ZERS - Zodiac Exceptional Relationship Syndrome

Zodiac Exceptional Relationship SyndromeWhen Dennis Kaufman first accused his step father of being the Zodiac Killer, it was an interesting development, but not an entirely surprising one. Many people had an expectation that a relative or family member might well play a role in identifying the long-elusive fugitive, just as David Kaczynski had played a key role in apprehending his brother Ted, aka the unabomber. When the validity of Kaufman’s assertions became clear through the passage of time, many of us who are interested in the case began the process of trying to ignore, if not forget, the entire chain of events.

In the spring of 2009, when Deborah Perez came forward and claimed that her adoptive father, Guy Ward Hendrickson, was the Zodiac, those in the Zodiac community had an undeniable sense of deja vu. Fortunately, Perez’s claims were so extreme - e.g. she said Hendrickson had taken her along on some of the murders and that she had Paul Stine’s glasses - it was hard to take her seriously. In short order, stories of Perez having claimed to be the illegitimate daughter of President John F. Kennedy, among other things, surfaced and served to cast serious doubt on her credibility. Later that year, law enforcement surprised perhaps no one when they declared the glasses she provided did not belong to Paul Stine. By this point, she had begun her slow fade into digital oblivion.

Next up was Steve Hodel who published his book, Most Evil, later that same year; it felt like deja vu all over again, as Yogi Berra had once described the sensation. Yet again, somebody was claiming his/her father figure was the Zodiac. Specifically, the author was pointing the finger at his father, Dr. George Hodel. On the positive side, this accusation had some legitimacy that the other accusations lacked: Steve Hodel was a former LAPD homicide detective, and during the original investigation of the famous Black Dahlia murder (the subject of Steve Hodel’s previous books), George Hodel had actually been a suspect. However, given the relative improbability of Steve's suggestion - that George was both the murderer of the Black Dahlia and the Zodiac Killer - and the fact that George Hodel's age did not mesh well with the physical descriptions of the Bay-Area serial killer, many dismissed the younger Hodel’s argument.

With 2014 came a set of events that caused those who were paying attention to experience deja vu all over again, again. This time, Gary Stewart published his book, The Most Dangerous Animal of All. The subtitle tells you most of what you need to know about the book: Searching for My Father ... and Finding the Zodiac Killer. This treatise documents Stewart’s search for his biological father and the events which lead him to conclude that said man was the Zodiac Killer. At the risk of stating the obvious, I know of nobody who is both legitimately knowledgeable about the case of the Zodiac and also inclined to believe Stewart’s claim.

What are we to conclude from these four instances of people convincing themselves that their respective father or father figure was the Zodiac? Should we believe any of them? The answer is, not surprisingly, no. While there is nothing about a family member coming forward with an accusation that should preclude objective consideration, it's clear to me that none of the above are correct in their respective assertions. Nonetheless, the litany of accusations is not without value. A reasonable takeaway from this ongoing saga is that a subset of the population finds it psychologically rewarding to convince themselves that they are somehow related to the Zodiac Killer.

Having four explicit instances of this phenomenon and a high probability that the future will only yield more, it would be instructive to provide this recurring condition with a name. Please allow me to propose just such a name.

In psychology, delusions of grandeur are a certain class of delusions which involve an exaggerated sense of self worth. One particular subclass of this type of disorder involves a belief in an "exceptional relationship" with somebody in a position of power, authority, or celebrity. Typical examples of this type of exceptional relationship include the belief that one knows god or is good friends with the President; not coincidentally, Deborah Perez's claim to be John F. Kennedy's daughter is a canonical example of the delusion. To be sure, I’m no psychologist. However, it’s clear to me what we have in the four examples above are people who, to varying degrees, are experiencing an increased sense of self worth by way of convincing themselves, and anyone else who will listen, that they have an “exceptional relationship” with one of the most notorious criminals in American criminal-justice history, namely the Zodiac.

In the interest of classifying this condition and creating a context in which those of us in the Zodiac community can talk about the details of this phenomenon in the future, I am proposing that we refer to this specific condition as ZERS, an acronym for Zodiac Exceptional Relationship Syndrome.

Please understand I am not suggesting that everybody who claims that a relative may have been the Zodiac Killer has a serious mental affliction, although some people who do certainly may. What I am saying is that there are certain beliefs through which an individual can feel an elevated sense of self worth. Moreover, when people stare into the uncertainty and ambiguity which exists in the case evidence of the Zodiac Killer, it's not surprising that a few will find a way to construct such beliefs.

If history is any indication, we will have cause to discuss ZERS in the not-too-distant future...

Michael Cole


  1. wolF 20 May, 2015 at 10:31 Reply

    “George Hodel had actually been a suspect.”

    Does anyone actually have any documents that name him as a suspect in the Black Dahlia murder?

  2. John 2 February, 2016 at 19:56 Reply

    Very interesting article and I must say it is great that someone has finally given this delusion a name. ZERS! I see evidence of this syndrome from time to time, especially on the Zodiac forums. I am always wary of those people who have stories to tell, which span decades of their lives and which are so elaborate and extravagant they would not be out of place in a Hollywood movie script. I am especially wary of the ones that seem to rely on the mention of famous people “just in passing”. It is as if the association of their names is supposed to somehow give the story a greater sense of credibility, authority and legitimacy. Many of the more extravagant stories fall into a sub-category of ZERS which I affectionately call Grandpa Simpson Syndrome (GSS for short!). These stories usually cause my in-built Truth detector to go haywire, especially in the complete absence of any supporting evidence. Frequently such evidence is said to exist but we just have to trust the person on their good word, because they seem polite and genuine and nice. The evidence has been conveniently lost (discarded long ago or left with the police who have been very neglectful and “lost it” or “filed it away in a box somewhere”). The storytellers always seem t have excuses as to why they cannot provide any evidence, and the excuses are often as elaborate and extravagant as the stories. Yet some gullible people are all too willing to accept any story they hear on face value. It is of course possible that some of the stories are true, even the more extravagant ones, but the thing is, it is not possible to construct any kind of valid theory around them if the claim cannot be verified or at least supported by evidence. I always err on the side of caution in these cases and presume that every story is a fabrication unless it can be back up by solid and undeniable evidence. Two rules of thumb are: 1) If it sounds too good to be true it probably is too good to be true. 2) If it doesn’t make sense it is probably not true.

