This is a re-write of an article that first appeared about a year ago but is no longer available elsewhere. It is in response to those who have asked questions about how to best proceed with a Zodiac killer theory.
Over the years, I have received mail and email from many individuals who believe they have something important to share about the Zodiac case. Most often, these are theories about the killer’s identity, unknown or undiscovered victims, or the meaning of his unsolved cyphers. Some of these theories proved to be sound, some not. Some started out well and died of their own weight. Others live on. In any case, the majority of people who contact me are sincere in their efforts and have invested a good deal of their time and energy in pursuing their theories. It is usually easy to cull out the weak theories from the material that should be given a hard look. It is always wise to give a theory at least some thought, no matter how far-fetched it might seem at first glance.
Overall, this is a good thing for the Zodiac case. Theories are important and can lead to significant breakthroughs in the case. Good theories often open up new areas of research for others to follow. However, how these theories are handled, assessed, and eventually brought to a wider audience is critical to their outcome and effectiveness. All too often, even the best theory dies an ugly death simply because it was mishandled after it was prematurely put forth to a wider audience.
So, I would like to offer a few ideas if you are someone who is working on a case theory and thinking about bringing it to a wider audience.
Most individuals with a theory have already spent a good deal of time scouring through Zodiac-related message boards and websites. This can be a good thing, so long as the theory itself has not been spread across the amateur community. In other words, while your theory is still in its formative stages, and even after it is fully formed, it is a mistake to discuss it on public message boards. Your theory should remain confidential and discussed only with other individuals in whom you can place your trust, with certainty. Once your theory is exposed to the broader community, it becomes fair game for all, regardless of their motives or intentions. Is this something you really want to happen with your hard work and good ideas without proper planning?
Thankfully, you can still find a few Internet enclaves of sanity in which to share some of your ideas, but you’ll have to work at it. They are far outnumbered by less useful destinations. Typically, this kind of enclave will be tightly restricted as to members and tightly monitored for content. In other words, those who participate have been well screened so that both their contributions and approach to others is known and respected. It’s important to remember that you are ultimately looking for a few, key personal contacts and not for group membership.
You may not like the idea of a “private club” but, in the current wide-open message board environment, it is the best alternative. Don’t expect to simply walk your way into the enclave, sit down and begin theorizing. You will need to earn your way there, based upon your own contributions in a more open, public environment. However, when you are invited in, you’ll find some really sharp people with open minds and good ideas to share. When you do begin to participate, you can feel more comfortable sharing your ideas, still taking it all slowly and carefully.
It’s vital to bring one or two other people into your confidence to check your work and help you with how to proceed with your theory. These individuals must not only know the Zodiac case but also understand how to proceed with your theory in a way that it will be fully heard and given an objective assessment yet remain yours and yours alone. In other words, individuals who have proven they can pull this off by their own actions, not merely their own words.
If you carefully read message boards and Zodiac-related websites over a period of time, you will come to know the posters well, regardless of whether or not they use their real names, which is a matter of personal choice and done for a variety of reasons. You will come to know them by their own words. Common sense is the key here. Does the poster spend his/her time attacking others, making premature judgments about the views of others, or simply negating all ideas not their own? If so, eliminate them from your potential list of confidants. Look for openness, a positive attitude, a willingness to listen to others; a person who responds intelligently and respectfully. If that pattern of behavior is absent, strike the poster/writer off your list. Judge by the pattern of behavior and not by a single post or topic. We all have good and bad days. Fortunately, we all disclose our patterns over time and across a variety of topics. Take the time to look for those patterns.
Does the poster/writer ask meaningful questions that demonstrate an openness to new ideas? Does the poster/writer have a long history of this kind of behavior over a variety of theories and ideas? Does the poster/writer avoid personal attacks, negative views and unwarranted criticism? If so, put them on your potential list. The bottom line is simple enough. Whenever an individual writes a comment or post, he/she tells the reader at least as much about himself/herself as about the subject of the post. Look for patterns, openness, and an honest, inquiring attitude. Use the same techniques that you would if you were to meet the individual in person. We all have an inbred sense of others that helps guide us through life when we deal with individuals we are trying to get to know. Use this same sense when reading through message boards or websites while looking for someone to help you with your theory.
