It's good to see fresh work being offered on the possible Riverside connection first brought to light by Paul Avery so many years ago. The murder of Cheri Jo Bates remains a mystery, whether or not you believe it had any connection with Zodiac's later activities. This crime, unto itself, certainly deserves the renewed attention it is now receiving.
I know that my thinking on the Bates murder has evolved and changed over the years. What once seemed clear, now seems uncertain. What was once, now a bit less so. I'm still uncertain about the role this murder may have played in the overall Zodiac saga. In fact, I'm more uncertain now than before. murky
So, I would like to pose a few questions about one aspect of the Bates murder, the Confession Letter. These questions seem important to the crime, as well as to later events. They also strike at the heart of why my thinking about the murder has changed over the years. Perhaps sharper, fresher minds than my own can provide better answers.
If you need a quick refresher on the Confession Letter, you can find it here: Zodiac Killer Letters.
Was the Confession Letter actually written by the victim's killer?
At first blush, it's easy to think so. However, it may not have been written by her killer. By the time this letter surfaced, most of the details of the crime were widely known, although with some obvious inaccuracies. The portion of the letter that addresses the “facts” of the murder could easily have been gathered from what was widely assumed or rumored about the crime, mostly from media sources. Again, the accuracy of some of this information remains questionable. One obvious exception is the telephone call made shortly after the murder. Supposedly, this was not known to the public until much later. On the face of it, this would tend to make us believe the letter was surely written by the killer. However, mention of the telephone call is not a clincher. It could have been known to individuals closer to the investigation. And, as we all know, it's very hard to keep a secret for very long. In fact, the actual circumstances surrounding that alleged call are still unresolved. The bottom line is that we cannot know, for certain, that this letter was actually written by the victim's killer. It could have been written by someone else and for an entirely different purpose (see below). The fact that there were no similar murders in the immediate area prior to the Bates crime, and none shortly following, may indicate that the writer's bragging about previous and planned activities were not legitimate but, rather, designed to instill fear in the public. My thinking on this question has changed over the years. Today, I would say that there is at least a 50-50 chance that the letter was not written by the killer.
What was the purpose of the Confession Letter?
This seems clear enough. The writer wanted to taunt and threaten the public by staking a claim to Riverside's most infamous crime. He took advantage of the pervasive public fear and uncertainty. By his words and tone, the writer made it clear that this kind of crime could happen to anyone at any time. By today's standards, one could consider this an act of terrorism, with the general public set as the primary target. The writer waited for a sufficient period of time during which the media was in a frenzy about the murder, with reports and rumors flying everywhere. As the frenzy began to ebb, and as an important anniversary of the crime occurred, he wrote a potent missive that he was sure would reach a wide audience. His next victim would be the public at large, not a specific individual.
What can we learn about the writer of the Confession Letter?
Not much. He was probably male, probably Caucasian, probably between the ages of 20 and 35, probably educated but not with an advanced degree, and probably lived in the area. Even much of this is guesswork. It would be easy to move this analysis deeper, and with more detail. However, in the end, it would still be guesswork. The bottom line is that we cannot learn much from the letter, other than the writer's intent. That seems obvious.
How much of the Confession Letter is factual, reliable?
This is a difficult question. Most of the “factual” information in the letter could have been gathered from local media reports and other sources immediately following the murder. Much of the letter is designed to threaten the public, with a special emphasis on women. So, there is a mix of information, some apparently factual and designed to convince the reader of the writer's special knowledge, some designed to instill fear. In other words, it could easily have been written by an individual skilled in the art of manipulation and subject to intense self-interest but not necessarily with any direct involvement in the crime. I do not consider much of this letter to be factual or reliable, with the possible exception of his reference to a telephone call made after the murder, an event that was apparently withheld from the public until much later. However, even this tidbit is in question. Overall, I consider the reliability factor low. The real value of the letter is to be found in the writer's intent and his method of working the media (and law enforcement) for attention.
Does the Confession Letter provide a reliable link to the activities of the Zodiac Killer? If so, how?
No, not a reliable link. However, by inference and style, it is easy enough to make that connection. There are a few “turns of the phrase” that remind us of Zodiac. The overall intent and style is also consistent with Zodiac. The preparation of the envelopes is a tantalizing clue. However, the crime itself is not sufficiently consistent with Zodiac's later crimes, with the possible exception of Lake Berryessa. Even in this latter case, the links can be easily broken. There is not quite enough to make a solid link with Zodiac but there are enough consistencies to make it a real possibility. Again, my thinking on this question has evolved over the years. I would, today, not dismiss the possibility that this letter was written by the person we would later know as the Zodiac Killer. In fact, I would not argue with a 50-50 possibility.
And the bottom line? At the moment, I don't see one. However, the fact that this event is now being re-worked by others gives us reason to be optimistic. Perhaps we will find more definitive answers before too long.