The Zodiac Killer, Or, The Discerning Psychopath’s Guide to Utterly Bamboozling Law Enforcement

The only absolute rule with serial killers, is that there is no absolute rule with serial killers.

There are a lot of generalities that often hold true. Serial killers tend to be men, their crimes usually have a sadistic sexual element, their victims tend to be those they’re sexually attracted to, they tend to carry out their first murder sometime between their late teens and early twenties, they usually lack social skills and struggle to find stable work and relationships, they generally kill within their own race, there’s often a common recognisable or even ritualistic aspect to their crimes. For every one of these, though, I could cite you a serial killer who breaks at least one, often more.

The Zodiac Killer is one of the best examples of a killer who doesn’t appear to stick to a lot of the rules. Trying to get any kind of understanding of him, and his crimes, is like trying to grasp smoke. Very, very little is known for certain about him. Some commentators don’t even agree that there ever was a Zodiac Killer – that he was a fiction created by corrupt cops to cover up crimes linked to local drug dealers, and the Manson Family.

 

So, what do we know?

We know that the Zodiac Killer was a white male who lived in or near San Francisco in the late 1960s. He seems to have been a heavyset man, aged between 25 and 40 and probably wore glasses. He had a reasonable degree of proficiency with firearms, and had access to a vehicle. He had an interest in ciphers and cryptograms, and was able to create several complex ones that have mostly defied attempts to solve them. He had some knowledge of 1960s American counter-culture terms.

Symbol 1

The crosshairs symbol used to sign the Zodiac Killer’s letters to the media

 

We know that he killed five people between December 1968 and October 1969, and attempted to kill two others.

And that’s more or less it. Everything that anyone knows for certain about the Zodiac Killer.

There are some logical deductions that I think can be made from those facts, and some unsolved California murders from early in the 1960s that have been linked to him. But, despite his infamy, very little can be definitively stated about him.

 

Wait, why is he so infamous?

The Zodiac Killer is sometimes referred to as the second-most notorious serial killer in history, second only to Jack the Ripper. And, like the Ripper, his body count is actually rather low, especially when compared to killers like Ted Bundy – and, like the Ripper, his actual total is disputed. But, like the Ripper, the simple fact that he evaded (and may continue to evade) capture gives him an extra interest. The Zodiac has inspired endless pop culture references: the killer in Dirty Harry is based on him, and Dirty Harry himself on the San Francisco detective who hunted him; the Gemini Killer in the Exorcist series is based on him; there’ve been nearly a dozen movies specifically about the case (2007’s Zodiac, with Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr, and Mark Ruffalo, is especially good); he’s appeared in countless TV shows; he appears in video games where players get the chance to catch him once and for all. George Foyet, one of the most memorable villains in TV show Criminal Minds, is based on him. It’s spilt over into politics – some people appear to genuinely believe that Senator Ted Cruz, born after the last known Zodiac murder, is the Zodiac Killer.

Suspect 6

Not the Zodiac Killer

It’s not limited to the US either – a popular joke in the UK about the 2019 Conservative Party leadership election was that the candidates looked less like a group of potential Prime Ministers and more like a police lineup to catch… the Zodiac Killer.

 

To be completely clear, none of these individuals is the Zodiac Killer either

He’s a mystery, and that makes him far more interesting than killers like Bundy, or Sutcliffe, who made the elementary mistake of being caught.

The late 1960s were a time when serial murder appeared to be becoming more common, and was just beginning to capture the public’s imagination. The term ‘serial killer,’ wouldn’t be coined for another ten years, but the decade had seen a famous multiple murder case, the Boston Strangler, a few less famous ones, and in 1969 the Manson Family murders would rock America at the same time as the Zodiac was active. The Zodiac crimes seemed to round off the decade. Unlike the Boston Strangler, or the Cincinnati Strangler, the Zodiac wrote to the newspapers and threatened to detonate bombs and attack school buses. He seems to have deliberately courted notoriety – for a time, anyway. The Zodiac was the classic fictional serial killer, the diabolical genius who easily evaded and taunted the police, before that character had even really been created. He became the second most notorious serial killer of all time because, even though their crimes were very different, he became America’s version of Jack the Ripper.

 

The first murders: Betty-Lou Jensen and David Faraday

Jensen (16) and Faraday (17) were High School students on their first date, on Friday 20th December 1968. Driving in Faraday’s mother’s car, they stated that their plan was to attend a dance at Hogan High School, close to Jensen’s home. Instead, they visited a friend and then a restaurant, before driving out to Lake Herman Road, just inside the Benicia city limits (about twenty five miles north-east of San Francisco). They parked in a gravel layby which was known locally as a lovers’ lane, probably at around 10.15. The attack had occurred by 11.00, and the exact sequence of events isn’t precisely known. Robert Graysmith, a true crime author who covered the case extensively, speculated that the Zodiac parked next to Faraday and Jensen. Faraday was shot once in the head whilst exiting the vehicle; Jensen ran but was shot five times in the back. Both were killed. Evidence suggests that Jensen left the car before Faraday, which indicates that they were possibly ordered out of it.

The murder was investigated by the Solano County Sheriff’s Department, but no lines of enquiry were developed.

A few things seem pretty obvious to me. This attack was quick and well-planned. The Zodiac killed Faraday first, presumably seeing him as the greater threat, and was a sufficiently good shot to hit the fleeing Jensen five times at twenty eight feet. Although he wouldn’t have wanted her to run his reaction wasn’t panicked. He was aware that things could go wrong and reacted calmly. All this rather suggests that the Lake Herman Road murders weren’t his first and second – and that he’d attacked two people in a car before.

 

Darlene Ferrin and Michael Mageau

Ferrin (22) and Mageau (19) were attacked in Blue Rock Springs Park in Vallejo, about four miles from the Lake Herman Road murders, just over six months later. Driving Ferrin’s car, they parked just before midnight on Friday 4th July, and shortly afterwards another vehicle appeared, briefly parked next to them, and then drove off again. It returned ten minutes later.

