The Unsolved Mystery of the Zodiac Killer

The Unsolved Mystery of the Zodiac Killer

The Zodiac Killer was a serial killer who stalked parts of Northern California from December 1968 through October 1969. Through a series of cryptic letters he sent to the press and others, he disclosed his motivation for the killings, offered clues to future murder plots, and adopted the nickname Zodiac.

He took responsibility for murdering as many as 37 people, but police investigators have only confirmed five deaths and seven total attacks.

December 20, 1968

Betty Lou Jensen, 16, and David Arthur Faraday, 17, were parked at a secluded spot located on Lake Herman Road on the eastern side Vallejo, California.

Witnesses noticed the young couple huddled together in the front seat of Faraday's Rambler station wagon between around 10:15 and 11:00 p.m. Nothing about the couple seemed unusual to bystanders. But by 11:15 the scene had taken a tragic turn.

The couple was discovered lying on the ground outside their bullet-riddled car. Betty Lou was found several feet from the car, dead from five gunshot wounds in the back. David was found closeby. He had been shot at close range in the head but was still breathing. He died en route to the hospital.


Detectives had few clues, aside from the fact that there was an earlier confrontation in the same area. Bill Crow and his girlfriend were parked in the same place as Faraday and Jensen just 45 minutes earlier. Crow told police that someone driving a white Chevy drove past them, stopped, and backed up. For unknown reasons, Crow sped away in the opposite direction. The Chevy turned around and followed the couple, but was unable to keep up after Crow made a sharp right turn at an intersection.

Two hunters also reported seeing a white Chevy parked at a gravel turn-around on Lake Herman Road. They approached the car but did not see the driver inside.

July 4, 1969

Darlene Elizabeth Ferrin, 22, and Michael Renault Mageau, 19, were parked at the Blue Rock Springs Golf Course in Benicia around midnight. The golf course was four miles from where Jensen and Faraday were gunned down.

A car pulled up behind the couple's car, blocking them from driving away. A man, who Mageau believed was a police officer, got out of his car holding a bright flashlight that obscured his face. As the stranger approached the driver's side of the car he immediately began shooting at the couple, firing five nine-millimeter rounds into the car. Both Ferrin and Mageau were shot.

The shooter turned to leave but came back after hearing shouts coming from Michael. He fired four more times. One bullet hit Michael and two struck Darlene. The shooter then got into his car and drove away.

Within minutes after the attack, three teens came across the couple and hurried to get help. When authorities arrived both Ferrin and Mageau were still alive, but Ferrin died before reaching the hospital.


Michael Mageau survived the attack and was able to give a description of the shooter to authorities. He described the attacker as a short, heavyset white man, about 5' 8" and around 195 pounds.

The Call

At 12:40 a.m. an anonymous male caller contacted the Vallejo Police Department and reported the double murder. During the call, he also said he was responsible for the Jensen and Faraday murders. Police traced the call and found it was made from a phone booth located just blocks from the police department and less than a mile from Darlene Ferrin's home.

The caller told police:

"I wish to report a double murder. If you will go one mile east on Columbus Parkway to a public park, you will find the kids in a brown car. They have been shot by a nine-millimeter Luger. I also killed those kids last year. Good-bye"

The Zodiac Letters

On Friday, August 1, 1969, the first known Zodiac letters were received by three newspapers. The San Francisco Examiner, San Francisco Chronicle, and Vallejo Times-Herald each received an almost identical letter written by a person who took credit for the attacks on the four teens. He also gave details about the murders and included one-third of a mysterious cipher in each letter.

The self-proclaimed killer demanded that the three letters be published on the front page of each newspaper by that Friday afternoon or he would go on a rampage and randomly kill a dozen people over the weekend. The letters were signed with a crossed-circle symbol.

The letters were published and efforts to untangle the messages in the ciphers began by authorities and citizens.

August 4, 1969

Police investigators stated publicly that they had doubts as to the authenticity of the letters in an attempt to get the killer to contact them again. The plan worked. On August 4th, another letter arrived at the San Francisco Examiner.

