|“||I like killing people because it is so much fun.||”|
— The Zodiac Killer
The Zodiac Killer, also referred to as The Zodiac or simply Zodiac, was an enigmatic serial killer active in California in the late 1960s and early 1970s. As infamous as he was, he only has a confirmed body count of five, though he is suspected of committing as many as thirty-seven murders in total.
Nothing definitive is known about the Zodiac's background since he was never caught. The most prevalent theories that exist, as profiled by John Douglas and other FBI agents, are that the killer may have had a Naval background, and may possibly have been British, due to his uncommon grammar and spelling.
Brief Case History
The first known confirmed Zodiac murders took place on December 20, 1968, on Lake Herman Road in California. The victims were David Faraday, 17, and Betty Lou Jensen, 16, both of which were shot with a .22 handgun. No killer was ever caught. The Zodiac then remained inactive until July 4 the following year, when he shot another couple, Michael Mageau, 19, and Darlene Ferrin, 22, while they were seated in a parked car on the parking lot of the Blue Rock Springs Park in Vallejo. Mageau survived, though he suffered severe injuries, and was able to provide a description. On August 1, the Vallejo Times-Chronicle, the San Francisco Examiner and the San Francisco Chronicle received near-identical letters from the Zodiac in which he took credit for the murders, proving his guilt by stating several facts about the crime scenes, such as what the victims were wearing, how their bodies were positioned and what brand of ammunition he used. The only signature was the Zodiac's symbol. The letters also contained one part of a three-part cipher designed by the Zodiac, who ordered all three papers to publish the ciphers on their front pages and threatened to go on a killing spree over the weekend if they didn't comply. All three papers published the cipher, which was cracked after a little more than a week by Donald and Betty Harden. In the decoded message, the Zodiac claimed to have been killing in order to collect slaves for his afterlife.
The next Zodiac letter came the day before the cipher was cracked. In it, the Zodiac named himself for the first time and gave more details about the murders. The next murder took place near Lake Berryessa on September 27. This time, the victims, Bryan Hartnell, 20, and Cecelia Shepard, 22, were tied up and stabbed instead of shot. Hartnell survived his injuries, but Shepard died a few days later. Fortunately, she saw the attacker without his mask on and was able to give a description before expiring. During his next killing, the Zodiac diverged from his pattern even further and shot and killed a cab driver, Paul Lee Stine, 29, in Presidio Heights in San Francisco on October 11 after riding with him. This time, a partial fingerprint in blood was found inside the car, along with a bloody pair of gloves. At first, the police were led to believe that the killer was black, which was later corrected. Before that, however, a pair of uniformed cops on their way to the crime scene spotted a man fitting the Zodiac's description dressed in a dark jacket and walking away from the crime scene mere minutes after the shooting. Three days later, the San Francisco Chronicle received a letter in which the Zodiac threatened to kill all the passengers of a school bus and included a piece of Paul Stine's bloody shirt. Though this was the last of the Zodiac's confirmed killings, he continued writing letters. Though he claimed responsibility for several murders during this time, it is generally believed that he lied for the attention.
The prime suspect in the case was and remains to this day, Arthur Leigh Allen. The authorities began investigating him after they were told by one of his old co-workers, Donald Cheney, that Allen had told him about an idea he had for a novel about a serial killer who called himself "Zodiac" and did several things the Zodiac Killer did or threatened to do, such as taping a flashlight to his gun and killing the passengers of a school bus. Also, Allen was a skin diver who had been to Lake Berryessa on several occasions. He also admitted to having had bloody knives in his car on the weekend of the stabbing but claimed that the blood came from a chicken he had killed for dinner. After a warrant for his trailer and handwriting was secured and carried out, his fingerprints were compared to the partial from the cab, his guns compared to the Zodiac evidence and his handwriting to that of the letters. None of the tests came back a match and Allen was let go. In 1991, Mageau was tracked down and shown a lineup of old photos of Zodiac suspects. After he fingered Allen as the killer, there were talks about formally charging him with the murders based on the massive amount of circumstantial evidence against him. Unfortunately, Allen died of natural causes before any trial could take place. To this day the case remains unsolved and the Zodiac killer's identity is still unknown.