This time it parked behind them, the driver got out and approached the passenger side door where Mageau was sat. He shone a torch into their eyes before firing five times with a Luger 9mm pistol. Both victims were hit, but Ferrin was more seriously wounded as she was also struck by bullets that passed through Mageau. The killer started to walk away, but upon hearing Mageau moaning returned and shot them both twice more. At 12.40 a.m. on Saturday 5th July, he called the Vallejo Police Department from a phone box at a petrol station and claimed responsibility for both the Ferrin/Mageau shooting, and the Lake Herman Road murders the previous year.

Michael Mageau survived the attack and was able to describe the killer, stating that he was aged 26-30, weighed approximately 88 – 91 kg (195 – 200 pounds in American money), and was about 1.7m (5’8”) tall. Darlene Ferrin was pronounced dead at the hospital.

On 1st August, three identical letters were sent to the Vallejo Times-Herald, the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Francisco Examiner, each including one-third of a cryptogram and a threat to kill again if the letters were not published on the first page. Only the Chronicle published its letter and part of the cryptogram, and on page four rather than one, but the threatened murders did not happen. The Chronicle included a quote from the Vallejo Police chief stating that he did not think that the letters were genuine and asking the writer for more information. On 7th August, the Examiner received another letter, this time supplying three details each about the Lake Herman Road murders and Blue Rock Springs attack that were not public knowledge – the killer was able to specify the number of rounds fired and what type of ammunition he’d used.  This definitively linked the two scenes. It also marked the first time the killer used ‘Zodiac,’ to refer to himself.

Letter 1

The second letter sent to the San Francisco Examiner

 

The following day, a couple in Salinas, California, cracked the cypher. It contained a misspelled message in which the Zodiac claimed to be collecting slaves for the afterlife. It did not, as he promised, lead to his identity. This remains the only cryptogram to have been definitively solved.

Cipher 1

A portion of the first Zodiac Killer cipher

 

Lake Berryessa

On Saturday 27th September, two Pacific Union College students, Bryan Hartnell, and Cecilia Shephard, were picnicking by the shores of Lake Berryessa in Napa County, about fifteen miles north of the previous murder scenes. They were approached by a man wearing an executioner’s hood and a bib with the Zodiac’s crosshairs symbol drawn on it, carrying a gun that Hartnell identified as a .45 automatic. He claimed to be an escaped convict, and ordered Shephard to tie Hartnell up, before tying Shephard up himself. Shephard had tried to bind Hartnell loosely, but the Zodiac checked and tightened Hartnell’s bonds before producing a knife and stabbing Hartnell six times, and Shephard ten.

A passing father and his son heard their screams for help and summoned park rangers, who called the Napa County Sheriff’s Department. Shephard remaining conscious long enough to describe their attacker to the first Deputy Sheriffs to arrive, but lapsed into a coma in the ambulance and died two days later. Hartnell survived, and was also able to describe their attacker. Hartnell described the Zodiac as being 77kg (170 pounds) and 1.8m (5’11”).

The Zodiac contacted the Napa County Sheriff’s Department himself at 7.40 p.m., reporting the murder from a phone box. Deputies who raced to the phone box reached it minutes later, finding it off the hook. A palm-print was detected on the receiver, although errors in retrieving it meant that it was rendered unusable. When Hartnell’s car was examined, it was discovered that the Zodiac had scrawled the crosshairs symbol on it, and the dates of the three attacks he had claimed to date.

 

Paul Stine

Stine, a San Francisco cab driver, picked up a passenger on the intersection of Mason and Geary Streets on Saturday 11th October. The passenger asked to be driven to Maple Street in Presidio Heights.

Stine’s cab actually stopped one block further along, on Cherry Street, for a reason that has never been explained. Once there, he was shot once in the back of the head with a 9mm pistol, and his passenger proceeded to steal his keys and wallet, rip off a section of his bloodstained shirt tail, and begin to wipe the cab down. He was observed by three local teens, who rang the police, describing a white man in his late twenties, who they last saw walking north on Cherry Street in the direction of Jackson Street.

The San Francisco Police Department leapt into immediate action, informing its patrol cars that a black man had just shot and robbed a taxi driver in Presidio Heights. The incredible, incredibly predictable, result was that when the SFPD’s first responders drove past the Zodiac Killer walking away from the crime scene on Jackson Street moments later, they carried on driving straight past him.

This was as close as any police officer ever got to the Zodiac Killer. The mix-up in descriptions, i.e. how the hell a police dispatcher told that a white man had just committed a crime managed to advise officers to look out for a black man, remains ‘Unexplained.’ Although the obvious conclusion is that the dispatcher ‘Corrected,’ the initial description from white to black. And the Zodiac Killer strolled right past San Francisco’s Finest.

Almost like American police have a crippling problem with racism.

The witnesses on Cherry Street, and the police officers who drove past him, provided fairly similar descriptions of the killer. They agreed that he had a crew cut, although the Cherry Street witnesses thought he was slightly shorter and considerably younger, at 26-30, than the SFPD officers, who put his age at 35-45. Initially, it was believed by the SFPD to have been a robbery gone wrong. SFPD Inspectors Bill Armstrong and Dave Toschi were assigned to investigate. This would be the last murder that the Zodiac Killer claimed.

 

Later letters

The Zodiac claimed credit for Stine’s murder in a 14th October letter to the San Francisco Chronicle, including a piece from his shirt as proof he was the killer, and threatening to kill an entire school bus full of children. He may have phoned the Oakland Police Department (neighbouring San Francisco) on 20th October demanding an appearance by two prominent lawyers on a San Francisco talk show the following day; one of them, Melvin Belli, did appear, and a man claiming to be the Zodiac phoned the show and arranged to meet him. Belli went to the arranged meeting, but no one appeared. There is no confirmation that the caller was the Zodiac, but it is known that he wrote to Belli on the anniversary of the Lake Herman Road murders, sending him another piece of Paul Stine’s shirt and asking for his help.

He sent another cryptogram to the press on 8th November, and another letter on 9th November claiming to have been stopped by two SFPD officers minutes after the Stine murder. The two officers denied stopping the man they saw walking down Jackson Street, and I personally find it unlikely – the Zodiac would have been asked if he’d seen a black man, and I can’t believe he wouldn’t have shouted that particular mistake from the rooftops. Well, constantly reminded the SFPD about it in his letters.

