The case is a popular one, and has been covered by numerous investigators and bloggers, like myself. This case is the case that started it all for me- the one that got me interested in true crime and serial killers. This is the case of the Zodiac Killer.
The Zodiac Killer is a pseudonym of an American serial killer who operated in Northern California during the late 60’s and into the early 70’s. This (still) unidentified killer originated his calling card name in a series of taunting letters and cards that were sent to the San Francisco Bay Area press. These letters contained four cryptograms (or ciphers). (I’m not really gonna discuss the letters and ciphers because- well, this blog would be 10 pages long. And who wants that?)
The San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) marked the case “inactive” in April 2004, but reopened it at some point prior to March 2007. The case also remains open in the city of Vallejo, as well as in Napa County and Solano County. The California Department of Justice has maintained an open case file on the Zodiac murders since 1969.
Investigators agree on only seven confirmed victims of the Zodiac. Two of whom survived. They are as follows:
Lake Herman Road Murders: The first murders that are widely attributed to the Zodiac were the shootings of high school students Betty Lou Jensen (aged 16) and David Arthur Faraday (aged 17). These murders occured on Friday, December 20th, 1968, on Lake Herman Road, just inside the Benicia city limits. Betty Lou and David were on their first date, and planned to attend a Christmas concert at Hogan High School. The high school was about three blocks from Betty Lou’s house. Instead however, the couple visited a mutual friend, then stopped at a local restaurant. (Although some reports indicate the couple did attend the Christmas concert.) Afterwards, they made a pit-stop on Lake Herman Road.
At 10:15pm, David parked his mother’s Rambler in a gravel turn-out, which was a well known lover’s lane. They no doubt took that time to make-out, as what horny teenagers typically do.
Minutes after the murders- around 11:20pm, Betty Lou’s and David’s bodies were found by Stella Borges- who lived nearby. Robert Graysmith- an American true crime author and former cartoonist, theorized that another car also pulled into the lover’s lane turnout just before 11pm and parked beside the Rambler. Graysmith postulated (and was later verified by the police reports) that this second car was driven by the killer, and that he exited his vehicle and approached Betty Lou and David while they were sitting inside the Rambler. He shot into the Rambler and ordered the couple to exit the vehicle. One bullet shattered the right rear window and lodged into the left rear wheel well, while the second bullet struck the headliner of the vehicle and was retrieved from the upholstery on the opposite side. Betty Lou allegedly exited the car first on the passenger side, however, as David was getting out he was shot point blank in the head- beneath the lower portion of his left ear, causing a fatal brain injury, and he collapsed next to the right rear wheel of the vehicle. The killer then turned around and shot Betty Lou five times in her back as she tried to flee. She was found 28 feet from the Rambler. The weapon was a .22 caliber semi-automatic pistol. After the killer shot Betty Lou and David, he fled the crime scene. Betty Lou died instantly, but David however, was still breathing when paramedics arrived. Unfortunately, David was pronounced dead on arrival at the nearby Vallejo Hospital at 12:05am.
The Solano County Sheriff’s Department investigated the double murder, but no leads developed. From what investigators could tell at the crime scene, there was no indication of robbery or sexual assault.
This marked the start of a bloody campaign of terror by the Zodiac Killer, who would eventually commit further attacks on five people after the Lake Herman Road murders – although many believe he has committed far more – with the Zodiac Killer himself claiming responsibility for the deaths of at least 37 people. But whether this is nearer to the truth, or just the inflated ego of an insane or calculated killer, remains in question to this very day.
Blue Rock Springs Murder: Just shy of seven months after the Lake Herman Road murders, just before midnight on July 4th, 1969, Darlene Ferrin and Michael Mageau drove into the Blue Rock Springs Park in Vallejo, (four miles from the Lake Herman Road murder site) and parked. While the couple (reports are that they were just friends, but who really believes that?) sat in Darlene’s car, a second car drove into the lot and parked alongside them but almost immediately drove away. Returning about 10 minutes later- so at about 12:10am, this second car parked behind Darlene’s brown Corvair. The driver of the second car then exited the vehicle, approached the passenger side door of Darlene’s car, and was carrying a flashlight and a 9 mm Luger. The killer directed the flashlight into Michael’s and Darlene’s eyes before shooting at both of them, firing five times. Both victims were hit, and several bullets had passed through Michael and into Darlene. When the merciless attack began, Michael, in a bid to prevent further injury or blind terror, propelled himself to the rear passenger seat to seek refuge from the hail of bullets. The killer walked away from the car but upon hearing Michael’s moaning, returned and shot each victim twice more. The assailant then calmly walked away and got back in his vehicle. Michael Mageau then stated he grappled for the door handle and fell out onto the Blue Rock Springs parking lot. At which point the assailant sped away ‘at a high rate of speed’ from the scene in the direction of Vallejo and Springs Road.
