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Author Topic: The Zodiac Killer  (Read 3803 times)

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The Zodiac Killer
« on: January 28, 2009, 09:38:40 AM »
Case Summary

# The Zodiac story began on a darkened road near Benicia, California, on the night of December 20, 1968, when a motorist discovered the lifeless bodies of two teenagers at ?lovers? lane? spot [View the crime scene photos]. Months later, a gunman attacked a second young couple in a public park miles away, and, after leaving the scene, he traveled to a payphone located just blocks from the Vallejo Police Department and dialed the number of the station. When the police dispatched answered, the caller spoke in a low, monotone voice, as if he were reading from a prepared script.

?I want to report a murder. If you will go one-mile east on Columbus Parkway, you will find kids in a brown car. They were shot with a nine-millimeter Luger. I also killed those kids last year. Goodbye."

Investigators from Vallejo and Benicia realized that they were searching for the same killer and the bold, sinister phone call raised fears that the gunman would strike again. A teenage boy survived the shooting but was unable to help identify any possible suspects.

Twenty-six days later, three envelopes arrived at the offices of three Bay Area newspapers. Each envelope contained a handwritten letter and a piece of a coded message. The writer provided a list of details regarding the two shootings, and explained that the symbols formed a coded message that would reveal his identity. The letter ended with a warning, ?If you do not print this cipher by the afternoon of Fry. 1st of Aug. 69, I will go on a kill rampage Fry. night. I will cruse around all weekend killing lone people in the night then move on to kill again, untill I end up with a dozen people over the weekend.? A crossed ? circle symbol had been drawn at the bottom of the page.

Each of the newspapers complied with the demand to publish the cipher, and news of the gunman?s threats created fears that he would strike again. Experts and amateurs scrambled to decode the cipher while investigators sorted through hundreds of tips from helpful citizens. The deciphered message did not reveal the killer?s identity but the words did offer a chilling portrait of the author?s state of mind. ?I like killing people because it is so much fun ? I will not give you my name because you will try to slo(w) down or stop my collecting of slaves for my after life ??

When authorities expressed doubts concerning the writer?s claims, another letter arrived, and began with the words that would forever send chills throughout Northern California.

?Dear Editor ? This is the Zodiac speaking. In answer to your asking about the good times I have had in Vallejo I shall be very happy to supply even more material.? The writer provided more details about the attacks and then took issue with some factual errors in news reports about his crimes.

Weeks passed and as the manhunt continued, the Zodiac moved north into the Napa Valley and California wine country, where he stabbed a young couple on the banks of Lake Berryessa. A survivor told investigators that the attacker had worn a black, squared hood with a white crossed circle over his chest. To prove he was responsible for the crime, the Zodiac used a black marker to draw a large crossed-circle on the door of Bryan?s car. Below his symbol, the killer listed the dates of the two shootings and added the notation, ?Sept 27 69 6:30 by knife.?

At 7:40 pm, the Napa County Police Department received a call placed from a telephone booth located a few blocks away. Officer David Slaight listened as the caller said in a low, monotone voice, ?I want to report a murder ? no, a double murder. They are two miles north of park headquarters. They were in a white Volkswagen Karman Ghia.? Slaight asked the man to provide his location, but the voice only grew more distant as the caller replied, ?I?m the one who did it.?

Investigators from Napa met with detectives in Vallejo and Benicia and compared notes but were unable to develop any solid leads. The Zodiac may have believed that the three law enforcement agencies were not up to the task and he invited the San Francisco police department to join in the hunt.

Twenty-nine year old cabdriver Paul Stine picked up the Zodiac on the night of October 11, 1969. Stine drove to a destination in a wealthy San Francisco neighborhood where the passenger shot him in the right temple [View a crime scene photo]. Fingerprints found inside the cab and on its exterior were photographed and collected. On the driver's side of the vehicle, police found fingerprints which appeared to contain traces of blood. Investigators believed that these fingerprints may have been left by the killer.

Three young witnesses watched the crime in progress from a house directly across the street and contacted police. The descriptions provided by the three young witnesses produced a composite sketch of the man seen exiting Stine?s cab. Police believed that Stine was the victim of a routine robbery until the Zodiac began to send scraps of the cabdriver?s blood soaked shirt to prove they were mistaken.

