I discussed my thoughts on Jack the Ripper, England’s most infamous unsolved serial killer. It made me decide to discuss The Zodiac, which might be America’s most infamous unsolved serial killer. Oddly, we might know more about Jack the Ripper than The Zodiac.
Like Jack, Zodiac has canonical victims. There are seven of them; mostly couples, except for the strange taxi driver incident, and two of the seven survived their encounters. Another four murders are suspected to be the work of Zodiac, but there’s little tangible evidence and there is possibly a third person that met Zodiac and lived. However, Zodiac himself claimed 37 victims, but failed to provide proof.
The first canonical victims were killed in December 1968. Sadly for them, they stopped at a Lover’s Lane spot and were happened upon by Zodiac. Unlike some killers, Zodiac worked fast. He shot the couple and drove away. The entire incident probably lasted less than five minutes. However, this speed is also why two victims survived encounters. He was also patient and waited seven months before killing again.
This second attack left one victim alive and lead to the phone call from hell for a 911 operator. Zodiac called in the murders, took responsibility for them and also admitted to killing the first set of victims mentioned above. That happened in July 1969. In August 1969, Zodiac sent his first letter.
In his letter, Zodiac gave himself the moniker of Zodiac and claimed that when all parts of the cipher were solved, the police would have him. One cipher was solved. However, the first cypher, if solved correctly, must lead one to believe that Zodiac was either a terrible speller or a terrible cipher creator. The decrypted cipher isn’t nonsense, but it isn’t well written either. Considering this was his message to the world, it seems like he would have taken the time to get parts like “Atop my collectiog of slaves for my afterlife” correct. Furthermore, the last 18 letters or so are in fact, nonsense. This means solving his later ciphers may be impossible. Between spelling errors and his willingness to use gibberish, it’s hard to imagine what he actually wrote.
September 1969 saw less wait time between murders when Zodiac attacked a couple who were having a picnic. Instead of shooting them, he stabbed them. The female victim later died of her injuries, but not before providing a description of a hooded assailant. The male victim survived. On their car, Zodiac drew the famous cross in a circle design along with the dates of other Zodiac murders. Again, Zodiac reported the crime to the police.
The murder of Paul Stine in October 1969 is interesting in the case files of Zodiac. Stine drove a taxi. His murder was completely random. Also, three teens witnessed and reported the crime while it was in progress. Yet, the suspect description was given as a black male to responding police. Responding officers therefore ignored the white male they saw duck into a stairwell on their way to the crime scene. However, Zodiac proved his involvement when he began mailing parts of Stine’s shirt with his letters. The obviously incorrect suspect description has never been explained.
After the murder of Stine (which is the last confirmed Zodiac kill), communication resumed between Zodiac, the press, and the police. He was a huge fan of mailing stuff to the newspaper, most famously, his ciphers. While we think of the “Big Three,” two of which have not been solved, he often used codes in his letters. However, all of these codes were much smaller than the large ciphers printed in the newspapers, yet none of them have been solved either.
In March 1970, the third possible escapee of Zodiac entered a police station. She had been driving down the highway when a car flagged her down. The man in the car told her that she had a wobbly tire, tightened the lug nuts, and drove away. The woman, who was pregnant and had an infant with her, got back into her car and her tire fell off when she got back on the road. The man then returned and offered her a ride. In what must have been an agonizing hour and a half or so, the victim and her infant were driven around by the good samaritan without stopping at a gas station to allow her to use a phone. When he stopped at a light, she jumped out with her daughter and hid in a field until he went away. Upon entering the police station, she saw a sketch of Zodiac and claimed he was the man that had tried to kidnap her. In July of that same year, one of Zodiac’s letters claimed responsibility for her abduction.
From 1970 to 1974, there is confirmed Zodiac communication in the form of letters to the press. However, in 1978 a letter appeared that was deemed undetermined in authenticity (partly because of some weird fan mail sent to an author writing a book on Zodiac). The most disturbing though was a greeting card postmarked 1990 that was sent to a newspaper and rediscovered in 2007. The letter was deemed a hoax by some experts and real by others, but it is missing the cross in the circle signature and does not contain any codes (unless you consider the fact that it arrived with a photocopy of some keys). It was during this time of inactivity that Zodiac was implicated in the four murders that took place before 1968. Also, a creepy poem carved on the underside of a desk at a community college where a murder took place was found to have close linguistic ties to the language used in the Zodiac letters to the press and police. There was letter involved in that killing as well, one that was signed with what appears to be a Z, that no one really took seriously.
As for suspects… there were a lot of them; then and now. In theory, the FBI has a partial DNA profile for Zodiac based upon a letter he sent. However, it’s possible someone else licked either the stamp or envelope where the profile came from. However, the partial profile was not a match to the two primary suspects; Arthur Allen and Don Cheney.
In a weird twist, there were letters involved with the killing of Elizabeth Short, The Black Dahlia. A police detective wrote a book about the Black Dahlia murder claiming his father was responsible. The prosecuting attorney’s office then released a letter and evidence that they had in fact considered the father the prime suspect in the murder of Elizabeth Short and claimed that if he was still alive, he could be tried for her murder. The detective wrote a follow-up book that circumstantially linked his father to Zodiac. His father resembled the sketch and allegedly, the Zodiac letters resemble the Black Dahlia letters (which we will talk about later). However, a few other suspects are better candidates than the Dahlia murderer.
Which means that despite the sketches provided by witnesses and a partial DNA profile, we are really no closer to catching Zodiac than we are Jack the Ripper.