Written By Amanda Moloney
In the late 1960’s to early 1970’s, in the San Francisco area, people became terrorised when a man, who became nicknamed the zodiac killer began his killing spree. To this day the identity of the Zodiac Killer still remains a mystery although many suspects have been put forward. A total of 5 known people were murdered by this man and he sent taunting letters to newspapers about what he had done. In some of these letters he actually claims responsibility for 37 killings although the police have no evidence to back those claims up so to this day he is only attributed to 7 victims including 2 survivors.
The next day 5th July 1969 a man called the Vallejo police department and claimed responsibility for the attack on Darlene and Michael, he also claimed that he was responsible for David and Betty Lou 6 months earlier.
A month passed, August 1st 1969, the killer sent 3 letters to 3 separate newspapers, The Vallejo Times Herald, The San Francisco Chronicle and The San Francisco Examiner. The letters claimed again that he was responsible for both of the killings at Lake Herman and at Blue Rock Springs and that if the letters weren’t published on the front page he would spend the whole weekend killing. He also included a coded cipher in all three letters which he claimed revealed his identity. When the Chronicle published their letter the Vallejo police chief also wrote claiming that they didn’t believe these were from the killer and wanted him to offer more proof.
August 7th 1969, another letter arrived at the San Francisco Examiner; this was the first letter in which he called himself the Zodiac. In this letter, in response to the police chief, the killer gave details of both murder scenes that hadn’t yet been made public. The coded cipher was cracked the next day, but did not reveal any identity, it only explained how he enjoyed killing people and they would be his slaves in his afterlife.
On September 27th 1969 two college students Bryan Hartnell and Cecelia Shephard were picnicking at Lake Berryessa. They were approached by a man wearing a black hood and sunglasses. He also wore a bib over his shirt that had a white circle with a cross through it and he carried a gun. They were tied up and stabbed repeatedly. Back at their car he drew the circle with cross symbol on their door and carved Vallejo and the dates of the previous murders on there with his knife. At 7.40pm he rang the Napa County Sherriff’s Office and reported his latest crime, the police missed him at the public phone booth by minutes! The victims were discovered by a fisherman and his son when they heard screaming. Cecelia was still conscious and was able to describe the attack before lapsing into a coma and dying two days later. Bryan managed to survive.
November 8th 1969 another coded card turned up, this one contained 340 characters and at this point in time has still not been deciphered and on November 9th 1969 he sent another letter taunting that just after he had shot Paul Stine, two police officers had actually stopped and spoken to him, this was published in the Chronicle with the police officer explaining what had happened.
Exactly one year to the day of David and Betty Lou’s murder December 20th 1969 the killer again sent a letter with a sample of Paul Stine’s shirt in it, he claimed he wanted the lawyer Melvin Belli to help him.
March 20th 1970 Kathleen Johns was driving with her 10 month old daughter on Highway 132 near Modesto. She was also 7 months pregnant. They were held captive in a car for 90 mins by a man who had offered help until her and her daughter eventually jumped out of the car and hid. He searched and when he could not find them he drove away. Kathleen made her way to the Patterson Police station where she recognised the composite sketch of Paul Stine’s killer and stated that was the man who had them in his car.
Over 1970 many letters now began to arrive.
April 20th, April 28th, June 26th, July 24th, October 7th. In all his letters he either claimed responsibility for something or claimed he was going to do something, he also sent maps and ciphers saying it was locations of bombs. He had started to sign his letters with what became known as his symbol. A circle with a cross through it, he also put the number of his apparent victims here. In the signature he also put SFPD meaning San Francisco Police Dept and a 0 representing their capture rate. As the letters progressed the number he wrote for his apparent victims increased. He also claimed that he killed Sgt Richard Radetich on June 19th 1970 by shooting him in the head, but the police maintain that murder does not belong to him.
Paul Avery worked at the chronicle and covered the zodiac case in depth. On October 27th 1970 he received a letter stating that he was doomed, it was taken seriously so it was shown on the front page of the newspaper. After this Paul received an anon. letter stating there were similarities between the zodiac killings and an earlier case from 1966.
Could the below cases also belong to the zodiac killer:
October 30th 1966 Cheri Jo Bates an 18 year old student stayed late at the campus library, she was found dead the next morning brutally beaten and stabbed, a short distance from the library. On November 29th 1966 two letters were sent the Riverside Press and the Riverside Police department claiming responsibility for her death. On April 30th 1967 the paper, the police and Cheri Jo’s father all received another letter stating that she had to die and there would be more. Could this have been his first murder and it was completely missed?
On March 13th 1971 zodiac sent a letter to the Los Angeles times crediting the police for making his connection to Cheri Bates but stated they were only finding the easy ones and there were lots more out there. On March 22nd 1971 another zodiac letter was received by Paul Avery at the Chronicle. In this letter he claimed he was responsible for the disappearance of Donna Lass on September 6th 1970. She has never been found.
On November 13th 1972 the Vallejo Times Herald ran a story where the Santa Barbara Sherriff Counties Office postulated that the murder of high school students Robert Domingos and Linda Edwards on June 4th 1963, who were both shot in the back and chest may actually belong to the zodiac killer as well.
January 29th 1974 was the final letter received that can properly be attributed to the zodiac killer. He signed this letter me-37 SFPD-0
Many letters came through after this time but none could actually be proved as authentic zodiac letters by experts in the field. Most were put down to copy cats who wanted the publicity that the zodiac was getting. Arthur Allen Leigh became a prime suspect as well as his good friend Don Cheney however DNA evidence later proved that they both may be innocent. Several other names have been thrown around as suspects including Jack Tarrance, Richard Gaikowski, George Hill Hodel Jr, James Phillips, George Tucker, Earl Van Best and Louie Myer. At this point the case remains open and unsolved, Louie Myer confessed on his death bed that he was the killer and while a lot of evidence actually lines up there is still not enough for a conviction. The story of the Zodiac Killer has spawned many books, TV productions and movies.