ZODIAC: Deborah, Dennis, Delusions and Daddy Issues

More than 20 years ago, the publication of the sensational and largely fictional book ZODIAC inspired a legion of amateur sleuths who claimed they had identified the Zodiac, holding press conferences, peddling books, accusing suspects and telling tall tales. Things really have changed since then – er, actually, nothing has changed at all.

The last two years have been a nightmare for anyone who cares about the case and the truth, and it’s more than clear why those in law enforcement did not welcome the production of David Fincher’s revisionist history film, ZODIAC, a film based on the largely fictional book by Robert Graysmith. The effect of the film has been much like the effect its source material had on the case and society more than 20 years ago – meaning, the film and its opportunistic exploitation of the many already-debunked myths about the case only served to inspire others with even less shame. When society praises and rewards those who exploit the case with no regard for the truth, why would we expect the public to get any message other than – “Exploiting the Zodiac case for your own fame and profit while spitting on the truth and the victims is perfectly acceptable behavior.”

To be fair, it’s not as if the makers of ZODIAC invented the exploitation of the Zodiac case – that began almost as soon as the first victims took their last breaths more than four decades ago. This is, after all, America, where the mantra often seems to be, “Who cares as long as it doesn’t effect me.” Translated into simple, everyday language, this means, “When something bad happens to me, it’s tragedy,” and “When something bad happens to someone else, it’s entertainment.” This logic has fueled the recent wave of those coming forward with claims that they have identified the Zodiac killer.

Years ago, a debate broke out on the old true crime message board regarding the publication of the book DADDY WAS THE BLACK DAHLIA KILLER. Janice Knowlton told a wild story in which her father had not only killed the infamous Hollywood murder victim Elizabeth Short but was part of an underground sex ring that served the Hollywood elite. The book, written by Michael Newton, caused a splash in the media and Knowlton did her best to earn her fifteen minutes, peddling her bizarre, wholly unsubstantiated tales as much as possible. Her campaign led her to the message boards where she and Newton defended their book against the crowd of skeptics and critics who viewed their efforts as little more than shameless opportunism that only further muddied the story of the Black Dahlia killing. As one who had read the book and studied the claims made by the author and Knowlton, I raised questions regarding the veracity of the claims as well as the motives behind the book. In my opinion, it was clear that Knowlton was mentally-ill and that Newton was morally corrupt, eager to exploit the woman for whatever she was worth with little regard for her emotional well-being. In short, it was a quick buck, but Newton did his best to justify his work and boost the sagging credibility of his co-author. No matter how bizarre or unsubstantiated her claims may have been, everyone seemed happy to ignore that obvious reality as long as Knowlton didn’t start accusing little green men from Mars, too. My exchanges with both characters left me convinced that the entire episode was a sad commentary on the world – the whole book was total crapola and Knowlton had no credibility whatsoever, but that kind of talk just interfered with the business of selling books and making money. Who wants to stop and admit that the whole story is pure nonsense when there are talk shows to book, contracts to sign, movie rights to sell. Crapola sells, and people who sell crapola are not interested in selling substance.

After Knowlton faded from the spotlight, no one stopped to care about how she had been effected by the entire episode. The media machine chewed her up and spit her out on cue when she was no longer profitable. When she died in an apparent suicide, Knowlton once again became marketable and, on cue, the media returned to milk the most out of her breakdown and demise. Today, the Janice Knowlton saga is just a sad footnote in the never-ending spectacle that is the Black Dahlia story; this legendary murder case had also fallen victim to the distortions of Hollywood many times over, including director Brian DePalma’s fictional film. Now, others have come forward to accuse their own dead fathers of the crime while the media machine gobbles them up and marches mindlessly forward in search of more mentally ill attention seekers or morally challenged morons to consume.

For too many years, the mentally ill, the morally ill, and the media have infested the Zodiac case like ravenous maggots over a rotting corpse. William Beeman called a press conference and disgraced himself back in the ‘80s when he accused his brother Jack. Beeman sold a book about his amateur investigation for fifty bucks; later, he admitted that he was wrong.

Blaine Blaine pestered every law enforcement agency in Northern California and more with his claim that his estranged friend Richard Gaikowski was the Zodiac; Blaine lived in an alternate universe where he was a credible individual and, unfortunately for him, every one of the members of law enforcement he encountered lived in another universe where Blaine was a brandied fruitcake, and never the two shall meet.

Gareth Penn launched his now-decades-old campaign against Michael O’Hare, accusing the former Harvard lecturer of the Zodiac and other crimes using his own twisted interpretations of the Zodiac’s writings and codes; today, Penn is still at it but, in a fitting bit of irony, he now stands accused of the Zodiac crimes by someone who used his same dubious methods. [O’Hare recently wrote an online article about the sorry saga, almost thirty years after it began – click on the SUSPECTS & THEORIES link and then scroll to the bottom Penn page to read O’Hare’s article.]

