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How To Get Away With Murder

lanterns and neon lights advertise the Chinese restaurants along Grant Avenue in Chinatown, San Francisco.
Chinatown, San Francisco, the location of Zodiac's most public killing.

In the serial killer fraternity, the Zodiac Killer didn’t have the biggest corpse-count to his name. Just compare his single-digit victims’ list to say the tireless onslaught of Gary Ridgway, the Green River Killer of Washington State, who murdered at least 49 people. So why does the Zodiac still haunt and fascinate us? It’s partly because of his cryptic and taunting messages to the public, but largely because he was never caught. The greatest riddle posed by the Zodiac isn’t the still-unsolved cypher he sent to the media, but the enduring enigma of his identity.

The question is, how come he managed to stay in the shadows? What, if anything, made the Zodiac’s methodology different, allowing him to get away with his crimes while other serial killers like Gary Ridgway, John Wayne Gacy and Ted Bundy were eventually snared?

Well, let’s go back to the Zodiac’s equally enigmatic predecessor, Jack the Ripper. At first glance, the Ripper’s manner of attack ticks the right boxes for anyone determined to evade justice. His victims were poor, downtrodden prostitutes, living hand-to-mouth existences in grotty dosshouses – the kind of women who’d already slipped through the net of Victorian London, and were horribly vulnerable to a marauding murderer. His chosen area also seemed to help – the East End was a crammed ghetto of crime and filth, a world of dark nooks and anonymous faces, allowing him to melt away into the shadows after each killing.

Of course, the Ripper never had to contend with sophisticated forensic analysis, which made it so much easier for him to shake off detectives. But, overall, he seems to have set a logical template for anyone looking to kill again and again. Choose strangers, so there’s no personal connection for police to go on. Choose victims marginalised by society, so there’s less of an immediate outcry. Kill in the right setting, where you can come and go without people getting suspicious. Resist the temptation to brag to the authorities (this is assuming the infamous Ripper letters were all fakes).

All of this may seem like sound advice for the enterprising psychopath – but only on paper. In reality, no matter how wily a killer is, his luck might just run out. Consider Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, who had much the same MO as his Victorian namesake, stalking prostitutes in dingy red light districts. Like Jack, he seemed unstoppable, causing widespread fear and outrage and flummoxing detectives at every turn. But, of course, he was caught. Why? Because a random copper noticed he was using stolen number plates on his car.

But there’s another thing to consider. Sutcliffe had already been on a list of possible suspects and actually been interviewed by police on multiple occasions. At least one detective had in fact earmarked him as a prime candidate, only to be overruled by colleagues who disagreed. The point is, that even before he was undone by a quirk of fate, even while he was sticking to a seemingly foolproof, Jack the Ripper-like formula, Sutcliffe had come onto the police’s radar, and may well have eventually been nabbed by the Ripper squad.

Just to complicate the issue further, there are also examples of killers who brazenly broke the logical “rules” and evaded capture for a terrifyingly long time. One such killer was the Zodiac himself. He preyed on ordinary, “respectable” people in everyday settings – his most notorious attack happened by the side of a popular lake in broad daylight, and he later shot a taxi driver in the head on the streets of San Francisco. He also put himself at risk of capture with those famous letters to the media.

A very similar psychopath is the BTK Killer of Kansas. BTK – short for “Bind, Torture, Kill” – had a similar MO to the Zodiac, slaughtering “respectable” people, including a family of four in their own home. He was also egotistically addicted to writing letters to the police. BTK evaded justice many years, and would have never been caught if he hadn’t made the silly mistake of sending one of his communications by floppy disk, which contained hidden metadata giving away his name and location. 

The BTK Killer is to the Zodiac what the Yorkshire Ripper is to Jack the Ripper: an example of how two different murderers can follow a similar methodology, with one being caught and the other escaping justice. Sutcliffe and Jack the Ripper were both relatively “careful” killers, picking the most vulnerable victims without drawing attention to themselves, but Sutcliffe was caught and Jack wasn’t. BTK and the Zodiac were both brazen, reckless killers who courted publicity, but BTK was caught and the Zodiac wasn’t.

So it seems that getting away with murder is far more about chance and luck as it is about low cunning. The Zodiac got lucky – that’s the big take-away. And we’ve been puzzling over him ever since.