The Zodiac Killer is an unenditified American serial killer who operated in Northern California from at least the late 1960s to the early 1970s. The killer originated the name in a series of taunting letters and cards sent to the local Bay Area press. The letters included four cryptograms (or ciphers). Of the four cryptograms sent, only one has been definitively solved.
He murdered five known victims in Benicia, Vallejo, Napa County, and San Francisco respectively between December 1968 and October 1969. He targeted young couples, with two of the men surviving attempted murder. He also murdered a male cab driver. The Zodiac himself once claimed to have murdered 37 victims.
Suspects have been named by law enforcement and amateur investigators, but no conclusive evidence has surfaced. The San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) marked the case “inactive” in April 2004, but re-opened it at some point prior to March 2007. The case also remains open in the city of Vallejo, as well as in Napa County and Solano County. The California Department of Justice has maintained an open case file on the Zodiac murders since 1969.
In May 2018, the Vallejo Police Department announced their intention to attempt to collect the Zodiac Killer’s DNA from the back of stamps he used during his correspondence. The analysis, by a private laboratory, is expected to utilize an advanced new technique that is able to separate DNA from the glue present on the back of stamps. It is hoped the Zodiac Killer may be caught in a similar fashion to the Golden State Killer. In May 2018, a Vallejo police detective said that results were expected in several weeks. However as of December 2019 no results have been reported.
The Early 2000’s
The closest police have to Zodiac’s DNA are the stamps he used to post his letters and in the early 2000’s they developed a partial profile by testing that. Because the profile is incomplete, it cannot rule anyone in. But it did rule out long-time suspect Arthur Leigh Allen in 2002. Because of the incomplete profile it would be much harder to find a family match than it was in the case of the Golden State Killer.
Although the Zodiac claimed to have committed 37 murders in letters to the newspapers, investigators agree on only seven confirmed victims, two of whom survived.
Lake Herman Road murders
The first murders widely attributed to the Zodiac Killer were the shootings of high school students Betty Lou Jensen and David Faraday on December 20, 1968, on Lake Herman Road. The couple were on their first date, they visited a friend before stopping at a local restaurant and then driving out on Lake Herman Road a known lover’s lane.
Quite possibly another car pulled into the turnout, just prior to 11:00 pm and parked beside the couple. The killer apparently exited the second car and walked toward the couple and possibly ordering them out of the car. Jensen appeared to have exited the car first, yet when Faraday was halfway out, the killer shot him in the head. The killer then shot Jensen five times in the back as she fled; her body was found 28 feet from the car.
Blue Rock Springs murder
Just before midnight on July 4, 1969, Darlene Ferrin and Michael Mageau drove into the Blue Rock Springs Park in Vallejo, four miles (6.4 km) from the Lake Herman Road murder site, and parked. While the couple sat in Ferrin’s car, a second car drove into the lot and parked alongside them but almost immediately drove away. Returning about 10 minutes later, this second car parked behind them. The driver of the second car then exited the vehicle, approaching the passenger side door of Ferrin’s car, carrying a flashlight and a 9 mm Luger. The killer directed the flashlight into Mageau’s and Ferrin’s eyes before shooting at them, firing five times. Both victims were hit, and several bullets had passed through Mageau and into Ferrin. The killer walked away from the car but upon hearing Mageau’s moaning, returned and shot each victim twice more before driving off.
Ferrin was pronounced dead at the hospital. Mageau survived the attack despite being shot in the face, neck and chest. Mageau described his attacker as a 26-to-30-year-old, 195-to-200-pound (88 to 91 kg) or possibly even more, 5-foot-8-inch (1.73 m) white male with short, light brown curly hair.
First letters from the Zodiac
“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 Solution to Zodiac’s 408-symbol cipher
On August 1, 1969, three letters prepared by the killer were received at the Vallejo Times Herald, the San Francisco Chronicle, and The San Francisco Examiner. The nearly identical letters took 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.”
The Chronicle published its third of the cryptogram on page four of the next day’s edition. The threatened murders did not happen, and all three parts were eventually published.
On August 7, 1969, another letter was received at The San Francisco Examiner with the salutation “Dear Editor This is the Zodiac speaking.” The Zodiac included details about the Faraday, Jensen and Ferrin murders.which had not yet been released to the public.