The letter began with the words that have since haunted many involved in the case:

Dear Editor This is the Zodiac speaking…

It was the first time the killer used the name Zodiac. In the letter, the Zodiac included information which proved he was present during the murders and a message that his identity was hidden inside the ciphers.

August 8, 1969

A high school teacher and his wife cracked the 408-symbol cipher. The last 18 letters could not be decoded. The message read:


The fact that the code did not contain the killer's identity was a disappointment to the police, however, some believe the letters can be rearranged (and three more letters added) to spell "Robert Emmet the Hippie."

September 27, 1969

College students, Cecelia Ann Shepard, 22, and Bryan Calvin Hartnell, 20, were picnicking on a peninsula at Lake Berryessa near Napa, Ca. A man carrying a semi-automatic pistol and wearing a hooded costume approached the couple.

He told them that he was an escaped convict from a Montana prison where he killed a guard and stole a car and that he wanted money and their car to drive to Mexico.

The couple was cooperating fully with his demands, offering him money and the car keys and the three talked for a while.

He instructed Shepard to hog-tie Bartnell with precut pieces of a clothesline that he supplied. He then tied up Shepard and told the couple, "I'm going to have to stab you people," and took out a long double-edged knife and stabbed Hartnell six times and Shepard ten times.

He left the couple for dead and walked casually back to Hartnell's car where he drew a crossed-circle symbol in black magic marker on the side of the car and the dates of the attacks in Vallejo.

A fisherman discovered the couple and called the police. Both victims were still alive, but it took over an hour for medical help to arrive. Shepard died two days later after lapsing into a coma. Hartnell survived and gave police a detailed account of the events as well as a description of the attacker.

The Call

At 7:40 p.m. an anonymous caller contacted the Napa County Police Department. He spoke to officer David Slaight in what was described as a low, monotone voice. He told Slaight:

"I want to report a murder - no, a double murder. They are two miles north of park headquarters. They were in a white Volkswagen Karmann Ghia… " and ended the call with, "I'm the one who did it."

As in the Vallejo case, the call was traced to a phone booth just a few blocks from the police department.

October 11, 1969

San Francisco cab driver Paul Stine, 29, picked up a passenger in Union Square and drove to the wealthy area of Cherry Street and Nob Hill. It was there that the passenger shot Stine in the temple, killing him, then removed his wallet, car keys and carefully tore off a large portion of his shirt.

Three youngsters witnessed the event from a second-floor window across from the parked taxi. They contacted the police and described the shooter as a white male, 25 to 30 years old, stocky build and a crew cut.

An intensive manhunt was immediately launched, but somehow there was a mistake made as to the killer's race and the police were searching for a black male. How this mistake was made was never reported and no one was ever apprehended for the crime.

It was later determined that police drove by a large white male fitting the original description just blocks from the shooting, but because of his race, the police did not consider him a suspect.

October 14, 1969

The Chronicle received another letter from the Zodiac. A piece of Stine's blood-soaked shirt was enclosed and the author referred to the Stine murder, saying the police failed to catch him because they did not search the area properly. He then pointed to his next intended victims, school children.

October 22, 1969

A caller identifying himself as the Zodiac contacted the Oakland Police Department and demanded on-air time on the Jim Dunbar television talk show with F. Lee Bailey or Melvin Belli, both famous defense lawyers. Belli appeared on the show and a call from someone saying they were the Zodiac came in while the show was being televised. He said his real name was Sam and asked that Belli meet him in Daly City. Belli agreed but the caller never showed. It was later determined that the call was a hoax and the imposter was a mental patient at the Napa State Hospital.

November 1969

On November 8 and 9, the Chronicle received two Zodiac letters. The first one was a 340-character cipher. The second letter was seven pages long and included another piece of Stine's shirt. In the letter, he claimed the police had stopped and talked with him three minutes after he shot Stine. He also drew a schematic of what he referred to as his "death machine" which was made to blow up large objects such as buses.

