by BJW Nashe
The Zodiac Killer is responsible for the most confounding series of murders in the history of American crime. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Zodiac terrorized the San Francisco Bay Area community with senseless shootings and stabbings, followed by a series of bizarre letters and phone calls which taunted the press and police, and threatened the public at large with further violent acts. Despite years of frenzied investigation, he was never captured. To this day, his identity remains a mystery.
This mystery has captivated the imaginations of many. The stories of obsession that follow in the wake of the Zodiac are just as fascinating and disturbing as the crimes themselves. Leading the pack is Robert Graysmith, whose true crime book, Zodiac and its follow-up, Zodiac Unmasked , was made into a brilliant 2007 feature film by David Fincher, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr., and Mark Ruffalo in leading roles. Graysmith, who worked as a political cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle at the time of the Zodiac murders, had an insider’s perspective on the case, which served as the foundation for his subsequent investigation, resulting in the books that have made him famous.
At times Zodiac reads like an edgy thriller written by Don DeLillo or Bret Easton Ellis or Chuck Pahlaniuk, which is altogether fitting, since the Zodiac himself is our most infamous postmodern serial killer.
To grasp what I mean by this, consider the JFK assassination, by way of comparison. JFK’s death in Dallas in 1963 can be viewed as our nation’s first major postmodern event, insofar as the central truth of what happened on that November day has remained elusive, or absent, while a whole plethora of different interpretations, based on a seemingly never-ending supply of information, continues to expand and multiply. Famous English author J.G. Ballard used to quip that the Warren Commission Report on JFK’s death was the greatest novel of the 20th century. Painstaking descriptions of the arrangement of boxes in the book depository, for instance, or the design of the presidential limousine, are considered by Ballard to rival the best experimental fiction produced by nouveau romanciers such as Alain Robbe-Grillet. Though sorely lacking in “truth” (and in fact more concerned with obscuring, than revealing, the truth), the Warren Commission Report more than delivered the goods in terms of weird fiction. A more “unreliable narrator” for those tragic events, and that mass of details, would be hard to find.
Likewise, the Zodiac Killer inhabits a similar zone of manic indeterminacy. The horrific murders remain unsolved, the full truth never revealed, and the criminal’s identity and motives remain shrouded in mystery. Meanwhile, the investigations and interpretations continue to spiral outward, generating more and more complexity and confusion. From each crime scene, we are led directly into the prison house of language, where we must struggle to make sense of the Zodiac’s letters and cryptograms. These strange “clues” supplied by the killer only lead us deeper into a labyrinth of never-ending interpretation. This is both maddening, and to some extent fascinating, depending on your point of view. It’s easy to see how anyone interested in crime can become more than a little obsessed by the case. And it’s no wonder that the articles and books and films keep on appearing.
The historical context here is crucial. It seems only fitting that the Zodiac Killer should emerge during the tumultuous late 1960s. The year 1968 in particular was remarkable in many ways. The assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy left the nation reeling in anger and sorrow. Race riots erupted in cities across the nation. The Democratic National Convention in Chicago turned into an ugly, televised streetfight between cops and protesters. The Tet Offensive in Vietnam led to some of the bloodiest fighting in that conflict. The hippies’ 1967 “Summer of Love” had quickly devolved into hard drug abuse, mass arrests, and homelessness.
Yet life in the sleepy East Bay town of Vallejo, located some 30 miles north of Oakland, probably seemed rather detached from the insanity of the nightly news, and big city problems such as violent crime and drugs and riots. On December 20, 1968, the man who would become known as the Zodiac changed all of that. When David Faraday and Betty Lou Jensen, two teenagers from Vallejo who had driven to a remote area off of Lake Herman Road in Benicia, were found late that night, killed by multiple gun shot wounds from a 9 mm Luger, the brutality and randomness of the crime shocked the entire community. Local police struggled to find any leads or possible motive for the murders.
