Bill Nelson and Howard Davis were not the first to suspect a connection between the notorious Zodiac crimes and the brutal, bizarre slayings attributed to the so-called “Manson family.” Official documents reveal that investigators assigned to the Zodiac case had entertained the notion of a possible connection immediately after the arrest of career criminal Charles Manson and his murderous minions in late 1969. Manson’s followers had used the blood of their victims to leave frightening messages at the crime scenes, including the now-famous words, Healter Skelter. The Zodiac had used a black marker to write a message on a car door after stabbing two college-coeds. This behavior and the seemingly inexplicable nature of both crime sprees led investigators to wonder if the mesmerizing Manson had also masterminded the Zodiac murders. Members of the family were the subject of inquiries conducted by Special Agent Mel Nicolai of the California State Department of Justice, Homicide Inspector William Armstrong of the San Francisco Police Department, and others. However, these investigators were unable to find any link between the cult-like family and the Zodiac attacks, and the available evidence appeared to rule out any connection.
Confessed killer and Manson devotee Susan “Sadie” Atkins sold her confession while behind bars, and her statements appeared in a sensational paperback book. Atkins even agreed to testify against the other members of the family, including Manson, in exchange for a lighter sentence, but prosecutors later withdrew the deal. Tried alongside accomplices Leslie Van Houten and Patricia Krenwinkel, Atkins joined Manson for the “trial of the century.” Family member Linda Kasabian turned witness for the prosecution and helped Deputy District Attorney Vincent Bugliosi to win convictions and death sentences for all four defendants. Another jury convicted and sentenced co-conspirator and cold-blooded killer Charles “Tex” Watson in a separate trial. Watson’s confession and claims of Christian rebirth appeared in the book, Will You Die For Me?
Fellow family members Bruce Davis and Steve “Clem” Grogan stood trial together for two other killings. Davis confessed that he, Grogan, and others participated in the murders of music teacher Gary Hinman and ranch hand Shorty Shea, although the location of the Shea’s body remained unknown.
The sensational media coverage of the gruesome slayings and subsequent trials turned the menacing Manson family into the pop culture villains of the decade, rumored to be behind every strange or deadly occurrence, blamed for the death of the peace movement, and linked to depravity and decadence everywhere. Reports connected the infamous clan to black magic rituals, snuff films, and even The Process Church, Scientology and more. In his book The Family, author Ed Sanders wrote that authorities had investigated a possible connection between Manson and the Zodiac and discovered black, hooded ceremonial robes during a search of property used by the Manson family. Prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi refuted the story of hidden hoods and many other unsubstantiated claims in his best-selling account of the case titled Helter Skelter. One member of the family even tried to assassinate President Gerald Ford in an attempt to force Manson’s release from prison. Soon the case served as a magnet for morbid fans who admired Manson and his philosophy, crime buffs fascinated by celebrity murders, writers in search of a scoop, and crackpots seeking their fifteen minutes of fame.
As their reputations as vicious evildoers grew, most of Manson’s followers desperately tried to disassociate themselves from the maniac and the murders. In public interviews and parole hearings, Atkins, Krenwinkel, Van Houten, Watson, Davis and others claimed to be remorseful and rehabilitated. Steve Grogan eventually agreed to lead authorities to the missing body of Shorty Shea in exchange for his freedom.
By the late 1980’s, theories surrounding the mythical Manson family and the unsolved “Zodiac” crimes began to align amid rumors that one Zodiac victim, Darlene Ferrin, was involved in occult activity shortly before her death. According to witnesses who proved less than credible, Ferrin fell into a web of sinister intrigue and witnessed a murder. Despite a lack of evidence to support this claim and its dubious sources, reporter Dave Peterson often repeated the stories of an occult connection, and author Robert Graysmith included these tales in his 1987 book, Zodiac. The 1988 edition of The Family featured an update in which former Inyo County District Attorney Frank Fowles revealed his suspicion that the Manson and Zodiac crimes were somehow connected. On page 406 (paperback edition), author Ed Sanders wrote:
I was surprised at the possible link between Zodiac and M (Manson). Fowles said he was very interested because the string of Zodiac killings first came to light in Vallejo, California. “I was deputy district attorney in Solano, County. The sheriff’s investigator in the first Zodiac-Vallejo killings was a good friend of mine.” Zodiac made of his taunting phone calls within line of sight of Frank Fowles office window. Manson, said Fowles, “came from the Bay Area around the time of Zodiac. There were unsolved murders up in the coastal region up around Mendocino County.” And then there was the connection with the English satanic society, which was active in the Bay Area at the time Manson was there, and other connections that, in the words of Mr. Fowles, “made it worth looking into.”