He continued to write to the San Francisco newspapers throughout 1970, sending further ciphers, and a rolling scorecard between himself (represented by the crosshairs symbol) and the SFPD. In letters dated 20th and 28th April he repeatedly threatened to bomb a school bus (but never carried out the threat) and in a letter dated 26th June claimed to have killed SFPD Sergeant Richard Radetich, who was shot once with a .38 whilst sat in his car writing a parking ticket. The SFPD denied the Zodiac’s involvement, and given that in the 20th April letter he had stated that there was more glory involved in killing a cop I have to agree with this assessment – if the Zodiac had killed a cop he’d have most likely boasted about it. He also sent a geometric puzzle with a crosshairs drawn on top of Mount Diablo, in the Bay Area, and 0, 3, 6 and 9 written around it. He sent a further clue to this puzzle in a 26th July letter to the Chronicle which enabled it to be solved, eventually, in 1981; a radian angle placed over the circle in accordance with his instructions pointed to two of his scenes (either the SFPD couldn’t find any maths experts in the Bay Area equal to this task, or they never put much effort into trying to solve his puzzles).

In a 24th July postcard to the Chronicle he claimed credit for an attempted abduction some months earlier (which I’ll come back to), as well as quoting a song from the Mikado and adding lyrics about collecting slaves for paradise. He sent another postcard to the Chronicle on 7th October. By this time, he was claiming 13 murders.

Chronicle journalist Paul Avery, who had covered the case extensively and became one of two Chronicle reporters strongly associated with the case, received a Halloween card from the killer on 27th October, with the words ‘Peek-a-boo, you’re dead,’ written on it. This prompted colleagues to begin wearing buttons which read ‘I am not Paul Avery,’ including Avery himself. For reasons I’ll go into below, I suspect that this was somewhat pointless as the Zodiac likely knew full well who Avery was, and was also quite unlikely to want him dead. Another letter received by Avery days later alerted him to similarities between the Zodiac crimes and an earlier, unsolved murder in the Los Angeles area. At one point in his letters, he referred to the police as ‘Blue meanies’ – a term from 1960s counterculture.

There were only two more confirmed communications from the Zodiac – one more postcard to Avery on 22nd March 1971 (misspelled as ‘Averly,’) in which the Zodiac seemed to be claiming responsibility for the disappearance and murder of Donna Lass on 6th September 1970, and a further one letter to the Chronicle on 29th January 1974 in which the Zodiac praised the Exorcist as a great work of satirical comedy, and quoted the Mikado again. This time he claimed 37 kills. Further letters in 1974, and again in 1978, may have come from the Zodiac, although the 1978 letters are widely agreed to have been hoaxes. SPFD Inspector Toschi was accused of authoring the 1978 letter himself – although he was cleared of all charges, his chances of becoming San Francisco’s police chief were effectively scuppered by the scandal.

The 29th January 1974 letter is the last confirmed communication by the Zodiac Killer. After this, he disappeared without a trace.

 

Other possible victims: Kathleen Johns

Kathleen Johns is best treated as ‘near-certain,’ rather than possible, but since it’s not confirmed that her incident had anything to do with the Zodiac Killer, I’m not lumping her in with the other attacks.

Johns, a young mother with a 10-month old son and 7 months pregnant with her second child, was driving between her home in San Bernardino and her mother’s house in Petulama on Sunday 22nd March 1970, when another driver began flashing his lights and honking his horn at her on Highway 132 near Modesto. When she stopped, the driver explained that her rear right wheel was loose and offered to tighten the lug nuts. He worked on the wheel for several minutes before driving away. However, when Johns tried to drive off, the wheel fell off almost immediately. The other driver returned and offered her a lift to a service station, which Johns accepted; he then drove them around for about 90 minutes on back roads near the town of Tracy. After they’d passed several service stations, the driver was forced to stop at an intersection. Johns grabbed her daughter and jumped from the car, hiding in some bushes. Her accounts later differed on whether the driver got out and searched for her or not, and police reports also differed on whether or not the driver threatened to kill her and her daughter. Either way, the driver was unable to find her and, after he left, she was able to hitch a ride to the police station in Patterson, south of Tracy and Modesto.

At the station, she recognised the composite sketch of the Zodiac Killer in the lobby, produced after the Stine murder, as her attacker. The night then descended into farce as the panicking Duty Sergeant, fearing that the killer would return, hid her in a nearby restaurant with the lights off (fair enough, Patterson was a small place with a small police department and the Duty Sergeant seems to have been the only officer there at the time, but was that really safer than the police station?). Johns’ car was eventually found gutted and torched.

ZODIAC-C-14DEC99-SC-HO

The composite sketch of the Zodiac Killer, produced after the murder of Paul Stine and recognised by Kathleen Johns

 

The incident was only reported to the public in the Modesto Bee, a small local newspaper. The Zodiac Killer eventually claimed, in his 26th July letter, to have been her abductor, and all things considered it seems overwhelmingly likely that he was and Johns was fortunate to survive.

 

Other possible victims: Donna Lass

Lass, a nurse in Stateline, Nevada (as the name suggests, on the California border) disappeared on the night of Sunday 6th September 1970. At the time, an unknown male called her employer and landlord to claim that she’d left town due to a family emergency – no such emergency existed. The Zodiac claimed responsibility in his postcard to Paul Avery in March 1971, and left instructions that seemed to point to Lass’ grave. A possible grave site was found following these instructions (on Sierra Club property, near pine trees) but, aside from disturbed earth, all that was recovered was a pair of sunglasses.

Nothing definitively links Lass’ disappearance, and probable murder, to the Zodiac. His own chronology was a bit off as well – his last letter before Lass’ disappearance, the 26th July one where he claimed credit for the attempted abduction of Kathleen Johns, claimed 13 victims, but in the postcard to Avery he described her as ‘Victim 12.’ He certainly seems to have known where to find a grave site, even if it was empty.