For images, see below
The Zodiac is known to have sent many cryptographic and puzzling letters to not only the SFPD but the press as well. In these letters, the Zodiac made his intentions and wishes known. In some, he would include odd drawings, mosaics of photos, and astrological charts. One letter includes a cipher with which the police could use to discover his identity. They were unsuccessful in accurately translating it. Below are some of the letters The Zodiac sent to the SFPD and the local newspapers. To date, almost none of his ciphers have been definitively solved.
The Zodiac displays traits of both a serial killer and a spree killer; though he often targeted more than one victim, used a pistol and had shorter and shorter intervals, he did apparently not commit suicide right after his killings ended and usually targeted a specific, physical type rather than a certain demographic. The same way, he also displays traits of both an organized and a disorganized offender; though he left survivors, he brought his murder weapons with him (when he attacked Hartnell and Shepherd, he even brought pre-cut lengths of rope), had enough presence of mind to attack his victims in secluded locations and, most notably, got away with the killings. Since he brought murder weapons and ligatures to bind his victims, the most accurate classification for him could be Mixed classification.
The Zodiac was a narcissist who craved attention and sought to make himself known by taunting the police. From the letters received by police, it was apparent that the Zodiac wanted his identity to be known eventually but was interested in seeing who would be smart enough to crack his code. In this way he is very similar to Criminal Minds character George Foyet; the main difference being Foyet's use of the Eye of Providence as opposed to astrological symbols.
As mentioned before, his use of odd spellings led police to believe that he was foreign, possibly British, and would have a military background. This would be either Naval or Merchant Marine. Additionally, all of the Zodiac's confirmed murders took place on (Mageau and Ferrin) or near holidays (Faraday and Jensen) or on a Saturday at night (Stine) or the late afternoon (Hartnell and Shepherd), suggesting that he had a day-job or something else that kept him occupied during the week.
The Zodiac might have also been either impotent or had bad relationships with women, due to the overkill on his female victims.
From the accounts of the few survivors of known Zodiac attacks, it is generally believed that the Zodiac dressed in black clothing of various types (depending on the month), and wore a hood and/or mask (at least during the 1969 stabbing), though he was unmasked when he attacked Mageau and Ferrin. A few of the eye-witness accounts describe his garb as being decorated with various Zodiac symbols as well as the truncated Zodiac wheel (a circle with a "+" sign in the center). His methods varied also, with some victims being dispatched by an automatic pistol (of several types) or bladed weapons; most notably what was probably a military-style knife. According to one of his letters, he, during the Christmas killings, had a pencil-sized flashlight taped to his gun in order to be able to shoot in the dark.
The Zodiac's usual pattern of attack, however, was to target Caucasian teenage couples, strike when they were inside some secluded lover's lane or in a car and kill them by either shooting them with a 9mm Luger or stabbing them with a knife. His method of approaching them is known to have varied; when he attacked Mageau and Ferrin, he just walked up to the car and started shooting at them without saying a word, while, during the Hartnell-Shepherd stabbing, he approached them pretending to be a robber before instructing Shepherd to tie up Hartnell with some pre-cut lengths of rope and then tying her up himself. During the latter killing, he claimed to be an escaped convict from Montana who had killed a guard and needed their car and money so he could flee to Mexico. After his Ferrin-Mageau and Hartnell-Shepard attacks, he called whichever police department was closest to where the attacks occurred from a pay phone and claim responsibility for the attacks. When he killed Paul Stine, he got into his taxi, shot him in the head with a 9mm, took his wallet, car keys, and a bloodied piece of his shirt, the latter of which he would later send to The Chronicle.
The same survivors who describe the Zodiac's killing garb also describe him as:
- Approximately 5' 8" to 5' 10" in height
- Curly brown or light reddish brown hair is worn in a crew cut.
- Wearing horn-rimmed eyeglasses and usually wore dark clothing, usually wool trousers and dark navy blue or black windbreaker jacket with distinctive military chukka boots known as a "Wing walkers".
