It has often been stated that if Jack the Ripper was at large today, the modern police would have no problem in capturing him. The following story, however, which unfolds near San Francisco in 1968, proves that even in modern times, serial killers who strike regularly in a specific area can still evade capture. On 20 December, 1968, a woman was driving through California from Vallejo (just north of San Francisco) to Benica. As she came down Lake Herman Road - a lonely stretch of highway known locally as a 'lovers lane' - the woman came across a parked station wagon. Next to the vehicle a body lay on the cold macadam, and another one lay on the ground further down the road. The woman drove into town and called the police, and so began the baffling case of the Zodiac murders. The police established that the bodies in the road were of two teenaged high school sweethearts. David Faraday, aged seventeen, had been blasted in the head whilst in the the station wagon. His girlfriend, sixteen-year-old Bettilou Jensen, had evidently been running from the gunman but had been shot in the back five times as she fled. Robbery was naturally suspected as a motive initially, but the boy's wallet in his jacket pocket still contained cash. Furthermore, the girl had not been raped or interfered with in any sexual way, so the police were naturally mystified, and assumed the killer had carried out a motiveless double murder. Perhaps the murderer had even been an admirer of the girl who had resented her involvement with Faraday, but even this theory seemed way off the mark, because the killer apparently struck again in the following July. A man with a gruff voice telephoned the Vallejo Police Department on 5 July 1969 to report a second double murder, and again, the victims were a couple. The anonymous caller said: '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 millimetre Luger.' The man then chillingly added: 'I also killed those kids last year. Goodbye!' Police converged on the scene of the crime as the caller had directed them. In a car at the parking lot they found twenty-four-year-old waitress Darlene Ferris - the mother of a young child - dead from gunshot wounds. Next to her in the car was Michael Mageau with blood pouring from a bullethole in his neck. Mageau had also sustained three other gunshot wounds but was still alive and later made a full recovery. He told the police that shortly after he and Darlene had driven to the parking lot, a car drove up and parked beside them. It then drove away, but returned ten minutes later, again pulling up alongside the couple's car. An intense beam of light suddenly shone into the couple's car, blinding them. Mageau couldn't be sure if the driver of the other car had shone the light into his eyes, but presumed he had. The driver walked up to the couple's car and started to shoot them both. Despite the dazzling light, Mageau still caught a glimpse of the assailant, and said that he was white, around twenty-five to thirty years of age, stockily built, around five feet eight inches in height, with a round face and wavy light brown hair. On the first day of the following month, two San Francisco dailies and the Vallejo Times-Herald received letters which began: 'Dear Editor, This is the murderer of the two teenagers last Christmas at Lake Herman and the girl on the 4th of July...' The letter then went on to describe details about the crime, including the guns and type of ammunition used, which made it clear that the writer was the killer and not some crank out for kicks. The letters were all signed with a curious symbol: a cross superimposed on a circle which looked like the hairs of a gunsight. But someone later discovered that the symbol was actually an ancient astrological sign which represented the Zodiac - an imaginary belt in space which encompasses thirteen constellations ranging from Aries to Pisces. Why did the killer use an astrological symbol? Was he some twisted astrology freak who carried out his crimes when his horoscope was favourable? It was anyone's guess. Stranger still, the killer's letters also contained a weird-looking code made up from pictograms; letters and signs arranged in a complex cypher. The murderer stated in his letter that if the code was broken it would reveal his identity. Military experts were brought into the investigation to crack the code, but failed, so the police wondered if the killer was just teasing them with a random jumble of letters and signs which meant nothing. Just when the code was about to be dismissed, a teacher from Alisal High School in Salinas named Dale Harden finally cracked the killer's cypher. The chilling deciphered message however, did not reveal the identity of the cold-blooded murderer, but it did throw some light on the sick, warped fantasy world he inhabited. The weird message read:
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 some- thing 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.Shortly afterwards, a further letter to the newspapers started off: 'Dear Editor, This is Zodiac speaking...' and the missive proceeded to accurately detail the murder of Darlene Ferrin and the wounding of Michael Mageau in the parking lot. The police and the press naturally expected more killings by Zodiac, and on 27 September of that year, a man with the same distinct gruff voice telephoned the Napa Police Department to report a particularly savage murder. On this occasion, Zodiac had captured two students of Pacific Union College who had been picnicking near Lake Verriesa. Police found the victims' car parked on the shore of the lake. Cecilia Shepherd and Bryan Hartnell were lying bound together in the vehicle, soaked in their own blood. The girl had died from twenty-four knife wounds. Hartnell had received six stab wounds but was still alive. When the college student had recovered from his injuries he gave a graphic account of the terrifying ordeal he'd undergone. He said he and Cecilia had been accosted by a pudgy-looking man who wore a black hood with eye slits in it. The hood resembled the type worn by medieval executioners. On this hood was the Zodiac's circle and cross symbol painted in white. Through the eye-holes, Hartnell could make out a pair of spectacles with black frames. He could also see wisps of the masked man's hair, which looked light brown. The killer carried a pistol and a knife, and he demanded money from the couple, then said he was an escaped convict. He tied the trembling couple up and then calmly announced: 'I'm going to have to stab you people.' Hartnell bravely volunteered to be stabbed in an effort to spare the life of Cecilia. The masked fiend then thrust the long blade of his knife into Hartnell six times. But the nightmare wasn't over yet. He plunged the knife into Cecilia's body