Richard Hoffman and Ed Rust were two of the first responding officers that night, both having separately made their way to the scene of the crime after reports of gunfire being heard at Blue Rock Springs. When Ed Rust arrived he noticed Hoffman tending to Michael Mageau, who was lying on his back on the ground by the open door of the car. Darlene Ferrin was observed motionless behind the steering wheel of the car. Ed Rust tried to ask Darlene Ferrin what happened, but he could not distinguish what she mumbled due to the severity of her injuries. Both were rushed to hospital, but despite Darlene receiving extensive cardiopulmonary resuscitation from the ambulance crew that night, she finally succumbed to her multiple injuries. Sadly, Darlene Ferrin was pronounced dead at 12:38am upon her arrival at Kaiser Hospital. Michael described his attacker as a 26-to-30-year-old, 195-to-200-pound or possibly even more, 5-foot-8-inch white male with short, light brown curly hair.
About a half hour after the attack on Darlene and Michael, at 12:40am a man phoned the Vallejo Police Department to report and claim responsibility for the attack. The caller also took credit for the murders of Betty Lou Jensen and David Faraday six and a half months earlier. Police traced the call to a phone booth at a gas station at Springs Road and Tuolumne, located about three-tenths of a mile from Darlene’s home and only a few blocks from the Vallejo Police Department.
Lake Berryessa Murder: On September 27th, 1969, at around 6:15pm, Pacific Union College students Bryan Hartnell and Cecelia Shepard were picnicking at Lake Berryessa on a small island connected by a sand spit to Twin Oak Ridge. A white man, about 5 feet 11 inches, weighing more than 170 pounds was seen taking refuge behind a tree, before adorning himself with a black executioners hood and a waistline bib, decorated with the now familiar trademark of the crossed circle. He also had a pair of clip-on sunglasses. Sometime thereafter, the man approached Bryan and Cecelia with a gun, which Bryan believed to be a .45. The hooded man claimed to be an escaped convict from a jail with a two-word name, in either Colorado or Montana (a police officer later inferred he had been referring to a jail in Deer Lodge, Montana), where he had killed a guard and subsequently stolen a car, explaining that he now needed their car and money to go to Mexico, as the vehicle he had been driving was “too hot”.
The killer had brought precut lengths of plastic clothesline and told Cecelia to tie up Bryan, before he tied her up. The killer checked, and tightened Bryan’s bonds after discovering Cecelia had bound Bryan’s hands loosely. Bryan initially believed this event to be a bizarre robbery, but the man drew a knife and stabbed them both repeatedly. Bryan suffered six stab wounds to his back while Cecelia received five wounds to the front, and five wounds to the back in the process. The killer then casually hiked 500 yards back up to Knoxville Road and drew the cross-circle symbol on Bryan’s car door with a black felt-tip pen, and wrote beneath it: “Vallejo/12-20-68/7-4-69/Sept 27–69–6:30/by knife.”
At 7:40pm, the killer called the Napa County Sheriff’s office from a payphone to report this latest crime. The caller first stated to the operator that he wished to “report a murder – no, a double murder,” before stating that he had been the perpetrator of the crime. The phone was found, still off the hook, minutes later at the Napa Car Wash on Main Street in Napa by KVON radio reporter Pat Stanley, only a few blocks from the sheriff’s office, yet 27 miles from the crime scene. Detectives were able to lift a still-wet palm print from the telephone but were never able to match it to any suspect.