Sanders and Fowles did not provide details regarding these so-called “connections.”
Stories of satanic conspiracies and crime sprees also appeared in Maury Terry’s 1987 book, The Ultimate Evil. The highly speculative book linked Manson and his followers to the “Son of Sam” killings in New York via a worldwide network of bikers, drug dealers, child pornographers, snuff film producers and devil worshippers. Terry claimed that postal worker David Berkowitz, convicted for the series of shootings, was working with other satanists to create fear and terror as part of an elaborate plan to destabilize society.
In the early 1990’s, Maury Terry’s occult conspiracy came to the Zodiac story in segments produced for Geraldo Rivera’s tabloid television program, Now It Can Be Told. Once again, victim Darlene Ferrin was the center of a plot designed by satanists behind the Zodiac murders. Citing the same questionable sources for the original rumors regarding Ferrin, Rivera and Terry told viewers that the occult connections held the key to solving the cold case.
The 1997 book Manson: Behind the Scenes by former Secret Service agent turned Manson expert Bill Nelson, presented the “missing Zodiac letter,” a document allegedly discovered among the possessions of murder victim Doreen Gaul. A young resident of the Church of Scientology house in Los Angeles, Gaul reportedly dated Manson follower Bruce Davis. Gaul and friend James Sharp were abducted, murdered and dumped in a downtown alley on November 21, 1969. The killer or killers had savagely stabbed and beaten both victims. Nelson claimed he had obtained the “missing” letter during a meeting with former Los Angeles Police Department Lieutenant Earl Deemer. Typed on white paper, the letter read:
SO YOU THINK YOU CAN FOOL THE OLD KILLER HA HA
L KNOW ALL YOUR MOVEMENTS AND THE TIME THEY ARE MADE
L TIME IS SHORT, ENJOY LIFE WHILE YOU CAN
YOU ARE TO BEAUTIFUL TO LIVE AND I MUST KILL YOU
THE ZODIAC KILLER
The author had added what appeared to be drawings of drops, perhaps blood or tears. This letter was signed “The Zodiac Killer,” although the Zodiac had never used this name and only referred to himself as “The Zodiac.”
While Nelson claimed that the Zodiac had sent the letter to Gaul, others were skeptical and believed the letter was a forgery meant to echo the typed and handwritten letters attributed to the Zodiac in another murder in Riverside, California.
Nelson’s claim of a connection between the Manson and Zodiac crimes seemed all the more plausible once he provided a shocking revelation on page 339 of his book.
Allow me to reveal something very important. I have a well respected, reliable source, who told me about an event in the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office, at the highest level. It was after the Manson family had been convicted, at a cost of more than a million dollars, that quite by accident, authorities found items used by ZODIAC in his crimes. There was a secret meeting held and it was decided that since the individual was being convicted for murder on unrelated murders, there would be no trial. Told to me in confidence, “He will not be getting out anyway, we have him on two, we will make sure he never sees the light of day again.”
Nelson’s source was fellow conspiracy theorist Howard Davis, author of the book, The Zodiac/Manson Connection. Published by Nelson’s Pen Power Publications in 1997, Davis’ book failed to provide any credible evidence to establish such a connection or the author’s conclusions. Rather, Davis offered vague allusions to the songs of The Beatles, unconfirmed accounts placing Manson family members in Northern California at the time of the Zodiac killings and other crimes, tenuous links to Manson and Zodiac related dates, unfounded speculation and more to convince readers. Davis used the same methods to connect Bruce Davis and others to many other murders.
Howard Davis often uses the title “Doctor” although he does not cite the source or subject of his education and doctorate. Co-founder of Dreamous Corp., Davis claims to use his knowledge of “homeopathy, nutrition, herbs, chiropractic and holistic therapiesm as well as psychology and the functions of the subconscious mind” to develop “nutriceutical” hair and skin products. According to his online bio, Davis is also “a member of a number of prominent societies and associations,” and he has researched serial killers “since the early 1980’s.”