- Medium or slightly stocky build
- One survivor describes the Zodiac as having an odd gait; that is, he had a peculiar, lumbering or heavy walk.
- Boot prints found on the Hartnell-Shepherd crime scene were size 10½ and the gloves in Stine's cab were size 7.
- Survivor Bryan Hartnell describes the Zodiac's voice as "Slow and measured" and having a unique sound and cadence with a monotone.
- Arthur Leigh Allen (1933-1992)
- Dishonorably discharged from the U.S. Navy
- Elementary school teacher
- Admitted to having had bloody knives in his car on the weekend of the Zodiac's stabbing at Lake Berryessa, but claimed that the blood came from a chicken he had killed for dinner
- Was in jail for child molestation during the time of the Zodiac's 1971-74 hiatus
- Named "Robert Hall Starr" in Graysmith's non-fiction book Zodiac
- Still generally considered the prime suspect in the case
- His guns, fingerprint, and handwriting were all compared to the case evidence, but he was cleared. Also, in 2002 a DNA comparison was made between a stamp from a Zodiac letter and Allen's DNA and came back negative, though Allen had stated that he never licked his stamps because the glue made him feel sick
- In 1991, survivor Michael Mageau pointed him out when shown a set of Zodiac suspect photos from the time of the killings
- Jack Tarrance (1928-2006)
- Honorably discharged from the U.S. Air Force and Navy
- Ham radio operator
- Steel company worker
- General Electric test foreman
- Laundry Attendant
- Was reported by his stepson, Dennis Kaufman
- Kaufman turned over several pieces of evidence, including:
- A hood similar to the one described by the Berryessa victims
- Handwriting samples
- Undeveloped photo film reels, one of which contained gruesome images
- A knife covered with dried blood
- A taped phone conversation in which Tarrance may indirectly hint that he was the Zodiac
- DNA testing by the FBI proved inconclusive
- Lawrence "Larry" Kane (1923-2010)
- U.S. Navy sailor
- Works various blue collar jobs
- Bruce Davis (1942 - Present)
- Former Manson Family member
- Richard "Rick" Marshall (1928-2008)
- U.S. Navy sailor
- Had code training
- Silent movie theater projectionist
- Movie buff
- Ham radio enthusiast
- Was known to have had a bad temper with women
- Named "Donald Jeff Andrews" in Graysmith's non-fiction book Zodiac
- Louie Myers (1951-2002)
- Admitted on deathbed to being the Zodiac Killer
- Went to the same high schools as the first confirmed male and female victims
- Worked at the same building as the second female victim
- Had access to the type of military boots the Zodiac is known to have worn through his father's job
- Served in the U.S. Army
- Worked as a long haul truck driver
- Had a criminal record in Vallejo for petty, unrelated crimes such as theft and disorderly conduct
- Was stationed at a military base in Germany during the Zodiac's hiatus
- Did not fit the description of the Zodiac given by witnesses
- Earl Van Best, Jr. (c. 1936-1984)
- Named as a suspect by his son, Gary L. Stewart, in his book, The Most Dangerous Animal of All, in 2014
- Rare book dealer
- Was convicted of raping a minor and document and wire fraud and incarcerated for years in a maximum security facility for the criminally insane and San Quentin
- Similar to the Zodiac's physical description
- Serial bomber Theodore Kaczynski, the Unabomber, was briefly considered a suspect for being the Zodiac Killer, but the theory was dismissed since he had been living in Illinois during most of the killings.
- David Carpenter, a serial killer in his own right, was also considered a suspect, but had been in jail during the first confirmed killing and was cleared in handwriting and fingerprint comparisons.
- Edward Edwards, also a serial killer, was allegedly assumed to have matched the Zodiac's physical description, although he was living in northern California during the murders, and these allegations have been disputed.
To date, there have been two infamous killers who emulated the Zodiac Killer:
- Heriberto "Eddie" Seda, a.k.a. "The New York Zodiac"
- b. July 31, 1967
- Was inspired by the Zodiac Killer
- Shot ten people, three of which died
- Targeted his victims based on their Zodiac signs
- Used zip guns
- Arrested after non-fatally shooting his half-sister in the back
- Is currently serving time in jail for murder and attempted murder
- See full article here
- "Seito Sakakibara"
- Fourteen years old at the time of his arrest
- Real name unrevealed due to Japanese child protection laws (though a leak revealed it is possibly Shinichirou Azuma).
