“I am not sick. I am insane. But that will not stop the game.”
Those are the sinister words written by the man who would come to be known as the Zodiac Killer, a man who terrorized the San Francisco area from 1966 to 1970 and baffled investigators in their search for his true identity, which is still unknown to this day.
It is believed that his first victim was Cheri Jo Bates, an 18-year-old freshman at Riverside City College near Los Angeles. While she studied at the campus library on the evening of October 30, 1966, somebody tampered with her car. Upon discovering that it would not start, someone, presumably a man, approached her and dragged her into some nearby bushes. She was kicked in the head and stabbed twice in the chest, and her throat was so viciously slashed that she was nearly decapitated. A few days later, the police received a letter that gave the details of the young girl’s murder that only the killer could have possibly known.
“She was young and beautiful,” the letter began. “But now she is battered and dead. She is not the first and she will not be the last.”
The first letter received from the Zodiac Killer
It was the first of a barrage of letters that would be sent to the police and media. In later letters, the killer soon began calling himself “the Zodiac” and including his trademark symbol of a circle with a cross through it.
More than 18 months would pass before the Zodiac struck again. On the night of December 20, 1968, young lovers David Faraday, 17, and Bettilou Jensen, 16, took a drive up to Lake Herman on the north side of the San Francisco Bay area to look at the view over Vallejo, CA. As they kissed in the car, a flashlight suddenly lit up the interior and the driver’s side door was forced open. Faraday was shot point-blank in the head. Jensen made a run for it, but only got 10 yards before she was shot in the back 5 times. She was dead by the time police got on the scene. Faraday was still alive when found and was able to give just a few details about the attack, but none about the attacker, before he died shortly after arriving at the hospital. There were no witnesses, neither victim had been robbed, and neither was sexually assaulted. There was no apparent motive and the police were stumped.
Another 6 months passed until a similar incident occurred only 2 miles from the previous attack at Blue Rock Springs on July 4, 1969. Darlene Ferrin, 22, had been seeing a number of boys behind her husband’s back. This particular date was with 19-year-old Michael Mageau. They drove to a local scenic spot but had been followed by another car, which parked only a few feet away from them. Mageau became nervous, but Ferrin seemed to know the other driver and reassured him, saying, “Don’t worry about it.” Ten minutes later, a bright light shone on them and without warning a man appeared and opened fire. Ferrin was hit 9 times and died at the scene. The boy was shot in the neck, shattering his jaw and ripping away part of his tongue. However, Mageau survived the attack and was able to give a description of the killer. Within an hour of the shooting, a man placed a call to the Vallejo police department from a pay phone. “I want to report a double murder,” he said. “If you will go one mile east on Columbus Parkway to the public park, you will find kids in a brown car. They were shot with a 9-mm Luger. I also killed those kids last year. Goodbye.”
Suspicion soon fell upon Ferrin’s husband, Dean, but he had a solid alibi and he was quickly dismissed. The police were once again stumped, and besides the phone call, they had no evidence connecting the last 2 murders. It was around this time that the Zodiac began writing letters to 3 local newspapers with details of the crimes. The letters included a cipher, and each newspaper received 1 part of the message. The killer also threatened that if they did not publish the cipher in the paper, he would kill again. Soon after the coded message was published, a high school teacher and his wife from Salinas cracked it. The message began, “I like killing people because it is so much fun,” and went on to explain that the people he killed would be his slaves in the afterlife.
The third piece of the cipher printed in the Chronicle
The intervals between the killings were becoming shorter, as the next attack occurred just 2 months later. Two students, 20-year-old Bryan Hartnell and 22-year-old Cecelia Shephard, were picnicking by Lake Berryessa in Napa County, CA when a tall man wearing a black hooded cape approached them with a semi-automatic pistol pointed directly at them. He tied them up with clothesline, laid them face down on the ground, and began stabbing them. After the attack, a man called into the Napa Sheriff’s Office reporting the attack and claiming that he was the one who committed it. When authorities arrived at the scene, written on the couple’s car door was the trademark Zodiac symbol and the dates of the previous Zodiac killings. The woman died the next day, but the man survived. Two weeks later, a San Francisco cab driver, Paul Stine, was killed with a 9-mm pistol, the same type used to killed David Faraday and Bettilou Jensen. Three days after that, the San Francisco Chronicle received a letter identifying the writer as the Zodiac and claiming to have killed the taxi driver.
The 6 known fatal victims of the Zodiac Killer
Another incident wouldn’t occur until March 22, 1970. Kathleen Johns and her 10-month-old daughter were stopped on the road by a man who said that one of the rear wheels of her car was loose and offered her a ride to the nearest service station. She accepted and got into his car. Instead of going to a service station, the man calmly told Johns that he was going to kill her. However, when the abductor made a wrong turn and stopped, the woman grabbed her baby and jumped from the car. She successfully escaped, and when she was later describing the man at a police station, she saw a wanted poster depicting the Zodiac and immediately identified him as the man.
After that, the police and the media continued to receive Zodiac letters, but most were declared to be hoaxes and no more murders were confidently linked to the Zodiac. The last letter by the Zodiac that was considered to be genuine was received on April 25, 1978. It read, “I am back with you,” and it ended, “I am now in control of all things.”
The case remains unsolved, but there have been numerous suspects, including a follower of Charles Manson and the Unabomber Ted Kaczynski. Arthur Leigh Allen was identified by Hartnell and Mageau as their attacker, but DNA testing failed to link him to the crimes. Speculation about the identity of the Zodiac Killer resurfaced in 2014 after the publication of the book The Most Dangerous Animal of All, in which author Gary L. Stewart claimed that his biological father was the Zodiac. Stewart was abandoned as an infant and later adopted. After trying to track down his father for more than 10 years, his search led him to San Francisco, where he found out his biological father had a criminal record and an uncanny resemblance to the police sketch of the killer. The man, who is now deceased, was identified as Earl Van Best Jr, but like the other suspects, there is no concrete evidence linking him to the murders.
- Innes B. Zodiac Killer. In: Serial Killers: The Stories of History’s Most Evil Murderers. New York, NY: Metro Books; 2013:83-89.
- Zodiac Killer biography. Biography website. http://www.biography.com/people/zodiac-killer-236027#awesm=~oIjH9f6hsEBou7.