On July 4, 1969, another young couple was attacked while parked in a car at the entrance of the Blue Rock Springs Park and Golf Course in Vallejo. Michael Mageau and Darlene Ferrin were both shot multiple times, again by a 9 mm Luger. Ms. Ferrin was pronounced dead at the hospital. Mr. Mageau managed to survive despite being shot multiple times in the neck, face, and chest. Within an hour of this incident, the killer placed a phone call to the Vallejo Police Department, claiming responsibility for the crime, as well as for the previous Lake Herman Road murders. The police traced the call to a phone booth at a gas station located less than a mile away from Ferrin’s home, and only a few blocks from the Vallejo Police Department.
Then the letter-writing campaign began. And it is here, in the letters and cryptograms attributed to the Zodiac, that we see the case take on its own particularly postmodern flair–and its own unique horror. The only possible precedent is the frenzy of speculation surrounding Jack the Ripper’s murders in London. The Zodiac, however, proved to be far more prolific than the Ripper. And the Ripper didn’t draw up any cryptograms.
On August 1, 1969, three letters prepared by the killer were received at the Vallejo Times Herald, the SF Chronicle, and SF Examiner. In addition to taking credit for the shootings at Lake Herman Road and Blue Rock Springs, each letter also included one-third of a 408-symbol cryptogram which the killer claimed contained his identity. The killer demanded they be printed on each paper’s front page or he would “cruse [sic] around all weekend killing lone people in the night then move on to kill again, until I end up with a dozen people over the weekend.”
On August 7, 1969, another letter was received at The San Francisco Examiner with the salutation, “Dear Editor, This is the Zodiac speaking.” This was the first time the killer used the name which would become his calling card. The letter was a response to Police Chief Stiltz’s request for more details that would prove he had killed Faraday, Jensen and Ferrin. In it, the Zodiac included details about the murders which had not yet been released to the public, as well as a message to the police that when they cracked his code “they will have me.”
On August 8, 1969, Donald and Bettye Harden–a couple of amateur sleuths from Salinas, California — managed to decode the 408-symbol cryptogram. It contained a misspelled message in which the killer claimed that his purpose was collecting slaves for the afterlife. No name appears in the decoded text; in fact, the killer indicated that he would not give away his identity because it would slow down or stop his slave collection.
The Zodiac’s third attack was even more chilling than his first two. On September 27, 1969, two college students picnicking at a secluded spot on the shore of Lake Berryessa in Napa County were attacked. Bryan Hartnell and Cecelia Shepard were approached by a man armed with a gun and wearing a black executioner’s-style hood with clip-on sunglasses over the eye-holes and a bib-like fabric on his chest that had a white 3″x 3″ symbol of a circled cross on the front. The hooded man claimed to be an escaped convict from Montana, where he had killed a guard and stolen a car. He explained that he needed a car and some money to get to Mexico. Despite Hartnell’s attempts to reason with him, he tied up Hartnell and Shepard with lengths of plastic clothesline. He then drew a knife and viciously stabbed both of his captives over and over again. Leaving both victims for dead, the attacker then hiked 500 yards back up to the road to draw a circled cross symbol on Hartnell’s car door with a black felt-tip pen. Beneath the symbol, he wrote: “Vallejo/12-20-68/7-4-69/Sept 27–69–6:30/by knife.”
Hartnell and Shepard were rescued by park rangers after a man and his son, both fishing nearby, heard their cries for help. Shepard died after lapsing into a coma on the way to the hospital. Hartnell would eventually recover from his wounds. Both Shepard, prior to her death, and Hartnell while hospitalized, were able to provide police with a detailed description of their ordeal. Shortly after this attack, Zodiac again placed a call to the police–this time to the Napa County Sheriff. The call was traced to a pay phone just a few blocks away from the Sheriff’s Office.
The brutal savagery of the knife attack, along with the frightening hooded costume and circled cross insignia, the eerie message scrawled on the car, and the audacity of the follow-up phone call, only served to heighten the growing terror. It appeared that a homicidal maniac was on the loose. While writers of crime and horror fiction live to dream up this kind of material, to have it play out in real life was nearly too much for the public to handle. People were afraid to send their kids off to school.
