In the late 1960s to the early 1970 in Northern California, an unknown man killed at least 5 people. Beyond his remaining unknown, he gained and maintained media interest by sending a series of taunting letters to the San Fransisco press with impossible-to-solve puzzles. In these letters, he originated his name: The Zodiac Killer.
Though the case was marked "inactive" in April of 2004 by the San Francisco Police Department after nearly 30 years of inactivity, it was re-opened in 2007. However, the California Department of Justice has kept the case open since the first murder.
The Zodiac Killer claimed to have committed a total of 37 murders. However, investigators only agree on 7 total victims, 2 of whom survived.
On December 20, 1968, the Zodiac Killer committed his first confirmed murders. He shot and killed Betty Lou Jenson, 16, and David Arthur Faraday, 17, on Lake Herman Road in Benicia, California. They were on their first date, planning to attend a Christmas concert at Hogan High School, only 3 blocks from Betty Lou's home. But their plans changed, and they visited a friend and then stopped at a local restaurant. After, they drove to Lake Herman Road and parked their car in an area well-known as "lovers' lane".
Their bodies were found by a nearby woman, Stella Borges. While the crime was investigated, no leads developed. Using the forensic data at the scene, Robert Graysmith believed that the killer arrived in a different car and walked toward their car. It appeared that Betty Lou exited the car first, but when David was halfway out, the killer shot him in the head. Then, Betty Lou was shot 5 times in the back as she tried to run away. She was 28 feet away from the car when she died.
Just before midnight on the 4th of July in 1969, Darlene Ferrin, 22, and Michael Mageau, 19, drove to a park in Vallejo, only 4 miles away from the first murder site, and parked their car. Another car came up and parked alongside them, but drove away nearly immediately. But 10 minutes later, the car returned, and the driver got out and approached Darlene's car. He directed a flashlight into the couple's eyes before shooting them 5 times. He walked away, but heard Michael moaning, so he returned to shoot them twice more apiece before driving away.
Just hours later, an unidentified man called the Vallejo PD to take credit for the attack, and for the murders of Betty Lou and David over 6 months earlier. The call was traced to a gas station phone booth, but no other information was able to be determined from the caller.
Darlene was pronounced dead at the hospital, but despite being shot in the face, neck, and chest, Michael survived. He described his shooter as a white man between 26-30, 195-200 pounds, about 5'8" with short, light brown curly hair.
The mysterious murders became more mysterious when, on August 1, 3 letters were received by the Vallejo Times Herald, The San Francisco Chronicle, and The San Francisco Examiner. The letters were nearly identical, described by a psychiatrist as being written by "someone you would expect to be brooding and isolated". The letters took credit for the shootings, and famously, included 1/3rd of a 408 symbol cryptogram, which the killer claimed, if solved, would lead them to his identity. He demanded his letter be published on the front page of the paper or he would cruise around all weekend killing people in the night.
On August 7, another letter was received by the Examiner that started with "Dear Editor This is the Zodiac speaking", the first time he gave himself that name. It was in response to a request that the killer prove he had committed the crimes. He provided details about the murders that had not yet been released to the public, ensuring investigators that they were corresponding with the right person.
The following day, Donald and Bettye Harden from Salinas, California cracked the cryptogram, which just contained a misspelled message where the man referenced "The Most Dangerous Game" and said he was collecting slaves for the afterlife. The killer's name was not included, to which he said he wouldn't give away his identity because it would stop his slave collection.
The cryptogram was cracked as follows, with all misspellings and errors included:
"I like killing people because it is so much fun it is more fun than killing wild game in the forrest because man is the most dangeroue anamal of all to kill something gives me the most thrilling experence it is even better than getting your rocks off with a girl the best part of it is thae when I die I will be reborn in paradice and the I have killed will become my slaves I will not give you my name because you will try to sloi down or atop my collectiog of slaves for my afterlife ebeorietemethhpiti"
The meaning of the last 18 letters was never determined.
