The Zodiac Killer was a serial killer active from the late 1960s to the early 70s in Northern California, USA. The name ‘Zodiac’ originated from a number of letters written by the killer to the local press. These letters were signed under the code name. Some of his letters were written in a cipher, of which only one has been deciphered till date. He claims to have murdered 37 people of which five are confirmed to have been killed while two were injured. The fate of the other victims claimed by him is not known but there is a chance that he may have killed 20 to 28 people. He taunted the police for not being able to catch him despite his coded letters and warnings about his next move. He was active from 1968 to 1974 and then abruptly ceased all communication. His file was closed in April 2004, but it was reopened in March 2007 by the California Department of Justice. The law enforcement agencies were able to generate a sketch of the Zodiac Killer from descriptions given by some of his victims who survived. However, they have not been successful in tracking him down. Numerous books and movies have been made about the Zodiac killer. No conclusive evidence has been found regarding his identity, and the case remains open in the city of Riverside and Napa County.
His first known victim was a 17 year old boy named David Faraday and his girlfriend, Betty Lou Jensen, who were murdered on December 20, 1968. They were out on their first date and had parked their car in a remote area on the outskirts of Vallejo, California, referred to as lover’s lane. As per forensic reports, the killer had driven up in another car and approached the couple on foot. The boy was shot in the head when he was exiting the stationary car while the girl was shot five times in the back while trying to run away.
This was followed by the July 4, 1969, shooting of 22 year old Derlene Ferrin and her 19 year old boyfriend, Mike Mageau, under similar conditions. They were sitting in their parked car in a remote location in Blue Rock Springs Park, Vallejo, just four miles away from the site of the first murder. Ferrin was killed on the spot while Mageau was seriously injured. Later during the day, the police station received a phone call from a man claiming responsibility for both the incidents. Mageau described the shooter as a 5’ 8’’ white man, around 30 years old, with light brown curly hair. However, no headway could be made in identifying the killer.
On September 27, 1969, the killer approached another young couple who were sitting together at an isolated spot on the shore of Lake Berryessa. He was wearing a hooded sweatshirt with a circle and a cross on it. He tied the couple with a rope before brutally stabbing them with a knife and left after drawing a circle and a cross on their car door. The 22-year-old girl Cecelia Shepard died two days later in hospital while the 20-year-old boy, Bryan Hartnell, survived to tell his tale.
On October 11, 1969, a man hired a cab driven by Paul Stine in San Francisco and for no known reason shot him in the head with a 9mm pistol. He took away his wallet, the car keys and a piece of his bloodstained shirt in front of shocked witnesses and vanished from the scene. He was described to be a white man, between 30 to 40 years, about 5’ 8’’. Three days later ‘The Chronicle’ received a letter, which claimed responsibility for the killing, along with the piece of the blood stained cloth. He claimed to be ‘the Zodiac’ and gave a warning that his next target would be school children.
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A Close Encounter
On March 22, 1970, Kathleen Johns was driving her car with her 10 month old daughter from San Bernardino to Petaluma when a car behind her started honking and flashing its lights. When she pulled up, the driver of the car told her that her wheel was wobbling and offered to tighten it. However, after he had finished tightening the wheel and she started to drive her car the wheel came off. The man offered to drop her to the next gas station to get help, but after she got into his car he drove past several gas stations without stopping. Fortunately for the women, the man had to stop at an intersection where she jumped out of his car with her daughter and hid in the fields. Later, she recognised the man from a sketch developed by the police.
Many other killings were reported and linked to ‘Zodiac Killer,’ without any conclusive evidence of his involvement. These include the shooting of Robert Domingos and Linda Edwards who were shot and killed on June 4, 1963, on a beach near Santa Barbra, California, and the stabbing of Cheri Jo Bates at Riverside City College, California, on October 30, 1966. The disappearance of 25-year-old Donna Lass, last seen on 06 September 1970, was also linked to the Zodiac Killer.
Letters from the Zodiac
In August 1969, the ‘Vallejo Times Herald’ and some other newspaper offices received letters that included a cryptogram, which, the writer claimed, contained the identity of the Lake Herman Road and Blue Rock Springs killer. These letters contained information, which only the killer could have known. Each letter had a circle with a cross and one of the letters was signed off as ‘Zodiac.’ The writer wanted the letters to be published in local newspapers, and threatened to kill a dozen people over the weekend, if it was not done.
He continued writing letters to the law enforcement authorities and newspapers taunting them to catch him. He gave his name in a 13 character cipher and said that there was more glory in killing a cop than a common man, as the cop could shoot back. He was linked to the shooting of Sergeant Brian McDonnell in his patrol car, but the evidence was inconclusive.
He wrote that he liked killing people because it gave him a thrill and that all his victims would be his slaves in paradise. He once wrote that he was upset that people were not wearing Zodiac buttons.
In July 1970, he wrote a letter containing a song from ‘The MiKado’ that was paraphrased with his own lyrics. It said that he was drawing up a list of ways to torture his slaves in paradise. Later that year, Paul Avery, who was reporting on the Zodiac murders for ‘the Chronicle’ received a Halloween card with a note “Peek a Boo – You are Doomed,” signed ‘Z’ with the Zodiac circle and cross symbol.
As per psychiatrists who studied the letters, he was a sick man who suffered from isolation, and sought attention to satisfy his ego. He appeared to be jilted in love and could not stand young lovers romancing.
Arthur Leigh Allen, who was discharged from the US Navy and lost his job as an elementary school teacher on grounds of sexual misconduct, is regarded as a probable suspect due to other circumstantial evidence. People who knew him described him as one with a fixation about young children and angry women. He never had a girlfriend or got married. Despite several raids by the police on his residence, no concrete evidence could be found.
Dennis Kaufman reported that his stepfather, Jack Tarrance, was the Zodiac and handed over several belongings that were worn by the killer. However, DNA tests proved to be negative.
In 2009, former lawyer Robert Tarbox reported that a man had come to him and confessed to be ‘the Zodiac.’ He said that he wanted to mend his ways, but never returned.
Richard Gaikowski, who reported for ‘Good Times,’ closely resembled the sketch of ‘the Zodiac’ produced by the police. The Vallejo police also found his voice to match the voice of the killer of the Blue Rock Springs attack. However, nothing could be proved against him.
Many others claimed to be ‘the Zodiac,’ but their stories do not match the known facts so the police did not follow-up these claims.
The movie ‘Dirty Harry,’ starring Clint Eastwood, was inspired by the Zodiac Killer. In the film, there is a scene of a psychopath hijacking a school bus.
Robert Graysmith’s book was adapted into a movie ‘Zodiac’ by David Fincher. The film was released in 2007.
The ‘History Channel’ produced a non-fiction series titled ‘The Hunt for the Zodiac Killer,’ which was about attempts to decipher the killer’s code.