 

Other possible victims: Robert Domingos and Linda Edwards

Domingos and Edwards were High School seniors who skipped school on 4th June 1963 for ‘Senior Ditch Day,’ and drove to a beach near Lompoc, in Santa Barbara County in southern California. They were found dead, having been shot repeatedly with a .22 calibre gun. In 1972 Santa Barbara County detectives theorised that the Zodiac Killer was responsible because of similarities to the Lake Berryessa attack – the couple were initially tied up, but escaped and tried to run, at which point the killer opened fire. He then dragged their bodies to a shack and tried, unsuccessfully, to burn it.

It seems pretty clear that whoever killed Domingos and Edwards underestimated how hard it is to control two people, even with a gun, and didn’t really know how to tie them up. When you add this to the failed attempt to burn the shack, it all seems to add up to a killer who isn’t very experienced and doesn’t really know how to control a couple, or dispose of evidence. Compare this to the Lake Berryessa attack, where the Zodiac had Shephard tie up Hartnell herself. This put the greatest threat prone on the ground and allowed him to keep his gun aimed at them both. Or the Modesto attack, where he seems to have had what he needed to burn Johns’ car to hand, and to have known how to set a fire that burnt the entire car. Basically, the Domingos/Edwards murders are pretty much exactly what I’d expect an earlier Zodiac Killer murder to look like – a targeted attack on a couple where the killer makes a number of mistakes and things clearly didn’t go to plan.

It’s by no means definitive, but it would make sense for this to be the Zodiac Killer’s first kill. And it locates him in southern California in the early 1960s – in exactly the area he’d need to be to have murdered Cheri Jo Bates in 1966.

 

Other possible victims: Cheri Jo Bates

Some people count Bates as a definite Zodiac victim. Others – including Paul Avery and the investigating Riverside Police Department – think that the Zodiac was not responsible, and honestly there’s nothing definitive here either.

But it seems likely that the man who would become the Zodiac Killer was in Riverside at the time.

Bates (18) was a student at Riverside Community College who was attacked after leaving the college library at 9.00 p.m. on 30th October 1966. Neighbours reported hearing a scream at 10.30 p.m., which given that Bates left the library 90 minutes earlier and was found close by leaves a huge gap in the murder timeline – if the scream was connected to the murder. The wires in her car’s distributor caps had been pulled out, and she was brutally beaten and stabbed to death.

This attack seems quite different to a lot of the Zodiac crimes – he clearly preferred to use a gun, only stabbing Cecilia Shephard and Bryan Hartnell after they were already tied up, and he didn’t physically assault any of his known victims. Disabling the victim’s car to isolate them, however, was a strategy he’d (probably) use again with Kathleen Johns, and if there’s one thing that should be completely clear about the Zodiac Killer it’s that his modus operandi was situational. He varied how he approached, and killed, his victims, depending on how he found them, and where. And his victim type is also all over the map – three couples, lone male, pregnant female with baby. It’s difficult to either include or exclude him as the murderer based on any of the details of the crime.

Events afterwards very much fit the pattern of his later crimes in the Bay Area though.

The Riverside Police and Riverside Press-Journal received typed letters on 29th November 1966 which claimed credit for the murder, supplied confidential details of the crime, and stated that ‘Bates was not the first and she will not be the last.’ Then, in December, a poem was found carved into the underside of a Riverside College library desk. It was entitled Sick of living/Unwilling to die, and the writing style and language use strongly resemble later Zodiac letters. Six months after Bates’ murder, on 30th April 1967, her father Joseph, the Riverside Police and Riverside Press-Journal all received near-identical letters, stating ‘Bates had to die there will be more.’ The letter to the Press-Journal was signed with something that might have been a Z (or, equally, might not).

The 29th November letters were clearly from the killer, and fit the Zodiac’s later MO – claim credit, with confidential details of the crime to establish his credentials, and threats of further violence. Given the similarities in language and handwriting between the poem on the desk and the killer’s later letters to the San Francisco press, I think there’s a good chance that the Zodiac Killer was in Riverside at the time, although handwriting analysis isn’t especially definitive as evidence goes, and linguistic analysis even less so.

I guess it depends if you think the Zodiac Killer was in Riverside in 1966 or not. If he was, the chances that another murderer, who also wrote to the press to claim credit and threaten further attacks, was there too are pretty much astronomical. If he wasn’t, then, well, he couldn’t have killed Cheri Jo Bates anyway.

 

Um. So… how many people did he kill?

Even he didn’t seem to know. He claimed Donna Lass was his 12th victim, even though she disappeared after he’d written a letter that finished ‘Zodiac – 13, SFPD – 0.’

He claimed 37 kills by 1974, but only ever identified five of them to the authorities. My personal theory is that this was deliberate, and that his full total could be way higher than 37, but there’s no way of knowing without knowing who he was, or is (the Zodiac Killer could well still be alive).

I think the best comparison here is to Bible John, the serial killer who murdered three women in Glasgow in the late 1960s. Bible John has never been identified… but it seems pretty much certain that he was Peter Tobin, a man convicted of three murders of women and teenagers. Just not the Bible John murders. Tobin’s convictions were for murders in 1990, 1991, and 2006, with radically different MOs to the Bible John killings, but the known facts about Bible John tally so closely with the known facts of Tobin’s life that the chances that he was a different man are beyond slim.

It’s very likely that Tobin paused killing for over twenty years as his personal circumstances changed, and when he resumed his murders they weren’t recognised as he’d changed his methods, becoming more practical and less ritualistic. And I think something similar happened with the Zodiac Killer. The five murders that were linked to him were only connected because he wrote to the San Francisco press to point them out. If he hadn’t done so, he could have murdered for years, undetected.

The most likely explanation for why the murders ceased after Stine’s death is that they didn’t cease at all. The Zodiac simply stopped pointing them out.

 

Were there any suspects?

The San Francisco Police alone interviewed over 2,500 people in connection with Stine’s death. There aren’t any statistics easily available for how many were interviewed by the Vallejo Police, or the Napa and Solano County Sheriff’s Departments, but it’s safe to say that hundreds, if not thousands, more men would have been spoken to.