On September 27, 1969, 2 students from Pacific Union College, Bryan Hartnell, 20, and Cecelia Shepard, 22, were picnicking on a small island called Lake Berryessa when a white man, about 5 feet 11 inches, weighing over 170lbs with greasy brown hair approached them with a black executioner's hood on. He had clip on sunglasses over the eye-holes and a bib-like device on his chest with a cross-circle symbol on it. He approached them with a gun. He claimed he was an escaped convict from jail, and said he needed their car to go to Mexico.
He brought pieces of a plastic clothesline and told Cecelia to tie up Bryan before the killer tied up Cecelia. Bryan thought it was just a robbery until the man pulled out a knife and began stabbing them repeatedly. After stabbing Bryan 6 times and Cecelia 10 times, he hiked 5000 yards back up the road and drew the cross-circle symbol on Bryan's car door, as well as the location, the date, 2 other dates, and "by knife".
The killer called the Napa County Sheriff's office from a pay phone at around 7:40 PM to report the crime. He said he wished to "report a murder - no, a double murder". Detectives were able to pull a palm print off of the phone, but were never able to match it to any suspect.
A man and his son who were fishing heard screams for help and discovered the victims. Cecelia was conscious when the first deputy arrived and provided him with a detailed description of her attacker. Both were taken to the hospital by ambulance. Cecelia lost consciousness during the transport to the hospital and never came back. She died 2 days later. Bryan Hartnell survived and recounted the story to the press.
2 weeks later on October 11, 1969 (51 years ago today), a white male entered a cab driven by Paul Stine, 29, in San Francisco, requesting to be taken to Presidio Heights. For unknown reasons, Stine drove 1 block past the street he wished to get off at. Then, the passenger shot him once in the head, took his wallet and car keys, and tore away a section of his bloodstained shirt. 3 teenagers observed the crime and called the police.
2 patrol officers, Don Fouke and Eric Zelms, witnessed the Zodiac Killer walk by, but were told to be on the lookout for a black suspect, so they did not think anything of the encounter. Later, when they realized it was him, they provided a description. They said he was 35-40 and 5'10". The teenagers had described him as 25-30 with a crewcut, about 5'8".
Though the murder was initially believed to be a routine robbery, the Chronicle received a letter from the Zodiac 2 days later, containing a piece of Stine's bloody shirt and taking credit for the murder. The police sketch artist worked with the 3 teens to develop a composite sketch of the killer.
In the same letter, he threatened to kill a bunch of school children on a school bus, saying he would "just shoot out the front tire & then pick off the kiddies as they come bouncing out". Luckily, this never happened.
On November 8, the Zodiac send another cryptogram with 340 unknown characters. The puzzle has never been decoded.
Those were the only crimes confirmed to have been committed by the Zodiac Killer, and I believe the only ones, personally, because he made calls or sent letters after all of his kills, so it wouldn't make sense that there were more. However, many unsolved murders and disappearances from around the same time and area are speculated as Zodiac murders, especially because he claims the number of murders was 37.
Kathleen Johns, a mother driving with her 10-month-old daughter and pregnant with her second, was abducted during a road trip and pointed out the Zodiac's composite sketch as the man responsible. Cheri Jo Bates, a Riverside Community College student, was beaten and stabbed to death on October 30, 1966. Though this was before the Zodiac killer's first confirmed murder, many thing that they were connected. The disappearance of Donna Lass on September 6, 1970 from Lake Tahoe was connected to the Zodiac by a letter addressed to one of the reporters on the case. And the murder of a couple in Santa Barbara in 1963 matched the Zodiac's MO, and some believe their deaths were the work of the elusive serial killer.
In 1970, the Zodiac Killer sent a letter to the Chronicle reporter, Paul Alvey, on Halloween saying "Peek-a-boo, you are doomed". The threat was taken seriously, but soon after receiving the letter was when he received an anonymous letter connecting Cheri Jo Bates' death with the Zodiac. His final letter was sent in 1974. He praised The Exorcist as his favorite comedy, and ended his letter with a score: "Me = 37, SFPD = 0".
Though the killer has never been caught, there are hundreds of theories about who may have been terrorizing Northern California that may always exist as just theories.