To add to the sense of cultural shock, down in Los Angeles at this time, the murder of Sharon Tate and her friends at the hands of Charles Manson’s deranged followers had the entire Southern California region gripped in fear. Late summer and early autumn in 1969 was quite a time for Golden State. And there was still the Rolling Stones free concert at Altamont to look forward to. The Hells Angels would be hired to keep everybody safe.
Up in the Bay Area, the Zodiac wasn’t finished yet. On October 11, 1969, he entered a taxi cab driven by Paul Stine at the intersection of Mason and Geary Streets in downtown San Francisco. Near the intersection of Washington and Cherry Street, Zodiac shot Stine once in the head, took Stine’s wallet and car keys, and tore away a section of the man’s bloodstained shirt tail. Three teenagers witnessed the crime in progress from across the street, and notified the police. However, the police dispatcher inexplicably sent out an alert for a black man as the suspect. In an excruciating twist to the whole story, at one point, a mere two blocks from the crime scene, Officer Don Fouke, responding to the call from dispatch, observed a stocky white man walking along the sidewalk. Fouke actually asked this man–presumably the Zodiac, if he had seen anything strange. The Zodiac said he had seen a man running in the other direction with a gun, and the cop car sped off. The was the closest anyone would ever come to catching the Zodiac Killer. But it was not to be, due to a linguistic slip involving a racial mix-up. An intensive search ensued, but no possible suspects were found. A police artist worked with the three teen witnesses to prepare a composite sketch of Stine’s killer.
Following the taxi cab murder in the city, San Francisco Detectives Bill Armstrong and Dave Toschi were assigned to the case. Toschi, a charismatic figure at SFPD, would be the inspiration for the Harry Callahan character in the 1971 film Dirty Harry, in which the villain, referred to as “Scorpio,” was clearly modeled on the Zodiac.
The San Francisco Police Department investigated an astonishing 2,500 suspects over a period of many years following the Stine murder, all to no avail. Both Toschi and Armstrong would be tormented and enraged by the Zodiac, their own personal health and well-being jeapardized by their inability to crack the case. It is worth pointing out that at the time, police departments from different cities and counties were not too willing to fully cooperate with each other on cases. Inter-departmental task forces were not exactly standard practice. Police were not geared for cross-country murder sprees. When Robert Graysmith, researching his Zodiac book, began to look at the evidence from all four attacks as a single unfolding story, he was able to uncover more information and make more connections than any of the actual detectives.
At the time, however, without the benefits modern forensics science, and with no murder weapons and no matching fingerprints, what the detectives mainly had to work with, in addition to witness statements, were the letters. Handwriting analysis took on a newfound sense of urgency with the Zodiac. The case became an exercise in semiotics. Psychologists and criminologists were consulted. The killer’s mental state was analyzed. The letters seemed to indicate a degree of sexual sadism. Toschi speculated that the Zodiac must have been masturbating as he wrote them. In any case, there was ample opportunity to explore various interpretations, because the letters kept coming in, with the now customary opening line, “This is the Zodiac speaking.” The killer clearly thrived on the public attention and notoriety he was receiving, typically demanding that the newspapers print his deranged missives in their entirety, or else he would retaliate by going on a rampage. At one point he insisted that people in San Francisco start wearing “Zodiac buttons” around town. This trend never quite caught on.
- On October 14, 1969, the Chronicle received a letter from the Zodiac, this time containing a bloodstained fragment of Paul Stine’s shirt tail to prove he was the killer. The letter also included a threat about killing schoolchildren on a school bus. Zodiac claimed that his plan was to “just shoot out the front tire & then pick off the kiddies as they come bouncing out.”
- On November 8, 1969, the Zodiac mailed a card with another cryptogram consisting of 340 characters. The 340-character cipher has never been decoded. Numerous possible solutions have been suggested, but none can be claimed as definitive. Perhaps it is just gibberish.
- On November 9, 1969, the Zodiac mailed a seven-page letter ridiculing the two policemen who pulled over and spoke with him just three minutes after he shot Stine in the taxi cab. Excerpts from the letter were published in the Chronicle on November 12. That same day, Officer Don Fouke wrote a shamefaced memo explaining what had happened that night.
