The Unsolved Mystery of the Zodiac Killer

Handwritten Note from Zodiac Killer
Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

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

He took responsibility for murdering as many as 37 people, but police investigators confirmed only five deaths and seven total attacks. The Zodiac Killer has not been caught.

First Attack

On December 20, 1968, Betty Lou Jensen, 16, and David Arthur Faraday, 17, were parked at a secluded spot on Lake Herman Road on the eastern side of Vallejo, California.

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

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

Detectives had few clues, aside from the fact that there had been an earlier confrontation in the same area. Bill Crow and his girlfriend, who were parked in the same place as Faraday and Jensen 45 minutes earlier, told police that someone in a white Chevy drove past them, stopped, and backed up. Crow sped away in the opposite direction. The Chevy turned around and followed the couple but couldn't 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 a driver inside.

Second Attack

On 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, four miles from where Jensen and Faraday were shot.

A car pulled up behind them, blocking them from driving away. A man, who Mageau believed was a police officer, left his car holding a bright flashlight that obscured his face. The stranger approached the driver's side of the car and immediately began shooting at the couple, firing five 9 mm rounds into the car, hitting Ferrin and Mageau.

The shooter turned to leave but returned after hearing shouts from Mageau. He fired four more times. One bullet hit Mageau and two struck Ferrin. The shooter then got into his car and drove away.

Within minutes, three teens came across the couple and hurried to get help. Authorities found Ferrin and Mageau still alive, but Ferrin died before reaching the hospital.

Mageau survived and gave authorities a description of the shooter: a short, heavyset white man, about 5 feet 8 inches tall and around 195 pounds.

At 12:40 a.m. an anonymous male caller contacted the Vallejo Police Department, reporting Jensen's and Faraday's murders and claiming responsibility. Police traced the call to a phone booth blocks from the police department and less than a mile from 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 9 mm Luger. I also killed those kids last year. Goodbye."

The Zodiac Letters

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

The self-proclaimed killer demanded that the letters be published on the newspapers' front pages by the next Friday or he would randomly kill a dozen people over the weekend. The letters were signed with a crossed-circle symbol.

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

On August 4, investigators said they doubted the authenticity of the letters, attempting to get the killer to contact them again. The plan worked. On August 4, 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 had used the name Zodiac. He included information proving he was present during the murders and indicated that his identity was hidden inside the ciphers.

Cracking the Code

On August 8, a high school teacher and his wife cracked the 408-symbol cipher. The last 18 letters could not be decoded. The message, written in all capital letters, read (with typos unchanged):

I LIKE KILLING PEOPLE BECAUSE IT IS SO MUCH FUN IT IS MORE FUN THAN KILLING WILD GAME IN THE FORREST BECAUSE MAN IS THE MOST DANGEROUE ANAMAL OF ALL TO KILL SOMETHING GIVES ME THE MOST THRILLING EXPERENCE IT IS EVEN BETTER THAN GETTING YOUR ROCKS OFF WITH A GIRL THE BEST PART OF IT IS THAE WHEN I DIE I WILL BE REBORN IN PARADICE AND THEI HAVE KILLED WILL BECOME MY SLAVES I WILL NOT GIVE YOU MY NAME BECAUSE YOU WILL TRY TO SLOI DOWN OR ATOP MY COLLECTIOG OF SLAVES FOR MY AFTERLIFE EBEORIETEMETHHPITI.

Police were disappointed that the code did not contain the killer's identity. Some believe the letters can be rearranged and three more letters added to spell "Robert Emmet the Hippie."

Third Attack

On September 27, college students Cecelia Ann Shepard, 22, and Bryan Calvin Hartnell, 20, were picnicking on a peninsula at Lake Berryessa near Napa, California. A man carrying a semi-automatic pistol and wearing a hooded costume approached them. He said he was an escaped convict from a Montana prison, where he had killed a guard and stolen a car, and that he wanted money and their car to drive to Mexico.

The couple cooperated fully with his demands while offering him money and the car keys. The three talked for a while. The man instructed Shepard to hog-tie Hartnell with pieces of a clothesline that he supplied. He then tied up Shepard and said, "I'm going to have to stab you people." He took out a long, double-edged knife and stabbed Hartnell six times and Shepard 10 times.

