Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
He first came to police attention following the apparently random killing of Betty Lou Jensen and David Faraday on December 20, 1968, near Vallejo, California. This double homicide was followed by the murder of Darlene Ferrin and near-fatal shooting of Michael Mageau in the early morning hours of July 5, 1969, also near Vallejo. Within hours, an anonymous man called police and claimed he was the person responsible for both crimes. A masked man on September 27 stabbed Bryan Hartnell and Cecila Shepherd on the shores of Lake Beryessa , then wrote a message on Hartnell's car door referring to the two earlier killings. On October 11 of the same year, Paul Stine was killed with a gun while driving a taxi cab on a San Francisco street.
Between the attacks on Ferrin and Mageau and on Hartnell and Shepherd, on July 31, three area newspapers received an anonymous letter from the man responsible for these attacks, which included details that police had not released. The writer demanded that the newspapers publish a three-part cipher on the front page of their newspapers, which he had enclosed in his letters. Although professional codebreakers failed to decrypt this message, a pair of amateurs—Donald Gene Harden , a high school teacher from north Salinas, and his wife—succeeded in reading the message, which had been encrypted in a homophonic cipher.
The Vallejo Times-Herald , suspicious that these letters had come from a hoaxer, asked for more unpublicized details on the first two murders, to which the serial killer responded on August 7 with a letter beginning "This is the Zodiac speaking", and supplying the details. He began all of his further letters with this phrase, and referred to himself either by that name, or with a symbol created from a circle with a cross drawn over it.
Two days after Stine's murder, the Zodiac killer sent a letter to the San Francisco Examiner with a piece of Stine's blood-stained shirt, addressed with only the paper's name and the note "Please rush to editor". The Examiner received on November 8 a greeting card and another cipher from the Zodiac Killer, with a statement that appeared to mean he had killed seven people in the months of December, July, August, September and October. He made this claim clear in a seven-page diatribe that arrived the next day, and which included threats of killing people with a bomb, and of killing a school bus full of children. As a result of this threat, and its repetition in later letters, school busses were staffed with armed guards for several months.
The letter of November 9 also contained the message that the killer was "changing his way of collecting"—which came to mean that he did not claim responsibility for further murders. But he did acknowledge an earlier crime.
An anonymous tip led police to an earlier murder by the Zodiac Killer, that of Cheri Jo Bates on the Riverside Community College campus around midnight on October 30, 1966. (Riverside Community College is located about 60 miles outside of Los Angeles.) Research in the investigator's files uncovered four different letters sent to the police, a local newspaper, and Bates' father by the killer, as well as a poem carved into a library desktop with a ballpoint pen. In response to news reports about the earlier death, the Los Angeles Times received on March 15, 1971, a letter from the Zodiac Killer acknowledging he had killed Bates, while at the same time claiming he had killed 17 people.
The hallmark of this case was the letters, 21 in all, that the Zodiac Killer sent as late as April 24, 1978. Written in a distinctive print handwriting with misspellings, they taunted the San Francisco Police Department to catch him, sometimes offering clues as to where he had buried his victims, or to his identity. Many were signed with the symbol created from a circle and cross.
The total number of the Zodiac Killer's victims is not known. Robert Graysmith lists 49 names in his book, including the eight definite victims.
Robert Graysmith's books have been far and away the most popular of the books written about Zodiac. Graysmith professes that the killer was one Arthur Lee Allen who passed away in 1992. Allen denied his guilt in interviews but there was much circumstantial evidence against him. Michael Mageau, the only person ever to get a glimpse of the killer's face, said that Allen was the man who shot him. On the day of the lake attacks on Hartnell and Shepherd, Allen told his family he was going scuba diving. They said he came home with blood on his clothes and a bloody knife in the backseat of his car. Allen had told several people before the murders that he was going to kill "a bunch of people" and call himself the Zodiac. Allen was in prison during a three year period in which the taunting letters temporarily stopped. When the police questioned him, he said "The Most Dangerous Game" was his favorite story. In the book, a mad count hunts human prey on a deserted island, and says he finds it fun to hunt humans as in the Zodiac letters. Police found dead animals and clippings of the Zodiac crimes in Allen's home. However, modern DNA and fingerprint analysis of the letters could not definitively match Allen, so the case remains open. And most Zodiac sleuths agree that even if Allen wasn't the Zodiac Killer, he certainly makes for an interesting subject. Many die-hard Zodiac hunters dismiss Greysmith's books as more fiction than fact. Many other people were and still are considered suspects in the Zodiac case, Allen being just one.
The actions of the Zodiac Killer inspired several movies. Best known is Dirty Harry starring Clint Eastwood, filmed in San Francisco, and released in 1971. In the movie, the killer calls himself Scorpio, who at one point kidnaps a school bus full of children, and threatens to kill all of them. The fictional 'Gemini Killer' in the movie The Exorcist III was also loosely based on the Zodiac killer. (Steve McQueen based his character in the 1968 movie Bullitt on SFPD homicide detective Dave Toschi, who gained a modicum of fame for his work on the Zodiac case. McQueen's preparation for the role included having a copy made of Toschi's custom fast-draw shoulder holster.)
There was a similar Zodiac Killer who killed four people in New York City in a similar manner beginning in 1990. The killer was identified as Heriberto Seda and is now serving life in prison.
- Zodiac Robert Graysmith () ISBN 0425098087
- Zodiac Unmasked Robert Graysmith (2003) ISBN 0425189430 - accuses Arthur Leigh Allen
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