After hearing their screams for help, a man and his son who were fishing in a nearby cove discovered the victims and summoned help by contacting park rangers. Napa County Sheriff’s deputies Dave Collins and Ray Land were the first law enforcement officers to arrive at the crime scene. Cecelia Shepard was conscious when Collins arrived, providing him with a detailed description of the attacker. Bryan and Cecelia were taken to Queen of the Valley Hospital in Napa by ambulance. Cecelia lapsed into a coma during transport to the hospital and never regained consciousness. She died two days later, but Bryan survived his attack to recount his tale to the press. Napa County Sheriff Detective Ken Narlow, who was assigned to the case from the outset, worked on solving the crime until his retirement from the department in 1987.
Presidio Heights Murder: Just two weeks after the attack at Lake Berryessa, on October 11th, 1969, a white male passenger entered the cab driven by Paul Stine at the intersection of Mason and Geary Streets (one block west from Union Square) in San Francisco. This passenger requested to be taken to Washington and Maple Streets in Presidio Heights. For reasons unknown, Paul drove one block past Maple to Cherry Street. At approximately 9:55pm, the passenger shot Paul once in the head with a 9mm. He took Paul’s wallet and car keys, and tore away a section of Paul’s bloodstained shirt. This passenger was observed by three teenagers across the street who called the police while the crime was in progress. They observed a man wiping the cab down before walking away towards the Presidio, one block to the north. The witnesses described a white male, 25 to 30 years old, 5’8″ to 5’9″ and a stocky build. He had reddish-brown hair worn in a crew cut with heavy-rimmed glasses and wearing dark clothing.
Two blocks from the crime scene, patrol officers Don Fouke and Eric Zelms, responding to the call, observed a white man walking along the sidewalk east on Jackson Street. This pedestrian quickly stepped onto a stairway leading up to the front yard of one of the homes on the north side of the street. The encounter lasted only five to ten seconds.
Don Fouke estimated the white male pedestrian to be 35-to-45 years old, 5’10” tall with a crew cut, similar to but slightly older than the description of the teenagers who observed the killer in and out of Paul’s cab. The police radio dispatcher had however initially alerted officers to be on the lookout for a black suspect, so Don Fouke and Eric Zelms drove past the white male without stopping. The mix-up in descriptions remains unexplained. A search ensued, but no suspects were found. This was the last officially confirmed murder by the Zodiac Killer.
The Paul Stine murder was initially believed to be a routine robbery that had escalated into homicidal violence. However, on October 13th, the San Francisco Chronicle received a new letter from Zodiac which claimed credit for the killing and which contained a torn section of Stine’s bloody shirt to “prove this” fact. The three teen witnesses worked with a police artist to prepare a composite sketch of Paul’s killer. A few days later, this police artist returned, working with the witnesses to prepare a second composite sketch of the killer. Detectives Bill Armstrong and Dave Toschi were assigned to the case. The San Francisco Police Department investigated an estimated 2,500 suspects over a period of years.
Like I’ve already previously stated, the Zodiac has seven victims- five murders and two survivors. However, there are other murders that may have been the work of the Zodiac, but none of which have been confirmed. Those are:
Santa Barbara Murders: Robert Domingos and his fiancé Linda Edwards were seniors at Lompoc High School in Santa Barbara County in Southern California. On Tuesday in early June, 1963, the couple decided to use the “Senior Ditch Day” to go sunbathing on a beach near Gaviota State Park. When the two teenagers didn’t return home by Wednesday, Robert’s father went to the beach and was horrified to discover their bodies lying together inside the remains of a crumbling shack. The victims, bound with rope, had apparently tried to escape, but were shot and killed with a .22 caliber weapon. Robert was shot 11 times and Linda had been shot nine times. The killer then dragged the bodies to the shack where he tried and failed to start a fire. Investigators had few leads but, in 1972, the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s department announced a possible Zodiac connection. The beach killer used Winchester Western Super X ammunition, the same ammunition used by the Zodiac during the 1968 murders on Lake Herman Road. The Domingos/Edwards case also had similarities to the Zodiac’s attack of Bryan Hartnell and Cecelia Shepard at Lake Berryessa in 1969.
