The Zodiac Killing Spree Begins
The murder spree initiated by a man known only as The Zodiac, is one of the United States’ most intriguing and enduring crime mysteries. No one is sure exactly when the murderous wave of killings began nor when it ended. All we do know is that for over 22 years, someone managed to outwit the California authorities all the while taunting, goading, and ridiculing the police while he maintained his cycle of vicious killings, often within sight of the very authorities that sought to stop him.
The first Zodiac victim?
The first victim of the Zodiac was likely 18-year-old Cheri Jo Bates (18), a student at Riverside City College. Her nearly decapitated body was found on October 30, 1966 near the college library’s parking lot. The only evidence left at the scene were a Timex watch (with the time stopped at 12:23 AM) and two partial bloody palm prints. Other evidence soon surfaced however – delivered by the US Postal service. A letter to the Riverside Police and the Riverside Enterprise newspaper arrived soon after the murder with no postage affixed to the envelope.
…I AM NOT SICK. I AM INSANE. BUT THAT WILL NOT STOP THE GAME. THIS LETTER SHOULD BE PUBLISHED FOR ALL TO READ IT. IT JUST MIGHT SAVE THAT GIRL IN THE ALLEY. BUT THAT’S UP TO YOU. IT WILL BE ON YOUR CONSCIENCE. NOT MINE. YES, I DID MAKE THAT CALL TO YOU ALSO. IT WAS JUST A WARNING. BEWARE…I AM STALKING YOUR GIRLS NOW.
Six months later a second letter arrived bearing the simple text “Bates had to die. There will be more”. The only signature contained within the letter was a single letter – ‘Z’…
The first canonized Zodiac murder – David Farady and Betty Lou Jensen
On December 20, 1968, what some consider to be the first true Zodiac attack, occurred at Lake Herman Road in Vallejo (20 miles northeast of San Francisco). A woman passer-by discovered two bodies lying in the middle of the road near a parked car. Later identified as 17-year-old David Arthur Faraday and 16-year-old Betty Lou Jensen, both were shot at close range, David while sitting in the car and Betty Lou as she tried to run away. Witnesses recalled seeing a suspicious blue Valiant driving up and down Lake Herman Road for about an hour before the murders.
The Vallejo murder of Ferrin and Mageau
About 7 months later, on July 4 (some reports indicate the 5th), 1969, the second attack occurred in Vallejo, California. 24-year-old Darlene Elizabeth Ferrin a local waitress, and Michael Renault Mageau were parked in their car at the Blue Rock Springs Park when a blinding flashlight was shone in their faces. A white male, 25-30 years old, 5 feet 8 inches tall with a “round face and brown wavy hair” stealthily approached their vehicle and began firing. Darlene was killed instantly but Michael survived (despite being shot in the face, neck, and chest) and told of the callousness in which Zodiac calmly walked back to his car, heard Michael moaning, then promptly returned to fire five more shots at his dying victims. This impassive behavior was further exhibited when the Zodiac began his relentless pursuit of recognition while tantalizing local Vallejo authorities with calls and letters. The first phone call arrived minutes after the Ferrin and Mageau shooting spree…
I wish to report a double murder. If you will go one mile east on Columbus Parkway to a public park, you will find the kids in a brown car. They have been shot by a nine-millimeter Luger. I also killed those kids last year. Good-bye.
Police quickly tracked the originating number and called it back. The call came from a phone booth right around the corner from the Vallejo police station and practically across the street from Darlene Ferrin’s home. A passerby answered the ringing phone and informed the police that he had seen the man calmly lay the receiver down and drive off in a brown car.
This incident bore many bizarre characteristics that for some time, puzzled the local police. They felt that Ferrin may have been stalked some time prior to her demise and some speculate she may have known her killer (was it a coincidence that the killer phoned from a booth across the street from Darlene’s home?). Darlene was married, but not to Michael Mageau, and close friends told authorities that Darlene had received a private phone call earlier that night.
Michael’s circumstances were equally perplexing. At the scene, police were puzzled to find that Michael wore three pairs of pants, a long sleeved shirt, and three sweaters on a warm July night. They also discovered that he had left his home in a hurry – the door was wide open and the TV left playing.