December 20, 1969

Melvin Belli received a Christmas card at his home which included another piece of Stine's shirt. In the card the Zodiac claimed he wanted help from Belli, ending with:

"Please help me I can not remain in control for much longer."

Attempts from Belli to get the Zodiac to contact him again were made, but nothing ever happened. Some speculate that the card was written during a moment of clarity, while others believe it was another attention-getting hoax on the part of the Zodiac.

March 22, 1970

On the evening of March 22, 1970, Kathleen Johns, who was eight-months pregnant, was on her way to meet her mother. She had her ten-month-old daughter in the back seat of the car. While on Highway 132 in San Joaquin County, west of Modesto, Johns pulled over after a driver pulled up alongside her and indicated that something was wrong with her car. The driver pulled over and told Johns that her wheel was wobbling. He said he would tighten the wheel bolts, but instead loosened them, then returned to his car and drove off.

When Johns pulled away her tire fell off. The man in the car was not far ahead and backed up and offered Johns a ride to a gas station. She agreed but became frightened when he failed to stop at several gas stations. The ride took over three hours of what Johns described as, "silent aimless driving around." She was able to escape with her child when the driver stopped at an intersection.

Johns fled across a field and hid until she saw the man drive away. She received help from a passerby and was taken to the local police department in Paterson. While at the station she saw a wanted poster with a composite sketch of the Zodiac and identified the person as the man who kidnapped her. Her car was later found gutted and burned.

Throughout the years, Johns' account of the night's events has changed from her original statement, leading some to question her story.

This was the last time anyone ever reported seeing the Zodiac.

April 20, 1970

The Zodiac sent a letter to the Chronicle which included a 13-character cipher, a diagram of a bomb he planned to use to blow up a school bus, and a statement that he was not responsible for the February 18, 1970, bombing of a police station in San Francisco. He ended the letter with a score "Zodiac Symbol=10, SFPD=0".

Authorities interpreted the number ten as a body count.

April 28, 1970

A card was sent to the Chronicle with the words, "I hope you enjoy yourselves when I have my BLAST" along with the cross-circle symbol. On the back of the card, the writer threatened to use his bus bomb if the Chronicle failed to publish the April 20 letter he sent detailing his plans to blow up a school bus. He also requested that people begin wearing Zodiac buttons.

June 26, 1970

A letter received at the Chronicle contained another 32-letter cipher. The author said he was upset that he had not seen people wearing Zodiac buttons. He took credit for another shooting but gave no specifics. Investigators suspected it was the shooting death of Sgt. Richard Radetich a week earlier.

Also included was a Phillips 66 map of the Bay area. A clock-like face was drawn around Mount Diablo with a zero at the top, the number three on the right side, six on the bottom and a nine of the left side. Next to the zero, he wrote, "is to be set to Mag.N".

The map and the cipher were supposed to give the location of a bomb he buried that was set to go off the following fall.

This letter was signed "Zodiac Symbol=12. SFPD=0".

July 24, 1970

In this letter, also sent to the Chronicle, the Zodiac took credit for abducting Kathleen Jones four months earlier and described burning the car, a fact that only one local paper, the Modesto Bee, had printed.

July 26, 1970

In this next letter, the Zodiac included his own twisted version of the song "I've Got a Little List" from Gilbert & Sullivan's musical, "The Mikado." In it, he described how he planned to collect and torture his slaves. Also drawn on the letter was a giant crossed-circle, a score notation of "=13, SFPD=" and the words,

"PS. The Mount Diablo Code concerns Radians + # inches along the radians."

In 1981, Zodiac researcher Gareth Penn figured out that when placing a radian angle over the map, it pointed to two locations where Zodiac attacks took place.

