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True Grue: The Unsolved Case of the Zodiac Killer

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Welcome to “True Grue,” a weekly article that dives into real life, harrowing horrors. For the interest of good taste, this graphic feature aims not to be exploitative, but rather informative, and rest assured, there are many different territories that will be strictly off-limits. But for those with a hungry mind and a strong stomach, read on at your own discretion…

For better or worse, there will always be people out there who are deeply fascinated with serial killers. Their backgrounds, their motives, their methods; any and all details are fair game for discussion and inspiration. Hell, the depraved acts of Wisconsin madman Ed Gein provided the basis for no less than three of the horror genre’s most beloved titles (PSYCHO, TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, and SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, for those not in the know).

Yes, the gruesome killers that can be recalled in vivid detail are great conversation fodder, but the tales of true terror that are even more enthralling are the ones in which the murderer’s identity remains a question mark. To this day there are dedicated “Ripperologists” desperately trying to figure out the identity of the monster who stalked the streets of WhiteChapel all those years ago, and when it comes to American murderers, no unsolved case provokes more speculation and unabashed curiosity than that of the Zodiac Killer.

One of the many mysteries shrouding the Zodiac Killer is just exactly how many victims he truly had. Before the Zodiac officially made his presence known to the press and police, several murders occurred in the Southern California area which bore a resemblance to The Zodiac’s methods.

On October 30th 1966, Riverside City College freshman Cheri Jo Bates left the campus library and attempted to leave in her car, but unbeknownst to her, the car’s distributor had been disconnected, and she was left stranded. She was then presumably approached by the killer, who managed to drag her off, beat her, then stab her twice in the chest and slash her throat close to the point of decapitation.

Six months later, the Riverside Press received a letter from a man claiming to be the killer. In blocked writing, the note read: “BATES HAD TO DIE. THERE WILL BE MORE.” An identical note was also sent to the police and the victim’s father. Each had a small ‘z’ scrawled at the bottom.

After waiting more than eighteen months, the still-unnamed psychopath chose his next targets and struck. On December 20th 1968, teens David Faraday (17) and Bettilou Jensen (16) decided to drive up to the Lake Herman reservoir after attending an end-of-term school concert. As they proceeded to make out over the view of Vallejo, they were interrupted by the obtrusive shine of a flashlight falling on them. In an instant, the driver’s side door was yanked open, and Faraday was shot in the head. Bettilou was able to escape the vehicle and make a brief run for it before she took five bullets in the back from a .22 automatic pistol.

A motorist passing through stumbled upon the horrible tableau, and quickly alerted the authorities. When the police got to the scene, Faraday was still alive, and remained so long enough to give some details of the attack before succumbing to his injuries. Bettilou was already dead. Police noted that there was no evidence of robbery, nor sexual assault inflicted upon Jensen.

Another six months passed, and then again the killer preyed upon an unsuspecting couple on July 4th, 1969. This time the two victims were Darlene Ferrin (22) and Michael Mageau (19). Parked in Blue Rock Springs, a spot that lay only two miles from where Faraday and Jensen had been slain, the two had hoped to enjoy a secret romantic rendezvous (Ferrin was married), and had paid no mind to the car they noticed following them during the drive.

The ensuing attack bore a striking similarity to the fates of Faraday and Jensen: the couple was disoriented by the shine of a flashlight, and soon after shots were fired. Darlene was struck nine times and died quickly. Michael was shot in the neck, leg, elbow and shoulder. The killer left him for dead, but he managed to survive and provide a partial description of his attacker.

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One hour later, A pay phone call was received by the Vallejo PD. The unidentified man on the other end whispered a chilling confession: “I want to report a double murder. 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 nine millimeter Luger. I also killed those kids last year. Goodbye.”

Police traced the call back to a phone booth near the Vallejo Sheriff’s office, and while a witness did report seeing a stocky man using the phone around the time of the call, the clue ultimately led to nothing. Less than a month passed when three separate California newspapers received letter from someone claiming to be “the murderer of the 2 teenagers last Christmass at Lake Herman & the girl on the 4th of July near the golf course in Vallejo…” the writer then went on to list fact that only the killer and the police would know, and signed all letters with a symbol: a cross drawn over a circle. While the symbol resembled a gun sight, it would soon become the infamous symbol of the Zodiac killer.

