from any case without those answers, and neither do I.

Yet answers have always proven to be elusive in the Zodiac case, and while MYSTERYQUEST may have provided some useful information, we are not “one step closer to solving the mystery.” Like so many who have followed this case, I still have hope that this mystery can be solved. As much as I cling to that hope, I often feel as if entering the Zodiac story is a bit like entering hell, where a sign reportedly reads, “Abandon hope all ye who enter here.”

Leave a Reply