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The Biggest Unsolved Crime in American History

Who was the Zodiac Killer?
Who was the Zodiac Killer?

When it comes to notorious American serial killers, certain names sit at the top of a hierarchy of infamy. Names like Ted Bundy, the handsome and clean-cut law student who slaughtered so many women, and John Wayne Gacy, the sadist and murderer who dressed as a clown at children’s parties. But one individual occupies a unique niche of notoriety, inspiring decades of fierce debate among criminologists, amateur sleuths and filmmakers alike.

Operating in California at the end of the 1960s, the Zodiac Killer had a relatively low body count compared to many other serial murderers. Yet his smug interactions with the police, his flamboyant and mocking persona (he even wore a special uniform to one crime), his penchant for setting riddles and the fact he was never caught all make him a fascinating phantom who still haunts the public imagination. It could be said he’s America’s answer to Jack the Ripper, a killer who struck several times and suddenly vanished, leaving behind letters and a trail of possible suspects.

The Canonical Killings

There’s some debate over how many victims the Zodiac had, partly because he liked to take credit for various crimes. But, as with Jack the Ripper, there is a list of “canonical victims” most experts agree on.

The Zodiac made his brutal debut in December 1968, swooping on a young couple, David Faraday and Betty Lou Jensen, who were on their first date. Parked on a remote lovers’ lane, the pair were attacked out of the blue and stood no chance of escape. Faraday was shot in the head, while Jensen was gunned down as she tried to run from the car. The cold, execution-style slayings initially made local police think it may have been related to drug dealers in the area, but the crime would later be confirmed as the work of the Zodiac.

The next attack came in July 1969, and the MO was almost identical. The victims, Darlene Ferrin and Michael Mageau, were again a young couple parked on a remote road. While sitting in the car, they noticed another vehicle drive out of the night, park briefly behind them and then drive away. Minutes later, the car returned and stopped again. Its driver stepped out, wielding a bright torch, like a police officer. Then, without uttering a word, without a single warning, the man started shooting into the couple’s car. After this initial attack, the killer walked back to his car, only to suddenly return and fire more bullets into the bleeding couple. Darlene Ferrin was killed, but Michael Mageau miraculously survived the onslaught.

A few months later, in September of that year, came the most brazen and bizarre of the Zodiac attacks. It happened in broad daylight on the shores of a lake, where young couple Bryan Hartnell and Cecelia Shepard were having a lazy, languid day out. The calm was abruptly obliterated by the appearance of a man wearing a black, executioner’s hood bearing a striking symbol: a crossed circle, like a target, which would become known as the emblem of the Zodiac.

Aiming a gun at the couple, the man claimed to be an escaped convict, and put them at ease by saying he was just after their money and car to make a quick getaway. The couple were more than willing to comply, and Bryan Hartnell even made conversation, asking the “convict” questions about his past, and offering to help however he could. But, once the couple were tied up, the man’s true intentions became horrifically clear when he suddenly started stabbing them repeatedly. Cecelia Shepard would die, but Bryan Hartnell would fortunately survive, providing police and press with the description of their freakishly attired attacker. Before leaving the scene, the assailant used a marker pen to leave a message on the couple’s car door. He wrote the dates of the previous attacks, the date of this latest attack, and the chilling words: “by knife”.

One month later, in October 1969, came the last of the canonical killings, and the odd-one-out of the lot. Instead of preying on a couple in a secluded rustic setting, he chose a cab driver in the bustling heart of San Francisco. The driver, a young man called Paul Stine, picked up the killer and was shot in the head during the journey. Despite the urban context and presence of witnesses, the killer somehow melted into the surroundings, and – as far as many experts are concerned – would never strike again. 

The Zodiac letters

Unlike many serial killers, the Zodiac dramatically altered his MO. First shooting couples in parked cars without any preamble, then appearing in a surreal uniform to engage in conversation before stabbing his victims, then randomly executing a cab driver. Police would probably never have linked the crimes if the criminal hadn’t begun a long series of communications which would cement his own morbid mythology in the public consciousness.

