The self-proclaimed Zodiac Killer was directly linked to at least five murders in Northern California in 1968 and 1969 and may have been responsible for more. After he taunted police and made threats through letters sent to area newspapers from 1969 to 1974, further communication from him abruptly stopped. Despite an intensive search for the killer and the investigation into numerous suspects, no one was ever arrested for the crimes and the case remains open. The mystery surrounding it has been the subject of countless books and even more theories and has been the inspiration for several movies.
At present, four separate attacks have been definitively attributed to the Zodiac Killer. The first confirmed incident took place on the night of December 20, 1968, when 17-year-old David Faraday and his 16-year-old girlfriend Betty Lou Jensen were shot to death near their car at a remote spot on Lake Herman Road, on the outskirts of Vallejo, California. Police were left baffled, unable to determine the motive for the crime or a suspect.
Then, on the early morning of July 5, 1969, Darlene Ferrin, age 22, and her boyfriend, Mike Mageau, age 19, were sitting in parked car in a similarly remote Vallejo location when they were approached by a man with a flashlight who fired multiple shots at them, killing Ferrin and seriously wounding Mageau. Within an hour of the incident, a man called the Vallejo Police Department, giving them the location of the crime scene and claiming responsibility for both that attack and the 1968 murders of Faraday and Jensen. Despite this confession and Mageau’s description of the assailant, little progress was made in the case.
The Zodiac Emerges
On August 1, 1969, the San Francisco Examiner, San Francisco Chronicle and Vallejo Times-Herald each received an identical handwritten letter in an envelope without a return address. Beginning “Dear Editor: I am the killer of the 2 teenagers last Christmas at Lake Herman . . .” the letters contained details from the murders that only the killer could have known. The killer went on to threaten further attacks if the letters weren’t printed on the front page of the papers. Each closed with a symbol consisting of a circle with a cross through it and was accompanied by one part of a three-part cipher that he claimed contained his identity.
While Bay Area police departments, with the support of the FBI, worked feverishly to track down the killer, several days later he sent another letter to the San Francisco Examiner. Beginning “Dear Editor: This is the Zodiac speaking . . .” it also described the murders in detail and taunted police for not having been able to crack his code or catch him. However, several days later, high school teacher Donald Harden and his wife Bettye were able to solve the cipher, revealing the killer’s rant, which began “I like killing people because it is so much fun.”
The Most Dangerous Animal
Despite evidence including fingerprints, Mageau’s description, the decoded cipher and a wave of tips and leads, police were unable to track down the Zodiac Killer. On the evening of September 27, 1969, he struck again, approaching young couple Cecelia Shepard and Bryan Hartnell as they relaxed on an isolated part of the shore of Lake Berryessa in Napa County. Wearing a hood and a shirt bearing a circle-cross symbol, he tied them up before brutally stabbing them, scrawling a message for police on their car door and leaving the scene. He then called the Napa Police Department to claim responsibility. Shepard and Hartnell were both in critical condition but alive when emergency services arrived, but Shepard died of her wounds shortly thereafter.
Two weeks later, on October 11, 1969, the Zodiac claimed another life, shooting 29-year-old taxi driver Paul Stine in San Francisco’s Presidio Heights neighborhood. As the murder did not seem to fit the Zodiac’s pattern, it was initially deemed a robbery, but three days later a letter received by the San Francisco Chronicle proved otherwise. Written in the same erratic print as his previous letters, it gave the details of Stine’s murder and was accompanied by a bloody scrap of Stine’s shirt. At the end of the letter, the killer stated his intention to murder a school bus full of children.
An Open Case
With descriptions from witnesses who had seen a man leaving the scene of Stine’s murder, police were able to create and circulate a composite sketch of the killer. But despite mounting evidence and the investigation of numerous suspects, he remained at large, continuing his taunting correspondence with Bay Area papers, in which he included more ciphers, claimed to have committed several more murders and mocked the police for their inability to catch him.
Then, in 1974, the letters stopped. The investigation, however, has not, and in the nearly five decades since the Faraday-Jensen murders, the inability to identify the Zodiac Killer has continued to frustrate law enforcement. At least five other murders have been tentatively linked to the Zodiac, including the 1963 shooting of Robert Domingos and Linda Edwards near Santa Barbara, California, and the 1966 stabbing death of college student Cheri Jo Bates in Riverside, California. However, in both these and the known Zodiac murders, no suspect has ever been arrested.
Fact and Fiction
The mystery and unanswered questions surrounding the Zodiac case also continues to fascinate the public and has inspired more than its fair share of theories regarding the killer’s identity. Ranging from plausible to crackpot, these include the claim that he was Unabomber Ted Kacznyski or convicted murderer Charles Manson or that he eventually moved to Scotland and committed more murders there before finding happiness and giving up his wicked ways.
True-crime author and former San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist Robert Graysmith wrote two separate works on the Zodiac (1986’s Zodiac and 2002’s Zodiac Unmasked), ultimately identifying a man named Arthur Leigh Allen as the most likely suspect. Allen died in 1992, however, and was never conclusively connected to any of the murders. Most recently, in 2014 HarperCollins published The Most Dangerous Animal of All by author Gary Stewart, who claims to have uncovered that his father, Earl Van Best Jr.—who bears a strong resemblance to the man pictured in the police sketch—was the Zodiac Killer. As with Allen, however, there is no conclusive proof to connect Van Best to the murders.
In film, the Zodiac Killer was the inspiration for the psychopath in the 1971 Clint Eastwood classic Dirty Harry, which includes a scene involving a school bus full of children being hijacked. In 2007, the David Fincher film Zodiac was released. Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo and Robert Downey Jr., it is based on Robert Graysmith’s books about the case.
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