The case of the infamous Zodiac Killer is one which has stumped all forms of law enforcement, code breakers, and private investigators from its beginning in 1968 to today. This case involves an unsolved string of murders, alleged killings, and numerous taunts to law enforcement and the public in the Northern California region. This killer is one which has made himself memorable through his inability to be caught and his direct communication with the police. This essay will explain the timeline of this serial killer and some specific details surrounding the case. The Zodiac Killer was able to make a name for himself with the use of encrypted messages, with some to this day still remaining unsolved. This case has always intrigued me because of his use of codes. With many movies, books, and even copycat killers resulting from the Zodiac, he has clearly made an impact on life and will surely forever be in the history books.
The Zodiac’s infamous story began on December 20, 1968, when he killed a young couple. Betty Lou Jensen and David Faraday were found shot dead in their car after being seen out later than promised. Only shell casings and a witness reporting of a car parked next to David’s resulted from this murder. No viable suspects were determined, and this case seemed it would go unsolved. Although, seven months later on July 4, 1969, another couple was attacked in their car. While Darlene Farrin and Michael Mageau were watching fireworks, a strange car pulled up beside them, leaving soon after.
The car then returned, and the driver approached the couple sitting in their car. He pointed a gun at the passenger side window, shooting and killing Darlene and severely injuring Michael. The shooter then went back to his car and drove off. Soon after, a payphone was used about a mile from the scene to call the Vallejo Police Department. The caller declared to the dispatcher that he had committed a murder with a nine-millimeter luger and told them where to find the kids. The caller also confirmed that he killed the couple last year. Police arrived at the scene to a surviving Michael. According to Michael and the dispatcher, the man seemed to be a 30-year-old white male, short, heavy set, with curly hair. With only a vague description and no true suspects, the case once again seemed to be unsolved.
Over three weeks after the attack on Darlene and Michael, three letters were sent to three Bay Area newspapers. These envelopes contained letters stating that he killed those people and facts to prove that it was him. Also contained in these letters were the first of many encoded messages. These coded messages were said to reveal his identity. The writer explained that if these coded messages were not placed in the newspaper that he would go on a killing spree and kill a dozen people by the weekend. With the fear of the killing spree, the newspapers published the encoded messages.
Mass panic ensued in an attempt to decrypt these encoded messages. A couple believed to have cracked the code. This school teacher and his wife cracked the cypher, assuming that specific words or even phrases were in it. There assumption that the words I, Kill, Killing would be in the code were correct, leading to the solution. However, the message did not reveal the killer’s identity, but revealed a message shocking the public. The killer’s message explained that he loved killing.
He explained that he would not give them his identity because they would slow down his work. Obviously, the findings from this letter were shocking, but the following letter was one which will never be forgotten. This letter, seeming to be directed towards authorities began as so, “Dear Editor, This is the Zodiac speaking.” Following that introduction, the Zodiac stated more facts about the crimes and also corrected many wrongful accusations made by the police and witnesses. To close out this 3-page letter, he used his notable sign/signature.
In response to these many attacks and direct communication, the authorities authorized countless manhunts in an attempt to find the Zodiac. After weeks of searching with no results and no more attacks, the Zodiac struck again. On September 27, 1969, the Zodiac attacked Brian Hartnell and Cecelia Shepard. This time using a knife, he stabbed Cecelia ten times and stabbed Brian in the back several times. While Brian and Cecelia were bleeding, the Zodiac went on to write on the side of the victim’s car. He wrote the dates of all 3 murders and his signature sign. The Zodiac then left the scene and headed to a payphone. He then called the police, admitted to the crime, and directed them to the murder scene.
After killing in Vallejo, Napa, and Benicia, the Zodiac decided to move his next scene of attack to San Francisco. On October 11, 1969, the Zodiac struck again, killing cab driver Paul Stine. Thanks to three witnesses across the street, the police were called. The cab driver was found dead from a gunshot wound to the head. Along with the victim’s body, countless fingerprints were found in and on the cab. Authorities believed these may belong to the killer. Due to the location of the murder and the absence of the Zodiac’s signature, the murder was initially believed to be unrelated.
This theory was short lived due to the Zodiac sending a letter to the San Francisco Chronicle. This letter contained a confession to the killing, a taunt to the police, a piece of the cab driver’s bloody shirt, and finally a threat to kill school children. With the Zodiac’s recent threat to shoot children on a school bus, the police were forced to act. Police cars and helicopters began following school buses to ensure safety. While these protective actions were being implemented, a composite sketch was being made of the zodiac, based on the 3 witnesses. Responding police officers were also giving statements and reports.
Following the release of the police officer’s reports, endless sightings, conspiracies, copy-cats, etc. began to come up. At the heart of all this mayhem were two officer’s reports. These reports stated that they passed a man fitting the description of the Zodiac leaving the crime scene but decided not to stop him. This was because the officers believed the suspect from the cab murder was described as being African American. After this news came out, the media, the community, and the conspiracies exploded. The Zodiac continued to make subtle contact with the newspaper. Including more pieces of the cabdriver’s shirt, more ramblings, codes, and more threats of violence. One extremely controversial letter sent from the Zodiac was him claiming he was pulled over by police that night. According to the Zodiac, he was quickly interviewed by police on the street before lying, leading to them speeding away in the direction of his claims.
Sporadic letters and other crimes began to come up. Many believe the Zodiac had many more victims that were unfound. He also claimed that there was other unsolved crimes which he was not receiving credit for. These letters and theories continued for about a year before fading away in 1971. The case fell cold. In 1974 and 1978, the Zodiacs letters resurfaced with more ramblings and hoaxes. Nothing truly came from these letters and few believed they did not even come from the real Zodiac. According to authorities, many of the later letters received contained variations in the writing. Several letters were confirmed as forgeries and others were forgotten.
Prior to this assignment, I only knew that he killed, made codes, and was never caught. I now am aware of more specifics related to the codes and each murder. I also now know how he contacted the public and the specifics of his letters. The Zodiac truly is one strange and terrible man, but very smart. Clearly this man was intelligent regarding his code ability, and sheer ability to remain undetected and unidentified. This man wanted attention, and he will forever have it as he will surely remain in the record books.
I thought this topic was interesting before, and after looking more into it I have even more interest. Although this essay did not cover every bit of the Zodiac, it did cover the beginning and middle of his story. Truthfully, it is impossible to tell the end story of the Zodiac because no one knows where the end is. Whether this man is still alive, what crimes he continued to commit, which letters were his, or was he even working alone. These questions could go on for days. The Zodiac is an extremely interesting case and I am glad I chose to write about it.
- Butterfield, Michael. “Case Summary.” Zodiac Killer Facts Separating Fact Fiction, 2015, http://zodiackillerfacts.com
- “The Zodiac Killer.” Crime Museum, 2017, www.crimemuseum.org/crime-library/serial-killers/the-zodiac-killer/.
- Photos and information: Figure 1, Figure 2
- Butterfield, Michael. “The Zodiac Killer: A Timeline.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 8 Nov. 2017, www.history.com/news/the-zodiac-killer-a-timeline.