Then there was the guy who murdered his friend in what he claimed was a re-enactment of a Zodiac crime, the New York Zodiac or ZODIAC II, the Zodiac killer in Japan, the Zodiac copycat in North Carolina, and any number of other losers inspired by the glorification of the killer and his crimes – all examples of the mentally ill or morons without a conscience. Harry Martin with his 9,745 part special series about the answer to the Zodiac crimes, involving Robert Hunter, Charles Manson, Larry Kane, the Illuminati, the Freemasons, E. Howard Hunt and Hanger 18. Charles Clifton Collins thought his daddy might have been the Zodiac, and he had to go on national television before he’d face the fact that doing so might have been a bad idea.

And now we have even more lunatics adding their names to the list of funny fellows, comic men and clowns of private life who have disgraced themselves in their efforts to exploit the unsolved mystery. Dennis Kaufman has been accusing his now-deceased step-father Jack Tarrance of the Zodiac crimes since 2000; back then, his wild claims and tales did little to impress those who studied the case or those in law enforcement. For some reason, those who are in charge at Sacramento’s CBS 13 television station have taken on the role as Kaufman’s unabashed PR firm; reports from CBS 13 seem to be little more than talking points handed down by Kaufman and unverified by any of the so-called “journalists” at the station.

Sandy Betts claimed that the Zodiac had been following and harassing her for decades; she even claimed that the killer had left his hooded costume in her car back in the 1960s. Yet, of course, Betts could not produce this costume when asked to do so. Howard Davis claimed that the Zodiac’s hooded costume was discovered among the possessions of the so-called “Manson family” and then destroyed as part of an elaborate conspiracy to conceal the family’s involvement in the Zodiac crimes. Davis claimed that his ex-district attorney/ex-brother-in-law told him of the nefarious plot; apparently the source was mistaken – more than three decades later, Dennis Kaufman discovered the Zodiac’s hood in an old piece of stereo equipment among his late step-father’s possessions.

After he failed to convince authorities that he had identified the Zodiac as Richard Gaikowski, Blaine Blaine produced a scan of a book which bore the signature “Paul Stine.” According to Blaine, this book was found among Gaikowski’s possessions; of course, Blaine claims he no longer has the actual book. Deborah Perez produced a pair of old glasses which she claimed her step-father had taken from Zodiac victim Paul Stine.

Despite what can only be described as an undeniable lack of credibility, each of these theorists and accusers still manage to convince others that their claims have merit, and these converts then work to endorse, promote and protect the theorists. Deborah Perez garnered the assistance of a disbarred attorney who once worked with the infamous lawyer Melvin Belli. Perez’s PR machine called a press conference and spoke of a film in the works. Previously, Perez had approached true crime writer William C. Phelps with her story in the hope that the author might embrace her tale as a potentially profitable endeavor. Phelps later wrote that he believed Perez and her story were credible until she also claimed that she was JFK’s illegitimate daughter. Phelps later wrote that he felt as if he had been “duped.” Even on the surface, Perez’s claim that she had accompanied her father during several Zodiac attacks was dubious at best. Those who had studied the Zodiac crimes immediately noticed several problems with Perez’s story, and even those who knew little about the case could quickly recognize the fact that Perez’s wild tale was simply too sensational to be true. The fact that Phelps considered Perez credible only until she allegedly claimed to be JFK’s illegitimate daughter suggests that Phelps might still be convinced of Perez’s credibility if she had simply been a better liar peddling a better lie. The scenario was reminiscent of author Michael Newton’s relationship with Janice Knowlton and the book DADDY WAS THE BLACK DAHLIA KILLER; Newton was apparently happy to embrace and promote Knowlton’s absurd story as long as her lies remained subtle and almost plausible.

Dennis Kaufman seems to have television reporter Cris Pickel wrapped around his finger and he has now attracted the support of a university professor in Arizona. The professor believes that his geographical analysis of suspected murder sites confirms Kaufman’s claims concerning several unsolved crimes. While the professor was happy to add his own endorsement of Kaufman, the professor’s university was quick to note that the professor spoke for himself and not for the institution. Another man stayed awake for several days until he became convinced that the Zodiac’s letters contained hidden messages that further implicated already-exonerated suspect Arthur Leigh Allen. According to the sleep-deprived amateur sleuth, the hidden messages only became visible when viewed on a computer monitor that was tilted to a certain angle. This theorist sought out his fifteen seconds of notoriety and discovered that the media was eager to oblige. Other men and women have come forward with their own claims; these individuals would have remained anonymous thrill-seekers without a media ready to provide a forum for the latest crackpot.

