Other unidentified serial killers may have more victims but the Zodiac Killer sits only behind Jack The Ripper in terms of notoriety and infamy. Over 50 years have passed since the killer took his first known victim. He remains an elusive figure despite dozens of theories about his true identity.
David Faraday and Betty Lou Jensen
On December 20, 1968, young couple David Faraday, age 17, and Betty Lou Jensen, age 16, had just enjoyed their first date. They had attended a Christmas concert at their high school in Vallejo, some twenty miles from San Francisco. After the concert, the pair drove to a more private location to become better acquainted. They parked next to the reservoir pump house on the Vallejo hills above Lake Herman, listening to the car radio and enjoying each others company.
It was about 11:15 pm when suddenly the couple were startled with a beam of light entering the vehicle through the window on the driver’s side. A man suddenly had appeared at the window of the vehicle. David Faraday began to open his door when without warning the man shot David in the head. Betty Lou Jensen attempted to flee the scene. She managed to exit the car and make it thirty feet from the vehicle, alas escape wasn’t to be. The assailant unloaded five shots from a .22 semi-automatic pistol into the teenager’s back.
When police arrived on the scene they found David Faraday, still inside the vehicle, alive. He was rushed to the hospital but sadly he died shortly after arrival. There was no such glimmer of hope in the case of Betty Lou Jensen as she was declared dead at the scene.
The investigation was a puzzle for detectives. No witnesses had revealed themselves and there seemed to be no motive. No items were missing which ruled out robbery. No sexual assault had occurred ruling out that motive.
Detectives focused on the idea that the couple had been followed by a jealous love rival or ex-partner and then killed. Although a solid and logical theory, law enforcement found no evidence that any such person with an axe to grind existed.
Michael Mageau and Darlene Ferrin
Some seven months had passed since the murders of David Faraday and Betty Lou Jensen. The trail had gone cold in the hunt for the killer and the case, which appeared to be an isolated incident, had faded away from the public eye. On July 4, 1969, the killer behind the double murder at Lake Herman would strike again.
At around midnight 22-year-old mother of one Darlene Ferrin drove her Ford Corvair up to Blue Rock Springs Park in Vallejo. The spot was just two miles from the pump station location were David and Betty Lou had been murdered just before Christmas. She was in the company of 19-year-old Michael Mageau.
As the couple sat in their vehicle a white car entered the car park and parked beside them. The vehicle only stopped for a brief moment before driving off again. Ten minutes or so passed when the same white vehicle returned. This time parking opposite Darlene and Michael.
The driver of the white car got out of the vehicle and started walking towards the Ford Corvair were Darlene and Michael were sitting. The man shone a bright torchlight into the eyes of the couple. At this point Michael Mageau was of the belief it was a police officer approaching the vehicle. The man opened the car door and suddenly opened fire on the young couple.
Darlene Ferrin was killed, she had been shot in the chest four times. Michael Mageau was also shot four times but the shots were far less accurate, he received a bullet in the leg, the elbow, the shoulder and a final bullet which went through his neck up into his mouth and hit his tongue. The assailant fired several more shots as he returned to his vehicle before speeding away.
Shortly after the Vallejo Police Department received a phone call in which the caller said:
“I want to report a double murder. Go one mile east on Columbus Parkway to the public park. You will find kids in a brown car. They were shot with a 9mm Luger. I also killed those kids last year.”
Officers were dispatched. On arrival, they found the deceased body of Darlene Ferrin inside the vehicle. Michael Mageau was on the floor nearby, miraculously he was still alive.
After surviving the attack Michael gave a description of the assailant. He described him as having light brown curly hair and a round face, placing his age in the late twenties to early thirties. He was of a stocky build, weighing around 200 lb, and stood about 5 feet 8 inches tall.
This Is Zodiac
On August 1, 1969, The San Francisco Examiner, The San Francisco Chronicle and The Vallejo Times-Herald each received letters from an individual claiming responsibility for the killings of David Faraday, Betty Lou Jenson and Darlene Ferrin. The letters contained several details including the brand of ammo used in both attacks and the position of the bodies, seemingly proving their authenticity.
