Those of us with an interest in the case of the Zodiac killer usually have substantial knowledge about the Golden State Killer also. Before the April 24th apprehension of Joseph James DeAngelo—the former police officer whom DNA identifies as the Golden State Killer—the two fugitives shared the distinction of being California’s most notorious, unapprehended serial killers. In my particular case, I was even more intrigued by the Golden State Killer case because I had lived close to some of the perpetrator’s early crime scenes, when he was known as the East Area Rapist. And, as it turns out, DeAngelo lived a short ten miles from me at the time of his arrest.
Unsurprisingly, the crimes of the Golden State Killer share some significant commonality with those of the Zodiac. Both were active in California in the same general time frame—in or around the 1970s. Both parlayed their crimes into exceptionally high levels of fear in their targeted communities. Both preyed on couples. Both managed to evade capture despite a massive expenditure of time and effort by law enforcement. The Golden State Killer started in Northern California and moved south. The man who was the Zodiac likely started in Southern California and moved north. The list goes on and on.
To be sure, there are differences as well. For example, the Golden State Killer started out as a serial rapist and escalated to serial murder. In contrast, the man who was the Zodiac never sexually assaulted his victims. Rather, the evidence suggests the victims were more symbolic, and as such he was only interested in their murder. Also, the Golden State Killer was one of the most prolific serial offenders in history, committing 12 murders, roughly 50 rapes, and likely more than 100 burglaries—the latter stemming from the Visalia Ransacker case. Perhaps most importantly, law enforcement had multiple samples of the Golden State Killer’s DNA. In the case of the Zodiac, however, there is only a partial DNA profile developed from one of his letters.
Nevertheless, given that these two killers share so much in common, it’s instructive to consider what the apprehension of the Golden State Killer may mean to the case of the Zodiac.
DeAngelo was not on anybody’s list of suspects
I’ve long advocated for the position that not only is the person we’re looking for (the Zodiac) not any of the commonly identified suspects, but he likely was never considered a suspect. In this respect, I believe DeAngelo’s situation will be completely analogous to the Zodiac. The man who was the Zodiac mailed his letters from San Francisco. He was out and about in a city where any one of the three-quarters of a million inhabitants—circa 1970—would have jumped at the opportunity to turn him in to law enforcement. Yet, he remained unidentified. Prolific serial offenders like DeAngelo and the Zodiac evade capture for several decades not because they are the prime suspect and fate has somehow ordained that we just cannot prove it. They evade capture because they are not a suspect.
Conclusion: The Zodiac likely is not on any suspect list, but rather a person who has avoided suspicion.
Serial killers do just stop
Serial killers do stop killing; or more precisely, if left unapprehended, they can reach a point where their mental anomaly no longer compels them to kill. We’ve seen this with Dennis Rader, Wichita’s BTK serial killer who was apprehended in 2005, 14 years after his last murder. Now, we’re seeing it again with Joseph DeAngelo, who went on to lead a more or less normal life for 30+ years after his last known murder in 1986. Likely, the man who was the Zodiac also stopped killing and then blended into society, just as both of these killers had done.
The relevant ages are also worth noting. Rader was 45 years old at the time of his last murder. DeAngelo was 40 years old when he committed his final murder. The best age estimate for the Zodiac is that he was 35-40 years of age in 1969. The Zodiac killed his last definite victim, Paul Stine, in October of 1969. He likely was responsible for the abduction and presumed murder of Donna Lass in September of 1970. These facts suggest that the killer’s age range at the time of his final homicide—late thirties to early forties—is consistent with what we see in DeAngelo and Rader. So, it’s entirely plausible that, having evaded capture, the killer simply walked away from his murderous activities.
Conclusion: The Zodiac likely did stop committing homicides after 1969 or 1970.
Serial killers can have seemingly normal family and personal relationships
Joseph DeAngelo married in 1973, before any of the crimes he’s believed to have committed. The couple went on to have three daughters and separated sometime after DeAngelo’s last known murder. Apart from the fact that DeAngelo may have secretly been a notorious serial rapist and murderer, the family circumstances were typical by modern standards. Notably, the situation was far from the flawed stereotype that serial killers are condemned to a life of dysfunctional isolation.
The alleged killer’s brother-in-law described the man as a “good father”. Several other neighbors, coworkers, and acquaintances have come forward to describe their interactions with the man. The consensus is that he was a relatively normal guy, albeit subject to fits of anger.
Again, we can look to Dennis Rader for another relevant data point. Rader was married prior to the start of his string of murders. He, however, remained married until his arrest in 2005, at which time his wife divorced him. Rader and his wife had two children. Even more intriguingly, Rader was especially active in the local church.
One interesting side note, both Rader and DeAngelo were born in 1945, just eight months apart.
Conclusion: The Zodiac may well have been married and possibly has one or more children.