and went berserk. The coroner later saw that the twenty-four knife wounds on the college girl's corpse formed a bloody cross. A fisherman who had been in the area while the frenzied attack was taking place told police he'd heard the girl's terrible screams. After the enraged butchery, Zodiac had evidently been composed enough to leisurely scrawl his symbol on the door of Hartnell's car with a felt-tip pen. Detectives traced the telephone that Zodiac had used to notify them of the frenzied stabbing. It was a public callbox embarrassingly situated near to the Napa Police Headquarters. Forensic experts managed to lift three fresh fingerprints from the callbox, but were disappointed to discover that the prints matched none held in the police records. This meant that all the detectives had to tell the newspapers was that the Zodiac didn't have a police record, which was hardly a breakthrough. A fortnight later, on 11 October, Zodiac struck again. In broad daylight he shot twenty-nine-year-old taxi driver Paul Stine in the back of the head, killing him instantly. This gratuitous taking of yet another innocent person's life happened in the Nob Hill area of San Francisco, but on this occasion, the police got their first useful description of the killer from witnesses who had seen Zodiac calmly walking away from the scene of the crime. Police discovered that Zodiac had made off with the taxi driver's wallet and a strip of fabric torn from the victim's shirt. Ballistics experts also recovered the bullet that had taken Stine's life and noted that it had been fired from the same pistol that had killed Darlene Ferrin. On the following day, the San Francisco Chronicle received a letter from the killer which criticised the police for being incompetent. But the letter ended with a shocking threat. Zodiac wrote:
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.To rule out the idea that the letter had been penned by a sick hoaxer, Zodiac had also enclosed a fragment of the bloody shirt he'd torn from the murdered taxi driver. Police escorted school buses throughout Zodiac's territory for weeks, but fortunately, the killer failed to carry out his repugnant threat. The murder of the taxi driver was the last known Zodiac murder, but the killer continued to give the police a headache for many years to come. On 21 October 1969, the murderer manipulated the media in a most sensational way. He telephoned Oakland police and sincerely stated that he would willingly give himself up if he could be represented by a top-notch lawyer. Zodiac named two particular maverick lawyers he had in mind; Melvin Belli or F. Lee Bailey. The serial murderer then stipulated that he would require a period of air-time on an early-morning TV chat-show. Arrangements were made by the television executives who saw the request from Zodiac as a spectacular once-in-a-lifetime ratings winner, and so, at 6.45 a.m., the Jim Dunbar show was broadcast to a record TV audience. Thousands of viewers tuned in to the show, eager to hear the killer speaking live. Almost one hour later, the waiting was over. At 7.41 a.m., a caller came on the line chatting to lawyer Melvin Belli. The caller had a soft, boyish voice, and he said he was the Zodiac Killer. He explained that he killed because he suffered from blinding headaches, and discussed some of the murders. Police tried to trace the call, but Zodiac kept hanging up and telephoning the studio back from different locations. He called back fifteen times, and finally ended his 'performance' by agreeing to meet Belli in front of a certain store in Daly City. At long last it looked as if there was a chance of catching the killer and bringing him to justice, but alas, Zodiac failed to keep his appointment with the lawyer. Two months later, shortly before Christmas, Belli received a letter containing another piece of the murdered taxi driver's shirt. Zodiac wrote:
Dear Melvin, This is Zodiac speaking. I wish you a happy Christmas. One thing I ask of you is this, please help me... I am afraid I will lose control and take my ninth and possibly tenth victim.It seems as if Zodiac then retired from hunting his 'afterlife slaves' and nothing more was heard from him until 1971, when the killer wrote to the Los Angeles Times. The letter read: 'If the blue menaces are ever going to catch me, they had better get off their fat butts and do something.' The letter was signed in the usual way with his astro-sign, but also included the number seventeen followed by a plus sign. That seemed to be it. The years dragged by, and many detectives thought that Zodiac had either died or was killing more and writing less. Then in 1974, the San Francisco Police Department received another letter from him. The killer now boasted killing thirty-seven people. A police graphology expert confirmed that the handwriting was Zodiac's. The media thought the latest claim was astounding, but the police - fearing an hysterical outcry from the tax-paying public - played down Zodiac's atrocious claim as a 'slight exaggeration'. The last word from the killer seems to have been in 1990, when the New York Post received a letter signed by Zodiac. The letter-writer intimated that he was now at large in the Big Apple, and described four unsolved murders in New York and certain details that could have only been known by the killer. The writer's claim of 'NYPD 0, Zodiac 9' may be an exaggeration, but some detectives in the city are keeping an open mind in the light of evidence on the Zodiac killings which suggests that the murder toll quaoted by the murderer is a fairly accurate figure. In 1975, Sonoma County Sheriff Don Striepeke fed all the murder records filed in the state attorney's office into a computer. The computer linked forty murders to one particular killer because of the modus operandi, the geographical area, and the time window. When the sites of these murders were plotted on a map of northern California and Washington State, the results were incredible. In Washington State, the murder sites formed two large rectangles connected by a line. County Sheriff Striepeke researched the strange geometrical shape, and discovered that the same shape had been used as an occult symbol by witches in England during the late Middle Ages. The symbol represented the afterlife (a subject Zodiac was certainly obsessed with), and was painted on the hearth of homes were people had recently passed away to speed their spirit into the hereafter. Striepeke may have been onto something with his computer-aided analysis of Zodiac's murders, because it later came to light that by some of the bodies of girls killed by the occult-minded murderer, police were intrigued to find twigs and stones - arranged to form two small rectangles linked by a line.
From Tom Slemen's "Strange But True"