Reflecting on Robert Graysmith...

Happy Birthday, Bob

Zodiac - Robert GraysmithIn September 2012, Robert Graysmith will turn 70 years old. By any account, he has led an interesting and sometimes difficult life. To turn 70 and have experienced what he has experienced in his life should give us all pause to consider what he has done for those of us who are even passingly familiar with the Zodiac case.

For years, Graysmith has been the target of vicious and unrelenting attacks across the Zodiac amateur community. Poking fun at Graysmith and his original book is a particularly favorite hobby for those who consider themselves “experts” on this cold case. They point out his flaws, his inconsistencies, his failed theories, and his mistakes. In fact, whatever you can imagine that he did wrong, someone is quick to tag him as the cause. Some of this criticism is deserved and well-presented. Much of it is nothing more than thinly-veiled personal attack rants offered without regard to balance or objectivity.

Of course, few of these critics would ever openly admit that their introduction to the Zodiac case was Graysmith's original book. It is much easier to tackle him from behind than get out front and carry the ball, as he did. In the electronic world of remote and often anonymous assault tactics, it is a simple thing to become a critic and a much more difficult task to work through the difficulties that Graysmith faced over decades. In fact, none of his critics has done so. Whatever you may think of him, whatever flaws you find (or think you find), it was Graysmith who first put pen to paper, who did the grunt work, who spent the countless hours of research, and who paid such a high price because he believed in his journey. All of us followed in his wake, even those who cannot find a decent word to say about him.

When I first wrote my book, I differed with Graysmith in several key areas. The most obvious point of contention is that I dismissed his favorite suspect by name in a single sentence. I suspect that did not please the original Zodiac author, but it was my point of view and I felt compelled to voice it. However, I also tried to give Graysmith as much credit as possible by including references and footnotes where they were appropriate. Predictably, I was well-spanked for giving him credit where I could legitimately do so. Once again, the criticisms were leveled by individuals who had never made the effort to research, organize, and publish a major work on this cold case. I quickly learned that Graysmith had been treated with disdain for making mistakes that were, at the time he wrote his first book, at least somewhat understandable. To compound matters, there was also one more factor in play – case blindness.

Graysmith was sure that he had solved the Zodiac case. He was so convinced about his suspect that he reached too far to make the solution stick. Ironically, the Internet is now filled with individuals who behave in this same way and still find lots of room to attack Graysmith. I suppose it's easier to find fault in another than in oneself. I took the easy way out when I wrote my book. I never intended to solve the case, so naming a suspect and working out a solution was unnecessary. Once again, regardless of what you think about Graysmith, he did all the heavy lifting. No one else has done so since.

So, let me repeat what I have said in other public statements. I have no doubt that it will cause the same furor as it has in the past, but I feel the need to repeat it again. Graysmith has done more for that Zodiac case than any other private citizen, despite his mistakes and misadventures. Without Graysmith, this case could easily have slipped into obscurity. No one who came after him has provided the same kind of impetus to one of our biggest unsolved mysteries.

So, Happy Birthday, Bob Graysmith. I appreciate what you have accomplished and (hopefully) understand the price you paid for your efforts. You have left a legacy that will carry on well after your critics have long disappeared from the scene.


  1. Tom Voigt 9 August, 2012 at 22:35 Reply

    Mike, you were taken to task for regurgitating erroneous info from Graysmith’s book; your giving him “credit” had nothing to do with it.