- On December 20, 1969, exactly one year after the murders of David Faraday and Betty Lou Jensen, the Zodiac mailed a letter to famed San Francisco Attorney Melvin Belli, “the Duke of Torts.” In this letter, which included another swatch of Stine’s shirt, the Zodiac claimed he wanted Belli to help him:
“Dear Melvin, This is the Zodiac speaking. I wish you a happy Christmass [sic]. The one thing I ask of you is this, please help me. I cannot reach out for help because of this thing in me won’t let me. I am finding it extreamly [sic] difficult to hold it in check I am afraid I will loose [sic] control again and take my nineth [sic] and possibly tenth victom [sic]. Please help me I am drownding [sic]. At the moment the children are safe from the bomb because it is so massive to dig in & the trigger mech requires much work to get it adjusted just right. But if I hold back too long from no nine I will loose all control of my self & set the bomb up. Please help me I can not remain in control for much longer.”
Spelling was clearly not one of the Zodiac’s strengths. Or were the misspellings just a ruse? Likewise, was the plea for help in fact genuine? Or some sick joke? The Zodiac, or someone claiming to be the killer, had reached out to Belli once before, with a request that either Belli or F. Lee Bailey appear on the local television show “A.M. San Francisco,” hosted by Jim Dunbar. Bailey was not available, but Belli was able to rush over to appear on the program. In a truly surreal episode in TV history, Dunbar appealed to the viewers to keep the lines open, and eventually, someone claiming to be the Zodiac called several times, saying his name was “Sam.” Belli engaged in a series of on-air conversations with the caller about headaches and aspirin and chiropractors, and agreed to meet with him outside a thrift shop in Daly City. The suspect never showed up. The caller was later identified as an inmate of a mental asylum, not the actual Zodiac.
The Zodiac’s threats to detonate bombs or shoot at school buses induced terror throughout the Bar Area community. None of these threats ever materialized, however.
On March 22, 1970, another deadly attack was apparently attempted, but narrowly averted, in Modesto, California. A woman driving from San Bernardino to Petaluma with her ten month old daughter was experiencing car trouble. A man offered to give her a ride to a nearby service station. Inside the car, he may or may not have threatened to kill her. Evidently he drove around for 90 minutes without stopping. She may have leaped out of the car and fled with her child. It is unclear exactly what happened, due to conflicting statements and reports. The man did match the description of the Zodiac. And the Zodiac did claim to be the man involved in subsequent letters. But who knows?
Who indeed? It is impossible to do justice here to the incredible twists and turns of this meandering case as it dragged on through the years. Police began to suspect that the Zodiac may have been responsible for the murders of Robert Domingos and Linda Edwards, who were shot and killed on June 4, 1963, on a beach near Gaviota. Likewise, police considered a possible link to the murder of Cheri Jo Bates, who was stabbed to death and nearly decapitated on October 30, 1966, at Riverside City College in Riverside. And police were also concerned that the disappearance of Donna Lass might be the Zodiac’s doing. Ms. Lass was last seen on September 6, 1970, in Stateline, Nevada. A postcard with an advertisement for a condominium complex near Lake Tahoe on the back was received at the Chronicle on March 22, 1971, and has been interpreted as the Zodiac claiming Lass was one of his victims. However, no evidence was uncovered to definitively connect Donna Lass’ disappearance with the Zodiac.
Throughout 1970, the Zodiac continued to send regular letters and greeting cards to the Chronicle. He threatened to bomb school buses. He took credit for multiple killings that could not be verified. He kept score of how many killings he had committed (his final tally was 37). He sent a ghoulish Halloween card and death threat letter to reporter Paul Avery, who had been writing up the Zodiac story for the paper.
Then, abruptly, the letters stopped. No new crimes were boasted. No threats issued. Nothing, for three whole years. Was the Zodiac running out of steam?
