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The Zodiac Killer

California’s most elusive serial killer claimed his first confirmed victim on October 30, 1966, in Riverside. That evening, Cheri Jo Bates, and 18-year-old freshman at Riverside City College, emerged from the campus library to find her car disabled, the distributor coil disconnected. Police theorize that her killer approached with an offer of help, then dragged her behind some nearby shrubbery where a furious struggle ended with Cheri stabbed in the chest and back, her throat slashed so deeply that she was nearly decapitated.

In November 1966, a letter to the local press declared that Cheri “is not the first and she will not be the last.” Following publication of an article about the case on April 30, 1967, identical letters were posted to the newspaper, police, and to the victim’s father. They read: “Bates had to die. There will be more.”

On December 20, 1968, 17-year-old David Faraday was parked with his date, 16-year-old Betty Lou Jensen, on a rural road east of the Vallejo city limits in northern California. A night-stalking gunman found them there and killed both teenagers, shooting Faraday in the head as he sat behind the wheel of his car. Betty Lou ran 30 feet before she was cut down by a tight group of five shots in the back, fired from a .22-caliber automatic pistol.

On July 4, 1969, Michael Mageau, 19, picked up his date, 22-year-old Darlene Ferrin, for a night on the town. At one point, Mageau believed they were being followed, but Darlene seemed to recognize the other motorist, telling Mageau, “Don’t worry about it.” By midnight, they were parked at Blue Rock Springs Park when a familiar vehicle pulled alongside and the driver shined a bright light in their eyes, opening fire with a 9mm pistol. Hit four times, Mageau survived; Darlene, with nine wounds, was dead on arrival at a local hospital.

Forty minutes after the shooting, Vallejo police received an anonymous call, directing officers to the murder scene. Before hanging up, the male caller declared, “I also killed those kids last year.”

In retrospect, friends and relatives recalled that Darlene Ferrin had been suffering harassment through anonymous phone calls and intimidating visits by a heavyset stranger in the weeks before her death. She called the strange man Paul and told one girlfriend that he wished to silence her because she had seen him commit a murder. Police searched for “Paul” in the wake of Darlene’s slaying, but he was never located or identified.

On July 31, 1969, the killer mailed letters to three Bay Area newspapers, each containing one-third of a cryptic cipher. Ultimately broken by a local high school teacher, the message began: “I like killing people because it is so much fun.” The author explained that he was killing in an effort to “collect slaves,” who would serve him in the afterlife. Another correspondence, mailed on August 7, introduced the “Zodiac” name and provided details of the latest murder, leaving police in no doubt that its author was the killer.

On September 27, 20-year-old Bryan Hartnell and Cecilia Shepherd, 20, were enjoying a picnic at Lake Berryessa near Vallejo when they were accosted by a hooded gunman. Covering them with a pistol, the stranger described himself as an escaped convict who needed their car “to go to Mexico.” Producing a coil of clothesline, he bound both victims before drawing a long knife, stabbing Hartnell five times in the back. Cecilia Shepherd was stabbed 14 times, including four in the chest as she twisted away from the plunging blade.

Departing the scene, their assailant paused at Harnells car to scribble on the door with a felt-tipped pen. He wrote:

Vallejo
12-20-1968
7-4-1969
Sept 27-69-6:30
By knife
A phone call to police reported the crime, but by that time, a fisherman had already discovered the victims. Brian Hartnell survived his wounds, but Cecilia Shepherd was doomed, another victim for the man who called himself the Zodiac.

On October 11, San Francisco cab driver Paul Stine was shot in the head and killed with a 9mm automatic pistol. Witnesses saw the gunman escape on foot toward the Presidio, and police descended on the neighborhood in force. At one point in the search, two patrolmen stopped a heavyset pedestrian and were directed in pursuit of their elusive prey, not realizing that the “tip” had been provided by the very man they sought.

In the wake of Stine’s murder, the Zodiac launched a new barrage of letters, some containing swatches of the cabbie’s bloodstained shirt. He also made phone calls to the Oakland Police Department. Successive messages claimed seven victims, instead of the established five, and the killer threatened to “wipe out a school bus some morning.” He also vowed to change his method of “collecting souls”: “They shall look like routine robberies, killings of anger, & a few fake suicides, etc.” Five days before Christmas, he wrote to prominent attorney Melvin Belli, pleading for help with the chilling remark that “I cannot remain in control for much longer.”

On March 22, 1970, Kathleen Johns was driving with her infant daughter near Modesto, California, when another motorist pulled her over, flashing his headlights and beeping his horn. The man informed her that a rear tire on her car seemed dangerously loose; he worked on it briefly with a lug wrench, but when she tried to drive away, the wheel fell off. Her benefactor offered a lift to the nearest garage, then took Kathleen on an aimless drive through the countryside, threatening her life and that of her child before she managed to escape from the car, hiding in a roadside irrigation ditch. Reporting the abduction at a local police station, Johns noticed a wanted poster bearing sketches of the Zodiac, and she identified the man as her attacker.

Nine more letters were received from Zodiac between April 1970 and March 1971, but police were unable to trace further crimes in the series. On January 30, 1974, a San Francisco newspaper received the first authentic Zodiac letter in nearly three years, signing off with the notation: “Me-37; SFPD-0.”

One officer who took the estimated body count seriously was Sheriff Don Striepke of Sonoma County. In a 1975 report, Striepke referred to a series of 40 unsolved murders in four western states, which seemed to form a giant Z when plotted on the map. While tantalizing, Striepke’s theory seemed to fall apart with the identification of Ted Bundy as a prime suspect in several of the homicides.

On April 24, 1978, the Zodiac mailed his 21st letter, chilling Bay Area residents with the news that “I am back with you.” No traceable crimes were committed, however, and Homicide Inspector Dave Toschi was later removed from the Zodiac detail on suspicion of writing the letter himself. In fact, while Toschi confessed to writing several anonymous letters to the press, praising his own performance on the case, expert analysts agree that the April note was, in fact, written by the killer.

Theories abound in the Zodiac case. One was aired by author “George Oakes” (a pseudonym) in the November 1981 issue of California magazine, based on a presumption of the killer’s obsession with water, clocks, binary mathematics, and the writings of Lewis Carroll. Oakes claimed to know the Zodiac’s identity and says the killer telephoned him several times at home. He blames the Zodiac for an arson fire that ravaged 25,000 acres near Lake Berryessa in June 1981, but California editors acknowledged that FBI agents “weren’t very impressed” with the theory. Spokesmen for the California state attorney general’s office went further, describing the tale as “a lot of bull.”

Author Robert Graysmith also claims to know the Zodiac by name, calling his suspect “Robert Hall Starr” in a book published in 1986. A resident of Vallejo, “Starr” is described as a gun buff and suspected child molester, confirmed as a prime Zodiac suspect by several detectives (and flatly rejected by others). Graysmith credits Zodiac with a total of 49 “possible” victims between October 1966 and May 1981, three of whom survived his attacks. In addition to the six known dead and three confirmed survivors, Graysmith included 15 “occult” murders linked to one unidentified slayer in northern California and 15 other “astrological” murder victims killed in close proximity to a solstice or equinox – nine confirmed by police as the work of a single man. Of 40 “possible” victims listed by Graysmith, 39 were female, variously shot, stabbed, beaten, strangled, drowned, and poisoned… perhaps in accordance with Zodiac’s promise to alter his method of “collecting slaves.” At this time the case still remains open.