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The Zodiac Killer Murders Story | Victims & Suspects

Who Was He ?

The Zodiac Killer

The series of murders committed in the 1960s and 1970s, in San Francisco Bay in the United States, by a man who calls himself "the Zodiac", terrorizes local population. Despite a huge police investigation and the extreme media attention, the identity of the author remains a mystery to this day. The killer, who is looking for celebrity, sends letters to several newspapers, mocking the police and their inability to identify him. One day, a man pretending to be the Zodiac killer even calls a lawyer during a live television program. Even if this particular event will be considered a hoax, it corresponds to the type of behavior of the killer who commits terrible crimes in order to draw attention to him. If that was his intention, it proved to be extremely fruitful. More than 40 years later, numerous films, books and television programs have been produced on the murders, without, however, making any real progress and solving the mystery of these crimes.

Two villainous murders

In one of his letters, the Zodiac killer claims to have killed 37 people. However, this number cannot be verified. The police attribute 5 murders to him in total. In addition, 2 people survived his attacks. The first attack which can be attributed with certainty to the Zodiac killer took place on December 20, 1968 in an isolated location near the reservoir of Lake Herman, not far from the city of Benicia on the north shore of San Francisco Bay. Two teenagers, David Faraday and Betty Lou Jensen, find themselves in a parked car when they are attacked. David Faraday is shot in the head at point-blank range while sitting in the car. He died of his injuries in the hospital. Betty Lou Jensen is shot five times in the back as she tries to flee the killer; she will die on the spot. A witness will later tell the police that he saw two cars parked side by side at the scene of the murder, but that nothing aroused his suspicions.

Two additional victims

On July 4, 1969, the Zodiac killer struck again, shooting Darlene Ferrin, a 22-year-old married woman, and Michael Mageau, 19, while they were seated in a car at Blue Rock Springs Park in Vallejo, only a few kilometers away from the first shooting, and in an equally isolated location. Although he was hit in the face, neck and chest, Mageau survived and could give a description of his attacker and the circumstances of the shooting. While the couple are in their car, another car arrives immediately behind them. A man comes out and approaches their car, blinds them with a lamp directed on their faces, then shoots them. Darlene Ferrin receives nine bullets and is declared dead when she arrives at the hospital.

Shortly after the shooting, a man called the Vallejo police and claimed responsibility for the murder and the previous attack. The call comes from a phone booth on the road to the sheriff's office, which is visible from Darlene Ferrin's house. During the investigation, it appears that Darlene Ferrin may have known the man who killed her. A white car was seen outside her house several times, and the description of the man in the car matches that given by other witnesses. He is a white man, around 40 years old, stocky and with brown hair. A few days later, letters arrived in three different newspapers in San Francisco, signed by the Zodiac killer and marked with a cross surrounded by a circle, which some would interpret as a representation of the wheel of the Zodiac. Each letter contains part of the coded message given above, and a message from the killer saying that, if his letters are not printed in the front pages of the newspapers, he would go wild and not stop until he kills 12 more people.

A bloody picnic

Another young couple, Bryan Hartnell, 20, and Cecilia Shepard, 22, were attacked on September 27, 1969, while they were picnicking by the shore of Lake Berryessa in the Napa Valley, about 30 km from Vallejo. A man with a rifle and wearing a hood marked with the symbol of the Zodiac approaches them and tells them that he has just escaped from prison. He demands that they give him their car and, after tying them up, stab them both repeatedly. Hartnell will survive, but Cecelia Shepard will succumb to her injuries two days later. The killer calls the police to report the crime himself and to say that he left a message at the scene to prove that he really is the Zodiac. He indeed wrote the dates of his previous attacks on the door of the couple's car and he drew the symbol of the Zodiac, before moving away quietly.

The end of the mutiny

The last murder attributed to the Zodiac killer took place on October 11, 1969. The same weapon used in previous shootings was used to kill taxi driver Paul Stine in San Francisco. He was shot in the head by the passenger he took charge of. Witnesses saw the assassin take Stine's wallet and keys and tear a piece of fabric from his shirt, before wiping the inside of the taxi with it, and walked away. The police are on the scene in a few minutes, but fail to catch the man. A police officer checks a man who leaves the crime scene and who could be the Zodiac killer, but does not stop him, because his description does not correspond to that given to him by the radio dispatcher. It will later appear that the description provided was not the correct one.

Zodiac killer disappears

Zodiac letter

Other letters are sent by the Zodiac killer, some containing pieces of the shirt of Paul Stine in order to prove their authenticity. In a letter, he threatens to detonate a school bus and boasts of having talked to some police officers shortly after killing the taxi driver. The strangest incident comes some time later, when a man pretending to be the Zodiac killer manages to speak to Melvin Belli, a prominent lawyer, during a television broadcast. Belli speaks at length with the man; the police locate the call from an institution for the mentally ill. We conclude that this is a hoax. That year, Belli received a Zodiac Christmas card that contained another piece of Paul Stine's shirt and a message in which he asked for help, but that something in his head was preventing him.

Messages continue to be sent in the 1970s, mainly to San Francisco reporter Paul Avery, who covered the case. Several attacks are believed to have been committed by the same man, but none can be definitively attributed to him. From March 1971, the messages ceased. After an interruption of almost three years, the Chronicle receives a last message, which ends with the line “Me = 37, SFPD = 0“ (“me = 37, San Francisco police = 0“), as if the assassin had scored points and claims to have killed 37 people in total. Many hoaxes will be sent thereafter, but no other murder will be attributed to him, nor any other contact that can be authenticated. For reasons that remain unknown, the Zodiac killer disappears.

Many suspects

Over the years, San Francisco police believe they have investigated more than 2,000 people suspected of being responsible for the murders. One of their main suspects is Arthur Leigh Allen, the man Robert Graysmith identifies as the Zodiac killer in his books. Robert Graysmith worked as a designer at the San Francisco Chronicle at the time of the murders and continues to be interested in the matter. Graysmith will first use a pseudonym for the man he identified as the murderer, in order to protect himself from possible lawsuits. When the film Zodiac was released in 2007, and whose script was taken from the books of Graysmith, with Jake Gyllenhaal in the role of Graysmith, Allen died, which allows director David Fincher to name him. The only problem is that the evidence against Allen is entirely circumstantial. He continued to proclaim his innocence until his death and, in 2002, a DNA analysis carried out on the saliva found on the stamps used for the letters sent by the killer of the Zodiac revealed it does not correspond to the DNA of Allen. Allen is therefore no longer considered a suspect by the police, although some, including Graysmith, are not entirely convinced that he was not involved in the murders, in one way or another.

An unresolved matter

Among the many other suspects investigated by the police, as well as amateur detectives who were passionate about the case, only a few can be linked directly to Allen and only by circumstantial evidence. More than 40 years after the crimes, it seems unlikely that new evidence will be found, but if it did, the police now have the advantage of being able to use the DNA collected from the letters sent by the Zodiac killer. At the same time, the man behind these terrible murders remains a mystery, as well as the reasons he had for committing them, and the case file remains open.