In the late 1990s, the Zodiac story found new life on the Internet. While the public still accepted the theories and solutions offered by author Robert Graysmith, many of the Internet critics challenged this version of the story and consistently exposed the factual errors, distortions, and fraud in the best-selling book ZODIAC. More than a decade after the publication of Graysmith’s “definitive account of the case,” the author’s work proved to be little more than revisionist history designed to implicate his chosen suspect. Those who cared about the case had hoped that the mainstream media would report this important truth, but others embraced Graysmith while endorsing and defending his work, even censoring and silencing legitimate, fact-based criticisms of the author’s many dubious claims. These followers continued Graysmith’s exploitation of the Zodiac tragedy, ignoring the voices of critics who warned that the resurrection of the author and his theories would cause irreparable harm to the historical record and further mislead the public. Graysmith’s Internet defenders launched their own efforts to convict Arthur Leigh Allen in the court of public opinion, and the results influenced the author’s shockingly deceptive sequel, ZODIAC UNMASKED. Long after DNA and other evidence excluded Allen as a suspect and the so-called “mountain of circumstantial evidence” of his guilt had been discredited, Hollywood adapted both ZODIAC and ZODIAC UNMASKED for the feature film ZODIAC – we all know how that worked out.

Howard Davis has turned his Manson/Zodiac conspiracy theory into a mini-career and, like Graysmith, has his own defenders and followers who are eager to overlook his wild claims and irresponsible actions in this case simply because they think he’s a swell guy. Davis’ sensational story of a Zodiac/Manson cover-up was exposed as a fraud by Davis’ own source, Manson prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi and others. Like Robert Graysmith, Davis had defenders and allies to censor and then silence legitimate, fact-based criticism of Davis and his work. The justification? “Who cares if he lied about something 15 years ago. No one believes his theory, no one believes the cover-up story, no one buys his book, and you’re just giving him more attention than he deserves.” When reminded of the moral contradiction, the defenders are not moved and offer this excuse, “I’m trying to solve the case. He’s helping me with my goal. I’m not going to sacrifice that relationship.” If Davis were one of the detectives assigned to a case, or a group of journalists covering a story, and he peddled this nonsense, anyone who actually cared about this case would escort Davis to the door and leave a large boot print on his rear end.

Then there was “Sam,” a non-suspect suspect of sorts, and an Internet-funded investigation that went nowhere. Other suspects surfaced, including an already discarded oldie, Richard Gaikowski. Once the subject of a brief law enforcement attention in the late 1980s, Gaikowski became a suspect only after Blaine pestered virtually every law enforcement agency involved in the case with his ridiculous decipherings of the Zodiac’s coded messages and his bizarre theories. Ken Narlow, the SFPD, the FBI and others had rightfully dismissed Blaine as a crackpot, but others saw opportunity in the discredited kook. Today, Blaine’s theory and suspect have become mainstream, despite the fact that no credible evidence exists to implicate Gaikowski and his accuser is a few sandwiches short of a picnic. Another man and his family are thrown to the wolves by those who claim to care about this case while they, instead, spend their time, efforts and reputations coddling crackpots.

Years ago, Steve Hodel was another newcomer to the world of sensational true-crime claims and the Internet. Back then, Hodel was convinced that his father, now-deceased doctor George Hodel, was responsible for the infamous “Black Dahlia” murder in 1947, and eventually Hodel’s theory appeared in the book BLACK DAHLIA AVENGER. While some embraced Hodel’s theory as the solution to the mystery, others rightfully noted that Hodel’s entire theory hinged on what could only be described as tenuous speculation and assumptions; in some instances, Hodel’s “evidence” was discredited. Yet, Hodel remained undeterred and he has now released his latest attempt to cast a dark cloud over the memory of his dead father – the book MOST EVIL: Avenger, Zodiac and the Further Serial Murders of Dr. George Hodel, in which Hodel claims that Dr. George Hodel was also the Zodiac. That George Hodel was approximately sixty-years-old at the time of the Zodiac murders was apparently the first fact to be thrown out the window as Hodel attempted to exploit yet another unsolved tragedy for personal gain. Some are thrilled to see a new Zodiac book and happily promote Hodel’s latest effort, and once again, the contrast is clear: anyone who actually cared about the Zodiac case would not welcome the publication of yet another book peddling yet another bad theory and yet another bad suspect. Once again, so many of those who claim to care about this case seem far more interested in serving themselves.

