The Zodiac Killer: California’s Jack the Ripper
(Original Caption) San Francisco, California: The "Zodiac" killer broke his silence to boast in letters and cryptograms that he has now murdered seven persons. Source: (gettyimages.com)
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.
The first potential victims were actually killed six years before the Zodiac began sending letters. The bodies of high school seniors, Robert Domingos and Linda Edwards of Santa Barbara, were found in a beach shack near Gaviota State Park. They had been tied up and shot multiple times. The killer used the same ammunition which the Zodiac used during the 1968 Vallejo shooting and the case was similar to that of the 1969 Lake Berryessa stabbing. In October 1966 in Riverside, California, the body of a college student named Cheri Josephine Bates was found with multiple stab wounds. One month later, the local newspaper received a letter from someone confessing to the murder. In April 1967, identical letters were sent to the newspaper, the police, and the victim’s father stating “Bates had to die. There will be more.” The letters were signed with what appeared to be the letter “Z.” In 1969, the notes were positively matched against the Zodiac’s other letters and the Zodiac sent a letter to The Los Angeles Times confessing to killing Bates.
In March 1970, Kathleen Johns and her infant daughter were nearly abducted by a driver which she identified as matching a police sketch of the Zodiac. A few months later, one of his letters mentioned “a rather interesting ride” with a woman and her baby. Around this time, the Zodiac also began making bomb threats and demanding that residents of the San Francisco Bay Area wear buttons featuring his crosshairs symbol. On September 6, 1970, Donna Lass disappeared from the Lake Tahoe area. Her body was never found, but on March 22, 1971, the Zodiac sent a postcard to a reporter for the Chronicle which possibly referenced her disappearance. The Zodiac continued sending letters until 1974, one of which suggested a victim count of 37.
While the Zodiac Killer was never caught, it wasn’t for a lack of suspects. Investigators considered several suspects, including a San Francisco businessman and a Martinez newspaperman. But the prime suspect was a convicted child molester by the name of Arthur Leigh Allen of Vallejo. Allen and the Zodiac both had the same favorite short story: “The Most Dangerous Game.” Allen also owned the same boots as the Zodiac and a watch with a crosshairs symbol. Less circumstantial evidence included being picked out of a photo lineup by one of the Zodiac’s surviving victims and an alleged partial confession to one of his friends. Nevertheless, there was not enough evidence and Allen died of a heart attack in 1992 without ever being charged with the crimes.
Among those who don’t believe Allen was the Zodiac Killer, theories abound. Some people even believe that the Zodiac Killer was the Unabomber. Still, others insist their own father was the killer. However, most people believe Allen to be the killer, including crime reporter Rita Williams, who was the last person to interview Allen before his death. According to Williams, Allen’s handwriting and grammar matched and she left the interview absolutely convinced she had just spoken to the Zodiac Killer.