DNA was the means of the killer’s apprehension
Since DeAngelo was never a suspect, it’s highly improbable that he would have been caught were it not for DNA analysis. If no viable DNA samples had remained in the case, DeAngelo likely would have lived out the remainder of his life a free man, and the question of the killer’s identity would have persisted as one of life’s disturbing, unresolved mysteries.
The Golden State Killer was a serial rapist. Collecting, storing, and processing DNA evidence from rape cases are standard investigative practices, albeit the crimes predated modern DNA analysis. Unsurprisingly, investigators had viable DNA evidence available that they could use to drive their DNA search through GEDmatch, the public-sector genealogy service that was the key to unlocking the mystery.
On the other hand, the Zodiac was not a rapist. No full DNA profile exists for the killer; there is only a partial profile developed circa 2002. Moreover, the evidence available to investigators is less likely to yield the genetic material required. Specifically, the pieces of evidence that may contain extractable DNA are the numerous letters and greeting cards sent by the killer, correspondence for which the killer almost certainly licked the envelopes and stamps. Unfortunately, this evidence is nearly fifty years old and generally has not been stored using methods that are intended to preserve the integrity and viability of DNA.
Therefore, what chance we have for developing a full DNA profile lies with recent advancements in DNA extraction technology overcoming the age of the evidence and the circumstances of its storage. Thankfully, DNA analysis techniques are in a constant state of improvement, so we may, indeed, be able to extract the DNA.
In a promising step, the Vallejo Police Department has submitted parts of their evidence for re-analysis; results are expected in “the next few weeks.” Of course, the Zodiac’s recipient of choice was the San Francisco Chronicle, and hence the organization with the largest collection of potentially DNA-yielding evidence is SFPD. With the identification of DeAngelo reminding the world that decades-old cases of serial murder can be solved, I’m hopeful that SFPD will follow Vallejo’s lead and submit some of their evidence for analysis.
Even if the state of DNA analysis is not yet at the point where the relevant labs are able to extract a full DNA profile, the law enforcement agencies involved need to be committed to eventually resolving this case. Right now, as you read these words, this moment is simply a point along an ever-advancing continuum of DNA analysis improvement. If the techniques are not sufficiently advanced now, they very well may be in two years, five years, ten years, etc. Submitting the samples is a good first step; but if the results are disappointing, we need law enforcement to commit to seeing this investigation to its conclusion. The road ahead may well be more of a marathon than a sprint.
Conclusion: If the Zodiac will be identified, it will most likely happen via DNA analysis. Vallejo deserves recognition for recently submitting their evidence for additional analysis. SFPD should follow suit.
Leadership and persistence were key
Though many people played a role in identifying and arresting Joseph DeAngelo, in my estimation, the work was all built on a foundation of leadership. And that leadership was provided by Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert and Contra Costa County Investigator Paul Holes.
While absorbing the reality that DeAngelo is in custody, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that the case could have gone unsolved. All that would have been required for DeAngelo to have gotten away with his crimes is … nothing. Had the powers that be and the agencies in question opted to let this case go and instead focus on the ever-present crimes of the day, none of us would know the name: Joseph James DeAngelo.
DA Schubert convened a task force two years ago, on the 40th anniversary of the East Area Rapist crimes. She reached out to the FBI and the various jurisdictions across the state where the Golden State Killer had been active. Paul Holes actively investigated the case of the Golden State Killer for more than two decades, never giving up hope. He’s the person who oversaw the submission of the killer’s DNA sample to the open-source genealogical site, the seed that eventually bore the fruit of the killer’s identity. DeAngelo is in custody today because of the leadership and persistence of these two people.
Who will provide this type of leadership and persistence in the case of the Zodiac?
It’s true that there are some key differences between the Golden State Killer and the Zodiac. Importantly, there is a lot of bizarre and unexplained evidence pertaining to the Zodiac. This evidence results in large numbers of people becoming fascinated in the case and approaching law enforcement with theories based on wild speculation. Unsurprisingly, this dynamic is a problem. When the movie Zodiac was released in 2007, then SFPD Captain John Hennessey was quoted as saying: “I hate that case. It just sucks the oxygen out of everything around it.” While the sentiment is understandable, the attitude is a definite impediment to the eventual resolution of the case.
Whether the success of the Golden State Killer case will continue to motivate investigators to reconsider and redouble their efforts in apprehending the Zodiac remains to be seen. Let’s hope it does.
Conclusion: The Zodiac case is lacking the type of cross-jurisdictional leadership that existed with the Golden State Killer investigation.
It’s a poignant moment when the public is finally able to associate a name and a face with a serial killer persona that has managed to evade capture for one or more decades. The bogeyman-like anonymity of the unidentified serial killer gives the persona a certain type of power. Seeing the person behind the persona—especially when he is older and comes across as seemingly ordinary—amounts to pulling back the curtains and exposing a lie. The persona is irrevocably weakened. We’ve had this experience with BTK, and now we’ve had it with the Golden State Killer. Perhaps, in the not-too-distant future, it will be the Zodiac’s turn…