The Zodiac Killer is perhaps one of the most sinister serial killers to have ever surfaced in the 20th century. Unlike Jack the Ripper, The Zodiac Killer was clean, precise and untraceable, especially when considering the technological advancements made in the investigative industry. Whilst many suspects were proposed and many theories are still bounded around the internet today, The Zodiac Killer remains as undetectable as he was when he first killed in 1968.
The first suspect comes from Gary Stewart, who believes that his own father, Earl Van Best Jr., is the Zodiac Killer. He bears an uncanny resemblance to the composite sketch, and his name also matches the number of characters in the “my name is” cipher. However, although Earl Van Best Jr. looks like the composite sketch from the Paul Stine killing, he does not fit the description of the large, heavy-set man at the three previous killings. Gary Stewart also tried to test his father’s DNA against the recovered 2002 Zodiac DNA, but was not allowed to, leading Gary to believe this to be a police cover-up.
The second and most famous suspect is from Robert Graysmith, who believes Arthur Leigh Allen was the Zodiac Killer. This theory is the basis for the 2007 film The Zodiac starring Jake Gyllenhaal as Robert Graysmith. On the day of the third Zodiac attack at Lake Berryessa, Allen told his family he was going to that exact location. He came home that evening covered in blood, with a bloody knife in his car. Additionally, one of Allen’s friends, Don Cheney, said that Allen referred to himself as the Zodiac before the killer publicly did. Cheney also said Allen planned on hunting people. When Allen was interviewed, he said his favourite book was The Most Dangerous Game, a book about a man who hunted humans, and a book referenced by the Zodiac in his first letter to the press. He was also wearing a Zodiac-brand watch with the same Zodiac symbol the killer used. When police searched his trailer home, they found small, dissected animals, bloody knives, and sexual devices, but no direct evidence of the murders. In 1974, Allen was convicted of child molestation and went to jail for three years. Coincidentally, during this time, no Zodiac letters were received. In 1987, an inmate told police that Allen admitted to him that he murdered Paul Stine. In 1991, Mike Mageau, the man who survived the second Zodiac attack, picked Allen out of a lineup of photos as the killer. This led the police to search Allen’s home again, and this time they found bomb formulas, constructed bombs, and tapes about the Zodiac killer. A year later, Allen died from a suspected heart attack. It is worth noting that Allen’s DNA was compared with the Zodiac’s stamp saliva and it was not a match. But it is believed that Allen had a habit of letting other people lick his stamps for him. Allen also underwent handwriting analysis, which wasn’t a match either. Finally, Allen does not look like the composite from the Paul Stine killing, but is still considered to be a prime suspect.
The last suspect comes from retired police officer Harvey Hines, who believes Lawrence “Kane” Kaye is the Zodiac. In 1962, Kane was involved in a car accident that resulted in brain damage influencing his behaviour. A psychologist claimed Kane was “losing the ability to control self-gratification.” Additionally, the Zodiac’s second victim, Darlene Ferrin, had a sister who said Kane followed and harassed Darlene in the weeks leading up to the murder. Also, Don Fouke, the cop who had possibly come into contact with the Zodiac after the Paul Stine killing, apparently said that in the hundreds of pictures he had been shown over the past 20 years, Kane was best likeness of the man he saw that evening. Kane also lived near the victims, or near the locations of their deaths. Kane moved to South Lake Tahoe in 1970, and that year a possible Zodiac victim named Donna Lass disappeared. Coincidentally, she worked at the same hotel as Kane. Finally, in 1970, Kathleen Johns and her baby were tricked into getting a ride from the Zodiac. He told her he was going to kill her and throw her baby out after her. Johns was able to jump out of the car with her baby and escape. Although this is an unconfirmed Zodiac encounter, the Zodiac possibly confirms this interaction in a letter. In a lineup of photos, Kathleen Johns points to Lawrence Kane as the man who tried to kill her. Kane’s handwriting did not match the Zodiac letters, but also could not be ruled out. Also, Kane resembles the description of the killer at the Paul Stine murder scene, but not the large, heavy-set description of the Zodiac in the first three murders.
The first killings occurred on Dec. 20, 1968, in Vallejo, California. The two teen victims were shot and killed while sitting in a parked car in a gravel parking area. Investigators attempted to piece together what had happened, but the killer had left behind no trace and, as the two victims had been killed instantly, there were no eyewitness accounts.
The next crime occurred on July 4, 1969, only a few minutes away from the first killings. The killer approached a parked car with a flashlight and shot the two passengers before walking away and coming back to shoot them again. One of the victims, Michael Mageau, survived and was able to give a description of the killer: He was a young, white male, aged between twenty six and thirty years old, stocky, weighing around 200 lbs or larger, 5’8”, had light brown curly hair and a large face.
A few weeks later, the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Francisco Examiner, and the Vallejo Times-Herald all received identical handwritten letters from someone claiming to be the killer. The letters included three different codes that the Zodiac claimed would reveal his identity. A couple days later, the San Francisco Examiner received another letter, in which the killer referred to himself as the Zodiac for the first time, writing, “This is the Zodiac speaking.”
On Sept. 27, 1969, in Napa, California, a picnicking couple was stabbed by a man in an executioner-style hood with the Zodiac symbol on his chest. But one of the victims, Bryan Hartnell, survived! He was able to give a description of the killer. Hartnell described his attacker as measuring between 5’8” and 6’0”, having dark brown hair and being heavy-set, weighing between 225 lbs and 250 lbs.
Finally, on Oct. 11, 1969, in San Francisco, taxi driver Paul Stine was shot in the head by his passenger. A teenager across the street heard the shot and got a good look at the perpetrator, and so did two other witnesses. In the chaos of the situation, the police dispatcher somehow incorrectly identified the suspect as a black male, even though he was described differently. The neighbour described a white male, twenty five to thirty years old, 5’8” to 5’9”, of a stocky build with a reddish-brown crew cut and heavy-rimmed glasses. When two police officers, Donald Fouke and Eric Zelms, drove past a stocky, white male with heavy-rimmed glasses a few blocks away from the scene, they did not question him, since he didn’t fit the dispatcher’s description.
The Zodiac would later mock this interaction in a letter, making it likely that the two cops drove by and saw the nation’s most notorious serial killer at the time without even knowing. A composite sketch was drawn based on descriptions by the two witnesses at the Paul Stine killing. It has become the most famous image of the Zodiac.
A coded message was sent to the San Francisco Chronicle, seemingly from the Zodiac Killer himself. The letters were sent for some time, but had a hiatus from 1971 – 1974 where all contact was cut off, before he sent one last letter claiming to have committed 35 murders.
The SF police department was able to extract a partial genetic profile from a Zodiac letter from the saliva on the stamp in 2002. It wasn’t enough to conclusively identity a single person, but was enough to eliminate many of the previously considered suspects.
While still remaining the most notorious cold case in America, being a household name up there with Jack the Ripper and Ted Bundy, the case is high profile enough that many people are still invested in finding out the true identity of the killer. The brutality and high-profile nature of the murders only adds onto the thirst for answers shared by both the friends and families of the victims, and the general public.
By Liam Marsh and Chloe-Anne Morris