The letter ended with another terrifying threat of violence. ?School children make nice targets I think I shall wipe out a school bus some morning just shoot out the frunt tire + pick off the kiddies as they come bouncing out.? Patrol cars and aircraft followed buses to and from schools and armed officers rode onboard for added protection. [View a CBS NEWS report about the Zodiac bus threat.} The Zodiac then sent another letter along with diagrams of a bomb he intended to plant along bus routes.

The ongoing mystery attracted the customary crackpots, wild tips, false confessions and hoax letters. Infamous defense attorney Melvin Belli entered the story during a televised phone conversation with a man claiming to be the Zodiac. [Watch Belli and the Zodiac imposter.] Police traced subsequent calls to Belli?s home and identified the crazed imposter as a patient in a mental hospital. As if to reclaim the publicity, the killer mailed a letter to Belli that included another blood soaked scrap of the cabdriver?s shirt to prove that he was the real Zodiac. Despite Belli?s public offer to help the killer, the real Zodiac never contacted the famous attorney again. [During one call to Belli's home, the Zodiac-imposter declared "Today's my birthday!". The so-called "Belli Birthday Call" has since become the subject of controversy.]

More letters contained more threats, bomb diagrams and coded messages. The Zodiac also announced his intention to change his way of collecting ?slaves for the afterlife? by staging his crimes to appear to be ?routine robberies, killings of anger and a few fake accidents.? [Watch a 1969 TV news report on the Zodiac's November letters.] The killer included long, rambling descriptions of his fantasies of torture along with selected passages from the Gilbert and Sullivan musical, The Mikado. Letters soon featured a box score which credited the Zodiac with an increasing number of victims followed by the notation ?SFPD = 0? and the taunt, ?I hope you have fun trying to figgure out who I killed.?

Given the killer?s apparent freedom to do as he pleased, one particular passage was difficult to refute. ?The police shall never catch me because I have been too clever for them.? The failure to catch the Zodiac was a constant source of embarrassment for his chosen nemesis, the San Francisco police department. Each new letter became a liability as the psychotic pen pal wrote, ?Hey blue pig, doesn?t it rile you to have your nose rubbed in your boo-boos?? and, ?I have grown rather angry with the police for their telling lies about me.?

The Zodiac also demanded that the people of the Bay Area wear ?some nice Zodiac buttons? bearing his chosen symbol, the crossed circle. When the public did not comply with his wishes, he wrote that he had ?punished? them ?by shooting a man sitting in a parked car.?

Press reports linked the Zodiac to many other unsolved crimes, including the March 1970 abduction of a young woman who told authorities that she had accepted a ride from a mysterious stranger who resembled the Zodiac, but the man had turned menacing and threatened her life and she managed to escape by jumping from the man?s car. The Zodiac later claimed that he was responsible for the failed abduction in a subsequent letter.

Reporter Paul Avery received a Halloween card from his new, "secret pal," the Zodiac. Avery later learned of a possible link between the Bay Area killer and the unsolved murder of a young girl in Southern California several years earlier. Handwriting analysis indicated that the Zodiac had been responsible for several letters and notes mailed to the police, a local newspaper, and the father of the victim. In a letter mailed to The Los Angeles Times, the Zodiac wrote that he was impressed by the police work which had linked him to the other case, but he claimed that there were still more victims yet to be found. Tired of playing with his apparently inferior pursuers, he challenged them and wrote, ?If the Blue Meannies are evere going to catch me they had best get off their fat asses + do something.?

Correspondence from the killer ceased and the trail of the killer grew cold by the summer of 1971. As the Zodiac disappeared, someone like him began to appear on movie screens everywhere with the release of the Clint Eastwood action classic, DIRTY HARRY. Shot in San Francisco, the film follows Inspector Harry Callahan, a character based on one of the inspectors assigned to the Zodiac case. Callahan tracks a Zodiac-like villain named ?Scorpio? who hijacks a school bus and meets a violent demise in a final shoot out with Eastwood. The Hollywood version delivered for audiences the justice reality refused to provide.