The letters also included ciphers, which the Zodiac demanded be printed in the next day’s paper, lest the press wished to have more killings to report on. Though decoders failed to glean any clues about the killer’s identity, they did discover a disturbing (and typo-heavy) message, one portion of which has been repeated with every telling of the Zodiac story: “I love killing people because…man is the most dangeroue anamal of all…”

The Zodiac’s gap between killings started growing shorter. On September 27th 1969, Bryan Hartnell (20) and Cecelia Shephard (22) were picnicking by Lake Berryessa when a strange man appeared from out of the trees and approached them. The tall, stocky  stranger was dressed in a black hooded robe, not unlike that of a medieval executioner, that was brandished with a white cross and circle– the Zodiac’s symbol. He held a semiautomatic pistol in one hand and had a long knife sheathed at his hip.

The masked man claimed to be an escaped convict, and explained to the couple that he would need to tie them up and confiscate their car to get the Hell out of dodge. After binding the two of them, he explained that he would have to stab the both of them, and proceeded to do so. Bryan survived by playing dead, but Cecelia would die the next day from her wounds.

Before fleeing the scene, the Zodiac took a black felt-tip pen to the side of Hartnell’s car. The message, which the police later discovered, read: “Vallejo 12-20-68, 7-4-69, Sept 27-69 6:30-by knife.”

Two weeks later,  San Francisco cab driver Paul Stine was shot to death with nine millimeter pistol. Ballistics tests revealed that the gun used on Stine was the very same firearm used on David Faraday and Bettilou Jensen.

On October 14th, 1969, a letter was received by the editor of the San Francisco Chronicle. In the letter, which started with the cryptic sentence: “This is the Zodiac speaking…”, the killer went on to gloat about past murders, and taunt the police’s inability to glean any clues from his prior confessionary letters or decode the numerous numerical and alphabetical ciphers he enclosed with them. The media now had a name for the serial murderer terrorizing them.

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Even more disturbingly, The newly self-dubbed Zodiac Killer expressed a keen interest in targeting children for his next killings, finishing with: “Schoolchildren make nice targets. I think I shall wipe out a school bus some morning. Just shoot out the front tire & then pick off the kiddies as they come bouncing out.” Thankfully, this hypothetical mass murder of innocent children never came to pass.

As the months wore on and the investigation continued, the police and media were forced to field numerous false confessions and investigate killings that were often attributed to the Zodiac, but were more often than not later deemed to be unrelated. An authentic Zodiac letter mailed to the San Francisco Chronicle detailed plans to bomb a bus, and even included a sketch of bomb schematics. This plan also failed to materialize.

On March 22, 1970 Kathleen Johns and her ten year old daughter accepted a ride from a strange man who then revealed that he intended to kill them. The man accidentally turned onto a freeway entrance, and as he slowed down Johns and her daughter fled for their lives. They managed to reach a police station and give a description, which ended with the daughter coincidentally spotting the Zodiac’s wanted poster, noticing the rough police sketch and shouting “That’s him right there!”

There would be no further appearances/killings from the Zodiac after that, and to this day the case of the Zodiac Killer remains one of America’s most famous cold cases. It was further immortalized by David Fincher’s tense 2007 thriller, simply titled ZODIAC.

Speculation about the mysterious madman’s identity continues to this day, with the most recent claim coming from Gary L. Stewart, author of the novel The Most Dangerous Animal of All. In the book, Stewart claims that his biological father, one Earl Van Best Jr., was in fact the Zodiac, and uses evidence such as a strong resemblance between a photo of his father and a police sketch of the Zodiac, as well as assertions that there is a match in fingerprints and handwriting between Best’s correspondences and letters the Zodiac sent to the media. While declining to make an official statement, a spokesman for The SFPD has said that their homicide detectives are willing to look into the matter.

We may never know who the Zodiac was, but in a way it’s a moot point. His innocent victims are long dead, and his myth a demon amongst men is already deeply rooted into our culture. His methodical codes and clues, his need for media attention, all features that pop culture has come to define the demented psyche of a serial killer by. The American Jack The Ripper bears the dubious distinction of being one of the most influential killers in American history.

About the author
Christopher La Vigna

Christopher La Vigna is a writer, filmmaker, and the newest batch of blood to be welcomed into the haunted halls of FANGORIA. He’s a graduate of Hunter College*, and can be found lurking around any movie theater or comic shop near his person. You can argue about movies with him on Twitter: @Chris_LaVigna

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