For all that, only one person was ever identified by investigators as a promising suspect – Arthur Leigh Allen, a former elementary school teacher sacked in March 1968 for sexual misconduct with students. Allen was generally well thought-of by people who knew him but was also known to be fixated on young children (back in the days when people were somehow not that bothered by this) and angry at women. He’d apparently never married of been in a relationship. He lived in Vallejo and was questioned by police there on 6th October 1969 in relation to the Lake Berryessa attack, as he was known to have been in the area. He claimed to have been scuba diving off Salt Point, some distance from the attack.

He came to police attention again in 1971 when a friend, Donald Cheney, reported to police that he had had a conversation with Allen in which Allen had spoken of his desire to acquire a torch he could attach to a gun, use it to kill people, and use the name Zodiac. Cheney claimed that this conversation had occurred no later than 1st January 1969.

Allen’s residence was searched by the SFPD in 1972, and in 1974 he was convicted of lewd acts with a 12 year old boy. Vallejo Police searched his home in 1991, and again after his death in 1992 – he owned the same brand of typewriter as was used to write the letters in the Cheri Jo Bates case, and a Zodiac brand wristwatch. In 1992 he was even identified by Michael Mageau as the man who’d shot him and Darlene Ferrin in Blue Rock Springs. Serious consideration was given to charging him with the Zodiac crimes, but he died before a decision was reached. Robert Graysmith, the San Francisco Chronicle journalist who became the foremost expert on the Zodiac, considered him the most promising suspect.

However…

Other investigators, notably Dave Toschi, completely disagreed with Graysmith. Handwriting analyst Lloyd Cunningham, who examined much of the Zodiac material, was clear that Allen’s handwriting bore no resemblance to the Zodiac’s. Mageau’s ID of Allen is also questionable. A lot of publicity had linked him to the Zodiac crimes by 1992, when Mageau made this identification. Allen was ten years older at the time of the crime than the man Mageau described, and bears little resemblance to the composite sketches produced after the Stine murder. It’s been suggested that he wore a disguise, which is possible – but even when a crew cut and glasses are added to pictures of Allen at the time, he still doesn’t quite match. The witnesses who got a good look at the Zodiac all agreed that he was under 30. Allen was nearly 40.

The SFPD managed to extract DNA from the Zodiac letters in 2002, which failed to match either Allen or Donald Cheney (who also seems to have been a suspect). The DNA was revealed in 2018 to have been extracted from the front of the stamps, not definitively excluding Allen, but it’s still a blow to the case against him. Also, the stuff about him owning a Zodiac wristwatch proves, um, the square root of bugger all, and the typewriter actually points away from him. Letters can be matched to the typewriter that wrote them with a high degree of certainty, using a time-consuming but not especially difficult forensic procedure. Had Allen possessed the typewriter that wrote the letters to the Riverside Police, Riverside Press-Journal, and Joseph Bates, after murdering Cheri-Jo Bates, forensic investigation would have established it.

His known victim profile is also wrong – prepubescent children, where the Zodiac is known to have largely targeted couples and women. Allen was undoubtedly a paedophile, but that, of itself, doesn’t also make him the Zodiac Killer.

Ultimately, although Allen was, and remains, a good suspect, he can’t be definitively linked to the murders or ruled out. With his death, he never will be unless new DNA evidence is detected.

 

Other theories

Many people have advanced other potential Zodiac suspects. Former LAPD detective Steve Hodel, who very persuasively argued that his own father George Hodel had murdered Elizabeth Short (better known as the Black Dahlia), claimed that he could also have been the Zodiac Killer, for instance. A disbarred San Francisco lawyer claimed in 2009 that a merchant sailor had walked into his office in the early 90s, claimed to be the Zodiac, and asked for his help to stop his murder spree, but never returned. One man, Louis Joseph Myers, confessed to a friend as he lay dying that he was the Zodiac Killer – he lived close to the early victims, knew three of them, had access to the same kind of boots the Zodiac wore in the Lake Berryessa attack, and was stationed overseas with the military during the period between 1971 and 1973 when there were no Zodiac letters. Law enforcement appear not to have taken this seriously.

Ohio serial killer Edward Edwards, who may have resembled the Zodiac composite sketches in 1969 (this is disputed) and lived in the Bay Area during the murders, has been put forward as a suspect. He was reputedly fascinated by the case and would make his children watch news reports about the Zodiac, occasionally shouting ‘That’s not how it happened!’ Edwards was, like Allen, considerably older than the Zodiac seems to have been, but targeted couples in his Ohio murders and expressed a desire to be famous. No real evidence connects him to the crimes, however.

One theory even runs that there was no Zodiac Killer, and that he was the concoction of corrupt, incompetent cops, the Manson Family, and Robert Graysmith himself. There has always been a group of armchair detectives insisting that the Manson Family also perpetrated the Zodiac murders and that this was covered up for… some reason, but academic Thomas Henry Horan went further, claiming that the murders were not linked at all and that the Zodiac Killer was a hoax.

 

No Zodiac at all?

Taking as his starting point the idea that without the Zodiac letters, the four attacks would not have been linked, Horan’s theory is that a closer reading of the Zodiac Killer’s letters show that he made some errors of detail in describing the crimes that are better explained by his being a hoaxer with access to the police forces. He points out that he described Darlene Ferrin’s clothes incorrectly (as patterned slacks, instead of a slack dress, which were trousers but with wide bell-bottoms that often resembled an actual dress), and appeared to try to redirect police attention towards a slow-driving car that the real Blue Rocks Springs killer couldn’t have known about (he claimed to have been driving slowly as he left, whilst Mageau and another witness described him leaving at speed). Vallejo was a centre for the growing meth industry and Mageau was dressed bizzarely, wearing several sets of clothes – almost as if he was planning to commit several crimes and change his appearance in between each one. The Zodiac’s handwriting is a poor match for that left on Bryan Hartnell’s car at Lake Berryessa, and the crossed-circle signature had been common knowledge for several weeks at that point – plenty of time for a copycat to notice it. The Zodiac never explicitly referred to the Berryessa attack again (although when the Mount Diablo puzzle was solved, one of the lines did point to Lake Berryessa), and adherents of Horan’s theory claim that it was the work of one of the Mansons. He even claimed that the swatches of Paul Stine’s shirt sent to the San Francisco Chronicle after his death would have been cut off hours later when his taxi was in the impound, as the swatches were cut from the back whilst Stine mostly bled out from the front, and the blood left on the shirt was semi-coagulated. The letters sent after the Stine murder were, in fact, the work of Robert Graysmith.

