Every true crime aficionado can tell you about the case that first got them interested in true crime.
A lot of these people will tell you horror stories about Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer and even John Wayne Gacy, but for me it’s always been The Zodiac Killer. Always.
There’s something about a serial killer that has never been found that scares me to no end, not to mention the fact that The Zodiac Killer seemed to enjoy taunting the police and media with letters and coded messages. His method also seemed to change with each attack, which makes it even harder to identify potential suspects and leads.
If you want to read about one of the most prominent serial killers of all time, I’d recommend grabbing yourself a cuppa and settling in. It’s going to be a long one. As always, please be aware that we’ll be discussing graphic and disturbing content in this post. Use your discretion before continuing.
The first confirmed murders occurred sometime in the evening on December 20th, 1968. David Farraday  and Betty Lou Jensen  were found murdered at Lake Herman Road in Vallego, California. The car they were in, which belonged to David, was parked in a secluded area along the road. The area they were found in was known as a ‘lover’s lane’ and it’s thought they had parked their after their date. The crime scene was discovered that night by a passer by, who told police they saw two bodies lying on the road near a parked car. Betty Lou was announced dead by officers when they arrived to the scene – she had been shot five times in the back with a .22-caliber pistol. David was found next to his car with a bullet wound in his head – somehow he was still alive, but he died before the ambulance could get him to the hospital.
In the early hours of July 5th, 1969, Darlene Ferrin  and Mike Mageau  were sitting in Darlene’s car in the car park at Blue Rock Springs Park in Vallejo, California. They were approached by a man who shone a torch into their eyes before opening fire at both of them. Darlene was hit several times, and Michael was shot in the shoulder, leg and jaw. Both managed to survive the attack, at least for a little while. While both victims lay at the crime scene, a man called the Vallejo Police Department and said “I want to report a murder… no, a double murder. If you go one mile east on Columbus Parkway, you will find kids in a brown car. They were shot with a 9-millimeter Luger. I also killed those kids last year.” Shortly after the police arrived, Darlene died, but Michael survived his injuries and was able to provide some information to the police about their attacker.
On the evening of September 27th, 1969, Cecilia Shephard  and Bryan Hartnell  were sitting on the shoreline of Lake Berryessa in Napa, California. An armed man wearing a hood approached the couple and demanded money and a car. He tied their wrists with pieces of plastic clothesline and then started brutally stabbing Cecilia and Bryan. Before the attacker left the crime scene, he drew the Zodiac symbol and also wrote “Vallejo 12-20-68, 7-4-69, Sept 27-69-6:30 by knife”, and then proceeded to call the Napa Police Department to report a double murder. He also described Bryan’s car and directed the police to the crime scene. Cecilia eventually died from the ten stab wounds she received but Bryan survived, despite being stabbed in the back six times, and was able to provide an account of the attack.
Just before 10pm on October 11th, 1969, San Francisco taxi driver Paul Stine  was found shot dead in his car at an intersection. A radio call out was made to all police officers in the area, identifying a black male as the culprit. Police officers scoured the nearby streets, passing one particular white male that was short and stocky, but thought nothing of it as his skin didn’t match the description. An update then came out over the radio that the suspect was in fact a white male, short and stocky, but by the time these officers had looped back around to track down the man they had seen, the streets were empty. Fingerprints were found on the car and some witnesses were able to work with a sketch artist to come up with a composite.
Aside from these murders, at least five other homicides have been linked to The Zodiac Killer, including the shooting of a couple near Santa Barbara, California, and the stabbing of a college student in Riverside, California.
Now, I mentioned before that The Zodiac Killer is well-known for taunting both police and media during his active years. He taunted them with letters and ciphers, and was even said to have sent them small pieces of evidence on occasion.
The first letter/s came on July 31st, 1969, just a few weeks after the second attack. The San Francisco Examiner, The San Francisco Chronicle and the Vallejo Times Herald all received letters from a person who identified themselves as the killer, and said “I like killing people because it’s so much fun.” These letters each contained one-third of a cipher, which the killer demanded be published on the front page of each newspaper the following day. Each letter was signed with what we now know as the Zodiac symbol.
These ciphers were published, but only one newspaper actually followed the instructions of putting it on the first page. Each cipher was accompanied by an article with statements from police that they believed the letters were a hoax, and that if they truly were from the killer, more proof was needed.