It wasn’t until January 29, 1974 that the killer was heard from again. On that day, the Chronicle received a letter from the Zodiac praising The Exorcist as “the best saterical comidy [sic]“ that he had ever seen. The letter included a snippet of verse from an executioner’s song in The Mikado by Gilbert and Sullivan, as well as an unusual symbol at the bottom that has remained unexplained by researchers. Zodiac concluded the letter with a new score, “Me = 37, SFPD = 0.”
A handful of other letters were sent during 1974, but their authenticity is debated. The avalanche of publicity that had engulfed the Zodiac story during the past several years had produced plenty of copycat activity, including fake letters and prank calls. And police were presented with innumerable leads that turned out to be simply wild goose chases or attempts at revenge. If you were angry at your ex-husband or your step-father, one surefire way to get even was to claim that he was the Zodiac Killer. No wonder Detectives Armstrong and Toschi were nearly driven mad by the case. Red herrings were everywhere. The cops could never seem to zero in on a single suspect and obtain enough evidence to even come close to an arrest, let alone pursue a conviction.
And now the Zodiac seemed to by laying low. The question is why? One can’t help but assume that a serial killer who craved attention and notoriety would keep pushing the envelope. The natural progression, in fact, would seem to culminate in a highly publicized arrest and trial. Many serial killers probably want to be captured; this ensures them some degree of personal celebrity. Thus Ted Bundy and Richard Ramirez get to enjoy stacks of fan mail and love letters in prison. John Wayne Gacy was able to see his clown paintings sell for thousands of dollars apiece. Charles Manson gets to do interviews with the tabloid media, while his fans manage his website and sell his murderabilia.
One of the strangest things about the Zodiac case is that by the mid 1970s he eschews this sort of celebrity altogether. He simply stops communicating. He presumably stops committing crimes (though we can’t be sure), and has no desire for further attention. Why? Did he get sick and die? Did he become too incapacitated to function anymore as a serial killer? Did he retire? Was he somehow cured of his mental illness? What happened? We simply do not know. If nothing else, the Zodiac remained a true enigma.
In a March 30, 1978 front page re-cap of the Zodiac case for the San Francisco Examiner, Detective Toschi stated:
“I think he’s alive. It’s almost a gut feeling. But, if he had been killed in an accident or committed suicide or been murdered, I believe someone would have gone into his room. And I think he would leave us something to find.”
Toschi went on to explain that, “He got his pleasure by telling us about the murders. My guess is that he hasn’t been killing. Ego is what forced him to kill and write letters, knowing the media would broadcast and print it. I think he is in a period of remission and that some symptoms abated. Perhaps during this period, he had no desire to kill.”
A month after this statement to the Examiner, Toschi himself became embroiled in a controversy that seems emblematic of the strangeness of the Zodiac case as a whole.
Shortly after Toschi’s statements to the Examiner, it appeared that the Zodiac had broken his silence. A letter to the Chronicle, dated April 24, 1978, was initially deemed an authentic work from the Zodiac. This would have made it the twenty-first letter from the killer since 1969. The letter read as follows:
“Dear Editor, This is the Zodiac speaking. I am back with you. tell herb caen I am here, I have always been here. That city pig toschi is good. But I am smarter and better he will get tired then leave me alone. I am waiting for a good movie about me. who will play me. I am now in control of all things.”
The letter was big news. Toschi, and his principle case and personal obsession, were back in the news. Then, a few months later in July, Toschi’s world came crashing down. “Shocker in S.F. Zodiac Case,” screamed the headline in the Oakland Tribune. After eighteen years as a star of the elite homicide squad at SFPD–nine of those years spent relentlessly chasing the Zodiac–Toschi was being demoted to Pawn Shop Detail. The story that unfolded was both silly and scandalous.
Apparently a complaint against Toschi had been filed on June 6, 1978 by Chronicle columnist Armistead Maupin (and his publicist). Maupin thought that the tone of the recent Zodiac letter was similar to certain anonymous letters he had received praising Toschi. Maupin had featured Toschi as an advisor to one of his characters in his “Tales of the City” serial. In the serial, Toschi helps to arrest a Zodiac-like serial killer known as “Tinkerbell.” Maupin suspected that the anonymous fan letters praising Toschi were in fact written by Toschi himself–as a form of self-promotion. Thus, Maupin claimed there was reason to suspect that Toschi had also forged the last Zodiac letter.