In August 1969, in the wake of the first two attacks, letters were sent to three California newspapers. They were almost identical, taking credit for the attacks on the couples. Each letter was accompanied by a section of a coded message, or cipher. The letters ordered each newspaper to print its section of the three-part cipher. If they didn’t, the killer vowed to go on a “kill rampage” and “cruise around all weekend killing lone people in the night”.

Known as the 408 cipher, because it contains 408 characters, the three-part message was indeed published in the papers, and flummoxed teams of official codebreakers in the FBI and US Navy. Another letter was then sent, beginning with the words “This is the Zodiac speaking”, giving us the name by which the killer would always be known. This letter taunted the police about their inability to crack the 408 cipher, but very soon after the riddle was solved by two ordinary members of the public, Donald and Bettye Harden. 

The message was blunt. “I like killing people because it is so much fun,” it began, saying that hunting humans was a “thrilling experience” and would provide him with slaves in the afterlife. The Hardens were unable to decode the last part of the cipher, which remains a mystery to this day. Some still believe it’s some kind of opaque, unsolvable anagram of the Zodiac’s real name.

More letters were to come, accompanied by fabric torn from Paul Stine’s shirt – confirming the Zodiac was behind the killing of the cab driver. The Zodiac would also taunt and threaten the public, pondering a potential massacre of schoolkids, and suggesting how he might “pick off the kiddies as they come bouncing out” of a school bus. This fortunately never transpired, but provided the inspiration for the movie Dirty Harry, whose giggling villain – Scorpio – was a thinly veiled take on the Zodiac, and who was given the rough justice the real-life killer managed to evade.

Another significant communication from the Zodiac, and one which has had people scratching their heads ever since, came in November 1969, and contained a new cipher, 340 characters long. The 340 cipher has never been convincingly solved, though many have proposed solutions, and Zodiac sleuths still believe the key to his identity may lie locked within its maddening string of symbols.

The Cheri Jo Bates case

Outside of the “official” list, other potential Zodiac victims have been suggested over the years. The most prominent and likely is Cheri Jo Bates, a student who was murdered in 1966, years before the first canonical killings. On the night of her death, she had been studying in a library on campus, and was discovered early the next morning, beaten and stabbed. Her car had been tampered with, and it’s though the killer had approached her, offered her a lift and murdered her.

A month after her death, a confession letter was sent to police which detailed the killing and took sadistic relish in the act. It opened with the lines, “She was young and beautiful. But now she is battered and dead. She is not the first and she will not be the last.” A little time later, the grieving father of Cheri Jo Bates was sent a short, sharp note saying “She had to die there will be more”, signed with a strange letter that some people think could be a “z”.

Years later, as journalists and detectives suggested Cheri Jo may have been an early victim of the man behind the later murders, the Zodiac sent a letter which confirmed he had in fact killed the young woman, but whether or not he was falsely taking credit remains open to debate

The chief suspect

As with Jack the Ripper, there have been numerous suspects championed by different investigators in the decades since the last confirmed Zodiac murder. Among them, one particular suspect has inspired the most discussion and debate. He was Arthur Leigh Allen, a known child molester who was tied to the Zodiac case by a compelling array of circumstantial evidence.

Some of the evidence is flimsy – such as the fact that Allen wore a Zodiac-brand watch which featured the crossed circle symbol used by the killer on his hood and in his letters. More damning was the testimony of a friend named Don Cheney, who claimed Allen had openly talked about wanting to take on the alias “Zodiac”, murder people at random and taunt police while doing so. Arthur Leigh Allen was also identified as the killer by Michael Mageau, who survived a Zodiac attack, although Mageau’s vision was obscured by the killer’s harsh torch during his shooting, so his testimony isn’t all that reliable.

Arthur Leigh Allen was interviewed by detectives a number of times, and eventually died from natural causes in 1992. A decade later, crucial DNA analysis was carried out to compare Allen’s genetic profile to traces found on the Zodiac letters. There was no match, and despite the focus put on Allen in David Fincher’s 2007 movie Zodiac, he has been largely discounted as a suspect by most experts on the case.

And so the mystery continues. Who was the Zodiac? Why did he apparently stop killing just as seemed to be hitting his stride? Did he die himself, or is he still out there somewhere today, a seemingly harmless old man?