The letters to the newspapers were near identical with the exception of a cypher. Each letter contained one-third of the cypher which the author demanded to be printed or he would go on a rampage. The author stated that decoding the cypher would reveal his identity. He signed them off with a circle containing a cross, the symbol of the zodiac.
The papers did as they were asked and printed the three letters containing the cryptogram, only withholding the threat to go on a murderous rampage as they didn’t wish to cause an unnecessary panic throughout the city. The articles also contained a plea from detectives to provide them with more information to confirm he was the killer. Less than a week later on August 7 the writer willingly obliged and sent another letter proving he was the perpetrator. He also began the letter given a name that would forever be infamous in the world of true crime:
“This is Zodiac speaking”.
The Decoded Cypher
The cryptogram got the better of police and naval experts who were unable to crack the cypher. The code was cracked after several days by a schoolmaster and amateur cryptoanalyst called Donald Harden. Harden, from Salinas, with the help of his wife, solved the cypher that had baffled experts by looking for possible groupings of code which might spell out the word “kill”. In doing so they revealed the following message:
I like killing 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 something gives me the most thrilling experience it is even betting than getting your rock off with a girl the best part of it is when I die I will be reborn in paradise and all I have killed will become my slaves I will not give you my name because you will try to slow down or stop my collecting slaves for the afterlife.
At the foot of the cypher, eighteen characters remained but the meaning was unclear. Using the same technique used to solve the cypher they spelt out:
ebeori et eme thh piti
One theory is that this section required a different code to the rest of the cypher that would reveal a name or other important information. This “hidden message” theory, however, couldn’t be proved. This remaining section at this point remains incomprehensible gibberish.
Law enforcement received over a thousand calls after the cypher was released. Each tip was followed up but none revealed the identity of the killer.
Brian Hartnell and Cecilia Ann Shepard
Over a month passed with no further word or action from the man now known as the Zodiac Killer but this all came to an end on September 27, 1969. 20-year-old Brian Hartnell and 22-year-old Cecilia Ann Shepard had visited an area on the shore of Lake Berryessa in Napa Valley to enjoy a picnic and each others company.
At around 6:30 pm the couple had enjoyed their picnic and were now peacefully enjoying the beautiful views surrounding them from the comfort of a blanket they were laying on. Suddenly a stocky man appeared from the nearby bushes wearing a hood and pointing a gun at the two young adults.
In what appeared a robbery he demanded money and the car keys. Brian Hartnell only had a few cents on him but he offered it anyway. The attacker said he needed the car as he was an escapee from Deer Lodge State Prison in Montana before telling them he would have to tie them up but didn’t wish to hurt them. Brian Hartnell and Cecilia Ann Shepard were tied up at which point the assailant’s demeanour changed, abruptly telling the couple he was going to have to stab them.
The Zodiac Killer pulled a knife from his belt and began plunging it repeatedly into the back of Brian Hartnell. After stabbing Hartnell a dozen times he averted his attention to Cecilia Ann Shepard. In a brutal onslaught, Cecilia was stabbed over twenty times in a frenzied attack. After completing his vicious assault, the assailant calmly walked over to Brian Hartnell’s white Volkswagen and began to write a message on the door:
The symbol of the zodiac, just like the one in the original letters, was also drawn by the killer.
From the lake nearby a fisherman had heard the screams and made his way to the station of the park ranger. When rangers William White and Dennis Land arrived at the scene half an hour later they astonishingly found both victims of the shocking attack alive. Soon after the Napa PD also arrived on the scene. They had received a telephone call from a man with a gruff voice who said:
“I want to report a murder… no, a double murder. They are two miles north of park headquarters, they were in a white Volkswagen Karmann Ghia. I’m the one who did it.”
Investigators soon located the phone booth from which the call originated. It was just six blocks from the Napa Valley PD headquarters and the receiver was still hanging loose. Prints were taken from the phone but none were matched to anyone the police had on file. A size eleven boot print was also found at the scene and due to its unusual pattern they were able to trace it to a pair sold at Sears.