- Killed a ten-year-old boy and an eleven-year-old girl
- Also claimed to have assaulted three other girls
- Wrote letters with a language similar to that of the original Zodiac
- Released after several years of imprisonment
- See full article here
Gallery of Letters
- Some believe that the Zodiac copied his symbol from a watch, whose brand was called "Zodiac". Arthur Leigh Allen, the prime suspect, received a Zodiac Sea Wolf watch as a Christmas gift not long before the murders began.
- It has also been theorized that the Zodiac was, to some extent, inspired by The Most Dangerous Game, a 1924 short story about a wealthy count, Zaroff, who traps people on his private island and hunts them in the woods for sport. A phrase from his first cipher, "...because man is the most dangerous animal of all...[sic]", supports this theory. Prime suspect Arthur Leigh Allen admitted to being a fan of the story, saying it had made an impression on him. The story can be found here.
- The Zodiac Killer has several similarities to the Phantom Killer, the unidentified perpetrator of the Texarkana Moonlight Murders of 1946. In both cases, the killer was masked, targeted couples, killed the majority of their victims by shooting them and attacked them when they were in or near their cars in lover's lanes, neither killer was caught, and they had almost identical body counts. The most obvious difference between the two is that the Zodiac wrote several taunting letters to the police and media while the Phantom did not brag about his crimes in any such way. Another is that there are no clear signs that the Zodiac was sexually motivated while the Phantom sexually assaulted a female victim with his handgun.
- The Zodiac was active around the same time and in the same state as a suspected serial killer who committed the "Astrological murders". The victims, who were women, were killed in various ways, including strangulation, drowning, throat cutting, and bludgeoning, sometimes after being drugged, and were connected by the fact that they were dumped in ravines and were killed around astrological events, such as the winter solstice, equinox, and Friday the 13th. One of the Zodiac's alleged victims, Donna Lass, was a nurse who disappeared in Lake Tahoe before the autumnal equinox and was never seen again. While law enforcement believes there is a connection between the murders, some theorize that the Zodiac may have had something to do with them.
- The Zodiac case was an inspiration for the first Dirty Harry movie. The killer of that movie writes letters to the authorities and calls himself "Scorpio", a zodiac sign, and the only name he is referred to. Near the end of the movie, he takes a school bus full of children hostage, a reference to how the Zodiac threatened to kill the passengers of a school bus. Other fictional film villains inspired by the Zodiac include "The Gemini Killer" from The Exorcist III and "The Scorekeeper" from The Limbic Region. The Zodiac also seems to provide some inspiration for the character The Black Hood from the second season of the TV series Riverdale since both are killers who dress in black,´and write letters to the media in which they name themselves, take credit for murders and include possessions taken from victims. Also, one of the Black Hood's crimes is shooting a pair of high school students in a car, similar to the Zodiac's attack on Michael Mageau and Darlene Ferrin.
On Criminal Minds
- Season One:
- "Unfinished Business" - The Zodiac is first mentioned by Reid in this episode, where the Keystone Killer's signature of sending taunting letters and puzzles to the authorities is compared to the Zodiac's habit of sending letters, as well as changing their M.O. However, Reid incorrectly states the Zodiac went from stabbing his victims to shooting them.
- "A Real Rain" - The Zodiac was mentioned as an example of killers with an alternating victimology when it was believed the current unsub was killing his victims at random. In this reference, Gideon also incorrectly stated that the Zodiac killed for thirty years without ever getting caught.
- Season Four:
- "Normal" - When Norman Hill admits to his wife that he is the Road Warrior, his wife, thinking Norman is simply joking, sarcastically confesses to being the Zodiac.
