Advancing a Zodiac Killer Theory

LabyrinthThis 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.


  1. morf13 19 September, 2012 at 06:18 Reply

    Mike, a very good article. Well written and dead on, in my opinion.
    Anybody that has a theory,suspect,etc, can usually benefit from seeking help from others. When you share information and ask for help and opinions, you may find additional ways of exploring your ideas, with help from many experienced zodiac researchers. But be prepared, you have to have thick skin and may not always get the responses you wanted. Overall, most zodiac researchers are honest and will give you their true and honest opinions about your ideas,with blunt honesty. When you come out with a grand theory that seems unbelievable to most, and provide no facts or evidence to prove your theory, you will certainly be met with doubts & a ‘rolling of the eyes’. If you further respond by attacking your critics or verbally assaulting them, you will further distance yourself from most zodiac researchers,until you find yourself posting on your own blog, and being your own audience. Finally,I would have to say, do not make the statement “I HAVE SOLVED THE CASE”. We have heard people make this statement dozens of times,only for nothing to come from it, while the case still remains UNSOLVED! It’s good to have confidence in yourself, but don’t overdo it. The only people that can truly ‘solve’ the case is the police. They have all the evidence, prints etc in their posession,and they are the ones that can close the case. If you have good info or evidence, give it to them. Be prepared to be wrong however. If you give prints of your suspect to the police and they DO NOT MATCH, then it’s likely time to move on. Going on youtube and making videos continuing to say you have solved the case(despite evidence proving you wrong)will only cause you to lose more credabilty.

    • Zodiac Revisited 24 September, 2012 at 08:44

      Nope, not you, G. People definitely read and comment on your blog.

      I was referring to the certain somebody who advocates the theory that the Zodiac Killer never actually existed…

  2. ggluckman 26 September, 2012 at 05:18 Reply

    Hi Mr K,

    For the last couple of weeks I have been quite busy. Too busy to really reply to this article in earnest, though I have wanted to very much.

    When I first started trying to put my theory together, this was one of the few articles that provided any meaningful guidance on the problems of building theories.

    Initially, I thought I wanted to discuss my own efforts to follow your words of wisdom, the challenges I encountered, the compromises I had to make, the results I got and what I learned.

    But dash all that. That’s not what I want to say the most. What this article really does in me is to evoke a need to get up on a soapbox and say what is really important for the Z community to understand about themselves.

    I am afraid though that few people will get my message, or why it matters. It may end up as a choked whisper, but it is the most important thing that I feel I have learned about our collective efforts to solve the mystery of the Zodiac Killer–more important than any would-be theory–and it is an insight that I believe can shape how we do and share research, if we let it.

    The key, Mr K, is not what your article says, as much as why you needed to say it.

    Your message was ostensibly just a few words of introductory wisdom, offered from a well salted sailor to the disoriented new deckhand with the greenish grimace. But it was advice written at the edge of a storm. And the deeper message came straight from the heart of the storm itself.

    It is a storm you have struggled with publicly in several of your other articles. It is about the challenges of building and sharing our theories as a community and why we are having such a struggle of it.

    My insight is this, put as plainly as I can put it:

    If you read the linked article, you may get a sense of what I mean:

    The struggles the Z-community is experiencing are not so different from the struggles of great men and women to move science itself forward, each trying to express their ideas: debate about which principles to invest in, the quest for alchemical glory, the explosion and implosion of ego, the emotions, the jostling for position, the credibility attacks, the shifting of paradigms, the outliers, the pariahs, the men in the doorway, the occasional really-new-idea, and so on.

    If you ever want to write another Z-book, Mr K, perhaps you should team up with your academic friends who are interested in the history of science. You will surely find similar drama, even if many think this is a more trivial pursuit. If Thomas Kuhn had studied the Z-community instead of the scientific one, he might still have written The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (although he would probably have ended up with a rather awkward title).

    The point of my message is this: the Z-community is experiencing its struggles, but they are not new struggles. They are age-old struggles that have been been experienced by others. While Z-research may not seem as noble an enterprise as the development of science, it is structured similarly and is driven by (among other things) the same quest for truth. And we can use what has been learned from history to learn practical lessons about what we are trying to do here.

    I have more to say on this topic, but this comment is running quite long already, so I will cut it here, at least for now.



    • Michael D. Kelleher 26 September, 2012 at 08:10

      Good point, G., as usual. I spent some time lecturing/working with post-grads and faculty in the California system and discovered this kind of nastiness. However, it wasn’t so pervasive or so completely self-destructive. I agree, though, that the same kind of atmosphere was to be found in certain academic circles. In fact, it was this kind of experience that led me away from academia and into the private sector.

      As you know, I believe there are folks out there with important things to say. However, they must be very careful if they want to get a fair, impartial hearing from the majority of folks involved in the whole Zodiac saga. I believe that one of the best mediums of exposing a good theory, once it has been carefully formulated, is via a self-published EBook released on a broad basis and available at a reasonable price to all. I realize that there are dangers in going this route but, in the end, it is the best way to leave a legacy theory without the nonsense that often takes place by releasing it into the wild. Anyway, that’s a subject for a future article.

      I hope you write more, somewhere. Perhaps an article for Mike here? I would like to hear about your experiences in working your way through to making your theory available to others. I think it would be a great learning opportunity for others to hear, first hand, how you went through the process, what helped, what hurt, and all the details.

      Thanks for the thoughtful response.

    • ggluckman 28 September, 2012 at 07:01

      Hi Mr K,

      As it happens, I have been toying with a plan to start up (yet) another website to discuss a few ideas on the challenges of buikding Z-theories. The general topic would be metatheory, or theory about theory.

      The advantage is that I can be as idiosyncratic as I am inclined to be. (Of course, that could be just as easily be a disadvantage, depending on your point of view.)

      The disadvantage is that it will be so far off the beaten path that it might never get noticed by the rather tiny audience that my words would be aimed at.

      There may be better approaches, though.



  3. Bayarea60's 4 January, 2013 at 06:06 Reply

    Michael & Morf…..

    Very wise words. We’re all in the same boat, no one can be locked into a POI, to such a degree, that they dismiss the potential that they may be wrong. The only way one can approach this case in that manner is to have the undenial proof of who Z is/was. To date, no one has. I’d like to think that through LE efforts and the efforts of Z slueths around the globe someone has locked into who Z truly was/is, and they’re correct. but Z could still be someone who has been totally overlooked. Someone so under the radar that no one has ever suspected them. I knid of doubt that likelihood, but certainly none of us know for sure. All’s we can do is keep plugging away at it. Keep digging.

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