Officers checked out the Deer Lodge Prison escapee story but as officers thought it was merely a red herring. The Zodiac Killer probably told the tale so that the couple would remain calm and complicate as he tied them up.
Two days following the horrific attack Cecilia Ann Shepard sadly died as a result of her injuries. She passed away at Queen Valley Hospital. Brian Hartnell, despite suffering a dozen stab wounds in his back, survived.
On October 11, 1969, the Zodiac Killer took his final known and confirmed victim. Sometime after 9:30 pm 29-year-old yellow cab driver Paul Stine picked up a fare near the Fairmount Hotel on Nob Hill and began to drive to Presidio Heights. At around 9:55 pm whilst at the intersection of Washington and Cherry Streets, his passenger pulled out a 9mm semi-automatic pistol and executed Paul Stine with a shot to the head.
Paul Stine’s killer got out of the back seat of the yellow cab and reached through the front window. From Paul Stine’s body, he took the victims wallet and cash before ripping a large piece of fabric from the dead man’s shirt and wiping down the vehicle of his prints. Noticing a couple of youths nearby he made his exit, casually walking away up Cherry Street toward the Presidio.
Police quickly swarmed the area and began looking for the perpetrator. Amongst them were officers Donald Fouke and Eric Zelms. The two saw a white, stocky, barrel-chested man with brown crewcut hair wearing glasses heading east on Jackson Street. They believed him to be around 35 to 45, 5 foot 10 and about 200 lbs. The man, however, wasn’t stopped. The original call from the dispatcher had mistakenly said the suspect was a black male. If the correct description had been made they would have realized how closely he resembled the suspect. Unfortunately, by the time the correct description was sent out, there was no trace of the man.
Understandably, given the missing money and wallet, police initially were of the opinion that the motive behind the murder of Paul Stine was a robbery. This continued to be the case until three days later when a letter arrived at the offices of The San Francisco Chronicle:
The piece of shirt included in the letter was indeed a match to the one taken from the dead body of Paul Stine. Stine was added to the list of confirmed victims of the Zodiac Killer.
The threat to take out a bus packed with schoolchildren caused a major panic within San Francisco and was taken as a serious warning by law enforcement. In some areas school buses were now escorted to school, other buses had armed officers on board. Thankfully, the sick and twisted threat was never fulfilled.
Witnesses who had seen the killer of Paul Stine flee the murder scene were able to give enough details to enable a sketch artist to draw a composite of the suspect. The image of a stocky, white male with short brown hair and glasses was plastered across the San Francisco area but it failed to lead to the capture of the man known as the Zodiac Killer.
The hunt for the Zodiac Killer took another twist on October 21, 1969. Just ten days after the murder of Paul Stine at around 2 pm a man called the Oakland County PD saying he was the Zodiac Killer. It is debated whether or not he gave details about the case which only the killer would have known but the caller certainly stated he wanted to now give himself up. However, he would only do so on the condition that he was represented in court by a famous lawyer, such as Melvin Belli or F Lee Bailey. The caller also had one more condition, that he wished to speak on the Jim Dunbar show.
Although they recognised how strange and bizarre the request appeared the task force working the case decided it was worth a shot. Melvin Belli and Jim Dunbar both agreed to help. Next law enforcement contacted two switchboard operators and surviving victim Brian Hartnell, all of which had heard the voice of the Zodiac Killer before.
On the morning of October 22, 1969, at 6:45 am the radio show went on air. Almost an hour passed and then at 7:41 am a call was received from the man claiming to be the Zodiac Killer. Speaking in a soft almost boyish voice the caller, who said he preferred to be called Sam, began to interact stating he suffered terrible headaches. As the conversation went on Brian Hartnell and the two switchboard operators listened on. The three people who had previously heard the voice of the Zodiac Killer were unanimous in there answer, it was not the same man.
Despite the strong belief, the caller named “Sam” was a hoax Melvin Belli spoke to the man off-air and an agreement was made for the pair to meet at a thrift store in Daly City. To the surprise of no one, “Sam” failed to show up.