Police pondered whether Darlene was having an affair with Michael or if she simply brought him along as protection in order to meet her perceived stalker in a hastily arranged rendezvous. These questions may never be answered since Michael Mageau, the sole survivor, has since left California and is living under an assumed name.
Zodiac’s Letter Campaign – a serial killer makes a name
On July 31, 1969 (possibly 08/01/1969), three of the area newspapers received mystifying letters taking credit for the slayings at Lake Herman Road and Blue Rock Springs. The San Francisco Examiner, San Francisco Chronicle, and Vallejo Times-Herald received letters stating:
I am the killer of the 2 teenagers last Christmass at Lake Herman and the Girl last 4th of July. To Prove this I shall state some facts which only I+ the police know.
1 Brand name of ammo Super X
2 10 shots fired
3 Boy was on back feet to car
4 Girl was lyeing on right side feet to west
4th of July
1 Girl was wearing patterned pants
2 Boy was also shot in knee
3 Brand name of ammo was Western
Here is a cyipher or that is part of one. The other 2 parts of this cipher have been mailed to the S.F. Examiner + the S.F. Chronicle.
I want you to print this cipher on your frunt page by Fry Afternoon Aug 1-69, If you do not do this I will go on a kill rampage Fry night that will last the whole week end. I will cruse around and pick off all stray people or coupples that are alone then move on to kill some more untill I have killed over a dozen people over the weekend.
Each of the three letters were slightly different (view the letters below) but all stated precisely the same information. Each of the letters included 1/3 of a 408-symbol cipher, indicating if all three were solved then the identity of the killer would be revealed. The first letter (and first part of the cipher) was sent to the Vallejo Times-Herald and was marked with four stamps. The second letter was sent to the San Francisco Examiner and had three stamps. The third letter was sent to the San Francisco Chronicle and had two stamps. The number of stamps used on each envelope was apparently a clue to the encryption method used in the cipher. Police did not discover this at first but it did not matter – a Alisal High School teacher in Salinas (Donald Harden), who saw the letters reprinted in the local newspaper, broke the code (misspellings and all) and revealed the eerie message.
I like to kill people because it is so much fun. It is more fun than killing wild game in the forest, because man is the most dangerous animal of all. To kill something gives me the most thrilling experience. It is even better than sex. The best part will be when I die. I will be reborn in Paradise, and then all I have killed will become my slaves. I will not give you my name because you will try to slow or stop my collecting of slaves for my afterlife.
All three letters were signed with a Zodiac sign, a symbol representing the Zodiac, a celestial belt in space which encompasses thirteen constellations. Because of this, the police dubbed him Zodiac, a name which the killer quickly took accustom to and began using in all subsequent communications.
More Zodiac letters arrive
Police publicly questioned the authenticity of the first letter or at least they appeared publicly stating that they had their doubts in order to pry more information out of the killer. Their ploy worked. Three days later another letter arrived from the killer, the first letter in which he actually addressed himself as the Zodiac. This letter certainly convinced the police that they were dealing with the actual murderer and revealed that they had a serial killer running loose in their area.
Dear Editor, This is the Zodiac speaking. In answer to your asking for more details about the good times I have had in Vallejo, I shall be very happy to supply even more material. By the way, are the police having a good time with the code? If not, tell them to cheer up; when they do crack it, they will have me.
On the 4th of July: I did not open the car door. The window was rolled down all ready. The boy was origionaly sitting in the frunt seat when I began fireing. When I fired the first shot at his head, he leaped backwards at the same time, thus spoiling my aim. He ended up on the back seat then the floor in back thashing out very violently with his legs; that’s how I shot him in the knee. I did not leave the cene of the killing with squealing tires + raceing engine as described in the Vallejo paper. I drove away quite slowly so as not to draw attention to my car. The man who told police that my car was brown was a negro about 40-45 rather shabbly dressed. I was in this phone booth having some fun with the Vallejo cop when he was walking by. When I hung the phone up the damn thing began to ring & that drew his attention to me + my car.
Last Christmass In that epasode the police were wondering how I could shoot + hit my victims in the dark. They did not openly state this, but implied this by saying it was a well lit night + I could see silowets on the horizon. Bullshit that area is srounded by high hills + trees. What I did was tape a small pencel flash light to the barrel of my gun. If you notice, in the center of the beam of light if you aim it at a wall or ceiling you will see a black or darck spot in the center of the circle of light about 3 to 6 inches across. When taped to a gun barrel, the bullet will strike in the center of the black dot in the light. All I had to do was spray them as if it was a water hose; there was no need to use the gun sights. I was not happy to see that I did not get front page coverage.
