The Zodiac Serial Killer - How Did He Evade The Police?

The Zodiac Serial Killer - How Did He Evade The Police?

Following our show on the infamous serial killer known as Jack the Ripper, we thought we’d look at another equally fascinating crime story, that of the Zodiac killer, that has baffled both investigators and the public alike. These two beasts were not the only prolific killers never to be caught, but perhaps the most well-known. Other serial killers that got away with it include The Atlanta Ripper, India’s Stoneman, The Axeman of New Orleans, and one person that had the terrifying name of The Babysitter. There are plenty more, but maybe none who led police on such a confounding wild goose chase as the person we are going to discuss today. 

“I like killing people because it’s so much fun.” These were the chilling words written in a letter by someone we know as the Zodiac killer. But where did the killing begin? Well, the Zodiac – a name he gave to himself in the letters he sent to police – claimed to have killed 37 people in total, but that might not be the case. Police are pretty sure he killed at least 5 people and injured two others, but they also say there is a possibility he was responsible for another 20-28 murders.

The earliest confirmed murder didn’t take place until 1968, but it’s widely believed that the Zodiac was working much earlier than that. The first confirmed murders were those of a young couple, Betty Lou Jensen and David Faraday, killed on December 20, 1968. The couple pulled into a place named Lover’s Lane, probably about to reach first base on what was said to be their first date. They didn’t get too far, because a man approached their vehicle, and shot the man in the head. The girl ran, but was shot five times in the back. A few months later, the Zodiac would claim these murders as his own and he would share details only the killer would know.

You can go back much earlier, though, to 1963, and again, this terrorizer of the night picked on young people. High school lovers Robert Domingos and Linda Edwards used Senior Ditch Day to go for a sunbathe at Gaviota State Park in California. They never made it home. The boy’s dad found the bodies after becoming worried about his son being out for a long time. When he went to the beach to look for them, he found both his son and the girlfriend tied up. The boy had been shot 11 times and the girl 9 times. This may or may not have been our man.

Did the Zodiac kill 18-year-old Cheri Josephine Bates, brutally stabbed several times and her throat slashed so hard it almost decapitated her? That was in 1966, and it was some years later that police thought this could have been the work of the Zodiac.

Police are sure the Zodiac almost killed 19-year old Michael Mageau and did kill his 22-year old girlfriend Darlene Ferrin. Both were shot in 1969 while sitting in their car at Blue Rock Springs Park in Vallejo. The killer later called the police and described exactly what had happened; he finished the chilling call saying, “I also killed those kids last year. Goodbye.” He was referring to Jensen and Faraday.

Perhaps the grisliest confirmed crime was that of two lovers, 20-year-old Bryan Hartnell and 22-year-old Cecelia Ann Shepard. The pair were relaxing at a lake in Napa County, California, when a man in a hooded costume with the Zodiac emblem sewed on it told them he was a prison escapee. He bound them with clothesline while they were on their backs. He then stabbed the boy 6 times in the back, turned to the screaming girl and stabbed her 10 times. Hartnell actually survived. The killer then went up to the couple’s car and scrawled in pen some information about the other murders. Hartnell unfortunately wasn’t able to give police much information about the man that almost took his life.

The last confirmation, and perhaps the closet the Zodiac came to being caught, was when he shot 28 year old Paul Stine in the back of his head from his taxi cab in San Francisco. He only just got away as police approached the scene, but for some reason the cops were looking for a black suspect. The cops thought it was a robbery until shortly after The San Francisco Chronicle received a letter signed from the Zodiac. The letter stated, “I am the murderer of the taxi driver.” And just to be sure the police believed him, also inside the letter was a piece of the bloodstained shirt that Stine had been wearing on the night. People did see a man near the cab that night, though, and now police thought they had some idea concerning what he looked like. The Zodiac said that was a bad version of him, stating in a letter that the night of the murder he was wearing a disguise.

There were many more suspected murders, but we can’t go through them all. Let’s talk about these letters instead, most of which were written with terrible handwriting.