The Zodiac resurfaced as a social critic with a series of letters in the spring of 1974. He wrote to express his ?consternation? regarding what he considered the ?murder glorification? in ?deplorable? advertisements for the film, BADLANDS, which depicted the bloody crime spree of young lovers Richard Starkweather and Carol Ann Fugate. Another letter demanded the termination of a columnist because he suffered from ?a serious psychological disorder.? A final letter offered a review of the satanic blockbuster, THE EXORCIST, and described the film as ?the best saterical comidy? the killer had ever seen. This letter also contained another quote from the musical, THE MIKADO, ?He plunged him self into the billowy wave and an echo arose from the sucides grave.? The Zodiac demanded that the letter be printed in the newspaper and warned, ?or I?ll do something nasty, which you know I?m capable of doing.? The writer did not use the name Zodiac, as if to underscore the suicide theme and suggest that he had abandoned the persona in favor of some new and perhaps improved alter ego.

Once again, the killer vanished. Headlines such as "Cops No Closer to Zodiac?s Identity" and occasional articles reporting tenuous links to other unsolved cases kept the story alive over the years. The Zodiac crimes grew into local legend, and, the ghost of the killer became a modern boogeyman in the serial killer pop culture phenomenon of the late 1970s. A new breed of monster, the multiple murderers, had given birth to a lucrative market for graphic and often lurid crime books. The gruesome careers of John Wayne Gacy, the Son of Sam, Ted Bundy and others provided a limitless supply of material for the so-called ?true crime? genre, but many of the resulting books were often more fiction than fact.

Almost a decade after the first brutal shootings along Lake Herman Road, Robert Graysmith, a cartoonist employed at The San Francisco Chronicle, was at work on his own book about the Zodiac case. After conferring with a San Francisco police Inspector, the celebrity cop in charge of the investigation, Graysmith had developed his own theories as well as a suspect. When a new ?Zodiac? letter arrived at The Chronicle and mentioned the Inspector by name, rumors spread that the publicity-conscious cop had forged the letter. [Watch a 1978 TV news report about the letter featuring SFPD Inspector David Toschi.] The subsequent media scandal caused great embarrassment for the San Francisco police department. Several experts deemed the new letter a forgery and, although never officially named as the forger, officials reassigned the celebrity Inspector to the Pawn Shop Detail.

Graysmith?s book hit stores in 1986 and immediately generated a new wave of news coverage that would forever change the public perception of the case, and altered the course of the Zodiac investigation forever. Titled ZODIAC, the book read like a screenplay featuring the author-turned amateur sleuth at the center of the ongoing drama from the beginning, sharing secrets with investigators and hot on the trail of the killer. The cartoonist claimed that he had deciphered a Zodiac code, proved that the killer had used a projector to disguise his own handwriting, and discovered an astrological pattern to the crimes.

United Press International writer Richard M. Harnett's review of ZODIAC appeared in The Los Angeles Times on February 9, 1986, and offered some of the only media criticism of the book. Harnett wrote that a "good account of all the facts in the Zodiac affair would have been a valuable contribution ... but Graysmith, a newspaper cartoonist, took on the role of amateur sleuth rather than historian ... He neglects those parts of the historical record that don't fit into his scenario."

The author?s prime suspect, named in the book as Bob Hall Starr, was actually a convicted child molester named Arthur Leigh Allen. Reported as a possible Zodiac suspect in 1971, Allen had been the subject of a brief investigation that had failed to produce any evidence linking him to the crimes. According to Graysmith, this man was a suspect in another string of killings, had confessed his guilt to friends, terrified his family, taunted police, and even described details of the crime before they occurred. Along with other convincing tales, these stories appeared to prove the child molester was, in fact, the elusive Zodiac.

Unsuspecting readers of the book could not have known that most of the stories regarding the Graysmith?s suspect were not true, or, that his theories, code solution and other claims were equally dubious. Despite its many factual errors and falsehoods, the book became a best-seller and the media anointed the author as the expert on the seemingly solved case. Newspaper articles, television news reports and documentaries used the book as a definitive reference source, and often repeated its myths as fact while helping to convict the child molester in the court of public opinion.