Lake Berryessa attack on Bryan Hartnell and Cecelia Shepard
I want to report a murder — no, a double murder. They are two miles north of Park Headquarters. They were in a white Volkswagen Kharmann Ghia.
When the operator asked the caller for his location he simply replied, “I’m the one that did it”.
Police arrived on the scene to discover Cecelia Ann Shepherd and Bryan Harrnell, two students from Pacific Union College. They were picnicking near Lake Verriesa (sixty miles northeast of San Francisco) on a secluded shore of the lake. Both were found in the parked car. Cecelia died two days later of twenty-four stab wounds. Bryan survived and was able to describe a “pudgy looking man wearing hood with slits for eyes and clip-on sunglasses.” The hood fell almost to his waste and had a Zodiac symbol stitched on the front of it.
Bryan stated that the man approached the vehicle claiming he was an escaped convict from Montana and that he desperately needed cash. They talked for a while when the Zodiac suddenly stopped and exclaimed, “I’m going to have to stab you people”. The selflessness of the attack was apparent when police discovered that the wounds on Cecilia formed a definitive cross shape and that the Zodiac had calmly drawn a zodiac ‘symbol’ on their car with a felt tip pen.
The police traced the phone call to a pay telephone at the Napa Car Wash on Main Street. When they arrived, the phone was still off the hook. The phone was 27 miles from the crime scene but only a few blocks from the Napa County Sheriff’s office. Detectives were able to life a still-wet palm print from the telephone but were unable to match the print to any known suspects.
Presidio Heights attack – end of the terror?
Less than three months later the third and possibly final attack occurred. Although this would be the last known attack, the relentless taunting continued for many years after.
Two weeks after the Lake Berryessa attack, on October 11, 1969, Robert Stine (29), a San Francisco cab driver, picked up a fare at the corner of Mason and Geary Streets in Union Square. His logged destination was Washington and Maple Streets in Presido Heights. For some unknown reason, the cab did not stop at it’s intended destination but rather stopped short at 3898 Washington Street where it joins with Cherry Street in the Nob Hill section of San Francisco. Robert Stine was found dead, of a single 9mm gunshot wound to the head. Witnesses told of a man wiping the cab clean before calmly walking away.
In a bizarre and unfortunate twist, the first description the police received was of a black man. As they sped towards the scene, they stopped a man walking up Cherry street to ask if he’d seen the suspect. The man replied that he had indeed seen the black man running east up the road. Police turned and gave chase. They would later discover that the misinformation they’d just received came from Zodiac himself.
When police realized they had been duped, they turned back in an attempt to apprehend the elusive Zodiac who had slipped embarrassingly through their grasp. It is most likely that Zodiac escaped through the nearby park (a witness saw a man running through there). The San Francisco PD publicly denied the incident but it was later collaborated individually by both of the police officers. The fact was also verified by Zodiac himself who would later reference the Paul Stine incident in many of his subsequent letters.
Up to this point, police only had partial palm and fingerprints, none of which matched anyone in their database. Their only clues were the letters and phone calls that seemed to point to a man of sub-average intelligence. At the beginning, police believed Zodiac to be an illiterate, a fact that they later recanted when it became apparent that Zodiac had an extensive knowledge of math and chemistry. Gleaned from some of the references he made in his letters, some even suggest that Zodiac had a much higher degree of education than anyone suspected.
The Modesto attack – was a Zodiac murder thwarted?
On the night of March 22, 1970, Kathleen Johns was driving from San Bernardino to Petaluma to visit her mother. She was seven months pregnant and had her 10-month-old daughter riding beside her in the car. While heading west on Highway 132 near Modesto, a car pulled in behind her and began honking its horn and flashing its headlights. Johns pulled off the road and stopped. The man in the car parked behind her, approached her car, stated that he observed that her right rear wheel was wobbling, and offered to tighten the lug nuts. After finishing his work, the man drove off; yet when Johns pulled forward to re-enter the highway the wheel almost immediately came off the car. The man returned, offering to drive her to the nearest gas station for help. She and her daughter climbed into his car.