Toschi admitted to writing and sending the fan letters to Maupin. It was a lark, he said, a way for he and his family to have fun with his characterization in Maupin’s popular column. But he dismissed as absurd the notion that he forged any letter from the Zodiac. Experts tended to agree with him. Nonetheless, Toschi’s reputation was damaged. And his enemies at SFPD, who resented his fame, were able to capitalize on his indiscretion. Armistead Maupin garnered a fair bit of publicity. And somewhere, if he was still around, the Zodiac was no doubt having a good laugh.
The April letter’s authenticity continued to be debated. In his book Graysmith claims that his own deep analysis of the letter led him to a kind of breakthrough. He asserts that he came to the realization that the Zodiac didn’t actually write any of the letters, so much as he traced their contents using a stenciling method, whereby each character was drawn according to outlined characters compiled from the handwriting of various others.
It’s all very complicated and strange–a fine example of how a particular controversy can emerge and then morph into some new discovery, which in turn leads to a whole new set of questions and any number of possible theories. There’s no end to this, when it comes to the Zodiac case. After April 1978, though, there were no further communications attributed to the Zodiac himself.
By 1986, when he finally publishes his meticulously researched book, Graysmith claims he has solved the mystery of the Zodiac’s identity. And while the case Graysmith builds against the man named Arthur Leigh Allen is made fairly convincingly, the proof does not lead us beyond a reasonable doubt. No doubt Graysmith has enough circumstantial evidence to make Allen a leading suspect. Which is what Detectives Toschi and Armstrong thought all along, and which is why they investigated Allen at considerable length. They simply could never obtain any physical evidence to arrest him and press charges. Allen was a sociopath, a possible child molester, and all-around unpleasant person. He made incriminating statements, owned a typewriter that may have produced the letters, wore a Zodiac watch, and most importantly, could reasonably be placed at the scene of each murder. But whether he was without a doubt the Zodiac Killer–we just can’t be sure at this point. And since Allen died in 1992 of natural causes, he will never be prosecuted for any of the crimes. Readers of Graysmith’s books will have to make up their own minds. These books have their admirers and their detractors. Regardless of whether you agree with his conclusion or not, Graysmith’s Zodiac is a tremendous book which reads frighteningly well. It certainly presents a thoroughgoing account of the whole baffling affair, and all of the personalities involved.
Of course, one’s enjoyment of Graysmith’s true crime writing may depend on one’s comfort level with a high degree of indeterminacy and doubt. With the Zodiac Killer, we remain trapped in a kind of hall of mirrors. There is no truth in this funhouse, no certainty, no confidence. Just horrible crimes, accompanied by a confusing jumble of partial evidence, conflicting information, hearsay, and theories. No matter how obsessed we might become with all of this material, we only seem to end up with more questions. The books and films may be brilliant, yet we must, in good conscience, remain unconvinced. In the end, the cryptograms turn out to be indecipherable. The letters have no ultimate meaning.
Perhaps the Zodiac was French deconstructionist philospher Jacques Derrida. I don’t have any hard proof, but it makes sense, when you think about it. The Zodiac case seems to deconstruct itself as it proceeds with each new set of ciphers, and each new theory.
In any case, it’s hard to conceive of any other high profile case that could log so many police hours, and generate so much discourse, and yet still remain unsolved. Imagine if the Tsarnaev brothers, for instance, instead of being killed or captured following the Boston bombing, were to spend the next several years hiding out, setting off a few more bombs and there, and sending out bizarre letters to the press, without ever being caught. This would be unthinkable for us, in our present context.
Which leads to a final question worth pondering: in our current society, with our rapid flow of digital information and our advanced surveillance and DNA testing and paramilitary police forces, is a postmodern serial killer such as the Zodiac now rendered obsolete? Would such a phenomenon even be possible anymore? We shall see what our new “information age” has in store for us.
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