Fear struck again in the early 1990s when a man claiming to be the Zodiac surfaced with a series of shootings and letters in New York City. Police eventually captured the first ?copycat killer? in history after he had terrorized the citizens of the East Coast for more than four years. Due to the renewed interest in the original case, the Zodiac was still good for ratings.

In 1990, an aging career criminal contacted the Vallejo police department in hopes of trading information for a deal to avoid a thirty-year prison sentence. In exchange for his total freedom, the helpful felon was willing to testify that Arthur Leigh Allen had accurately predicted that the Zodiac would kill a cabdriver in San Francisco. The informant had a history of antagonism with the suspect that dated back decades when a fistfight between the two men resulted in their arrests. Police declined the offer of a deal, but Allen soon became the subject of a new investigation. Information later surfaced that the police department had purchased dozens of copies of the Graysmith?s book as a factual reference.

The second investigation failed to produce any evidence to implicate Allen, but searches of the suspect?s Vallejo home led to a media circus and a spotlight on the accused man. Allen professed his innocence during interviews with reporters and even appeared on a segment of the tabloid television program A CURRENT AFFAIR. In the spring of 1992, freelance writer Rider McDowell interviewed Allen in his home while researching an article for The San Francisco Chronicle. McDowell described the ill and aging suspect as disarmingly friendly and wrote that Allen had "acknowledged that he had spent time in jail and gotten away with 'a lot of bad things', but he denied any involvement in the Zodiac case." Allen told McDowell, "It wasn't me...and that's the truth. And if people want to believe it was me, well, that's their problem. I was cleared on every angle, including the handwriting tests. Plus, I don't look anything like the guy." Reporter Rita Williams repeatedly asked Allen if he was the Zodiac and whether he was ready to confess. Allen declared in obvious frustration, ?I?m not the damn Zodiac.?

Shortly after the media revealed his status as the prime suspect in California?s most notorious unsolved murder, Allen died amid a flurry of unsubstantiated rumors linking him to the crimes. News reports described Allen as ?the man most investigators believed was the Zodiac,? an epitaph that could have been etched onto his tombstone.

Lingering doubts about Allen?s guilt and the credibility of Graysmith?s sensational book ensured that the case remained an ongoing media mystery for years to come. Like London?s Jack the Ripper mystery, the Zodiac case became an irresistible lure for many other amateur sleuths ready to peddle new theories and a list of suspects no writer of fiction could have conceived. A wealthy San Francisco businessman, a former Harvard lecturer, and a cast of unlucky men were wrongfully accused, while other theories linked the Zodiac to the Unabomber, members of the murderous Manson ?family,? Texarkana?s ?Phantom Killer, and even Wichita?s ?B.T.K. Strangler.?

The Zodiac story found its way to the Internet, where websites featured updates on the case, police files, and crime scene photographs, as well as public message board debates regarding the various suspects and theories. Publicity surrounding one website devoted to suspect Arthur Leigh Allen inspired Graysmith to write a sequel to his first work titled ZODIAC UNMASKED. The second book offered little more than another highly fictionalized account of the case as well as many unsubstantiated or factually inaccurate claims concerning the evidence said to connect Allen to the Zodiac crimes.

Shortly after the publication of the book, the San Francisco Police Department submitted the known Zodiac letters to its newly developed crime lab for forensic testing. Attempts to extract DNA from the letters proved successful and Dr. Cynde Holt and others were able to develop a partial genetic profile. Members of the SFPD believed that the DNA profile belonged to the Zodiac and was valuable evidence useful in eliminating suspects.

Critics, skeptics and theorists with pet suspects excluded by DNA comparisons claimed that the profile was unreliable while citing aging or contaminated biological material on the letters and envelopes as cause to dismiss the findings. Arthur Leigh Allen was among those suspects excluded by DNA comparison, yet this seemingly important fact, and the lack of credible evidence to link him to the Zodiac crimes, did little to deter his accusers.

In April 2004, the San Francisco Police Department made a stunning announcement. "The case is being placed inactive," said San Francisco police Lt. John Hennessey, head of the department's homicide unit. "Given the pressure of our existing caseload and the amount of cases that remain open at this time, we need to be most efficient at using our resources."