On August 8, 1969, Donald and Bettye Harden of Salinas, California, cracked the 408-symbol cryptogram. It contained a misspelled message in which the killer seemed to reference The Most Dangerous Game. He also said he was collecting slaves for the afterlife. No name appears in the decoded text, and the killer said that he would not give away his identity because it would slow down or stop his slave collection.
Lake Berryessa murder
On September 27, 1969, Pacific Union College students Bryan Hartnell and Cecelia Shepard were picnicking at Lake Berryessa on a small island connected by a sand spit to Twin Oak Ridge. A white man approached them wearing a black executioner’s-type hood with clip-on sunglasses over the eye-holes and a bib-like device on his chest that had a white three-by-three-inch (7.6 cm × 7.6 cm) cross-circle symbol on it. He approached them with a gun and the hooded man claimed to be an escaped convict where he had killed a guard and subsequently stolen a car, explaining that he now needed their car and money to go to Mexico,
He had brought precut lengths of plastic clothesline and told Shepard to tie up Hartnell, before he tied her up. The killer checked, and tightened Hartnell’s bonds after discovering Shepard had bound Hartnell’s hands loosely. Hartnell initially believed this event to be a weird robbery, but the man drew a knife and stabbed them both repeatedly, Hartnell suffering six and Shepard ten wounds in the process. The killer then hiked 500 yards (460 m) back up to Knoxville Road, drew the cross-circle symbol on Hartnell’s car door with a black felt-tip pen, and wrote beneath it: “Vallejo/12-20-68/7-4-69/Sept 27–69–6:30/by knife.”
At 7:40 p.m., the killer called the Napa County Sheriff’s office from a pay telephone. The caller first stated to the operator that he wished to “report a murder – no, a double murder,” before stating that he had been the perpetrator of the crime. The phone was found, still off the hook, only a few blocks from the sheriff’s office, yet 27 miles (43 km) from the crime scene. Detectives were able to lift a still-wet palm print from the telephone but were never able to match it to any suspect.
Cecelia Shepard was conscious when Sheriff deputy Collins arrived, providing him with a detailed description of the attacker. Shepard lapsed into a coma during transport to the hospital and never regained consciousness. She died two days later, but Hartnell survived to recount his tale to the press.
Murder of Paul Stine
Two weeks later on October 11, 1969, a white male passenger entered the cab driven by Paul Stine at the intersection of Mason and Geary Streets (one block west from Union Square) in San Francisco requesting to be taken to Washington and Maple Streets in Presidio Heights. For reasons unknown, Stine drove one block past Maple to Cherry Street; the passenger then shot Stine once in the head, took Stine’s wallet and car keys, and tore away a section of Stine’s bloodstained shirt tail. This passenger was observed by three teenagers across the street at 9:55 p.m., who called the police while the crime was in progress. They observed a man wiping the cab down before walking away.
The Stine murder was initially thought to be a routine cabbie-killing, a robbery that has escalated. However quickly, on October 13, the San Francisco Chronicle received a new letter from Zodiac containing a piece of bloody shirt and taking credit for the killing.
This was the last officially confirmed kill by the Zodiac Killer.
More Reading Material about the Zodiac Killer Case
“This is the Zodiac speaking. I like killing people because it is so much fun…the most thrilling experience…”
The Zodiac terrorised Northern California and taunted the police for years with his mocking notes. It is still one of the biggest mysteries in the true crime world and any book or movie on the topic is an inerest of mine, so obviously it had tobe on the list.
The Zodiac Killer was never caught. Author Robert Graysmith tells the inside story of the hunt for the hooded killer, and finally reveals his possible true identity. It’s an essential book for all true crime junkies.
Zodiac Killer FBI Files
- FBI Case File (1 of 5) on the Zodiac Killer. 89 pages.
- FBI Case File (2 of 5) on the Zodiac Killer. 109 pages.
- FBI Case File (3 of 5) on the Zodiac Killer. 258 pages.
- FBI Case File (4 of 5) on the Zodiac Killer. 208 pages.
- FBI Case File (5 of 5) on the Zodiac Killer. 373 pages.
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