Personally, I think the only really solid point there is the one about Ferrin’s dress. When you properly examine all the moving parts of Horan’s theory, it becomes apparent that it’s actually enormously convoluted, requiring a few extremely unlikely events to have occurred, and for there to be two master forgers, who were also cryptologists, to independently decide to create and then perpetuate the hoax. Another point, I think, is that without the Stine murder, it’s highly unlikely that the attacks on the couples wouldn’t have been linked. Attacks on couples are comparatively rare, and for three to occur within months of each other, within miles of each other, is so rare that any halfway competent investigators would have been looking for similarities and links between them. Stine’s murder is the outlier of the series, but I think deliberately so. The Zodiac had a real purpose for breaking his pattern with Paul Stine.

First, the handwriting at Lake Berryessa. Any teacher will say that writing on a board is a lot harder than it looks, and their handwriting looks totally different to how it appears on paper. The handwriting on the car door at Berryessa resembles the Zodiac’s; it’s pretty well certain it would have looked different to how it appeared on his letters.

Ferrin and Mageau might well have parked up in Blue Rock Springs as part of a drug deal, but that doesn’t mean that they couldn’t have been mistaken for a couple – the area was used as a lovers’ lane as well as a drug-dealing spot. No evidence has ever linked Betty-Lou Jensen or David Faraday to drug dealing (oh yeah… they’re the usually-forgotten first victims, right?), and Horan struggles to explain why there was a phone call to the Vallejo PD at 12.40 a.m. claiming credit for both the Lake Herman Road and Blue Rocks Springs attacks. His theory is that it was an entirely unrelated prank call, placed by someone listening to a police scanner. Now, I don’t doubt that there are definitely American who prowl around at 12.40 a.m. with police scanners, but this one would have had thirty minutes between the first emergency call, at 12.10 a.m., and their own call at 12.40 a.m., to note down the details of the crime, recognise the similarity to a six-month old unsolved murder, decide to link the two (at a time when serial killers still weren’t really a thing and the term itself hadn’t been coined), and then call the police.

The caller (correctly) identified the weapon as a 9mm Luger, something which the Vallejo Police themselves would not have known by 12.40 a.m. unless they’d worked remarkably fast. It is possible to tell the make of a gun from the stamp left by the firing pin on the ejected shell casings (all the evidence the police would have been able to find by 12.40), but that generally requires microscopic analysis of the stamp. For the Vallejo PD to have located a shell casing and identified it as being fired from a Luger (all in the dark using torches), and then to have broadcast that information to their own officers, inside 15 minutes – because no officers arrived on the scene until 12.25 a.m., leaving only 15 minutes until the phone call – all while evacuating Mageau and Ferrin from the scene, would have been incredibly quick police work.

Actually it’s too quick. It’s unlikely that the Vallejo PD would have identified the weapon before the morning, even if they’d had forensic technicians working through the night. Bearing in mind that the police would have spent their first minutes at the scene treating the casualties, and that shell casings are hard to locate, I would be enormously surprised if they’d broadcasted that the weapon used was a Luger by 12.40 a.m. I’d be surprised to learn they’d realised it by 12.40 p.m. to be honest. The phone call is almost certainly genuine. So, then, what is more likely? Option 1: That two couples shot in parked cars in lovers’ lanes less than five miles away from each other, were shot by two separate killers, one of whom phoned the police to claim credit for both murders within minutes of the second, and then a third, unrelated individual (either a journalist or a corrupt cop trying to deflect attention away from his involvement in a non-drug related drugs murder) wrote letters to the press citing facts that were only known to the police? Or, Option 2: that two couples shot in parked cars in lovers’ lanes less than five miles away from each other were shot by the same killer, who claimed credit for both in a phone call and in letters that got one detail wrong?

Option 1’s so convoluted that I got confused just writing that sentence. Well done to anyone who actually understood it.

Although Horan is right to point out that the Stine murder is so different from the other murders that it would never have been linked if the killer hadn’t written to the police. It’s just that his explanation for how the letter-writer (he accuses Robert Graysmith, Chronicle cartoonist and later Zodiac biographer, who as a Chronicle journalist had a vested interest in boosting its sales) acquired pieces of Stine’s bloody shirt makes no sense. Horan’s position is that, as Stine mostly bled out to his front, the back of his shirt wouldn’t have been bloody, and since the blood on the pieces mailed to the Chronicle and to Melvin Belli was semi-coagulated, it must have been placed on the shirt later. Quite how he thinks the letter writer managed to sneak into the San Francisco morgue or crime lab, steal pieces of Stine’s shirt, then sneak into the area where his car was and smear it in his drying blood is beyond me. Graysmith was unknown to law enforcement at this time. He definitely didn’t have an overly cosy relationship with the SFPD, of the kind where they’d just let him wander around their forensics facilities unobserved. Unless the SFPD’s evidence procedures were so hopelessly lax that anyone could just wander into their crime lab and take whatever they wanted – and you’d think that if they were that lax, every defence lawyer and their cousin would know it and they’d never get anyone convicted – there’s just no way that the letter writer could have collected a swatch of Stine’s bloodied shirt.

Stine’s murderer was observed spending some time in his cab, wiping it down. Again, which is more likely? Option 1: that hours after Stine’s death an unrelated hoaxer is able to steal pieces of his shirt from the San Francisco Police crime lab? Or, Option 2: that his killer deliberately smeared pieces of his shirt in his blood, to ensure that he was linked to the crime? Photos of Stine’s shirt show the back section had been cut away. That could only have happened at the crime scene… unless the SFPD’s investigators were so amazingly unobservant that they essentially wandered around with their eyes closed bouncing off the walls.

