Thirty-seven is the number of victims he alleged to have murdered; five is the number of canonical victims; and eighteen is the estimated number letters he sent to the press and other individuals. The case of the Zodiac killer appears to be all about numbers, which is quite fitting as this killer had a penchant for codes and cryptography.
In one of his letters, the killer boasted that he’d coated his fingertips in two coats of airplane cement to prevent leaving prints behind. In the very same message, he claims to have taken the time to leave “fake clews [sic] for the police to run all over town with”.
The Zodiac certainly took narcissistic pleasure in broadcasting the minutiae of his crimes and wasn’t always as careful as he may have believed he was. As a result, there’s a wealth of evidence available to examine further. While there’s enough material to review several fascinating aspects of this mystery in further depth, we’ve selected four specific clues to analyse here that may well hold the key to a case that has eluded investigators for decades.
1. Three Letters
All the letters sent by the Zodiac are considered critical pieces of evidence. Yet, these letters (in title) are considered the most significant.
The initial two (confirmed) Zodiac victims were Betty Lou Jensen and David Faraday on the 20th of December 1968. He cornered the two unfortunate teens – who were parked on a lovers’ lane near Lake Herman – and started firing into their vehicle. Jensen’s body was found less than 30 feet from the rear bumper, suggesting she had tried to run away. Faraday was killed as he was stepping out of the car.
On the 4th of July 1969, Darlene Ferrin and Michael Mageau were confronted by the same man when they were parked in Blue Rock Springs Park. Just as before, the killer fired shots into the car, and used a torch to obscure their view of his face as he did so. Mageau is one of the two “lucky” people to survive the Zodiac killer.
A few weeks later, the Vallejo Times, the San Francisco Examiner and the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper each received a letter from the Zodiac. The letters said (their contents were largely the same with a few variations) that the writer was the killer of the:
2 teenagers last Christmass
at Lake Herman + the girl
on the 4th of July near
the golf course in Vallejo
The letters also recounted details of the crimes that had not been released to the general public – including what the victims were wearing and what ammunition was used. In the cipher that was attached to the letters (the only one to ever be deciphered), he claimed that he would never reveal his identity as then (according to the killer) the police would prevent him from collecting further slaves for his after-life.
The Zodiac was officially here.
2. Eyewitness accounts
Despite gloating about how careful he was to leave a clean scene — something that may have classified him as an organised killer according to criminal profilers — the Zodiac could not avoid being seen.
Michael Mageau’s account is the first true description we have of the killer’s appearance. Through his torch blurred vision, Mageau described the Zodiac as being short (about 5’8″ tall), extremely heavyset but, in Mageau’s own words, “not blubbery fat”. The attacker was at least 195 pounds and had a large face.
The next description came from Bryan Hartnell who, along with Cecilia Shepard, was attacked by the Zodiac in September 1969 while picnicking at Lake Berryessa. The couple were approached by a man wearing an executioner’s hood with clip-on sunglasses. On his chest, he wore a white bib with a cross-circle symbol on it. Despite having a gun on his person, the Zodiac stabbed both victims repeatedly. Shepard succumbed to her injuries in an ambulance on the way to the hospital but Hartnell survived to describe the attacker as having greasy hair and that he was “not obese”.
Just two weeks later, the Zodiac got into the taxi of the unfortunate Paul Stine who he shot once in the head before stealing his wallet and keys. Most unusually, the Zodiac also tore a portion of Stine’s blood stained shirt. Witnesses at the scene described the killer as being a white male in his early forties who was 5’8″ with a heavy build and reddish-blond “crew cut” hair. He was also wearing glasses. These descriptions were used to create a composite sketch — which you can see at the top of this article.
The Zodiac had a face.
3. The fingerprints in the taxi
While their authenticity has been widely debated by armchair Zodiac enthusiasts and experts alike, there is no doubt that, if genuine, the bloody fingerprints discovered on Paul Stine’s taxi would be invaluable in catching the killer. That is, if you had a suspect to which these would match, of course.
We do know that the Zodiac was always extremely careful not to leave a trace — something he took great pride in — and claimed to have planted evidence. However, there is an eyewitness account that corroborates the authenticity of these prints. Did the Zodiac make a mistake?
Three neighbourhood witnesses said that they saw the killer standing near to where the prints were found and, most shockingly, he was wiping these areas of the taxi with the piece of the victim’s shirt he had torn away.
The Zodiac may have made an error.
4. The blood-stained shirt fragment
The police were already aware that the Zodiac had cut away a piece of Paul Stine’s shirt after the murder – so why is this piece of evidence so crucial?
Until the San Francisco Chronicle received a letter from the Zodiac containing the bloody piece of fabric, the police had believed that Stine’s murder was simply a car-jacking gone wrong. Not satisfied with someone else getting the credit for his work, the killer wrote:
This is the Zodiac speaking.
I am the murderer of the taxi driver over by Washington St + Maple St last night, to prove this here is a blood stained piece of his shirt. I am the same man who did in the people in the north bay area.
The Zodiac craved attention. He needed to have control both of his victims as well as the entire police investigation. Based on his obvious narcissism, profilers believe that his friends and family would have probably described him as being arrogant and insecure.
The Zodiac hungered for notoriety.
Your turn: What do you think of recent attempts to identify the Zodiac killer? Do you think we’ll ever know who he is? We’d love to hear your thoughts below.
Let us know in the comments if you would like to see a part 2 of this article. There is plenty of evidence left to explore.