During the ride the car passed several service stations but the man did not stop. For about 90 minutes he drove back and forth around the backroads near Tracy. When Johns asked why he was not stopping, he would change the subject. When the driver finally stopped at an intersection, Johns jumped out with her daughter and hid in a neaby field. The driver searched for her using his flashlight telling her that he would not hurt her, before eventually giving up. Unable to find her, he got back into the car and drove off. Johns hitched a ride to the police station in Patterson.
When Johns gave her statement to the sergeant on duty, she noticed the police composite sketch of Paul Stine’s killer and recognized him as the man who abducted her and her child. Fearing he might come back and kill them all, the sergeant had Johns wait, in the dark, at the nearby Mil’s Restaurant. When her car was found, it had been gutted and torched.
Zodiac’s Letter Campaign Continues
The next day, October 12, 1969, the San Francisco Chronicle received another letter from Zodiac with a shocking piece of evidence attached. The letter began “Schoolchildren make good targets. I think I shall wipe out a school bus one morning some time. Just shoot out the tyres, then pick off the kiddies as they come bouncing out.” A bloody fragment of Paul Stine’s shirt was attached to the note leaving no doubt that Zodiac had sent the letter.
Nine days later, on October 21, 1969, Zodiac phoned the Oakland police and stated that he would turn himself in if he could be represented by Melvin Belli and F. Lee Bailey (two famous lawyers). He also insisted on obtaining on-air time on the Jim Dunbar show. Police agreed and at 7:41AM the next day, Zodiac phoned the show and talked live with Melvin Belli. Of course, the police traced the call but the elusive Zodiac had thought of everything. During the course of the show, Zodiac would hang up and quickly call back from a total of fifteen different locations.
In early November, another shorter letter was sent to the San Francisco Chronicle with double the necessary postage.
This is the Zodiac speaking I though you would need a good laugh before you get the bad news you won’t get the news for a while yet PS could you print this new cipher on your frunt page? I get awfully lonely when I am ignored, so lonely I could do my Thing!!!!!!
Still another letter was received on November 10, 1969 and in December of 1969, the attorney Melvin Belli received a Christmas card from Zodiac.
This is the Zodiac speaking I wish you a happy Christmass. The one thing I ask of you is this, please help me. I cannot reach out because of this thing in me won’t let me. I am finding it extreamly dificult to keep in check I am afraid I will loose control again and take my nineth + posibly tenth victom. Please help me I am drownding…
Lake Tahoe disappearance of Donna Lass – another Zodiac victim?
On March 22, 1971, a postcard to the Chronicle, addressed to “Paul Averly” and believed to be from the Zodiac, appeared to take credit for the disappearance of Donna Lass on September 6, 1970. Made from a collage of advertisements and magazine lettering, it featured a scene from an advertisement for Forest Pines condominiums and the text “Sierra Club”, “Sought Victim 12”, “peek through the pines”, “pass Lake Tahoe areas”, and “around in the snow”. Zodiac’s cross circle symbol was in the place of the usual return address.
Lass was a nurse at the Sahara Tahoe hotel and casino. She worked until about 2:00 a.m. on September 6, 1970, treating her last patient at 1:40 a.m. Later that same day, both Lass’s employer and her landlord received phone calls from an unknown male falsely claiming Lass had left town due to a family emergency. Lass was never found. What appeared to be a grave site was discovered near the Clair Tappaan Lodge in Norden, California, on Sierra Club property, but an excavation of the site yielded only a pair of sunglasses.
Santa Barbara attack
In a Vallejo Times-Herald story appearing on November 13, 1972, Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office Bill Baker (ret.) postulated that the murders of a young couple in northern Santa Barbara County might have been the work of the Zodiac Killer. On June 4, 1963, high school senior Robert Domingos and his fiancée Linda Edwards were shot dead on a beach near Lompoc, having skipped school that day for “Senior Ditch Day”. Police believed that the assailant attempted to bind the victims, but when they freed themselves and attempted to flee, the killer shot them repeatedly in the back and chest with a .22-caliber weapon.