Riverside Murder: 18 year old Cheri Josephine Bates lived with her father Joseph and was a student at Riverside City College in Riverside, California. On October 30th, 1966, she left a note that read, “Dad – went to the RCC library.” The next morning, her Volkswagen Beetle was found abandoned in the library parking lot, and her body was lying nearby between two houses. She had been stabbed several times and her throat was slashed. Police found a men’s Timex watch at the crime scene, a print from a military boot and some hairs in dried blood on the victim’s hand. Cheri Jo’s purse was intact, and an autopsy revealed no evidence of sexual assault.
One month after the murder, the local newspaper and the police department received typewritten letters titled “The Confession” from someone who claimed to be the killer. The author wrote, “Miss Bates was stupid. She went to the slaughter like a lamb,” and added, “I am not sick. I am insane.” In April 1967, the newspaper, the police and Joseph Bates received virtually identical handwritten letters which read, “Bates had to die. There will be more.” The notes were signed with a symbol which resembled the letter “Z.”
In 1969, Riverside police contacted investigators in Northern California regarding the similarities between the Zodiac crimes and the murder of Cheri Jo Bates. Sherwood Morrill, who was at the time a documents examiner for the California Department of Justice, concluded that the Zodiac was responsible for the notes linked to the Bates case. The “Riverside connection” was later revealed to the public by Paul Avery, reporter for The San Francisco Chronicle. Zodiac then sent a letter to The Los Angeles Times indicating that the killer confirmed the theory that he had killed Bates. The Zodiac wrote, “I do have to give them credit for stumbling across my riverside activity, but they are only finding the easy ones, there are a hell of a lot more down there.” Years later, Riverside police rejected the Zodiac theory and focused on a man who they said was a jilted former lover of Bates. In the late 1990’s, police obtained a sample of the suspect’s DNA to compare with the DNA taken from the hairs found in the victim’s hand in 1966. The DNA didn’t match, and the suspect denied any involvement in the murder.
Modesto Area Attack: On the night of March 22nd, 1970, Kathleen Johns was driving from San Bernardino to Petaluma to visit her mother. She was seven months pregnant and had her 10-month-old daughter beside her. While heading west on Highway 132 near Modesto, a car behind her began honking its horn and flashing its headlights. She pulled off the road and stopped. The man in the car parked behind her, approached her car, stated that he observed that her right rear wheel was wobbling, and offered to tighten the lug nuts. After finishing his work, the man drove off. However, when Kathleen pulled forward to re-enter the highway, the wheel almost immediately came off the car. The man returned, offering to drive her to the nearest gas station for help. She and her daughter climbed into his car.
During the ride, the man passed several service stations but did not stop. For about 90 minutes he drove back and forth around the backroads near Tracy. When Kathleen asked why he was not stopping, he would change the subject. When the driver finally stopped at an intersection, Kathleen jumped out of the car with her daughter and hid in a field. The driver searched for her using his flashlight, telling her that he would not hurt her, before eventually giving up. Unable to find her, he got back into the car and drove off. Kathleen hitched a ride to the police station in Patterson.
When Kathleen gave her statement to the sergeant on duty, she noticed the police composite sketch of Paul Stine’s killer and recognized him as the man who had abducted her and her child. Fearing he might come back and kill them all, the sergeant had Kathleen wait, in the dark, at the nearby Mil’s Restaurant. When her car was found, it had been gutted and torched.
Most accounts say he threatened to kill her and her daughter while driving them around, but at least one police report disputes that. Kathleen’s account to Paul Avery of the Chronicle indicates her abductor left his car and searched for her in the dark with a flashlight; however, in one report she made to the police, she stated he did not leave the vehicle.
Lake Tahoe Disappearance: In a postcard that the Zodiac allegedly would later send to Paul Avery, the Zodiac claimed responsibility for the disappearance of 25 year old Donna Lass. In May 1970, Donna worked in San Francisco at Letterman General Hospital, located on the Presidio military base near the area where the Zodiac killed Paul Stine. Donna moved northeast to South Lake Tahoe and found work as a nurse for the Sahara Hotel and Casino. On September 6th, 1970, Donna vanished sometime after the last entry in her work logbook at 1:50am. Her car was later found abandoned near her apartment. According to some accounts, an unidentified man called Donna’s employer and her landlord, claiming she had to leave town due to a family emergency. Donna’s family told authorities there was no such emergency, and the man was never identified. Investigators suspected Donna had been abducted and killed, but her body was never found. Her disappearance remains a mystery and her name was added to a long list of possible Zodiac victims.