The first letter sent in 1966 was titled “The Confession”. He gets straight to the point, starting with the lines, “She was young and beautiful but now she is battered and dead. She is not the first and she will not be the last.” Still, it’s thought this could have been any delusional person, perhaps not the actual Zodiac killer.

Many more letters are suspected to have come from the Zodiac, but others have been confirmed. On July 31st it’s thought the Zodiac sent a letter to the San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco Examiner and Vallejo Times. Each newspaper had been sent one part of something called a cipher, this may also be called a cryptogram, and is a coded way of sending a message. In this case it was a block of letters and symbols. The Zodiac was some trickster. While he later wrote a letter saying the cipher contained his name, it was actually later discovered to have said, “I will not give you my name.”

He sent a series of letters, sometimes with ciphers. The first cipher when worked out contained a message, part of which read, “The best part of it is that when I die I will be reborn in paradise and all those that I have killed will become my slaves.”

He even wrote to Chronicle reporter Paul Avery who had been working on the case. It was a Halloween card that contained the text, “Peek-a-boo, you are doomed.” This was a threat, a matter that became serious for Avery. Despite what the Zodiac movie tells us, it was later said by Avery’s friends and colleagues that the case didn’t drive him to drugs and drink and his eventual death. That part is fiction, said the people.

The last letter received was on January 29, 1974. In this letter the Zodiac wrote that the film The Exorcist was a great “satirical comedy.” He left a symbol that has never been explained, and like that, he was gone. So, why was he never caught?

Well, firstly, some people do think the police had their man, they just didn’t have the sufficient evidence to get a conviction. The prime suspect has always been Arthur Leigh Allen, and he’s the only one that police gained search warrants for. Several police officers have said they thought it was him. Robert Graysmith, the cartoonist at the San Francisco Chronicle who was very close to the case at the time of the murders, wrote a book called Zodiac, and in it, he puts Allen as the main culprit. Police were all over him for almost 20 years and in the end had a lot of leads; bloody knives in his car, matching footprints at the murder scene, a knowledge of ciphers, a positive ID from a survivor, being seen close to one killing, other people saying he had bragged about killing and had talked about naming himself zodiac; he even had a history of abusing children and an apparent hatred for women, although police said they just could not find enough evidence to convict him. So, perhaps it’s as simple as that: cops had their man, but he slipped through their hands. His handwriting didn’t match, and neither did his DNA on the envelopes of the Zodiac letters. Allen was found dead in 1992 at his home.

Was it Richard Gaikowski, a good fit for the sketch, mentally unstable, and most of all, linked to the cyphers that were sent. Still, the man’s friends have given him solid alibis for some of the murders.

Was it Earl Van Best Jr.? An absolute dead-ringer for the Zodiac sketch, and his name seems to appear in the cyphers.

Some people have said it might have been the unibomber, aka, Theodore J. Kaczynski, but given his intellect, modus operandi and of course his twisted but profound reason for killing, it just wouldn’t make sense. One connection we suppose is that they both wrote to newspapers to spread the news of their wicked game.

Was it Rick Marshall, who owned a typewriter and liked the same movies as the Zodiac? That’s hardly a strong case.

Was it mentally ill Lawrence Kane, who knew coding, whose name may have been in the ciphers, and who was actually a colleague of one of the victims.

What about Ross Sullivan, another mentally ill man that was close to the location of the murders and a good fit for the sketch. And guess what, the Zodiac once mentioned the opera “The Mikado”, written by none other than Gilbert and Sullivan.

The list goes on, but these guys have all been discussed widely by people that have followed the case professionally, and also all those online sleuths we have these days. There are plenty of “zodiologists” out there, and many have differing opinions.

Why was he never caught? Many hypotheses have been put forward, from bad police work, different police departments working on the case and not communicating well, to good ole plain luck on the killer’s side, to the fact the killer was likely not related in any way to any of the victims. They usually are, even if it means they regularly catch the same bus. He chose his locations carefully, for the most part, which were often totally remote and far from each other. We might also add that back in the 60s and 70s the forensic technology was primitive compared to now. These days it’s likely his murders would not have only been on CCTV but they’d be going viral after being posted on something like LiveLeak.

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