October 5, 1970

Three months had passed without any further communication from the Zodiac. Then, a card written with cut-out letters from magazines and newspapers was sent to the Chronicle. The card bore 13 holes and indicated that there had been another Zodiac victim and that he considered himself "crackproof." Originally considered as a hoax, certain letter configurations and the phrase "crackproof" later reappeared in confirmed Zodiac letters, adding new authenticity to this one.

October 27, 1970

Paul Avery, the key reporter in the Zodiac case for the Chronicle, received a Halloween card which included a threat on Avery's life. The letter was posted in its entirety on the front page of the Chronicle and days later Avery received another letter urging him to investigate the similarities between the known Zodiac murders and the murder of college student Cheri Jo Bates years earlier.

A Step Back In Time - October 30, 1966

On October 30, 1966, Cheri Jo Bates, 18, was studying at the Riverside City College library annex until the library closed at 9 p.m. Investigators suspect that her Volkswagen parked outside the library was tampered with prior to her leaving the library. The distributor coil and the condenser had been pulled out and the middle wire of the distributor was disconnected. Police believe that when she tried to start the car the person who disabled it approached her and offered his help.

Somehow he lured her into a secluded dark driveway which sat between two empty houses, where police believe the two sat for about an hour and a half. The man later attacked Bates, beating her, slashing at her face and cutting her a total of 11 times, seven of which nearly decapitated her.

Clues found at the scene included a size 10 heel-print, a Timex watch with a torn seven-inch wristband displaying the time 12:23, fingerprints and a palm print, skin tissue underneath the victim's fingernails and hair and blood in her hands.

On November 29, 1966, two identical letters were sent to the Riverside Police and the Riverside Press-Enterprise by someone claiming to be responsible for killing Bates. The letters included a poem titled "The Cofession"sic which offered details of the murder that only the police and the killer knew about. The letters also included a warning that she was not the first or the last of his victims. Many interpreted the tone of the letter as very similar to that of the Zodiac letters mailed after the Vallejo murders.

In December 1966 a custodian at the Riverside City College discovered a poem carved into the underside of a folding desk. The poem, titled "Sick of living/unwilling to die" had a tone similar to that of the Zodiac as well as handwriting which looked like some found in the Zodiac's letters. Some believe the author, who signed the poem with the initials "rh" was describing the murder of Bates. Other theorize that the letter was written by a student who had unsuccessfully tried to kill themselves. However, Sherwood Morrill, one of California's top Questioned Documents examiners, was of the opinion that the true author of the poem was the Zodiac.

Six months after the murder of Bates three nearly identical letters were received by the Riverside Press, the Riverside police and Cheri Jo Bates' father. The letters all contained more postage than was necessary and two of the letters were signed with a symbol which looked like the letter Z next to the number three. The Zodiac letters sent in the 1970s all contained excessive postage, symbol-type signatures and the threat that more murders would follow.

The two letters received by the newspaper and the police read:


Bates' murder was never solved. The Riverside Police Department maintains that a local man was the key suspect, not the Zodiac, although the letters sent may have been written by him.

March 17, 1971

A letter was sent to the Los Angeles Times because, as the writer put it, "they don't bury me on the back pages."

In the letter, the Zodiac gave the police credit for making the Bates connection, but added that the police were still only finding the "easy ones" and that there were plenty more "out there." The letter included the score, "SFPD-0 Zodiac Symbol-17+."

This was the only letter ever sent to the Los Angeles Times and the only one postmarked outside of San Francisco.

March 22, 1971

Chronicle reporter Paul Avery received a postcard thought to be from the Zodiac in which he took credit for the case of a missing nurse, Donna Lass, from the Sahara Hotel and Casino.

Lass was never seen again after treating her last patient at 1:40 a.m. on September 6, 1970. The following day her uniform and shoes, marked with dirt, were discovered in a paper bag in her office. Two calls were made, one to her employer and one to her landlord, by an unidentified caller who said Lass had a family emergency and had left town.