The Finale – a flood of letters taunting the police
The “my name is” letter
Zodiac continued to communicate with authorities for the remainder of 1970 via letters and greeting cards to the press. In a letter postmarked April 20, 1970, the Zodiac wrote, “My name is _____,” followed by a 13-character cipher. The Zodiac went on to state that he was not responsible for the recent bombing of a police station in San Francisco (referring to the February 18, 1970, death of Sgt. Brian McDonnell two days after the bombing at Park Station in Golden Gate Park) but added “there is more glory to killing a cop than a cid [sic] because a cop can shoot back.” The letter included a diagram of a bomb the Zodiac claimed he would use to blow up a school bus. At the bottom of the diagram, he wrote: “Zodiac = 10, SFPD = 0.”
Greeting card sent on April 28, 1970
Zodiac sent a greeting card postmarked April 28, 1970, to the Chronicle. Written on the card was, “I hope you enjoy yourselves when I have my BLAST,” followed by the Zodiac’s cross-circle signature. On the back of the card, the Zodiac threatened to use the bus bomb soon unless the newspaper published the full details he wrote. He also wanted to start seeing people wearing “some nice Zodiac butons [sic].”
June 26, 1970 letter and the Phillips 66 map
In a letter postmarked June 26, 1970, the Zodiac stated he was upset that he did not see people wearing Zodiac buttons. He wrote, “I shot a man sitting in a parked car with a .38.” The Zodiac was possibly referring to the murder of Sgt. Richard Radetich, a week earlier, on June 19. At 5:25 am, Radetich was writing a parking ticket in his squad car when an assailant shot him in the head with a .38-caliber pistol. Radetich died 15 hours later. SFPD denies the Zodiac was involved in this murder although it remains unsolved to this day.
Included with the letter was a Phillips 66 roadmap of the San Francisco Bay Area. On the image of Mount Diablo, the Zodiac had drawn a crossed-circle similar to the ones he had included in previous correspondence. At the top of the crossed circle, he placed a zero, and then a three, six, and a nine. The accompanying instructions stated that the zero was “to be set to Mag. N.” The letter also included a 32-letter cipher that the killer claimed would, in conjunction with the code, lead to the location of a bomb he had buried and set to go off in the fall. The cipher was never decoded, and the alleged bomb was never located. The killer signed the note with “Zodiac = 12, SFPD = 0.”
July 24, 1970 letter takes credit for Kathleen Johns abduction
In a letter to the Chronicle postmarked July 24, 1970, the Zodiac took credit for Kathleen Johns’ abduction, four months after the incident.
July 26, 1970 – The “Little List” letter reveals part of cipher
In a July 26, 1970 letter, the Zodiac paraphrased a song from The Mikado, adding his own lyrics about making a “little list” of the ways he planned to torture his “slaves” in “paradice.” The letter was signed with a large, exaggerated cross circle symbol and a new score: “Zodiac = 13, SFPD = 0.”
A final note at the bottom of the letter stated, “P.S. The Mt. Diablo code concerns Radians + # inches along the radians.” In 1981, a close examination of the radian hint by Zodiac researcher Gareth Penn led to the discovery that a radian angle, when placed over the map per Zodiac’s instructions, pointed to the precise locations of two Zodiac attacks.
October 5, 1970 card with thirteen holes
On October 5, 1970, the Chronicle received a three-by-five inch card signed by the Zodiac with the Zodiac drawn with blood. The card’s message was formed by pasting words and letters from an edition of the Chronicle, and thirteen holes were punched across the card. Inspectors Armstrong and Toschi agreed it was “highly probable” the card came from the Zodiac
Another letter was sent in 1971 (signed with the Zodiac symbol and the number 17 followed by a plus sign). Three letters were received in 1974 in which Zodiac indicated his body count had risen to 37. Finally, on July 08, 1974, the last letter was sent postmarked in San Rafael, California.
All remained quiet until 16 years later when the New York Post received an odd letter that was postmarked in New York. The letter described four recent unsolved murders supplying such graphic detail that only the true murderer would have known. The letter ended with the chilling words: “NYPD 0, Zodiac 100″…
Arthur Leigh Allen
A number of suspects have been named. Robert Graysmith’s book Zodiac advanced Arthur Leigh Allen as a suspect based on circumstantial evidence. A letter sent to the Riverside Police Department from Bates’ killer was typed with a Royal typewriter with an elite type, the same brand found during a February 1991 search of Allen’s residence. He owned and wore a Zodiac brand wristwatch. Allen lived in Vallejo and worked minutes away from where one of the first victims (Ferrin) lived and where one of the killings took place.