When confronted with the fact that Robert Graysmith’s books are filled with falsehoods and his theory and suspect have no merit, the author’s defenders and others always search for something nice to say about the man and, unable to find a suitable response, they inevitably fall back on that familiar broken-record refrain, “Well, at least he kept the story alive.” This is a bit like saying: My friend told me he was hoping to meet a nice woman so I decided to brain him upside the head with a tire-iron in the hopes that he would go to the emergency room and possibly meet a nice nurse.

Anyone can “keep a story alive” using the self-serving and irresponsible methods of the theorists and crackpots, and it’s a bit absurd to suggest that the Zodiac case would fade into the pages of the history book if there weren’t a bunch of lunatics and losers running around exploiting the tragedy just in case we might all forget that this is the most enduring and frightening unsolved serial murder mystery in American history.

And there will be those who will say that the case is the most enduring and popular because of the efforts of these circus clowns, but anyone who really knows this story and has been paying attention also knows that this is an absurd rationalization. The reason that this case remains one of the most popular and interesting cases in history has more to do with the story itself than the clusters of opportunists who claim to keep it alive. The Zodiac crimes still haunt us because they were so inexplicable, so cruel, so bizarre. The countless lives lost and destroyed, the pain, the tragic proportions of the sad story are only the beginning. The fact that a murderous coward could kill so freely, even boast about his crimes and taunt his pursuers in bold letters mailed to the media, serves as a shocking and ominous truth about the world in which we live – the fact that this man could commit such crimes and evade justice to this day only reinforces that brutal lesson as we struggle to cope with and comprehend the evil among us. No one needs to accuse Kermit the Frog in order to keep the story of Jack the Ripper alive – the story speaks for itself. The story of the Zodiac tragedy endures not because it is a story about murder, but a story about us, and more often than not, when we look in the mirror, we don’t like what we see.

Hence the need for distractions. In an example of ultimate irony, many of those who claim to keep the story alive with their antics seem largely unaware that they – themselves – are the ultimate examples of a failure to learn that lesson. Forty years ago, when confronted with the terror of the Zodiac, society responded not by learning the valuable lessons provided by tragedy, not by uniting to stop the threat, and not by demanding justice, but by turning the tragedy into a distraction, so much filler, “real” entertainment. If the Zodiac’s game was creating terror and confusion while playing games with our fears and the truth, then it is clear that we, as a society, have simply learned to play his game better than he ever imagined, and that we no longer need him to keep the story alive.

While the men and women of law enforcement worked to catch the killer, the media, the public and, most notably, the theorists blamed investigators and accused them of fighting amongst themselves, withholding information, clinging to pet theories and suspects, and failing to conduct proper, thorough investigations. Today, the theorists withhold information from researchers, the public, and others, doling out seemingly damning bits while studiously omitting any and all information that may cast doubt on their own claims. Some withhold information and cite the need to keep something back in order to facilitate future “trading” with others. Innocent men stand accused by crackpots armed with little more than a three-ring binder filled with contrived coincidences and strained speculation. Many theorists claim to have solved the case, court the media, create websites and write books before they conduct serious research; most never conduct any real research at all. Wild theories, rumors, and pure nonsense dominate the public discussion of the case, and each theorist/theory/suspect develops its own following or faction at war with another. No matter how delusional, disturbed or discredited the theorists or accusers may be, someone will believe, promote, defend, endorse and even protect them. Everyone may be talking about and/or somehow exploiting the case but few seem to have any interest in facts, let alone clearing away confusion. Coddling crackpots who peddle phony proof, panhandling for cash on the Internet for Zodiac “charity,” promoting books, and pursuing fifteen seconds of fame at the expense of the case and even the truth has proven to be far more lucrative and entertaining.

When all we care about is “keeping the story alive,” we get what we deserve – Robert Graysmith and his works of fiction; ZODIAC the movie resurrecting the worst suspect in the case and, coincidentally, a sleep-deprived man tilts computer monitors and alerts the media of his Arthur Leigh Allen-based hallucinations; amateur code-breakers who are determined to retain their amateur status with hallucinatory solutions to the Zodiac ciphers which accuse Allen, Ted Kaczynski, Richard Marshall and even Gareth Penn, the original code-breaker crackpot of all time; Howard Davis and others crying conspiracy and cover-up as they attempt to exploit both the Zodiac and Manson crimes; Blaine Blaine digging up and re-accusing a dead man with the assistance of eager enablers in search of a quick buck; and Dennis Kaufman, Deborah Perez, Steve Hodel and others playing out their private daddy issues in public spectacles.

These individuals and others do not care about this story or the people consumed, destroyed or otherwise touched by this tragedy, and if you believe that they do, then you’re probably the kind of person who could – with a straight face and absolute sincerity – refer to a verbally abusive armed robber as a motivation speaker.

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