The postcard that Avery received included a collage made up of lettering cut from newspapers and magazines and contained a picture of an ad of the condominium complex known as Forest Pines. The words, "Sierra Club", "Sought Victim 12", "peek through the pines", "pass Lake Tahoe areas, "round in the snow," hinted at the location of where Lass' body could be found. A search in the area turned up only a pair of sunglasses.

Some believe the postcard was a forgery, perhaps the attempt of the real killer to make the authorities believe Lass was a Zodiac victim. However certain similarities such as the misspelling of Paul Avery's name ("Averly") and the use of a hole-punch had both become traits found in letters known to be from the Zodiac.

Although it did not appear that kidnapping was a pattern of the Zodiac, but rather spontaneous random murders, if in fact, he was responsible for Johns' abduction then possibly Donna Lass could also be a victim of the Zodiac.

The mystery surrounding the case of Donna Lass was never solved, nor was her body ever located.

The Pines postcard was the last communication received from the Zodiac for three years. In 1974 he resurfaced although this time he dropped his opening line, "This is the Zodiac speaking" and the cross-circle symbol signature from the letters.

January 29, 1974

The Zodiac sent the Chronicle a letter describing the movie The Exorcist as "the best saterical comidy that I have ever seen." It also included a part of a verse from "The Mikado," a hieroglyph-type drawing and a threat that the letter had to be published or he would "do something nasty." His signature score changed to read "Me-37 SFPD-0".

May 8, 1974

The Chronicle received a letter from a "concerned citizen" complaining about the movie Badlands and asking the paper to stop advertising it. Although the Zodiac did not identify himself as the author of the letter, some felt the similarities of the tone and handwriting was unmistakably that of the Zodiac.

July 8, 1974

A complaint letter regarding the conservative Chronicle columnist, Marco Spinelli who used the pen name, "Count Marco" was received at the newspaper and ended the letter with:

"Since the Count can write anonymously, so can I -- signed "the Red Phantom (red with rage)."

Some believe the Zodiac sent the letter, others do not. Doubting that the letters were really authored by the Zodiac, police detective David Toschi sent them to the FBI Laboratory who responded that the letters were probably prepared by the writer of the Zodiac letters. No other communication was received from the Zodiac for another four years.

April 24, 1978

A letter was sent to the Chronicle and given to reporter Duffy Jennings, Paul Avery's replacement after he went to work at the San Francisco Examiner. Duffy contacted Detective David Toschi, who had worked on the Zodiac case since the Stine murder and was the only remaining San Francisco Police Department (SFDP) investigator working the case.

Toschi turned the letters over to John Shimoda of the U.S. Postal Service crime laboratory to verify if the letters were authored by the Zodiac instead of giving them to the chief examiner for the Questioned Documents Division of the SFPD. Why he made that decision is unknown, however, Shimoda did verify that the letter was authored by the Zodiac. Four experts three months later declared the letter a hoax.

At that time Toschi was in the middle of a political battle and looking at possibly replacing the current chief of police. For all of those who adored Toschi, many just wanted him to go away. When it became known that the letters were a hoax, many pointed the finger at Toschi, believing he had forged the letter.

The suspicions about Toschi forging the Zodiac letter was based on an earlier incident involving columnist Armistead Maupin, who was writing a series for the Chronicle called, "Tales of the City." He received a lot of fan mail for the series and in an effort to verify that the letters were legitimate he became suspicious that Toschi had written some of them under fake names.

Maupin made the decision to do nothing about it at the time, but when the forged Zodiac letter surfaced, Maupin thought it was possible Toschi was responsible and reported the fake fan letters and his suspicions to Toschi's superiors. Toschi eventually admitted to writing the fan letters, but always denied the implications that he forged the Zodiac letter and insisted the rumors were politically motivated.

The Toschi incident is just one example of the many bizarre twists the Zodiac investigation has taken over the years. More than 2,500 suspects have been investigated without anyone ever being charged. Detectives continue to receive telephone calls weekly with tips, theories​, and speculation.

The case remains open in some jurisdictions, but the San Francisco Police Department has designated it unsolved and inactive.

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