One of the main suspects was Arthur Leigh Allen, posited by Robert Graysmith's book Zodiac. Although in 2010, evidence turned out to "be negative". He had been dishonorably discharged from the navy and was fired from his elementary school teacher job for misconduct with his students. Other circumstantial evidence was found when his apartment was searched, but DNA tests were inconclusive, and his handwriting was analyzed to not be similar to the Zodiac's.
Ross Sullivan was a library assistant at Riverside City College, where Cheri Jo Bates went to school. He had went missing for days after Cheri's murder, and he sort of resembled sketches of the Zodiac. He also wore similar boots to the ones found at the crime scene. He would eventually be hospitalized, multiple times, for BPD and schizophrenia, which I think aligns to the kind of guy we are looking for.
Kathleen, who claimed to have been abducted by the Zodiac Killer, recognized Navy vet Lawrence Kane in a photo line up and said that he closely resembled the man that took her, and the cop who had interacted with him, Foulke, said he looked a lot like him. Kane worked at the same hotel as possible victim Donna Lass, and was diagnosed with impulse-control disorder after brain injuries. He was arrested for voyeurism and prowling.
Richard Reed Marshall, another Navy veteran, was accused of being the murderer, as well. He lived close to crime scenes, was a silent film enthusiast, and was interested in a few of the things the Zodiac Killer referenced in his letters.
Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, is a common theory as well. (He was also a suspect in the Tylenol murders). Well guys, he cannot do it all. And though he lived in the area, had an interest in cryptography and was no stranger to asking the press to publish his communications, I stand by that the Unabomber killed for a reason. A bad reason, but a reason. Random murders wouldn't do it for him.
Bruce Davis, a member of Charles Manson's cult, was investigated. The California Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation stated that all male members of the Mason family were investigated and eliminated as suspects.
In 2007, one Dennis Kaufman claimed his stepfather, Jack Tarrance was the Zodiac. As evidence, he turned over a hood similar to the one he wore. But DNA analysis was inconclusive in 2010.
In 2009, a former (disbarred) lawyer named Robert Tarbox claimed that a man walked into his office and confessed that he was the Zodiac Killer. He said he only revealed the information to clear Arthur Leigh Allen as a suspect, and his story has been considered credible.
A U.S. Army veteran named Richard Gaikowski was suspected when his appearance resembled the composite sketch, and a police dispatcher identified his voice as being the same as the Zodiac's.
Other suspects included 1977-1996 active serial killer Edward Edwards, a 91-year-old Solano County man who went by George Russel Tucker, and an identity thief/fugitive named Robert Ivan Nichols.
One more interesting one is Louis Joseph Myers, who allegedly confessed to a friend in 2001 that he was the Zodiac when he realized he was dying, and asked his friend to tell police who he was upon his death. He went to the same high school as David and Betty Lou, and worked at the same restaurant in Darlene. Also, in the 3-year period when no Zodiac letters were received, he was stationed overseas with the military. He claimed he targeted couples due to a bad break up. Police were suspicious, but said if his friend could produce credible letters, they'd investigate.
The craziest thing about the Zodiac killer is that, in all reality, he could still be alive. Let's say he was 30 when he committed his first murder in 1968. That would mean he was born in 1938. Meaning right now, he'd be 82 years old. Though I think it is likely that he is dead, in jail for another crime, or in some sort of institution for obvious mental issues, it is completely possible that he's just some normal 82 year old man somewhere. A dude people pass on the street, or sit next to at a restaurant. Though there are a lot of credible suspects, it is extremely possible that none of them are accurate.
Growing up with Criminal Minds and all of those crime shows, we learn that the killer always gets caught. A break in the case, an angle not looked at before, an "aha!" moment that solves it. But real life isn't like that, and sometimes, a dude who taunts police and reporters and shoots and stabs people for fun gets away. And maybe they get to live the rest of their life completely normally, despite stripping the lives away from so many. Young people, primarily young couples, killed for no reason at all. And they never received justice.
I hope that further DNA evidence becomes available and this case gets solved. The Golden State Killer wasn't caught for years. He burgled, raped, and killed between 1973 and 1986, and wasn't caught until 2018 when he was 72 years old. So, there is still a chance this one gets solved.
And I hope it does.