- "Omnivore" - Both the Zodiac and BTK are compared to the Reaper by Hotch, who states all three were "highly intelligent, disciplined, sadistic killers who name themselves in the press". On a side note, which was possibly coincidental, both the Zodiac and Dennis Rader claimed to have fantasized about enslaving their victims in the afterlife; the Zodiac (possibly falsely) expressed this belief in his first cipher and BTK claimed during police interrogation to have had that fantasy as well.
- George Foyet, the aforementioned Reaper, also appears heavily inspired by the Zodiac. Like the Zodiac, he wore a black mask in his outings, his primary targets were couples, he usually either shot or stabbed his victims, and adopted a symbol (the Eye of Providence) as his "trademark". The Zodiac also threatened to kill a bus full of people, which Foyet actually does, and both also had victims who survived near fatal attacks and provided vague descriptions of their assailants (though in Foyet's case, the attack was staged, in which he was his own victim, designed to throw the authorities off his trail). Also, Foyet's seventh victim, the only victim confirmed to be killed alone, might be an obscure reference to the Zodiac's murder of Paul Stine, his only lone victim.
- Season Seven:
- "True Genius" - The Zodiac was also featured prominently in this episode, in which the unsub copies his killings with great accuracy (even wearing the same kind of hood and boots that he wore during the Lake Berryessa killings) and tries to pass himself off as the genuine killer by planting evidence such as a bloody piece of fabric (whose blood type was identical to that of Paul Stine's) and an old crime scene photo of a (fictional) suspected Zodiac victim.
- Season Eight:
- "Pay It Forward" - The Zodiac was mentioned as an example of serial killers who stop killing and disappear.
- Season Ten:
- "Fate" - The Zodiac was mentioned when Garcia reveals to Rossi that Joy Struthers, a true crime writer living in San Francisco, wrote a book about the killer.
- "Nelson's Sparrow" - The Zodiac was mentioned by Rossi and Gideon in a flashback set in 1978 (nine years after the Zodiac's last confirmed murder). In this reference, both mention his taunts to the police in comparison to the unsub they are investigating.
- Season Eleven:
- Wikipedia's article about the Zodiac Killer
- Zodiac by Robert Graysmith 1986 ISBN 0-425-09808-7
- America's Most Wanted list of known suspects
- CBS News report clip about Tarrance
- New York Daily News article on suspect Louis Myers
- Susan D. Mustafa's article about the Zodiac's victims
- Find A Grave article about the Zodiac's victims
- Zodiac Revisited's article about the Zodiac's suspected victims
- ↑ The deaths share many characteristics of the Zodiac's confirmed murders, such as the victims being a teenage couple killed in a lover's lane and the killer forcing the female victim to tie up the male like the Zodiac did at the Lake Berryessa stabbing, though the murders haven't been officially connected to the Zodiac Killer
- ↑ Facts that connect her murder to the Zodiac are:
- Months after the murder, letters stating, "Bates had to die" were sent to local police and media. A letter stating, "She had to die" was also sent to her father. Additionally, a type-written confession using some phrases the Zodiac later used was found in the university where she had studied as well as a macabre poem scribbled into a board describing the murder in detail.
- June 8, 1967, Alameda County, California: Enedine Molina and Fermin Rodriguez (both show with a .22 handgun)
- Enedine Molina
- Fermin Rodriguez (shot in the back, chest, and shoulder)
- Local investigators have good circumstantial evidence on a currently unidentified male, but because he was never charged with the murder, the case remains unsolved. One possibility is that the unnamed man was in fact the killer and the Zodiac tried to take credit for the murder.
- A possible Zodiac link, besides the letters, was that a size 8-10 military style heel print was found on the scene along with a wristwatch that was traced to a military post, possibly in England, and whose wristband suggested that the owner had a ca. 7-inch wrist; some suspect that the Zodiac may have been English due to some of his spellings, a size 10½ military style bootprint was found at the Hartnell-Shepherd crime scene and the gloves found in Stine's cab were size 7.
- ↑ The Zodiac was confirmed to be active in 1968 and 1969, while his first suspected victims were killed in 1963 and his final suspected victim disappeared in 1970. Combining the years he was active with those of the deaths or disappearances of suspected victims (if one were to positively attribute all of them to the Zodiac), the Zodiac would've been active for only a total of seven years.