by Amanda Seaton

In October of 1966, the citizens of San Francisco, California were rocked by the news that a mysterious serial killer was on the loose. Taking a page out of Jack the Ripper’s play book, the Zodiac Killer, as he was called, presented himself for the most part as a meticulous killer, but occasionally displayed a modicum of sloppiness that could have helped to identify him if forensic technology had been more advanced 50 years ago.

ack5The night before Halloween,18-year-old Cheri Jo Bates was walking near the parking lot of the Riverside City College library when she was brutally murdered, in an attack that both stunned and stumped investigators because it seemed to lack a motive. Neither rape nor robbery seemed an element of the crime. So why would someone target this young woman, leaving her clothes and her purse undisturbed?

ack8The interesting part about this murder is that the killer disabled her Volkswagen by removing the distributor coil and the condenser, while taking the time to disconnect the middle wire of the distributor. The Zodiac did this on purpose, then waited for the young woman to try to start her car, which of course she could not. He then came forward to ask her if she would like a ride when she was unable to start her engine.

ack2What happened next is where the mystery really kicks into high gear. The following month, in November, the Riverside Police and the Riverside Enterprise received carbon copies of a letter, written anonymously, which was interpreted as a confession, but not a confession necessarily linked to the murder of Cheri Jo Bates murder, but rather alluding to whom the Zodiac’s next victim would be.

At that time, despite the lack of any obvious motive, the Riverside police believed that Bates’ murder was a crime of passion — that she knew her killer.

ack16Two years later the Zodiac would strike again. On December 20, 1968, a young couple, David Arthur Faraday and Betty Lou Jensen, were shot and killed on a remote stretch of Lake Herman Road on the outskirts of Vallejo, California, with what investigators believed was a handgun loaded with .22 LR ammo. The police theorized that the killer started shooting from behind their vehicle, then moved slowly to the side shooting out the right rear window before shooting out the tire, presumably in an attempt to force them out of the vehicle, a strategy that apparently succeeded. He then came around to the front left side of the vehicle. 16-year-old Jensen apparently fled; she was shot dead about 30 feet from the car, while Faraday was killed instantly as he tried  to exit the vehicle with a single shot to the head.

ack17Six months later on July 5, 1969, 22-year-old Darlene Elizabeth Ferrin and 19-year-old Michael Renault Mageau were shot while sitting in Ferrin’s car located in the parking lot of the Blue Rock Springs Golf course, also in Vallejo. Mageau managed to survive the shooting, but Ferrin was killed. Mageau told investigators that he believed the killer was a police officer who had shot him as he reached for his ID. He told the investigators that the killer was short, standing about five foot eight inches tall, and heavyset. Several weeks later the Zodiac again surprised investigators by sending a letter and cryptogram to the San Francisco Examiner, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Vallejo Times-Herald confessing that he had committed the Vallejo murders. The Zodiac’s communication included the demand that his handiwork be printed in each of the newspapers by August 1, 1969.

Then on August 10, 1969, a key to the cryptogram was delivered to the Vallejo Police Department. It was handwritten and was signed, Concerned Citizen.

ack13Next came the Cecelia Ann Shepard and Bryan Calvin Hartnell murders on the shoreline of Lake Berryessa near Napa, California. Hartnell was stabbed six times, while Shepard was stabbed around ten times and died two days later. Moving on to October of 1969, the Zodiac took out a cab driver named Paul Stine on the northeast corner of Washington and Cherry Streets in the Presidio Height section of San Francisco. The killer then walked to a payphone in order to call the murder in.

As time went on and the panic mounted, the Zodiac continued to send in letters and more cryptographs, claiming to have murdered seven people by the end of October 1969.

ack14Melvin Belli, the well-known personal injury lawyer, received a Christmas card from the Zodiac at his home which talked about how he was losing control as he progressed toward a possible tenth victim. This missive also talked about bombing school children, which thankfully never happened.

ackAs the murders continued, so did the intensive man hunt for the man called Zodiac. A composite sketch was released based upon numerous descriptions from the victims who had managed to survive. Valentine’s Day, 1974, marked the date of the Zodiac’s last correspondence which was sent to the Chronicle. After that, the communications ceased as did the murders though it was a long time before the good citizens of Northern California drew a deep breath.

As the investigators continued to work overtime and the evidence continued to pile up, the lack of adequate forensic technology continued to be a huge stumbling block. Somewhat remarkably, 2,500 people were interrogated, but no one was officially charged, or even viewed as a suspect until they came across Arthur Leigh Allen. Allen, a child molester, died at age 58 in 1992.  During the investigation he was fingerprinted, subjected to a grueling polygraph, searched, interrogated, and induced to give hand-writing ack3samples. Even a year before his death, police were still investigating him, although he protested his innocence. It wasn’t that far-fetched that he might be the guy, given all the facts and apparent coincidences, so upon his death, investigators retrieved brain tissues for DNA testing. The DNA technology at the time, however, was not that advanced and failed to prove anything.

Will the real identity of the Zodiac killer ever be determined? As advancements in technology become increasingly available to local, state, and federal law enforcement, the likelihood of finding the madman responsible for the murders would seem to increase. Certainly, there have been no killings, letters, or mysterious Zodiac-like behavior since the death of Arthur Leigh Allen. On the other hand, the Zodiac killer’s last public communication was in 1974 and the murders ceased several years before that. Did Arthur Leigh Allen simply get tired of killing? Do certain serial killers reach a point of satiation, mellow out, if you will, and no longer feel the need to kill? It’s well-known that the criminal conduct of most common criminals occurs while they are still relatively young. Perhaps Arthur Leigh Allen followed a similar trajectory and simply lost the desire to ritualistically execute his victims.


Click here to view previous posts by Amanda Seaton:

Jeffrey Dahmer, Serial Killer, Always Liked Dead Things

amandaAmanda Seaton is a freelance writer/editor and graduate student. Ms. Seaton earned a Bachelors of Science degree in Criminal Justice and Homeland Security in April of 2013, and began a Masters of Science program in Forensics in June of 2013 where she is acing every class.
Ms. Seaton also holds technical diplomas in Forensic Science and Private Investigation (both with honors), and is nearing completion of a paralegal program. Ms. Seaton has written several novels currently awaiting publication. She published her first installment of Violent Crimes in America on April 2, 2014. Other than home and family, Ms. Seaton’s great love is crime writing.



4 Responses to Zodiac, Zodiac, Who Is the Zodiac (Killer)? We May Never Know

  1. Rick says:

    Good post, Amanda! Didn’t someone who identified himself as the Zodiac Killer contact Marvin Belli during a radio call-in show in the mid-1970’s? I seem to recall reading about that in a previous post on ATCB.

  2. […] Zodiac, Zodiac, Who Is the Zodiac (Killer)? We May Never Know […]

  3. Richard says:

    Moving on to October of 1969, the Zodiac took out a cab driver named Paul Stine on the northeast corner of Washington and Cherry Streets in the Presidio Height section of San Francisco. The killer then walked to a payphone in order to call the murder in.
    Informative post, but this statement is false. He never called via payphone after the Paul Stine murder, only Blue Rock Springs and Lake Berryessa.

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