By 2007, Graysmith?s books served as the basis for the major motion picture ZODIAC directed by David Fincher, the man behind the serial killer cult film, SEVEN. This telling of the Zodiac story followed the cartoonist, portrayed by BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN star Jake Gyllenhaal, as the unlikely hero who pursues suspect Arthur Leigh Allen and unlocks the mystery of the Zodiac crimes. Fincher told a reporter working for The New York Times, ?It was a difficult thing to make a movie that posthumously convicts somebody.? Gyllenhaal told reporters that he played Robert Graysmith, the man ?who solved the case.?

Retired Napa County Sheriff?s Investigator Ken Narlow, assigned to investigate the Zodiac attack at Lake Berryessa in 1969, served as a consultant on the film. In an interview with reporter Marsha Dorgan of the Napa Register, Narlow said the film did not focus on the crimes. "It is based on Chronicle cartoonist Robert Graysmith's book ZODIAC." He explained, "The movie is about the obsession the Chronicle guys and the two San Francisco inspectors had in trying to solve the case ... It took over their lives. The Zodiac would kill and then send these letters in code to the Chronicle and law enforcement challenging them to find him. The movie is about the pursuit of the suspect, not focusing on the Zodiac killings."

Retired Napa County Sheriff's Deputy Dave Collins also served as a consultant for the film and was on the scene of the 1969 stabbing at the lake. Collins was not impressed by the ongoing attempts to "posthumously convict" Arthur Leigh Allen in the court of public opinion, and remarked, "We don't believe that Allen is the Zodiac. There is not enough evidence to prove that. The sheriff's department considers the case to still be open.?

Ken Narlow was still waiting for the story to end. "As time goes by, I have my doubts that the Zodiac is still alive. But I still think the case can be solved. That will happen only when some citizen remembers something and comes forth. I really wanted to solve that case before I retired. I will never give up hope," he said.

Under the title ?SFPD Not Thrilled About Spotlight on Zodiac,? San Francisco Examiner columnist Ken Garcia wrote, ?It?s been nearly four decades since the last murder. The case has officially been listed as inactive. And yet the public fascination with the ?Zodiac? killer seems to just grow with time, a true story that has expanded into urban myth. And now the movie ? Up until a few years ago, police were getting calls on the Zodiac on almost a daily basis, but it took so much time and attention away from ongoing homicide cases that they put it on the inactive list until the day they get a lead that might actually go somewhere. But they were definitely hoping it wouldn?t go to Hollywood, backed by a marketing campaign. It?s a legend in the (movie-) making.?

Meanwhile, the real Zodiac story marched on. Preparing for an article about the release of the new film, employees at The San Francisco Chronicle discovered what appeared to be a long forgotten communication from the elusive pen pal [View the 1990 Christmas Card]. Postmarked in Eureka, California in December 1990, the red envelope was overlooked amid the many hoax letters and forgeries that plagued the newspaper after the release of Graysmith?s first book and the sensational media coverage surrounding the crimes of a ?Zodiac copycat? killer in New York. If the card was an authentic Zodiac communication, the killer was still alive as late as 1990, still taunting, and still at large more than sixteen years after his brief appearance in 1974.

Addressed to The Chronicle in pencil and with an eerily familiar style, the envelope bore a 25-cent stamp that depicted a Christmas tree and contained a holiday greeting card. On the front of the card, a Snowman wearing a Groucho Mark nose, moustache and glasses stands in a snowstorm as a small rabbit watches. The text of the card was reminiscent of the Zodiac?s Halloween card to reporter Paul Avery more than twenty years earlier.




The inside of the card read:



The writer had also included a Xerox of two keys on a chain attached to a small pen-like cylinder. Marked USPS for the United States Postal Service, the keys had identification numbers of undetermined significance, leading to speculation that the Xerox might lead to a post office box containing the identity of the Zodiac, or some other clue that could provide the solution to the case.

The Zodiac remains the most elusive ghost in the history of American serial murder. While some believe that the killer died long ago or is locked away somewhere in a prison cell, others believe that he is still out there, watching the world keep his story alive, enjoying his infamy, and waiting to write an ending as shocking as his unforgettable crimes.


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