The Zodiac Killer was an enigmatic serial killer who was active in California in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Nothing definitive is known about the Zodiac’s background since he was never caught. The most prevalent theories that exist, as profiled by John Douglas and other FBI agents, are that the killer may have had a Naval background, and that—due to his uncommon grammar and spelling—may possibly have been British.
The first known confirmed Zodiac murders took place on December 20, 1968 on Lake Herman Road in California. The victims were David Faraday, 17, and Betty Lou Jensen, 16, both of which were shot with a .22 handgun. No killer was ever caught. The Zodiac then remained inactive until July 4 the following year, when he shot another couple, Michael Mageau, 19, and Darlene Ferrin, 22, while they were seated in a parked car on the parking lot of the Blue Rock Springs Park in Vallejo. Mageau survived, though he suffered severe injuries, and was able to provide a description. On August 1, the Vallejo Times-Chronicle, the San Francisco Examiner and the San Francisco Chronicle received near-identical letters from the Zodiac in which he took credit for the murders, proving his guilt by stating several facts about the crime scenes, such as what the victims were wearing, how their bodies were positioned and what brand of ammunition he used. The only signature was the Zodiac’s symbol. The letters also contained one part of a three-part cypher designed by the Zodiac, who ordered all three papers to publish the cyphers on their front pages and threatened to go on a killing spree over the weekend of they didn’t comply. All three papers published the cypher, which was cracked after a little more than a week by Donald and Betty Harden. In the decoded message, the Zodiac claimed to have been killing in order to collect slaves for his afterlife.
The next Zodiac letter came the day before the cypher was cracked. In it, the Zodiac named himself for the first time and gave more details about the murders. The next murder took place near Lake Berryessa on September 27. This time, the victims, Bryan Hartnell, 20, and Cecelia Shepard, 22, were tied up and stabbed instead of shot. Hartnell survived his injuries, but Shepard died a few days later. Fortunately, she saw the attacker without his mask on and was able to give a description before expiring. During his next killing, the Zodiac diverged from his pattern even further and shot and killed a cab driver, Paul Lee Stine, 29, in Presidio Heights in San Francisco on October 11 after riding with him. This time, a partial fingerprint in blood was found inside the car, along with a bloody pair of gloves. At first, the police were led to believe that the killer was black, which was later corrected. Before that, however, a pair of uniformed cops on their way to the crime scene spotted a man fitting the Zodiac’s description dressed in a dark jacket and walking away from the crime scene mere minutes after the shooting. Three days later, the San Francisco Chronicle received a letter in which the Zodiac threatened to kill all the passengers of a schoolbus and included a piece of Paul Stine’s bloody shirt. Though this was the last of the Zodiac’s confirmed killings, he continued writing letters. Though he claimed responsibility for several murders during this time, it is generally believed that he lied for the attention.
The prime suspect of the case was, and remains to this day, Arthur Leigh Allen. The authorities began investigating him after they were told by one of his old co-workers, Donald Cheney, that Allen had told him about an idea he had for a novel about a serial killer who called himself “Zodiac” and did several things the Zodiac Killer did or threatened to do, such as taping a flashlight to his gun and killing the passengers of a school bus. Also, Allen was a skin diver who had been to Lake Berryessa on several occasions. He also admitted to having had bloody knives in his car on the weekend of the stabbing, but claimed that the blood came from a chicken he had killed for dinner. After a warrant for his trailer and handwriting was secured and carried out, his fingerprints were compared to the partial from the cab, his guns compared to the Zodiac evidence and his handwriting to that of the letters. None of the tests came back a match and Allen was let go. In 1991, Mageau was tracked down and shown a lineup of old photos of Zodiac suspects. After he fingered Allen as the killer, there were talks about formally charging him with the murders based on the massive amount of circumstantial evidence against him. Unfortunately, Allen died of natural causes before any trial could take place. To date (January 2013), the case remains unsolved.