So… who the hell is the Zodiac. Here are some, albeit numerous theories:
- Arthur Leigh Allen: On October 6th, 1969, Allen was interviewed by detective John Lynch of the Vallejo Police Department. Allen had been reported in the vicinity of the Lake Berryessa attack against Bryan and Cecelia on September 27th, 1969. Arthur described himself scuba diving at Salt Point on the day of the attacks. Allen again came to police attention in 1971 when his friend Donald Cheney reported to police in Manhattan Beach, California, that Allen had spoken of his desire to kill people, used the name Zodiac, and secured a flashlight to a firearm for visibility at night. According to Cheney, this conversation occurred no later than January 1st, 1969. In September 1972, San Francisco police obtained a search warrant for Allen’s residence. In 1974, Allen was arrested for sexually assaulting a 12 year old boy; he pleaded guilty and served two years in prison. Vallejo police served another search warrant at Arthur’s residence in February 1991. Two days after his death in 1992, Vallejo police served another warrant and seized property from Allen’s residence. Other evidence existed against Allen, albeit entirely circumstantial. A letter sent to the Riverside Police Department from Cheri Jo Bates’ killer was typed with a Royal typewriter with an Elite type- the same brand found during the February 1991 search of Allen’s residence. He owned and wore a Zodiac brand wristwatch. He lived in Vallejo and worked minutes away from where one of the Zodiac victims (Ferrin) lived and from where one of the killings took place. In 2002, the SFPD developed a partial DNA profile from the saliva on stamps and envelopes of Zodiac’s letters. The SFPD compared this partial DNA to the DNA of Arthur Leigh Allen. A DNA comparison was also made with the DNA of Don Cheney, who was Allen’s former close friend and the first person to suggest Allen may be the Zodiac Killer. Since neither test result indicated a match, Allen and Cheney were excluded as the contributors of the DNA.
- Ross Sullivan: He became a person of interest through the possible link between the Zodiac Killer and the murder of Cheri Jo Bates in Riverside. Sullivan was a library assistant at Riverside City College and was suspected by coworkers who said that he went missing for several days after the murder. Sullivan resembled sketches of the Zodiac and wore military-style boots with footprints like those found at the Lake Berryessa crime scene. Sullivan was hospitalized multiple times for bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
- Lawrence Kane: Kathleen Johns, who claimed to have been abducted by the Zodiac Killer, later picked out Lawrence Kane in a photo lineup. Patrol officer Don Fouke, who possibly observed the Zodiac Killer following the murder of Paul Stine, said that Kane closely resembled the man he and Eric Zelms encountered. Kane worked at the same Nevada hotel as possible Zodiac victim Donna Lass. Kane was diagnosed with impulse-control disorder after suffering brain injuries in a 1962 accident. He was arrested for voyeurism and prowling.
- Richard Marshall: Police informants accused Richard Marshall of being the Zodiac Killer, claiming that he privately hinted at being a murderer. Marshall lived in Riverside in 1966 and San Francisco in 1969, close to the scenes of the Cheri Jo Bates and Paul Stine murders. He was a silent film enthusiast and projectionist, screening Segundo de Chomón’s The Red Phantom (1907), a name used by the author of a possible 1974 Zodiac letter. Detective Ken Narlow said that “Marshall makes good reading but [is] not a very good suspect in my estimation.”
- Ted Kaczynski: Ted Kaczynski, also known as the Unabomber, was investigated for possible connections to the Zodiac Killer in 1996. Kaczynski worked in northern California at the time of the Zodiac murders and, like the Zodiac, had an interest in cryptography and threatened the press into publishing his communications. Kaczynski was ruled out by both the FBI and SFPD based on fingerprint and handwriting comparison, and by his absence from California on certain dates of known Zodiac activity.
- Bruce Davis: Bruce Davis, a member of Charles Manson’s family cult and a convicted murderer, was investigated, but no evidence linking him to the Zodiac murders was discovered. A 1970 report by the California Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation stated that all male members of the Manson Family had been investigated and eliminated as Zodiac suspects.