When you find someone who might be of help, approach carefully. Use only private communication and move your conversation immediately to email, off any message board or other private message system. Start slowly and work to develop a relationship with your new contact. Assess whether or not your contact wants to become involved, and at what level. Once again, look for patterns in communication and judge them over more than a single communication. Insist, up front, on confidentiality. Without confidentiality, everything else is up for grabs.
If you feel that your new contact is not being honest, drop him/her immediately and stop communicating. Move on to someone else, but only after assessing what went wrong the first time. This is a good time to re-examine your theory, all the communications (which you should always save) as well as re-examine how you selected that individual in the first place. Over time, you will become more adept at making good choices about those with whom you wish to share your ideas.
You may sometimes find that your contact has not been wholly trustworthy. This happens. Hopefully, you have not given away the store in your initial communications. Trust takes time. If you’ve made a poor choice, move on and keep working at it. We’ve all made these kinds of mistakes. Learn from them. The important thing to remember is to cease all communication with that individual.
It’s vital to remember that simply because someone doesn’t agree with your theory it doesn’t necessarily mean that person is wrong. In fact, your theory may be wrong and they may be right. When your contact disagrees with you, examine why. Does the disagreement make sense? Is it offered in the spirit of helpfulness and honesty? Is it objective? Be ready to re-think your theory and pursue a different path.
If you are working on a theory and it has already taken root in the online community, you will have an uphill battle ahead of you. Not only will you be subjected to all kinds of feedback, offered up for all kinds of reasons, you will also be unable to get the toothpaste back into the tube when it comes time to put your theory in front of those who can truly do something about it. There is a general theme often expressed among members of the online community that all theories should be fully laid out in public so that they can be discussed and assessed. In an ideal world, this is a wonderful idea. In practice, it doesn’t work because it is based upon a false assumption that all commentators on a theory are objectively searching for the truth. This is simply not the case. As your reading of various message boards should have already indicated, there are people with all kinds of complex (and often personal) motives out there. It is not an easy task to find those individuals with legitimate motives. However, it can be done.
So, the bottom line is to move carefully and quietly. It is vitally important to correctly asses with whom you will share your work. Do not make the common mistake of simply throwing your theory out into the community to see what happens. Unless, of course, you just want that fifteen minutes of fame. If that is what you are seeking (and many do), you will probably get the attention you are seeking, although it may not be of the quality you would like.
If you are serious about your theory, keep it to yourself and work towards recruiting one or two people who can truly help you and who know how to proceed. Judge them by their history, experience, behavioral patterns, as well as their own words. Build trust, which will take time. In the end, it will be worth the effort. The best theories I have read have been handled in just this way. They are not great in number but they were usually sound and a few of them are still alive and kicking. It’s always possible that one (or more) is correct and can add valuable knowledge to the Zodiac case. The beauty of these few is that they are still viable and untainted by the chaos that inevitably follows from ill-planned public disclosure.
If you’ve done everything right, you might find yourself in the situation of wanting to move into a broad public arena with your ideas. This is a whole process unto itself. It demands skill and care equal to your determination to succeed with your theory. It is also a perilous journey, and one that you cannot complete on your own. At this point, call in the professionals and continue to keep your theory quiet. In the end, you will be much more comfortable using the tools of careful planning, patience, and good support. Once your theory has been put into the public arena in the best possible way, head on back to those message boards and websites. You will be amazed at what you find and what you’ve learned along the way.
And . . . don’t forget to write that book! A topic for another day.
About Michael Kelleher
Author in the true crime, mystery, and Native American genres. Co-author of the book: This is the Zodiac Speaking: Into the Mind of a Serial Killer. Media consultant and freelance journalist.