The Zodiac Killer: California’s Jack the Ripper
By | May 16, 2019
One of the most infamous serial killers in history, Jack the Ripper terrorized London during the late 19th century. Nearly eighty years later, Northern California faced a similar threat when the Zodiac committed several murders between 1968 and 1970. Both killers sent letters to the newspapers, boasting their crimes, and neither killer was ever caught.
Like Jack the Ripper, the Zodiac killer had five confirmed kills, though he also had two victims who survived his attacks. The first victims were high school students, David Faraday and Betty Lou Jensen, on a date at a popular make-out spot in Benicia, California on December 20, 1968. They were gunned down while attempting to flee their attacker.
On the night of July 4, 1969, Darlene Ferrin and Michael Mageau were shot multiple times in the parking lot of Blue Rock Springs Park in Vallejo, California. Later that night, a man called the Vallejo police department and confessed to the shooting. He ended the call by saying, “I also killed those kids last year. Goodbye.” Darlene died. Michael survived and gave a description of the killer, but no suspects were identified. On July 31 of that same year, three virtually identical letters were sent to three newspapers providing details of the shootings and including a cipher which translated to “I like killing people because it’s so much fun.” The writer threatened to kill again if the cipher wasn’t published. A fourth letter sent to the Examiner on August 4 was the first to be signed “the Zodiac.”
Despite having his letters published, the Zodiac Killer did kill again. On September 26, 1969, at Lake Berryessa, college students Bryan Hartnell and Cecelia Shepard were held at gunpoint, bound at the wrists with a clothesline, and stabbed multiple times. Before calling the crime into the police once again, the killer drew crosshairs on the door of Bryan’s car with the dates and locations of the previous attacks as well the date and time of the stabbing along with the words “by knife.” Analysis of the handwriting matched that of the Zodiac letters. Bryan survived but Cecilia died two days after the attack.
The final victim, a cab driver named Paul Stine was shot and killed in Presidio Heights, an upscale neighborhood in San Francisco, on October 11, 1969. The shooting was written off as a robbery until The San Francisco Chronicle received a letter from the Zodiac claiming responsibility accompanied by a piece of the victim’s shirt as proof. While this was the last confirmed victim, letters continued coming in until 1974 and the list of potential Zodiac victims continued to grow.