    As far as nobody doing any heavy lifting since Graysmith’s book was prepared, I will remind the world that a vast majority of the Zodiac’s letters — not to mention police reports, crime scene photos, etc — were never made available to anyone until 1998 when I obtained and shared them with the world via

    • ron tressler 4 October, 2012 at 18:04

      To Greysmith and to all the other writers here who have worked Zodiac, as a witness I found it impossible to find accuracy fielding between the writers here. Do not misunderstand, your work is priceless and important and respected, but for an actual witness to try to get even times and places and numerous victims in the right place makes actual reporting to the Police or Sheriff difficult. One book will have a date of a murder and a witness builds their entire testimony on a date and then another book, even a writing by the same author will have a different “fact” or date or something. As important as a work all of the writers are, the actual case file is the centerpiece of a case and the actual reporting must be as SIMPLE AS POSSIBLE or over-reporting hinders the case. For the witness to know the Authors have had allowance of time with the actual case files and sheriff and police when the actual WITNESSES find the Sheriff and Police understaffed and underpaid and overharrassed is a crime in itself. For a male writer to have the ear of the Sheriff or Police as an “expert” when the actual witnesses are murdered while the writers collect their money from the case is more than a crime, it is a severe injustice. All of you, check in to the Sheriff or Police Departments and ask what you can financially contribute to the case or physically contribute or be hypocrites, all of you. The witnesses who have been murdered and unheard on your watch will judge you in the afterlife.

  2. Tracers 10 August, 2012 at 02:08 Reply

    Agreed, Tom, Kelleher did not merely credit Graysmith; he relied upon what Graysmith said instead of researching the case online and seeing what had been posted at your site, Jake’s, etc. about the case. Had Kelleher bothered to look beyond what Graysmith wrote, his book might have not have repeated the same errors Graysmith made.

    I and most everyone I know of (save Michael Butterfield), readily credit Graysmith with bringing the case back to the public eye with his publication of his first Zodiac book. If not for that book, the case may very well have slipped back into obscurity. Likewise, most people I know readily admit that Graysmith faced a daunting task when writing his first book. He did not have the benefit of the internet, had to track down information on his own and put his faith in information given to him by family members, friends, LE, etc., that was later called into question. That the first Zodiac book contains mistakes is inevitable and understandable to most of us; that Kelleher repeated some of those same mistakes long after these mistakes were exposed is less understandable. Given that, TITZS is still the best book written on the case thus far, imo, even though Kelleher recently referred to the book as a mistake. I just don’t understand why Kelleher blindly accepted what Graysmith wrote without doing more research.

    Seriously, the only person I know of who won’t give Graysmith any credit whatsoever is Michael Butterfield, who actually said sometime in 2007 or 2008 that Graysmith was just as bad as Hitler when some of us in the old Live Harmony Zodiac chat room were saying that Graysmith deserved credit for reviving interest in the case.

    Kelleher is correct, imo, to say Graysmith deserves credit, but wrong when he says that credit has not been forthcoming.

  3. Tracers 10 August, 2012 at 02:58 Reply

    I would also like to add that I do applaud the work of those people, including Mr. Butterfield, who closely studied the case and were able to identify the mistakes Graysmith made in his first book and set things straight, Such insights are invaluable.

  4. Michael D. Kelleher 10 August, 2012 at 08:05 Reply

    To properly identify mistakes is, indeed, valuable. To make assumptions about the work of others is not. To launch endless personal attacks, needlessly trash an author like Graysmith, and incessantly work to diminish his efforts is deplorable. That is not objective research or reliable critique. It is, instead, a reflection of an entirely different mindset, and one that has essentially destroyed what was once a vibrant and effective amateur involvement in the Zodiac case. It takes very little time on a message board to read and understand the difference between honest critique and blatant personal attacks. Only those who thrive on tactics like the persecution of Graysmith seem unaware of the difference.

  5. Deborah Silva 10 August, 2012 at 08:41 Reply

    I agree with Tracers post, most people have credited Graysmith and his first book, Zodiac with reviving the Zodiac case and putting it back into the public eye. People have even gone as far as pointing out that Zodiac was his first book and that he was not a trained writer or researcher but an illustrator. I believe that it was Graysmith’s second book Zodiac Unmasked that was his undoing.

    The second book should have been an opportunity to correct the mistakes made in the first but Graysmith chose to compound the errors and even add some new ones. Had Graysmith stopped at his first book we wouldn’t be having this discussion.