    • Huru Guru 5 February, 2016 at 23:50

      Well stated! But I don’t believe that the effects (and symptoms) of ZERS differs much from the following balderdash:

      “For some time, two paths of investigation have been carved out. One is the public face of the case that spawns little of importance but garners momentary attention. The other is a quiet path of more objective and meaningful investigation, a path that has been carefully protected. The public noise has, in a strange twist of truth, protected sincere and informed efforts to move the case forward.”

      “There is viable DNA evidence available. It is maintained and shared by two law enforcement agencies and an independent laboratory. … It provides a sufficient profile for exclusion protocols. Information about this aspect of the case has not been made public.”

      “There is physical evidence in the hands of two law enforcement agencies that has never been made public but is definitively linked to the case.”

      “When the case is definitely solved, the results will not be made public for quite some time.”

      “Once the Zodiac flotsam has lost its energy, which is now in process, there will be time to publish the definitive details of the case and how it was resolved.”

      “The announcement will be carefully planned, will be a joint effort, and will use media resources in a professional and informative way.”

      “The case will not go the way of Jack the Ripper. It will have a more satisfying end-game.”
      [umm…errr…] — July 19, 2012

      Mulder: I’m more certain than ever the truth is out there, Scully.
      Scully: I’ve heard the truth, Mulder. Now what I want are the answers.

      (If only more NON-official law enforcement would take that to heart!)

    • Michael Cole
      Michael Cole 6 February, 2016 at 09:13

      Huru Guru,

      You may not agree with what Michael Kelleher wrote in the article you quoted and called “balderdash;” everyone is entitled to his or her opinion. But, I don’t really see how it compares to ZERS.

    • Michael Cole
      Michael Cole 6 February, 2016 at 09:25

      Thanks John. There certainly are some outlandish stories and theories out there in the digital chaos that is the internet. I feel like it’s a bit of an art to figure out what to pay attention to and what to dismiss…

  3. Grunhilde 22 February, 2016 at 18:04 Reply

    I can’t blame Hodel for suspecting his father, considering that he was supposedly into all kinds of cultic/satanic activities. Didn’t George Hodel’s own daughter run away from him after he assaulted her? Hodel was a very wealthy man and I guess he had connections to people in high places. How many people here think that it is likely that the Zodiac was actually more than one man, and that they corroborated on their crimes? Bruce Davis, one of the Manson tribe, has been mentioned as being a suspect.

    I feel bad for the Stewart guy, but there is just not NEARLY enough evidence for his dad to be a suspect. He felt that his father abandoning him in a basket (or leaving him for dead,) proves he was capable of being the Zodiac. But those are two very different crimes. Forgive me, if this comment doesn’t make a lot of sense. I’m really tired.

    • Michael Cole
      Michael Cole 22 February, 2016 at 19:08

      For me, I understand Hodel making the case for his father possibly being involved with the Black Dahlia murder. There is evidence to support that argument. But… When he goes on to claim his father was also the Zodiac, he actually raises doubts about his ability to be objective and, in turn, does harm to both his Zodiac argument and his Black Dahlia argument.

      Gary Stewart’s book is interesting, but not for the reasons he intended… One of these days, I’ll write a post about that subject.

    • Grunhilde 22 February, 2016 at 22:25

      I just saw somewhere that Bruce Davis was rather short? That would rule him out because Zodiac was large. I guess the best suspect is Arthur Leigh Allen. He’s a weirdo, pervert, has a Zodiac watch with a compass on it, talks about a kind of “what if” scenario to his friend, which turns out to be a confession of sorts. Has bombs in his house, etc. Who else besides the uni-bomber would have bombs in their basement?

    • Michael Cole
      Michael Cole 23 February, 2016 at 00:31

      Allen has been ruled out on the basis of handwriting, fingerprints, palm prints, and a DNA comparison against the partial profile developed from one of the letters. Some people find reason to disbelieve the legitimacy of these comparisons, but most who do have some type of vested interest in believing that Allen was the Zodiac.

      The likelihood of Allen being the Zodiac is very low. Although, for a time, he probably didn’t mind people thinking he was the killer.

  4. James A Sassu 26 July, 2016 at 22:27 Reply

    I wouldn’t classify 4 random people claiming to be decedents of the Zodiac killer as being a phenomenon. If 4000 people made the same claim in a reasonable span of time then yes that would be phenomenal… People try every day to thrust themselves into the spotlight because they’re conditioned to believe that fame = happiness and validity. In my opinion the real phenomenon is the desire for fame, and how far some people are willing to go in order to obtain it. I often wonder how many people in the world, if given the option, would choose fame and fortune over a cure for cancer that comes with no recognition. Would you end the suffering of countless families without anyone ever knowing who you are or what you gave to the world? Or would you rather have millions of dollars and scores of people who absolutely adore you?

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