The Zodiac Killer
The Zodiac, or Zodiac Killer as he’s better known, was a serial killer who’s reign of terror spanned from the late 1960’s to the mid 1970’s in northern California. To this day, the identity of the Zodiac killer is still a mystery.
On December 20th, 1968, the Zodiac Killer began his reign of terror. 17-year-old David Arthur Faraday and 16-year-old Betty Lou Jensen went for an evening drive and ended up parking on the outskirts of Vallejo, California. A little after 11pm a dark figure approached the car from the rear with a flash light. Unknowingly to them, the figure also bared a 22 caliber pistol. David was shot behind the left ear and Betty was shot 5 times in the back while trying to disappear into the night, just feet from the vehicle. Betty died that night. David survived, but his eye-witness account lead to little information for the police to go and no leads.
Almost 7 months after the murder of Betty and the attempted murder of David, on July 4th, 1969, another incident happened. Again in the Vallejo, CA area of Blue Rock Springs Park, police received a report of possible shots fired in the area. 19-year-old Michael Renault Mageau, and 22-year-old Darlene Elizabeth Ferrin were the next victims of the Zodiac Killer. While Mageau survived the attack, Ferrin was pronounced dead upon arriving at Kaiser Foundation Hospital. Less than an hour after the incident, police received a call which was traced to a payphone a few blocks from the police department. The man claimed to be the “Rock Springs Shooter” and always claimed he was responsible for the shooting of “those two kids last year”. No prints were lifted from the payphone. Mageau, who survived, told police that the killer parked his car behind them and approached the rear of their car with a flashlight before opening fire. He walked off and then returned to shoot each of them two more times. Apart from a sketch of the man Mageau saw in the dark, he was not able to offer police any information on the attacker.
In time, both cases eventually become dead ends. Although that would quickly change. On August 1st, 1969, exactly 4 weeks after the second shooting, the San Francisco Chronicle receive a letter from someone claiming to be the “Vallejo Killer” and offering intimate details of the cases to prove his claim.
The letters, one marked “please rush to editor”, were signed with a crossed circle, a mark which would later be known as the Zodiac symbol. Robert Graysmith, editorial cartoonist for the paper, and author of Zodiac Unmasked, started receiving absurd letter from a man claiming to be the killer, who also sent a copy of each to each of the major newspapers stating he was going on a killing rampage.
The killer suggested the code he included in the letters, if deciphered, would reveal his true identity. The FBI and NSA couldn’t break the ciphers and the information seemed to be useless, until a high school teacher sat down with his wife and dedicated a weekend to deciphering the code. The couple unlocked the key to the code, but the deciphered message only provides the motives for the killer’s crimes, not their identity. His motive was simply that he killed for fun and because it was the most dangerous game in the world.
The following month, on September 27th, 1969, 20-year-old Bryan Calvin Hartnell, and 22-year-old Cecelia Ann Shepard were enjoying a picnic when the Zodiac Killer struck again. Hartnell survived 8 stab wounds to the back, but Shepard died the same day as a result of 10 stab wounds to the back and chest. Hartnell fills police in on the events leading up to the attack. The two had noticed a man in the distance watching them. He then re-appeared from behind a tree with a black executioner style full head mask, with a gun in one hand and a bayonet by his side.
The man also had the Zodiac symbol on his chest. He bound the two with precut rope before stabbing them. He then wrote on the door of their car a message, including the Zodiac symbol, the dates and the phrase “By Knife”. See image to the right.
On October 11th, 1969, Paul Stine, a taxi driver, becomes the next victim of the Zodiac Killer. He is shot dead in his taxi. The report came from the mother of a teenage girl who saw a suspicious man wiping the side of the taxi before disappearing into the park. Police apprehend a man walking away from the crime scene who tells them he just saw a man run off into the nearby park. Some people speculate whether the man was the Zodiac Killer as he matched the general description. There is no evidence to prove he was, but people seem to think the police let the killer go. Although the police didn’t see any blood on the gentleman’s clothing, and based on the crime scene, the killer would have been covered in blood. The teenage girl was able to describe the man she saw so they now have a sketch of the serial killer.
