Who was the Zodiac Killer? The Zodiac, also known as the Zodiac Killer, is an as-of-yet unidentified serial killer who was active in the San Francisco Bay Area during the late 1960s and early 1970s. He definitely murdered five people and seriously injured two others over a ten month period between December 20, 1968 and October 11, 1969. There is also evidence to suggest that the same man is responsible for: additional murders in Southern California, the abduction of a young mother and her infant daughter near Modesto and the disappearance of a nurse in South Lake Tahoe.
Apart from the crimes themselves, the Zodiac killer is notable for two unusual characteristics. First, he sent numerous handwritten, taunting letters and greeting cards to newspapers in the Bay Area, especially the San Francisco Chronicle. Initially, the letters were characterized by identity-verifying factual itemization. Later, they devolved into seemingly empty threats and child-like pleas for attention.
The second of the Zodiac killer’s noteworthy characteristics was his penchant for ciphers – a type of cryptogram in which messages are concealed by replacing letters with symbols. The killer sent a total of four ciphers. One was solved relatively quickly (the 408). One is currently unsolved but substantial enough that it may eventually be solved (the 340). The final two ciphers are so short that they are unlikely ever to be solved convincingly. These latter two ciphers are the My-name-is cipher and the 32.
The following sequence of events highlights the most important developments in the story of the Zodiac killer.
December 20, 1968. The Zodiac murders David Faraday and Betty Lou Jensen on a remote lover’s lane turnout of Lake Herman Road in Vallejo, California. David is shot once in the head and dies en route to the hospital. Betty Lou is shot five times in the back as she attempts to flee. She is pronounced dead at the scene.
July 5, 1969. The killer next strikes just after midnight on the 4th of July when he attacks a couple as they are sitting and talking in a secluded Vallejo parking lot, approximately four miles from the previous murder site. Darlene Ferrin is shot five times and dies en route to the hospital. Michael Mageau is shot four times, but manages to survive. He is able to provide only vague descriptions of the killer and his vehicle. Roughly 45 minutes after the attack, the killer phones the Vallejo Police Department and recites an apparently scripted, taunting message.
July 31, 1969. The Vallejo-area murder saga takes an unexpected turn. The murderer sends nearly identicalÂ letters to three different Bay-Area newspapers. Â In the letters, he takes credit for the attacks, providing information about the crimes that police have not disclosed to the public. Not content to merely write, the killer includes with each letter one third of a 408-character cipher. The cipher is solved in short order by a husband and wife team a few days after all three sections are published. The revealed message is a disturbing celebration of murder.
September 27, 1969. The Zodiac viciously attacks two college students, Bryan Hartnell and Cecelia Shepard, as they are enjoying each other’s company in a secluded area of the Lake Berryessa shoreline. The killer wears a ritualistic executioner-type outfit. After gaining control of the situation with a gun, he hogties both victims and proceeds to stab first Bryan and then Cecelia. Bryan is stabbed six times in the back and survives. Cecelia is stabbed somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 times and succumbs to her wounds two days later. Similar to the previous attack, the Zodiac telephones the Napa Police Department in order to recite a taunting message. He also writes a cryptic message on Bryan Hartnell’s car door.
October 11, 1969. The killer commits his final definite murder. In uncharacteristic fashion, he hails a cab in downtown San Francisco and rides to an upscale San Francisco neighborhood where he murders the driver, Paul Stine, by shooting him once in the head. Before leaving, the Zodiac rips away a section of Paul’s bloodstained shirt. Three teenagers and two San Francisco police officers observe the killer before he disappears into the heavily wooded area of the Presidio.
October 13, 1969. A couple of days after Stine’s murder, the Zodiac killer sends a letter to the San Francisco Chronicle in he which takes credit for the recent crimes. Accompanying the missive is a piece of Paul Stine’s bloody shirt thereby removing all doubt regarding the veracity of the author’s claim. He ends the letter by threatening to kill school children “as they come bouncing out” of the bus. Understandably, the threat sends the Bay Area into a near panic.
November 1969 – October 1970. Throughout the remainder of 1969 and 1970, the killer continues to communicate with law enforcement and the public by way of additional letters to the Chronicle and, in one case, famed defense attorney Melvin Belli. These letters include three additional ciphers (none of which have ever been solved), bizarre pleas for attention, unusual references to the Mikado (a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta), cryptic drawings and a revised threat in which the killer claims he will now blow up a school bus.
March 22, 1970. Kathleen Johns is driving herself and her infant daughter from Southern California to Petaluma. After 11:00 p.m., near Modesto, an apparent Good Samaritan convinces her to pull over and sabotages her rear wheel under the guise of fixing it. Once disabled, the man offers her a ride to a nearby gas station. Instead, he drives the mother and daughter around the back roads of Tracy for nearly two hours before they manage to escape. Kathleen identifies the Zodiac as her abductor and months later the Zodiac appears to claim responsibility in a letter.
November 1970. Chronicle reporter Paul Avery discovers and reports on the possibility that the man who is the Zodiac killer was also responsible for the October 30, 1966 murder of a nineteen-year-old college coed, Cheri Jo Bates, in the Southern California city of Riverside. The evidence in the case includes an eerie typewritten letter, entitled The Confession, that the murderer sent to police and the local newspaper.
March 1971. The killer sends a letter to the Los Angeles Times as well as his final pre-hiatus communique which takes the form of a cryptic postcard mailed to the Chronicle. The postcard seems to suggest that the killer is taking credit for the disappearance of a nurse, Donna Lass, who was last seen on September 6, 1970 in South Lake Tahoe.
January 29, 1974. After a silence of nearly three years, the killer re-emerges by way of a letter that he pens to the Chronicle in his standard cryptic fashion. The ensuing few months see three additional communiques that authorities believe or suspect are authored by the killer, but, importantly, not under the persona of the Zodiac.
April 25, 1978. A letter that authorities initially deem authentic arrives at the Chronicle. Subsequently, experts classify the letter a fraud. The integrity of the Zodiac investigation is dealt a significant blow when some speculate that San Francisco’s lead Zodiac investigator, Dave Toschi, may have written the letter. Ultimately, he is cleared.
Today. Despite the best efforts of thousands of people – some professional, others not – the identity of the Zodiac remains unknown. In many ways, society has evolved to a point where it is content to let the case of the Zodiac remain one of the great unsolved mysteries of our time.Â Several of the people directly involved with the case – both from the perspective of law enforcement and also that of the victims’ families – have departed this world without the satisfaction of any meaningful resolution. Furthermore, those charged with overseeing the investigation are expending little substantive effort toward the goal of bringing the fugitive to justice. And honestly, the practicality of such a position is difficult to argue against at a time when the financial realities of so many law-enforcement agencies are highly constrained. As the saying goes, justice delayed is justice denied. In this case, the delay has been so significant that the denial is effectively absolute.
What little hope there is for bringing some degree of closure to the case of the Zodiac lies with the small but intense contingent of people who remain active in the fight to identify the killer. But any objective assessment of reality yields the following less-than-encouraging conclusion: with each passing day, the probability that the world will ever learn the killer’s name diminishes – ever-so-slightly to be sure, but undeniably, it diminishes…
Many of the images on this page are courtesy of Tom Voigt at zodiackiller.com.