An expert on both the Manson and Zodiac cases, Davis presents testimonials from reporter Dave Peterson, publisher Bill Nelson, former prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi and others to support his theories and claims. When questioned by one Internet skeptic, Howard Davis responded with a terse and typical message board reply.
“Mr. Z newbe, flying off the handle … You don’t know the first thing about Bugliosi or his research, yet you make such brash statements – amazing. At first VB did not believe Davis was or could be the Zodiac, but this was BEFORE he was slowly given evidence over a long period of time (he is very busy and you have to speak to him by ‘appointment’) and he began looking at him with a different perspective.”
While Howard Davis was always eager to refer to Bugliosi when in need of an endorsement he apparently never bothered to tell the famous prosecutor that his fellow members of the District Attorney’s office had discovered evidence to prove a Zodiac/Manson connection but had conspired to conceal this discovery from Bugliosi and the rest of the world.
Prior to the publication of his book, Davis appeared as a guest on the radio program, The Paranet Continuum. Broadcast on a network devoted to UFO conspiracy theories, the program often featured guests making sensational and incredulous claims. Howard Davis proved to be an appropriate guest when he told listeners of the shocking conspiracy in the DA’s office while discussing the famous hooded costume used by the Zodiac.
“That (the hood) was one of the clues, or one of the pieces of information that was given to me, uh, that some evidence was uncovered accidentally investigating the Manson case, and this was later covered up. It was based on a lot of different factors I can’t go into. I can’t reveal my source but I can tell you that it’s genuine and that’s what really struck me, really got my interest, and years later it took root and I decided to investigate the Zodiac case.”
Davis also mentioned the Zodiac’s hood on page 51 of his book.
(Information was received several years ago that the hood and knife used in this attack were inadvertently recovered. The implications in the Manson trial, costs, etc… were such that this discovery had to be suppressed. The hood, knife and “other things” belonged to a male member of the Family.)
Stories regarding the discovery of the hood and the Manson/Zodiac conspiracy spread. In the years after the publication of Davis’ book, tabloid newspaper publisher Harry Martin ran a series of sensational and speculative articles about the Zodiac mystery and included a version of the Davis’ cover-up story.
The murder in Riverside of Cheri Jo Bates on October 30, 1966 and the murder of Cecilia Shepherd on September 27, 1969 at Lake Berryessa show that the victims were stabbed savagely and repeatedly – the act of a butcher. These murders were similar to the slaying of Charles Manson’s uncle in London and in the Sharon Tate murders – a knife was the weapon of choice by the murderer. Now consider that when Bruce Davis, a member of the Charles Manson Family, was arrested in Southern California law enforcement found the hood, weapons and other evidence linking Davis to those two murders. He has always remained the top suspect in the London murder, as well. Because the District Attorney in Southern California had an open and shut case on Davis for two unrelated “Zodiac” murders, the DA decided not to raise the issue of the other murders or the Zodiac issue for fear of complicating the case. After two San Francisco detectives went to Southern California and were confronted with the “Zodiac” evidence, they returned to the Bay Area and announced that they were no longer investigating the “Zodiac” case.
Davis frequently mentioned the cover-up in his many writings on Internet public message boards while alluding to the source of the conspiracy revelations. Davis provided more shocking revelations in one posting on Zodiackiller.com.
[Writer Ed] Sanders wrote a MS on Zodiac and Manson-you heard it first here! Also, Peter Folger (Folger coffee heir) whose sister was killed by the Family hired two top detectives to investigate a link between M and Zodiac. Actually, they came across the connection. I got my tip from a pristine source some time later-’74. It’s a long story, but it’s the first time I decided to bring it out. More on this in the future.
Repeated references to cover-up and the “tip” that launched Davis’ career as a Zodiac/Manson theorist led some skeptics and critics to question the veracity of his claims. Filmmaker, writer, and caustic message board regular Scott Bullock began to question Davis’ story in several message board posts. Bullock’s persistence led Davis to respond in an email in which he finally identified the source of his “tip” as his former brother-in-law. This email and a second message provided the details concerning the inner workings of the alleged conspiracy in the District Attorney’s Office.