Leaving the couple for dead, he walked back to Hartnell's car. He drew a crossed-circle symbol on the side of the car and the dates of the attacks in Vallejo.

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

At 7:40 p.m. an anonymous caller contacted the Napa County Police Department and spoke in a low monotone to officer David 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..." He ended the call: "I'm the one who did it."

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

Fourth Attack

On October 11, 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. There, the passenger shot Stine in the temple, killing him, then removed his wallet and car keys and carefully tore off a large portion of his shirt.

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

Police immediately launched an intensive manhunt, but the killer was mistakenly described as a black male. It was later determined that police drove by a man fitting the original description blocks from the shooting, but because of the mistake he was not considered a suspect.

On October 14, the Chronicle received another letter from the Zodiac. A piece of Stine's blood-soaked shirt was enclosed. The writer referred to the Stine murder, saying the police did not search the area properly, and pointed to his next intended victims: school children.

On October 22, 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, famous defense lawyers. Belli appeared on the show, and a call purportedly from the Zodiac came in. 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 came from an impostor, a mental patient at Napa State Hospital.

More Mail

On November 8 and 9, the Chronicle received a letter from the Zodiac each day. The first was a 340-character cipher. The second included another piece of Stine's shirt; a seven-page letter claiming police had stopped and talked with him three minutes after he shot Stine; and a schematic drawing of his "death machine," which was made to blow up large objects such as buses.

On December 20, Belli received a Christmas card from the Zodiac at his home that included another piece of Stine's shirt and the claim that he wanted help from Belli, ending with:

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

Belli attempted to get the Zodiac to contact him again, but nothing happened. Some speculate that the card was written during a moment of clarity, while others believe it was another attention-getting hoax by the Zodiac.

Close Call

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 10-month-old daughter in the back seat of her car. While on Highway 132 in San Joaquin County, west of Modesto, Johns pulled over after a driver came 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, returned to his car, and drove off.

When Johns began to pull away, her wheel fell off. The man in the car was not far ahead. He 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 escaped with her child when the driver stopped at an intersection.

Johns fled across a field and hid until she saw the man drive away. A passer-by took her to the police department in Paterson. While there she saw a wanted poster with a composite sketch of the Zodiac and said the image was of the man who had kidnapped her. Her car was later found gutted and burned.

Over the years Johns' account of the night's events changed from her original statement, leading some to question her story. It was the last time anyone reported seeing the Zodiac.

School Bus Bomb

On April 20 the Zodiac sent a letter to the Chronicle including a 13-character cipher, a diagram of a bomb he planned to use on 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 10 as a body count.

The next letter, which came to the Chronicle on April 28, read, "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 that he had sent detailing his plans to blow up a school bus. He also requested that people begin wearing Zodiac buttons.

In June 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.

Clues to a Planted Bomb

Also included was a map of the Bay area. A clock-like face had been drawn around Mount Diablo with a zero at the top, the number three on the right side, six on the bottom, and a nine on 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 the Zodiac had buried, set to go off the following fall.

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

The next month, in another letter sent to the Chronicle, the Zodiac took credit for abducting Jones four months earlier and described burning the car, a fact that only one local paper, The Modesto Bee, had printed.

In another letter received two days later, the Zodiac included a twisted version of the song "I've Got a Little List" from Gilbert and Sullivan's operetta "The Mikado," describing 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, or angle measurement, over the map, it pointed to two locations where the Zodiac attacks took place.

Three months passed with no communication from the Zodiac. Then, on October 5, a card made of letters cut from magazines and newspapers was sent to the Chronicle. The card, which bore 13 holes, indicated that there had been another Zodiac victim and that he considered himself "crackproof." Originally considered a hoax, certain letter configurations and the phrase "crackproof" later reappeared in confirmed Zodiac letters, adding authenticity to this one.

Earlier Murder

On October 27, Paul Avery, the key Chronicle reporter on the Zodiac case, received a Halloween card that included a threat on his life. The letter was posted on the front page of the Chronicle. Days later Avery received another letter urging him to investigate the similarities between the Zodiac murders and the murder of college student Cheri Jo Bates years earlier.