According to statements to police by family and friends, prior to the publication of Zodiac’s codes, Allen had possession of codes featuring identical symbols to those that Zodiac used in his ciphers. According to Allen, someone had given him the codes (along with bombs and weapons that were found at Allen’s home) by someone at Atascadero State Hospital (a maximum security facility in Atascadero, California).
In 2002, SFPD developed a partial DNA profile from the saliva on stamps and envelopes of Zodiac’s letters. SFPD compared this partial DNA to the DNA of Arthur Leigh Allen. Allen was excluded as the contributor of the DNA, though it cannot be guaranteed that it the DNA found on the envelopes was that of The Zodiac.
Earl Van Best Jr.?
In May 2014, author Gary L. Stewart released a book, along with intriguing evidence, in which he revealed that the Zodiac Killer was his father. Check the complete story of The Most Dangerous Animal of All here.
Sullivan worked in the library where Bates was last seen alive. Those that knew him told authorities he often wore military style clothing, including boots which could match prints left at the murder scenes. Sullivan also bears a striking resemblance to the police sketch of the Zodiac Killer released at the time of the killings. He was questioned by police in the Bates murder investigation.
Kane was a Navy veteran who studied cryptography. Kane, who died in 2010, was accused by the sister of Zodiac victim Darlene Ferrin of following Darlene in the months before her murder. Kane was arrested in Redwood City, California in August 1968, just four months before Zodiac’s first San Francisco Bay murders.
DNA extracted from victim’s clothes
In November 2017, FBI officials announced they had extracted “touch DNA” from bloody handprints left on the bottom of Cheri Jo Bates, the first Zodiac Killer victim. Investigators believe the DNA could eventually lead to the identification of the Zodiac Killer.
Shot and killed on December 20, 1968, on Lake Herman Road, within the city limits of Benicia.
Michael Renault Mageau, 19, and Darlene Elizabeth Ferrin, 22
Shot on July 4, 1969, in the parking lot of Blue Rock Springs Park in Vallejo. While Mageau survived the attack, Ferrin was pronounced dead on arrival at Kaiser Foundation Hospital.
Bryan Calvin Hartnell, 20, and Cecelia Ann Shepard, 22
Stabbed on September 27, 1969, at Lake Berryessa in Napa County. Hartnell survived eight stab wounds to the back, but Shepard died as a result of her injuries on September 29, 1969.
Paul Lee Stine, 29
Shot and killed on October 11, 1969, in the Presidio Heights neighborhood in San Francisco.
Robert Domingos, 18, and Linda Edwards, 17
Shot and killed on June 4, 1963, on a beach near Gaviota. Edwards and Domingos were identified as possible Zodiac victims because of specific similarities between their attack and the Zodiac’s attack at Lake Berryessa six years later.
Cheri Jo Bates, 18
Stabbed to death and nearly decapitated on October 30, 1966, at Riverside City College in Riverside. Bates’s possible connection to the Zodiac only appeared four years after her murder when San Francisco Chronicle reporter Paul Avery received a tip regarding similarities between the Zodiac killings and the circumstances surrounding Bates’s death.
Donna Lass, 25
Last seen September 6, 1970, in Stateline, Nevada. A postcard with an advertisement from Forest Pines condominiums (near Incline Village atLake Tahoe) pasted on the back was received at the Chronicle on March 22, 1971, and has been interpreted as the Zodiac claiming Lass’s disappearance as a victim. No evidence has been uncovered to connect Lass’s disappearance with the Zodiac Killer definitively.
Kathleen Johns, 22
Abducted on March 22, 1970, on Highway 132 near I-580, in an area west of Modesto. Johns escaped from the car of a man who drove her and her infant daughter around the area between Stockton and Patterson for approximately 1½ hours.
Collection of Zodiac Killer letters
Most of the Zodiac Killer letters have been released by the police. Below is an extensive collection of letters that are attributed to the Zodiac Killer or related to the investigation. Click the letter for a larger view (and brief explanation of the letter’s relevance to the case).