From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
The Zodiac killer was the nickname of a serial killer who found his victims in and
around San Francisco, California, in the late 1960s. His identity still remains unknown.
He first came to police attention following the apparently random killing of Betty Lou
Jensen and David Faraday on December 20, 1968, near Vallejo, California. This double
homicide was followed by the murder of Darlene Ferrin and near-fatal shooting of
Michael Mageau in the early morning hours of July 5, 1969, also near Vallejo. Within
hours, an anonymous man called police and claimed he was the person responsible for
both crimes. On September 27, 1969 a costumed man bound and stabbed Ryan Hartnell
and Cecila Shepard on the shores of Lake Berryessa, then wrote a message on Hartnell's
car door referring to the two earlier killings. This occurrence is generally regarded as the
most bizarre largely due to the aforementioned disguise. Before she died, Shepard
provided the description of a masked and hooded man wearing the symbol of the zodiac
on his chest. This is the only known description of the killer in which he was known to
hide his face. On October 11 of the same year, Paul Stine was shot to death while driving
a taxi cab on a San Francisco street.
Between the attack on Ferrin and Mageau and the one on Hartnell and Shepherd, on July
31, 1969, three Bay area newspapers received an anonymous letter from the man
responsible for these attacks, which included details that police had not released. The
writer demanded that the newspapers publish a three-part cipher on the front page of their
respective newspapers, which he had enclosed in his letters. Although professional code
breakers failed to decrypt the message, a pair of amateurs—Donald Gene Harden, a high
school teacher from north Salinas, and his wife—succeeded in reading the message,
which had been encrypted in a homophonic cipher.
The Vallejo Times-Herald, suspicious that these letters had come from a hoaxer, asked
for more unpublicized details on the first two murders, to which the serial killer
responded on August 7 with a letter beginning "This is the Zodiac speaking", and
supplying the details. He began all of his further letters with this phrase and referred to
himself either by that name or with a symbol created from a circle with a cross drawn
Two days after Stine's murder, the Zodiac killer sent a letter to the San Francisco
Examiner with a piece of Stine's bloodstained shirt, addressed with only the paper's name
and the note "Please rush to editor". On November 8, the Examiner received a greeting
card and another cipher from the Zodiac Killer, with a statement that appeared to mean he
had killed seven people in the months of December, July, August, September and
October. He made this claim clear in a seven-page diatribe that arrived the next day, and
which included threats of killing people with a bomb and of killing a school bus full of
children. As a result of this threat, and its repetition in later letters, school buses were
staffed with armed guards for several months.
The letter of November 9 also contained the message that the killer was "changing his
way of collecting"—which came to mean that he did not claim responsibility for further
murders. But he did acknowledge an earlier crime.
An anonymous tip led police to an earlier murder by the Zodiac Killer, that of Cheri Jo
Bates on the Riverside Community College campus around midnight on October 30,
1966. (Riverside Community College is located about 60 miles outside of Los Angeles.)
Research in the investigators' files uncovered four different letters the killer had sent to
police, a local newspaper, and Bates' father, as well as a poem carved into a library
desktop with a ballpoint pen. In response to news reports about the earlier death, the Los
Angeles Times received on March 15, 1971, a letter from the Zodiac Killer
acknowledging he had killed Bates, while at the same time claiming he had killed 17
The hallmark of this case was the letters, 21 in all, that the Zodiac Killer sent as late as
April 24, 1978. Written in a distinctive print handwriting with misspellings, they taunted
the San Francisco Police Department to catch him, sometimes offering clues as to where
he had buried his victims or to his identity. Many were signed with the symbol created
from a circle and cross. The symbol could be said to resemble the crosshair sight of a rifle
The total number of the Zodiac Killer's victims is not known. Robert Graysmith lists 49
names in his book, including the eight definite victims.
Robert Graysmith's books have been far and away the most popular of the books written
Arthur Leigh Allen: Graysmith professes that the killer was Arthur Leigh Allen,
who passed away in 1992. Allen denied his guilt in interviews but there was much
circumstantial evidence against him. Michael Mageau, the only person ever to get
a glimpse of the killer's face, identified Allen was the man who shot him out of a
police lineup. On the day of the lake attacks on Hartnell and Shepherd, Allen told
his family he was going scuba diving. They said he came home with blood on his
clothes and a bloody knife in the backseat of his car. Allen had told several people
before the murders that he was going to kill "a bunch of people" and call himself
the Zodiac. Allen also owned a watch made by the Zodiac company, whose logo
is a circle with a cross on top. Allen was in prison during a three-year period in
which the taunting letters temporarily stopped. When the police questioned him,
he said The Most Dangerous Game was his favorite story. In the book, a mad
count hunts human prey on a deserted island, and says he finds it fun to hunt
humans as in the Zodiac letters. Police found dead animals and newspaper
clippings of the Zodiac crimes in Allen's home. However, modern DNA and
fingerprint analysis of the letters could not definitively match Allen, so the case
remains open. And most Zodiac sleuths agree that even if Allen was not the
Zodiac Killer, he certainly makes for an interesting subject. Many die-hard Zodiac
hunters dismiss Greysmith's books as more fiction than fact. Many other people
were and still are considered suspects in the Zodiac case, Allen being just one.
Rick Marshall: A radio engineer living in San Francisco, Rick Marshall is
considered a Zodiac killer suspect. In 1966 Riverside at the time of the murder of
Cheri Jo Bates, Marshall lived in the area. In 1969, he lived in San Francisco near
the site where Stein was murdered. He also worked as a theatre projectionist at the
time the "Red Phantom" letters were sent.
Ted Kaczynski, more popularly known as the unabomber, was also a popular
Zodiac suspect. Kaczynski lived in the Bay Area in the 1960s. He also possessed
knowledge of constructing bombs; many of Zodiac's later letters included bomb
threats and detailed schematics of bombs.
Lawrence Kane: Kane was identified as a stalker of victim Darlene Ferrin. Four
days after her murder he exchanged his car at a local dealership. He is also
described as having a mental condition leaving him unable to control self-
gratification. The name Kane also appeared in a 1970 cipher.
There was a similar Zodiac Killer who killed four people in New York City in a similar
manner beginning in 1990. The killer was identified as Heriberto Seda and is now serving
life in prison.
In popular media
The actions of the Zodiac Killer inspired several movies.
Best known is Dirty Harry starring Clint Eastwood, filmed in San Francisco and
released in 1971. In the movie, the killer calls himself Scorpio, who at one point
kidnaps a school bus full of children and threatens to kill all of them.
The fictional "Gemini Killer" in the movie The Exorcist III was also loosely based
on the Zodiac killer.
Steve McQueen based his character in the 1968 movie Bullitt on SFPD homicide
detective Dave Toschi, who gained a modicum of fame for his work on the
Zodiac case. (McQueen's preparation for the role included having a copy made of
Toschi's custom fast-draw shoulder holster.)
The fictional serial killer "Avatar" from the TV series Millennium is also based on
The most recent work is Zodiac directed by David Fincher. Currently shooting in
San Francisco with Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey Jr. and Bijou
Phillips this film is slated for a 2006 release.
In the second season of San Francisco cop show Nash Bridges (1996), Don
Johnson's police inspector is on the hunt for a killer copying the Zodiac's work
years ago. He worked on the original case, and enlisted the help of the retired cop
in charge of that investigation.