On October 30, 1966, Bates, 18, had studied at the Riverside City College library until it closed at 9 p.m. Investigators suspect that her Volkswagen parked outside the library was tampered with before she left. When she tried to start the car, the person police believed had disabled it approached her and offered his help.

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

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

More Zodiac Mail?

The next month, identical letters were sent to Riverside police and The (Riverside) Press-Enterprise by someone claiming to have killed Bates. The letters included a poem titled "The Cofession" [sic] that offered details of the murder that only the police and the killer could know. The letters warned that Bates was not the first or last victim. Many interpreted the tone of the letter as similar to that of the Zodiac letters mailed after the Vallejo murders.

In December a custodian at 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 the Zodiac's letters and similar handwriting. Some believed the author, who signed the poem "rh," was describing Bates' murder. Others theorized that the letter was written by a student who had tried unsuccessfully to commit suicide. However, document examiner Sherwood Morrill believed that the author of the poem was the Zodiac.

Six months after Bates' murder, three nearly identical letters were received by The Press-Enterprise, Riverside police, and Bates' father. The letters contained more postage required, and two were signed with a symbol that looked like the letter Z next to the number 3. The Zodiac letters sent in the 1970s contained excessive postage, symbol-type signatures, and threats that more murders would follow.

The letters received by the newspaper and the police read:

BATES HAD
TO DIE
THERE WILL
BE MORE

Bates' murder was never solved. Riverside police maintain that a local man was the key suspect, not the Zodiac, although the letters might have been written by him.

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

That was the only letter sent to the Times and the only one postmarked outside San Francisco.

Yet Another Murder

On March 22 the Chronicle's 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 in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Lass was never seen 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. Calls were made to her employer and her landlord by an unidentified person who said Lass had a family emergency and had left town.

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

Some believe the postcard was a forgery, perhaps the real killer's attempt to make the authorities believe Lass was a Zodiac victim. However similarities such as the misspelling of Avery's name ("Averly") and the use of a hole punch recalled letters from the Zodiac.

The Lass case was never solved, nor was her body ever located.

If The Pines postcard was from the Zodiac, it was his last communication 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.

Even More Mail

On January 29, 1974, the Chronicle received a letter from the Zodiac describing the movie "The Exorcist" as "the best saterical comidy that I have ever seen." It included 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 "Me-37 SFPD-0."

In May 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 similarities of tone and handwriting were unmistakably that of the Zodiac.

On July 8, 1974, a complaint letter regarding conservative Chronicle columnist Marco Spinelli, who used the pen name "Count Marco," was received at the newspaper. The letter ended 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. San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) Detective David Toschi sent it to the FBI crime laboratory, which determined that the letters probably were prepared by the writer of the Zodiac letters.

Investigator Wrongdoing

No communication was received from the Zodiac for four years. Then, on April 24, 1978, a letter sent to the Chronicle was given to reporter Duffy Jennings, Avery's replacement after he moved to the Examiner. Jennings contacted Toschi, who had worked on the Zodiac case since the Stine murder and was the only SFPD investigator still working the case.

Toschi gave the letter to John Shimoda of the U.S. Postal Service crime laboratory to determine if it was authored by the Zodiac. Shimoda concluded that the letter was written by the Zodiac, but four experts three months later declared the letter a hoax. Many pointed fingers at Toschi, believing he had forged the letter. These suspicions were based on an earlier incident involving the Chronicle's "Tales of the City" columnist Armistead Maupin, He received a lot of mail and became suspicious that Toschi had written some of them under fake names.

Maupin did nothing at the time, but when the disputed Zodiac letter surfaced, Maupin thought Toschi might be responsible and reported the fake fan letters and his suspicions to Toschi's superiors. Toschi eventually admitted to writing the fan letters but denied that he forged the Zodiac letter.

No Resolution

The Toschi incident is just one 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 got a renewed burst of attention in 2018 when a suspect was arrested in the long-dormant Golden State Killer case after DNA evidence was compared with material gathered by a genealogical website. Investigators are hoping to have the same luck with the Zodiac case, but as of November 2019, no arrest had been made.