Another letter arrived at The San Francisco Examiner offices on August 4th, 1969, this time with the author identifying themselves for the first time as ‘the Zodiac’ – thus where he got this name from. In this letter, he revealed information about the crime scenes that could only be known by the killer. The authorities then knew that The Zodiac Killer enjoyed taunting them and would continue to do so until they found him.
After Paul Stine’s murder, on October 13th, 1969, The San Francisco Chronicle received another letter from The Zodiac Killer. The letter contained threats against children and mockery of the police for failing to catch him. A piece of Paul’s blood stained shirt was also attached to the letter.
Over the next ten years, numerous letters were received by police and the media. In some, he sent more pieces of Paul’s shirt, and in others he added in things like greeting cards, bomb recipes, diagrams and various ciphers.
One major element that was evident in all of these letters was that The Zodiac Killer could not spell to save his life. He misspelled words like clues [clews], Christmas [Christmass] and anamals [animals] – all easy words, really. Some think that perhaps he spelt phonetically, or that he might have even intentionally put these errors in to throw police off. Either way, despite having written countless letters, The Zodiac Killer never left any clues that lead to his identification and arrest.
Perhaps the most important question is why. Why did The Zodiac Killer commit these murders and toy with the police?
A lot of experts believe that he simply enjoyed killing and being in control. He liked to instil fear in people, and he loved the feeling of power. That, combined with his air of superiority, is why he enjoyed taunting the police so much. He knew things they didn’t. He created complex ciphers that very few people would be able to crack. He was in complete control of what information they pursued and what they did not. He also had control over the entirety of California, making people terrified to leave their homes for fear of being murdered.
Because he often targeted couples, it is believed that The Zodiac Killer experienced some relationship-related heartbreak in his life. Whether that be related to the ending of a relationship, or even his inability to experience a proper relationship at all – he really seemed to detest people that were openly in love.
A number suspects have been named over the years, so let me provide a little bit of information behind the most plausible of them.
Richard Gaikowski was only recently identified as a suspect after a number of alarming things were brought to light about his personality and character. He was identified to be a part of an anti-police newspaper during the early 1970’s, in which he published pieces of fiction that were eerily similar to some of Zodiac’s later crimes. His handwriting was found to share some consistencies with the letters sent by The Zodiac Killer, and Paul Stine’s sister said she had seen Gaikowski at her brother’s funeral – though the men were not believed to have known each other.
Arthur Leigh Allen is possibly the most recognised Zodiac suspect. He lived in the area of the first two attacks, and was said to be a strange person. He often made statements to his friends and colleagues that made them suspect he was the killer. He owned a Zodiac-brand watch, shared the same shoe size as the killer, and was picked out of a line up by two of the surviving victims. His handwriting sample did not match that of the letter-writer, although some people state he was ambidextrous, which explains this inconsistency. Allen died before any further investigation could be done.
Rick Marshall is still considered to be a strong suspect by some investigators. His physical appearance matches the witness statements, and lived in the areas of the attacks when they occurred. He was actually reported as being suspected of the murders by some acquaintances, who thought his bizarre behaviour might be attributed to the fact that he was a murder. Marshall was also said to be ambidextrous.
Anyone who watched the film Zodiac could not possibly come away from it without thinking Arthur Leigh Allen was the murderer. I definitely did! The only issue with this conclusion is that all of the evidence against Allen is circumstantial.
With that said, I do think he is definitely the most plausible out of all the suspects identified, with Gaikowski coming in at a close second… However, I do think it’s entirely possible that the real killer has never been identified. There are so many inconsistencies in relation to Allen and Gaikowski that can’t be explained or reasoned with, and so I’m forced to believe that perhaps the real Zodiac is still out there. Maybe he’s alive, maybe he’s dead – who knows? I don’t think his ego would allow him to come forward, but I also feel like he would be the kind of person to make a death-bed confession – for the publicity and last-minute fame, ya know?
With everything that happened in The Golden State Killer case in regards to DNA and genealogy, we can only hope that something similar happens with this case. The Zodiac Killer case was officially reopened earlier this month, with further DNA testing and analysis to be done.
The victims and their families need to be at peace, and I don’t ever think that’s ever truly possible without a conviction.
The only thing that gives me hope for the families is the fact that science today is so sophisticated and advanced, that surely we’ll find an answer soon? Surely it’s only a matter of time?
Either way, I’d love to know what you guys think about this case. Do you have any theories on who it could be?