When 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…