Three days after Paul Stine’s execution-style shooting, another letter arrives at the San Fran Chronicle, this time with evidence from the crime scene. Included in the letter was a piece of Stein’s shirt, still with blood on it, along with a message telling police they could have caught him last night if they’d of searched the park properly, as well as sharing his plans for the future. He sends in claims to kill school children and diagrams of bombs which would work efficiently in taking lives.
The police created a Zodiac task for in the hunt for the killer. More letters poured in from the killer, including diagrams of bombs and school buses, letters suggesting it would “cheer him up” if people started wearing Zodiac buttons, and called his spree a game of outdoor chess. But, it was time to stop writing letters and start killing again.
On March 22nd, 1970, 5 months after the Stein murder, 22-year-old Kathleen Johns, pregnant at the time, and her infant daughter are flagged down by a man who pulls up beside them. Johns pulls over and is told there is something wrong with her tire. He loosened the wheel nuts and told her to drive a couple of feet. With the tire falling off, he offers to drive Johns and her infant daughter somewhere. He immediately detours off the main road and tell her for the next 90 minutes that she’s next, he is going to kill her and throw the baby out after her. The driver starts to turn the wrong way onto a freeway. Johns runs out of the car and launches herself into a field while holding her baby, staying as silent as possible, and with the Zodiac Killer on the hunt for them, a truck driver’s lights deter the man from pursuing Johns and she is taken to the police station where she discovers a picture of the Zodiac Killer on the wall, to which she confirms her kidnapper is the Zodiac Killer. In July 1970, the Chronicle receive another letter, verified as coming from the Zodiac Killer, which describes him giving a woman and her baby an interesting ride for a couple of hours. Johns’ encounter is the last verified sighting of the Zodiac Killer. He sends further letters suggesting he will go silent and kill without sending any more letters and stating he will make the murders look like accidents.
The last known letter from the Zodiac Killer arrived in January 1974. In it, the Zodiac Killer praises the then newly release movie, The Exorcist, and give the police a final body count of 37. After this letter, the Zodiac Killer makes good on his promise and disappears.
Arthur Leigh Allen was the number one suspect in the Zodiac killings. He was sentenced to prison time in 1974, just after the letters stopped. He was found with dead animals, knifes, and sex toys in his trailer. He told his family he was going scuba diving at the lake where Hartnell and Shepard were attacked. That evening, he returned home covered in blood, claiming it was from processing chickens for a BBQ at the lake. However, cold case detectives had no physical evidence to link him to any of the Zodiac killings.
Allen died from a heart attack in August, 1992. The detective working on the case requested an autopsy so they can save tissue and a part of Allen’s brain for future testing, if they ever have anything to test it against, or if technology climbs to a level where the matter will become useful in solving the case.
In October, 2002, San Francisco’s police lab provide a partial genetic profile from the saliva left of the glue of the stamp from one of the earlier Zodiac letters. The partial isn’t enough to identify the killer, but it is enough to start eliminating people from the list of suspects. Their first attempt of matching the partial was with Allen’s brain tissue. Further more, they attempted to match a palm print from one of the authenticated letters to Allen’s using modern day technology. Neither were a match and this confirms Allen was not the Zodiac Killer.
Now, the Zodiac Killer has became infamous in the world of mystery, criminology, and cold cases. A movie named Zodiac was released starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Robert Downey Jr.. There have been many books written on the cases and the identity of the killer, but as of today, the Zodiac Killer’s true identity is a complete mystery.
Was it Arthur Leigh Allen who managed to hide any trace of physical evidence or did he have a partner? Was there one or multiple people looking to capitalize on someone else’s murders by writing letters? Maybe there was a single man who managed to outsmart civilians, police and other government agencies, and avoid ever being captured. If there was a one-man reign of terror, is the Zodiac Killer still alive?
Follow all the articles and latest information on the cases and the people following them on ZodiacKiller.com (automatically plays audio).