  6. Tom Voigt 10 August, 2012 at 11:54 Reply

    I worked with Graysmith for three years on Zodiac Unmasked, discussing case details over the phone with him for several hundred hours, as well as supplying him with a ton of unique info on Arthur Leigh Allen that I had dug up. I also supplied Graysmith with countless police reports and other data he did not have access to and that he requested from me. Needless to say, I was shocked and dismayed that he chose to publish incorrect and misleading info to further his theory that Allen was the Zodiac.

    Mistakes in Zodiac were understandable. What he did in Zodiac Unmasked was intentionally misleading. I know, because I was there.

  7. Tracers 10 August, 2012 at 16:18 Reply

    And like Tom, I take issue with that “heavy lifting” comment. Graysmith did do a lot of work getting information and putting it out there in books for all to read, but Tom has been the major player in getting information and making it available since 1998. Others have also made significant contributions. While there is no way to mention them all, Howard Davis, Mike Rodelli, Ed Neil, Michael Butterfield, Jake Wark, Chris Yarbrough, etc. come to mind.

  8. Harold Kravcik 10 August, 2012 at 19:12 Reply

    Here Here Mr. Kelleher.

    Well said. I for one could not agree with you more about his contributions and join you in wishing him the happiest of Birthdays.

  9. Duckking2001 26 August, 2012 at 02:45 Reply

    No one should be subject to personal harassment, but at the same time I don’t think he needs to be defended. By most accounts he is successful far beyond anyone else who has followed in his footsteps with the Zodiac, so I really don’t see how he is being hurt by anything that has to do with it. The Zodiac is immediately linked in imagination with Robert Graysmith… but who was the bestselling author that turned the little known criminal Jack the Ripper into the world’s most famous mystery of all time? In other words, do you really think no one would have been interested in Zodiac if it wasn’t for Graysmith? So was it him, or was it all the people that read his book who kept the case alive?

    Whenever I talk to people outside of the Z community about the case I hear about how Robert Graysmith solved it, that Allen is guilty and that all of his errors are factually truthful. When I dispute these I’m asked if I have a personal vendetta against the man ; as if telling people to check their sources means that I wish to do harm to a man that I’ve never met or spoken to. I can’t but feel some bitter irony that all of the people who have commented on here have had personal insults and character attacks against them because of their involvement with this case, while Graysmith is being called a victim because of what people say about him on some websites that I’m sure he never even sees.

    If we just look at what Graysmith did, the Zodiac case ended in the early nineties when his suspect died. For the past 20 years the case has been taken up by the internet amateurs, and I think it is a disservice to them to say that they haven’t contributed anything to the lasting legacy of this case.

  10. kEY.sMITH697 28 August, 2012 at 20:09 Reply

    Thank You , Michael D Kelleher. You said nice things about Robert GraySmith. It’s hard to believe that he will be 70 years old. I do hope that he’s in good health. And Yes, a great deal of people have contributed to the lasting legacy of this case. HollyWood, web site, every month it seems there is a new book on the z. As for GraySmith, he well never be a victim, not in my eyes. He just looked through the wrong looking glass is all.

  11. Carmen 6 August, 2014 at 18:18 Reply

    As somebody who has been fascinated with this case since I was a child, and who has recently started trying to crack the ciphers (why not?), I am really dismayed when I wade into the Zodiac community online and find such corrosive behavior, conformity, clannishness and stupidity. It just depresses you to realize how much time and energy people take in tearing down each other and I was really shocked, frankly, at the behavior of certain leading lights in this matter, and I am not talking about Graysmith. Say what you will about that guy, but he is truly dedicated, he believed in ALA, he laid a good portion of his life down to study this- people talk about him like he is some golddigger, ignoring the fact that he is JUST as fascinated as we all are. I am really thankful that someone has said what I felt- that Graysmith has been unfairly maligned. Would we even be studying this case were it not for him? He’s like Freud- he opened the door, even if his theories no longer apply. Give the man some credit. Be nicer for God’s sake.

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