On December 20, 1969, a letter was sent to the home of Melvin Belli. The letter contained another piece of shirt claiming to belong to Paul Stine. Police were able to confirm that the cloth was a match to the one from Paul Stine’s shirt. Handwriting experts also concluded that the writing was a match to others confirmed to be the work of the Zodiac killer. Was this a further communication from “Sam” or was it the real Zodiac’s way of saying “Sam” was a hoax and “This is the real Zodiac speaking”? This question would be answered soon after.
After Melvin Belli continued receiving phone calls from the man known as “Sam” detectives decided to place a trace on the line. The calls were traced to a mental patient in an Oakland hospital. The man’s name was Erik Weill, an amateur photographer. “Sam” was a hoax.
Other Zodiac Victims
On March 22, 1970, 22-year-old Kathleen Johns and her infant daughter were driving along Highway 132 near Modesto, California on the way to visit a sick relative in Petaluma. On route, a driver in a white vehicle began flashing his headlights for the woman to pull over.
Kathleen, who was also seven months pregnant at the time, decided to oblige. Upon doing so the man told Kathleen that one of her wheels was lose and that he would help fix it for her. After a couple of minutes, the man stated he was done. Kathleen thanked the samaritan and set off on her way again, however, as she did so the wheel came off.
The driver of the white vehicle again offered a helping hand. This time he told Kathleen Johns he would take her to the nearest service station to get some proper help. Unfortunately, the man failed to keep his word. He drove past the nearest garage and instead drove around the backroads near Tracy, California, threatening to kill both Kathleen and her infant daughter. Johns eventually saw her chance to escape when the driver slowed down near a stop sign, she grabbed her child and jumped from the vehicle.
After successfully escaping her abductor Kathleen Johns made her way to the nearest police station. On entering she glanced up at the notice board and saw a wanted poster of a man she claimed was the man who had kidnapped her and her daughter. The man was The Zodiac Killer. On returning to Kathleen John’s vehicle on Highway 132 the police found the vehicle had been torched.
Questions of whether or not the Zodiac Killer was responsible were seemingly answered on July 24, 1970, when the San Francisco Chronicle received the following letter:
Question marks still remain about whether Kathleen Johns was abducted by the man known as Zodiac or if he was simply inflating his own numbers to make people fear him more. The fact that Kathleen’s story and what was recorded in police reports also muddy the waters. The police report shows no mention of a threat to kill. Kathleen Johns also stated the driver got out to look for her after her escape but again this isn’t mentioned in police reports.
Robert Domingos And Linda Edwards
June 4, 1963, was “Senior Ditch Day” at Lompoc High School in California. Young couple Robert Domingos, 18, and his fiancee Linda Edwards, 17, took the opportunity of a day off of school and headed to an isolated spot on Gaviota Beach to be alone. The following day the bodies of Robert and Linda were discovered in a makeshift shack by a search party which included Robert Domingos father.
It is impossible to know the exact sequence of events with no witnesses or survivors, however, several clues did leave police with a strong theory. They believed that Linda was made to tie Robert’s hands behind his back before the attacker began to tie up Linda. At this point, Robert was able to somehow break free. This led to a brief skirmish which allowed Linda and Robert to make a run for it. The assailant then shot both in the back as they attempted to escape.
With both victims now on the ground the killer executed the young lovers. Robert Domingos was shot eleven times, Linda Edwards eight. After completing his execution the assailant dragged the dead bodies and there belongings into the makeshift shack before setting it on fire and leaving. The fire, however, failed to take hold and thus his plan to destroy any evidence failed.
The murder of Robert Domingos and Linda Edwards remains unsolved. Due to the similarities with the attack on Brian Hartnell and Cecilia Ann Shepard in the Lake Berryessa attack of 1969 it has often been suggested as a possible early crime of the Zodiac Killer. The ammunition, .22 calibre, used in the Domingos and Edwards murder only adds weight to the theory as it was the same type used in the murders of David Faraday and Betty Lou Jensen, the Zodiac’s first known crime.