And of course the blood was semi-coagulated. It had had several minutes to dry by the time the killer smeared the shirt in it.

Honestly, I partially agree about the Lake Berryessa attack – if any of the canonical Zodiac Killer crimes were actually committed by someone else, it’s this one – but not the other three. For Horan’s theory to hold true, the same corrupt cop or journalist who was also a cryptologist would have needed to have access to police files on the Lake Herman Road and Blue Rock Springs attacks (handled by different departments – Horan’s preferred suspect for this actually worked for the Napa County Sheriff and would have had access to none of the files when the letters were written) and to have decided to use the similarities between the attacks to create a serial killer to either distract from their own criminal activities or to boost paper sales (back before serial killers were a thing, remember. The term didn’t exist until 1977 – which also begs the question why a Deputy from a neighbouring county uninvolved in the investigations would try to link them), a third unrelated individual then used the details to carry out a copycat attack, and a fourth unrelated individual then proceeded to break into a police crime lab to steal evidence from an apparently unrelated crime allowing him to forge over fifteen letters similar to the first four, which he had nothing to do with, whilst also being a cryptologist.

And somehow one of the four unrelated killers also abducted Kathleen Johns (oh yeah, she ID’d the man who killed Stine as her abductor, didn’t she?), Because Reasons.

Or, it was just one person taking steps to confuse law enforcement and ensure he wouldn’t be caught.

As for Darlene Ferrin’s dress – maybe he didn’t see it properly in the dark, in a blitz attack. Maybe he didn’t know what the correct term for it was. Maybe he just called slack dresses ‘slacks.’ The police report clearly refers to her clothes as a ‘slack dress.’ For a hoaxer to change it to ‘slacks,’ which are entirely differently, is pretty bizarre in itself. The killer actually said, ‘patterned slacks.’ The correct description was ‘blue and white slack dress.’ It seems far more likely that, in the dark, in a rush, he just didn’t see her clothing properly, recognised that it had a pattern, and called it ‘slacks,’ as a guess.

There isn’t really a wholly satisfactory explanation for that mistake. But, for Horan’s theory to be correct, it would require four unrelated murderers to be linked by one hoax caller with supernatural powers, one corrupt cryptologist cop or journalist to have had access to murder files from two different departments and a remarkable ability to spot the serial killer trend eight years before anyone else did, one copycat who took the time to try and forge handwriting he’d only seen in a newspaper on a car door, and one amazing break-in artist and master forger who was also a cryptologist. To call that ‘unsatisfactory,’ as a theory is, to use the best of British understatement, a bit of an understatement.

 

Right. Very good. So there was definitely a Zodiac Killer. Now, tell us what you think dammit!

Before I do this, a disclaimer. I am in no way, and should not be mistaken for, an investigative psychologist. I’m just a bloke who’s read a couple of books and watched too many episodes of CSI. With all that said…

Arthur Leigh Allen, Edward Edwards and Louis Joseph Myers are all good suspects to be honest. They all have some of the characteristics I would expect of the real Zodiac Killer, although Edwards in particular seems to have been more of a fan than the real killer, and the more Allen was investigated the more evidence pointed away from him.

Dave Toschi gave a brief profile of the Zodiac Killer to the Ford Scott Tribune in 1976. He believed that the killer lived in the Bay Area and that the letters had been an ego trip, adding, ‘He’s a weekend killer. Why can’t he get away Monday through Thursday? Does his job keep him close to home? I would speculate he maybe has a menial job, is well thought of and blends into the crowd … I think he’s quite intelligent and better educated than someone who misspells words as frequently as he does in his letters.’

Toschi 1

SFPD Inspector Dave Toschi, photographed around the time of the Zodiac murders

 

I think this is probably pretty accurate. I don’t know if the Zodiac Killer had a menial job, but I’m pretty sure he had a job that he thought was beneath him, and was certainly far more intelligent than his repeated spelling errors suggested. Clearly, he was intelligent enough to create ciphers. And the letters seem to be those of a complete narcissist. And he definitely lived in the Bay Area. Just not, I think, in San Francisco.

There was a very good reason for the Paul Stine murder, and why it never resembled any of the others. And, unfortunately, Inspector Toschi, and most other investigators, fell right into the trap.

 

The Discerning Psychopath’s Guide to Utterly Bamboozling Law Enforcement

Stine’s murder confused investigators as to the Zodiac Killer’s pattern, and also had the effect of redirecting the investigation away from the north Bay Area and into San Francisco itself. The Zodiac played up to this with his phone calls and letters – always to San Francisco newspapers, always scoring himself against the SFPD.

Because, if they were looking for him in San Francisco, they weren’t looking for him in Vallejo, where he most probably lived.

The Zodiac clearly knew the area around Vallejo and Benicia (the two cities neighbour each other) fairly well, which is a good sign that he lived there. He was confident that his daylight attack at Lake Berryessa would go undisturbed. And he knew the roads southwest of Modesto well enough to have driven Kathleen Johns around on them for ninety minutes. He doesn’t seem to have known San Francisco quite as well, although my personal theory about why Stine’s cab stopped one block further on is that the Zodiac wanted to be sure they were in an area with witnesses. Ultimately, it all adds up to someone who didn’t live in San Francisco, but wanted everyone to think he did.

Big city arrogance (it all happens here) versus small town complacency (nothing like that ever happens here) probably played into this as well. Once the Big Bad SFPD got involved, the assumption was that their man lived in San Francisco. Well, of course he did. It’s the Big City, over a million people, Where It All Happens. Of course the serial killer lived there. Definitely not one of the sleepy suburbs. They even had Lovers’ Lanes, for goodness’ sake!

My personal theory is that the Zodiac Killer was questioned by the Vallejo Police in the days or weeks before Stine’s murder, decided to kill someone quite outside his pattern to confuse investigators, and to do it in San Francisco to distract their attention from his real home in Vallejo. This dovetails with Arthur Leigh Allen, who was questioned on 6th October, three days before Stine was shot – although no doubt Vallejo PD spoke to other men too. One of them was probably the Zodiac. I feel pretty confident stating that he’s somewhere in the Vallejo PD files. SFPD might have interviewed him as well at some point.