- Jack Tarrance: In 2007, Dennis Kaufman, claimed that his stepfather Jack Tarrance was the Zodiac. Kaufman turned several items over to the FBI, including a hood similar to the one worn by the Zodiac. According to news sources, DNA analysis conducted by the FBI on the items was deemed inconclusive in 2010.
- Unnamed Merchant Mariner: In 2009, a former lawyer, Robert Tarbox, (who in August 1975 was disbarred by the California Supreme Court for failure to pay some clients) said that in the early 1970’s a merchant mariner walked into his office and confessed to him that he was the Zodiac Killer. The seemingly lucid seaman (whose name Tarbox would not reveal based on confidentiality) described his crimes briefly but persuasively enough to have convinced Tarbox. The man said he was trying to stop himself from his “opportunistic” murder spree but never returned to see Tarbox again. Tarbox took out a full-page ad in the Vallejo Times-Herald that he claimed would clear the name of Arthur Leigh Allen as a killer, his only reason for revealing the story 30 years after the fact. Robert Graysmith, the author of several books on Zodiac, said Tarbox’s story was “entirely plausible”.
- Richard Gaikowski: In 2009, an episode of the History Channel television series MysteryQuest looked at newspaper editor Richard Gaikowski. During the time of the murders, Gaikowski worked for Good Times, a San Francisco counterculture newspaper. His appearance resembled the composite sketch, and Nancy Slover, the Vallejo police dispatcher who was contacted by the Zodiac shortly after the Blue Rock Springs attack, identified a recording of Gaikowski’s voice as being the same as the Zodiac’s.
- George Russell Tucker: Former California Highway Patrol officer Lyndon Lafferty said the Zodiac killer was a 91-year-old Solano County, California man he referred to by the pseudonym “George Russell Tucker”. Using a group of retired law enforcement officers called the Mandamus Seven, Lafferty discovered “Tucker” and outlined an alleged cover-up for why he was not pursued. “Tucker” died in February 2012 and was not named because he was not considered a suspect by police.
- Louis Joseph Myers: In February 2014, it was reported that Louis Joseph Myers had confessed to a friend in 2001 that he was the Zodiac Killer after learning that he was dying from cirrhosis of the liver. He requested that his friend, Randy Kenney, go to the police upon his death. Myers died in 2002, but Kenney allegedly had difficulties getting officers to cooperate and take the claims seriously. There are several potential connections between Myers and the Zodiac case. Myers attended the same high schools as victims David Farraday and Betty Lou Jensen and allegedly worked in the same restaurant as victim Darlene Ferrin. Furthermore, during the 1971–73 period, when no Zodiac letters were received, Myers was stationed overseas with the military. Kenney says that Myers confessed he targeted couples because he had had a bad breakup with a girlfriend. While officers associated with the case are skeptical, they believe the story is credible enough to investigate if Kenney could produce credible evidence.
- Robert Ivan Nichols: Robert Ivan Nichols, aka Joseph Newton Chandler III, was a formerly unidentified identity thief who committed suicide in Eastlake, Ohio, in July 2002. After his death, investigators were unable to locate his family and discovered that he had stolen the identity of an eight-year-old boy who was killed in a car crash in Texas in 1945. The lengths to which Nichols went to hide his identity led to speculation that he was a violent fugitive. The U.S. Marshals Service announced his identification at a press conference in Cleveland on June 21st, 2018. Some Internet sleuths suggested that he might have been the Zodiac Killer as he resembled police sketches of the Zodiac and had lived in California, where the Zodiac operated.
- Earl Van Best, Jr: In 2014, Gary Stewart published a book, ‘The Most Dangerous Animal of All’, in which he claimed his search for his biological father, Earl Van Best, Jr., led him to conclude Van Best was the Zodiac Killer. In 2020, the book was adapted for FX Network as a documentary series.
It’s possible that we’ll never know who the Zodiac is, or was. Was he one the 13 names I just mentioned, or was he someone completely different? It’s really hard to have faith that we will find out who was responsible, considering it’s been almost 43 years since the first confirmed Zodiac murders. However, there’s still hope. And hope is all we need.