Cheri Jo Bates
Two years before the first known victims of the Zodiac KIller, David Faraday and Betty Lou Jensen, a murder took place in Riverside, California which many have tried to link to the Zodiac series. On October 30, 1966, eighteen-year-old Cheri Jo Bates was murdered.
Her body was discovered face down by a groundskeeper the following morning on the campus grounds of Riverside City College near the parking lot at the library were Cheri Jo had studied the night she was killed. Cheri had multiple stab wounds to her chest, back and shoulder as well as slash wounds to her face and throat, indicating she had put up a fight with her attacker before eventually being outfought.
Her car, a lime green Volkswagen Beetle, was found nearby. Its distributor and ignition wire had been tampered with. Investigators believed this was done by the killer to get Cheri Jo Bates out of the vehicle, perhaps by pretending to offer a helping hand.
A month after the murder of Cheri Jo Bates her father, the Press-Enterprise and the Riverside PD all received near-identical letters. The author of the letters described how he had taken the life of Cheri Jo Bates. He described a similar tale to the one police had theorized over, that he had disabled the car whilst she was in the library and then lured her with the promise of a helping hand before attacking her.
Opinion was torn (and still is) as to whether the letters were the work of Cheri Jo Bate’s killer or a sick and twisted hoax. Several months after on April 30, 1967, the Press-Enterprise ran an article on the case and the following day received another letter which simply read:
Bates had to die. There will be more
Again it was never proven whether the letter was genuinely from the killer or another pathetic hoax. In 1971 the Zodiac Killer himself would seemingly give credence to the claim that Cheri Jo Bates was a victim of his. In a letter sent to the LA Times he stated:
I do have to give them credit for stumbling across my Riverside activity, but they are only finding the easy ones, there are a hell of a lot more of them down there.
Despite the claim, it was still debatable as to whether Cheri Jo Bates was a Zodiac victim. To this day experts and researchers on the case still argue over her being a victim of the Zodiac or another killer.
Between the period of April 1970 and March 1971, a further eight letters were sent, seven to the San Francisco Chronicle and one to the LA Times. These included a bizarre Halloween card sent to Chronicle journalist Paul Avery, which seemed to hint at a total of fourteen victims. The killer then just abruptly stopped. For almost three years no further communications were made.
The Zodiac Killer returned when he sent a letter on January 29, 1974, to the San Francisco Chronicle. In what is thought to be one of the last genuine letters from the Zodiac Killer, he alludes to the score being 37-0 between himself and the San Francisco PD. His official total stood at eight with six been murdered and two others wounded, thus he was claiming an extra twenty-one victims. Was he inflating his own kill total? or was there genuinely more unknown victims out there?
Three further letters were sent over the next six months, all to the San Francisco Chronicle. After the last of these communications was sent on July 8 1974, the Zodiac Killer again disappeared. This time for good. Further letters were sent from 1978 onwards but most have been discredited. If this is true then I guess you have to ask what made Zodiac stop in 1974?
As well as no more letters, more importantly, there were no more killings. Many suspects have materialised over the years, some very obviously not the man responsible and, in truth, a little bizarre. Others make compelling cases against their chosen suspect, but nothing that would hold up in any court of law.
Instead, the answer probably doesn’t lie in any book or website that has been written. Although I will cover a few suspects in some follow-up posts the truth is the killer is just as likely someone who has never been named before and will only be revealed with DNA evidence. The recent case surrounding The Golden State Killer/Original Nightstalker is an example of this.
Update: A post on the most well-known suspect can be read here: Arthur Leigh Allen – The Most Infamous Zodiac Suspect
Joseph James DeAngelo Jr was caught thanks to DNA. Before the DNA proof, however, DeAngelo Jr was never of interest to anyone involved in the case and was never considered a suspect. Other suspects were named by various authors and researchers and most were believable to some degree but none was the Golden State Killer. This shows how important it is to keep an open mind regarding any unsolved case, no matter how compelling the narrative around any given suspect.
As of right now the only thing we know for certain is that the identity of the Zodiac Killer remains unknown.