The Lake Herman Road murders were too quick and slick to have been his first, but he clearly learnt from them in the Blue Rock Springs attack. One of the aspects that Horan raised when claiming that the Zodiac killer was a hoax was that the Lake Herman Road murders and Blue Rock Springs attacks were quite different. Different guns, different MO – Jensen and Faraday were ordered out of their car, Mageau and Ferrin were shot inside theirs. However, what they actually show to me is a killer learning. Jensen was able to run whilst the killer dealt with Faraday. In his next attack, the Zodiac simply approached and opened fire, leaving no time for either person to run. In truth, the two attacks have too much in common not to be linked – couples in parked cars, attacked after dark, in a quick, controlled manner, within miles of each other.

If you accept that the Lake Herman Road murders were not the Zodiac’s first, then the Lompoc murders in 1963 by a clearly inexperienced killer take on an extra significance, since they could well have been. If, as Mageau and the Cherry Street teenagers agreed, the Zodiac was in his late 20s in 1969, then he would have been in his early twenties in 1963 – about the age most serial killers are when they had their first kill. The Zodiac breaks so many of the rules about serial killers, but most of them have killed at least once by the time they’re 25. I don’t think the Zodiac was any different, in this regard. Using 1960s counter-culture terms in his letters also tends to point this way – he’d be more likely to know them if he were younger.

If he had a ritual, it was the one he employed at Lake Berryessa, where he tied the couple up at gunpoint before stabbing them. It looks a lot like what the Lompoc killer was trying to do, except again he’d learned from those mistakes (and maybe built up some confidence with the earlier murders) and got Shepherd to tie up Hartnell herself. Again, it all seems too well thought-out, with too many variables controlled for, to have been the first time Shepherd’s murderer had done this. He knew to check that Shephard had restrained Hartnell properly, almost like he’d had problems trying to restrain two people before. Just like the Lompoc killer had had. It looks very much as though you can track one killer’s progress through the Zodiac murders, as he learns how best to control two people and grows in confidence. It’s a curve that becomes even more pronounced if you include the Lompoc murders.

The Zodiac Hoax theory largely takes as its starting point the idea that serial killers always kill the same type of person, in the same way – their ritual. This just isn’t true, however. Bible John’s three victims were adult women dancing in a nightclub, left for the police to find them, but Tobin’s next two were teenagers whom he buried in his back garden. His final victim he tried to hide beneath a crypt in a church. For the Zodiac, quite probably the fact of killing was enough of a release, even if he couldn’t always do it in the way he wanted.

Whether or not he killed Cheri Jo Bates, there’s a good possibility he was familiar with the case, and the letters sent after it. The style of his own, especially the earlier ones, is just too similar to be a coincidence.

The classic Zodiac victims, then, seem to be either a couple or a lone woman. At times his behaviour shows some hesitancy – such as driving up to Mageau and Ferrin, driving off again, and only then returning to kill them, or driving Kathleen Johns around for ninety minutes without harming her (another thing that links Johns to the earlier murders). Possibly either Johns’ pregnancy or the presence of her baby dissuaded him. Maybe his confidence wobbled before the Mageau-Ferrin attack. It certainly seems like he was not as confident when actually killing, as he was when writing his letters.

The letters themselves were probably just red herrings – I doubt he ever gave his identity away in any cipher – but he definitely wrote them for a reason. To demonstrate, through his ciphers, how much smarter he was than anyone else. And, to ensure his crimes were linked.

He probably stopped linking his own crimes after being questioned about them between the Berryessa and Cherry Street attacks. He’d learnt that it was too risky, although may not have been able to help himself with the Johns and Lass attacks. Future crimes were also some distance away from his likely home in Vallejo – Johns in Modesto, Lass in Nevada – because he’d learnt the dangers of leaving the mess on his own doorstep. Just the Stine murder to deflect attention from Vallejo and into San Francisco, and then silence. He kept writing to the press to ensure he’d created his legend, and then I suspect he got more of a thrill out of the way his murders weren’t being linked, and the way journalists, cops, and armchair sleuths were chasing their tails trying to figure out what happened to him, and didn’t feel the need to point them out any more.

No ritual. No obvious pattern to his victims. No obvious sadistic motive. None of the things police typically use to get handle on a serial murder case.

In 1969, the Zodiac Killer was probably in his late twenties, living in or around Vallejo, with a steady job that he felt was beneath him. He was probably superficially quiet and maybe even well thought-of, probably openly misogynist in a way that didn’t stand out too much at the time. His relationship history would have been spotty, with few or no past girlfriends. People who knew him well would have thought of him as a complete narcissist, maybe even commented that he wasn’t as smart as he thought he was – although he was of above average intelligence. He would have had an interest in codes and cryptography that any close friends may have known about. He likely had enough familiarity with the police and how they worked to know that they would be looking for a pattern to his crimes, and to take deliberate steps to throw them off. In conversation he probably openly admired the Zodiac Killer, in socially acceptable ways such as complimenting his ability to evade police. He may even have boasted of being able to solve the cryptograms. He used the letters to control the investigation and would likely have got a thrill out of meeting key figures such as Toschi and Avery – I certainly think he would have tried to meet them both. I sincerely doubt he wanted Avery dead, with all the publicity he was getting from him. Hell, there’s a good chance he got Robert Graysmith to sign his copy of Graysmith’s book. He’s probably seen every movie ever made about him, laughing all the while.

Today, if he’s still alive, he would be in his late seventies, and the Zodiac Killer is probably still a favoured topic of conversation. Depending on his physical condition, he could still be killing (always assuming that he wasn’t caught for a later murder that was never linked to his earlier crimes). Certainly, nobody’s seriously looked for the Zodiac Killer since Dave Toschi was reassigned in 1978. The case remains officially active in all four jurisdictions, but new leads are not being sought and there’s a definite sense that they’re just spinning their wheels until they can be sure he’s dead. Without him pointing out his murders to the press, no one’s recognising them.

His true tally could be a lot higher than either five or 37.

 

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