The Zodiac killer is one of the most elusive and unusual serial killers in American history. Known for his bizarre, rambling handwritten letters, the Zodiac sent baffling ciphers, quoted musical lyrics, taunted police and threatened to shoot school children. Unlike most serial killers, the Zodiac called police to report his crimes and wore a hooded costumer featuring his chosen symbol, the crossed circle. The Zodiac wounded two people and killed at least five others during the period between December 1968 and October 1969. More letters, postcards and other clues continued until 1971 when the Zodiac apparently disappeared. In January 1974, the San Francisco Chronicle received another letter which hinted at suicide and described the classic horror film The Exorcist as “the best saterical comidy.” Hoax letters continued over the years but the infamous Zodiac vanished into the history books and a legend was born.
Decades later, the popular image of the Zodiac transformed into a criminal genius and expert marksman who claimed dozens of victims and escaped justice because law enforcement agencies refused to cooperate. This mythical Zodiac became the public version of the story and the remaining confusion surrounding unanswered questions fueled ongoing speculation. Books, television documentaries, movies and websites provided conflicting and unreliable accounts while promoting various theories and suspects. The facts were often lost as the unsolved mystery continued to fascinate and haunt the world.
The legend of the Zodiac killer is based on many popular myths, but the facts tell a very different story.
1. The Zodiac crimes were a hoax or the work of copycat killers
In his book The Annals of Unsolved Crime, famed JFK assassination researcher Edward J. Epstein wrote that the lack of any matching evidence at the Zodiac crime scenes or in the letters proved that one person could not have been responsible for all four of the Zodiac crimes and the Zodiac letters. According to Epstein, Zodiac suspect Arthur Leigh Allen could have been responsible for the first two attacks but a copycat or copycats were responsible for the stabbing at Lake Berryessa and the murder of a cab driver in San Francisco. Epstein further stated that one or more persons had committed the Zodiac crimes while a different person wrote the Zodiac letters. According to Epstein, the letter writer was a journalist or a police officer who had to have access to police files and information about the crimes. [Edward J. Epstein, The Annals of Unsolved Crime (New York: Melville House, 2013), Page 295.]
Epstein’s theory worked backward from the pre-conceived notion that Arthur Leigh Allen must have been the Zodiac and then discarded and dismissed evidence which conflicted with his assumptions. Epstein’s certainty of Allen’s guilt appeared to be based on an eyewitness identification of the suspect.
On the night of July 4, 1969, Michael Mageau and Darlene Ferrin were sitting in a car at Blue Rock Springs Park when a man appeared and flashed a bright light into their vehicle. Shots rang out and Michael and Darlene were both wounded. Mageau told police that he did not get a good look at the shooter and only caught a brief, profile-view glimpse as the man was walking away. Vallejo detective Ed Rust interviewed Mageau at the hospital three days after the shooting, and he did not believe that Mageau could identify the killer.
More than two decades later, retired Vallejo police detective George Bawart met with surviving victim Michael Mageau at the Ontario airport on August 16, 1991. Bawart displayed a collection of photographs featuring several men, including Zodiac suspect Arthur Leigh Allen. Mageau pointed to Allen’s picture and said, “That’s him. That’s the man who shot me.” When asked if he was sure, Mageau pointed to a photograph of another man and said, “He had a face like him.” Mageau essentially told Bawart that Allen committed the crime while wearing another person’s face. Police did not believe that Mageau’s identification was reliable or accurate. In 1969, Mageau provided a description of the killer which did not match Allen or his appearance at that time. In a 2007 interview, Mageau said that he hoped the killer would someday be identified, although he had already identified Allen as the killer and Allen had died in 1992.
The evidence did not indicate that Allen was responsible for the Zodiac crimes or the Zodiac letters. Handwriting experts concluded that Allen did not write the letters, a fingerprint believed to be the Zodiac’s did not match Allen, Allen did not match descriptions provided by eyewitnesses, Allen’s DNA did not match DNA found on the envelopes used by the Zodiac, and a palm print found on a Zodiac letter did not match Allen. A police officer who reportedly saw the Zodiac near a crime scene stated that the man was not Allen.
Epstein’s theory that the third and fourth Zodiac attacks were the work of copycats was not supported by evidence and relied on many implausible scenarios. The theory that the Zodiac letters were forged by a journalist or someone working in law enforcement ignored important facts about the crimes.
Several handwriting experts had concluded that one person was responsible for the original Zodiac letters. In the third Zodiac attack, the killer left a handwritten message on the victim’s car and a handwriting expert concluded that writer of the Zodiac letters was responsible for the car message. The boot prints of the killer led from the crime scene to the message on the car door. After the fourth Zodiac attack, the killer mailed a letter accompanied by a piece of the victim’s bloodstained shirt. Handwriting experts concluded that the letter was written by the author of the Zodiac letters. The handwriting was directly linked to the killer, and Epstein did not present any credible evidence implicating any journalist or investigator in the forgery of Zodiac letters.
The facts indicated that the most logical and plausible explanation was that one man was responsible for the crimes and the letters. Other scenarios required many coincidences, conspiracies, and copycat killers.
2. The Zodiac crimes were linked to the Manson Family
Charles Manson and his “family” of killers became famous after a brutal series of murders in Southern California. Some of the family members had left messages written in blood at the crime scenes. Charles Manson and other family members spent time in the San Francisco Bay Area, leading some to speculate that the Manson family was somehow connected to the Zodiac murders.
A report written by Department of Justice Special Agent Mel Nicolai stated that the Zodiac investigation included an examination of “all male members of the Charles Manson family.” SFPD Inspector Bill Armstrong traveled to Los Angeles to investigate the possible Zodiac/Manson connection but found no evidence to support the theory. [Mel Nicolai, Dept. of Justice report, (DOJ, 1971), Page 31.] In his book The Family, author Ed Sanders noted that Inyo County District Attorney Frank Fowles had investigated the possible Zodiac/Manson connection but offered no evidence that any connection existed. [Ed Sanders, The Family (New York: Signet, 1990), Page 486.]
Conspiracy radio host Mae Brussell speculated that the Manson murders were part of a government plot involving brainwashing, satanic cults, and the CIA. Brussell theorized that the same group of sinister conspirators was also responsible for Zodiac killings in California and the “Son of Sam” shootings in New York. [Mae Brussell, Dialogue: Conspiracy (Radio, 1978)]
Zodiac/Manson conspiracy theorist Howard Davis claimed that a relative of one Manson victim had hired private investigators who uncovered evidence that the Manson family was responsible for the Zodiac crimes. Davis also claimed that a “pristine source” in the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office revealed that the original investigation into the Manson murders had uncovered evidence linking Manson to Zodiac, including the hooded costume worn by the Zodiac during the stabbing at Lake Berryessa. According to Davis, his source also stated that authorities in Southern California conspired to conceal this important evidence. [Howard Davis, The Zodiac Manson Connection (California: Pen Power Publications, 1997) Page 51.]
The alleged Zodiac/Manson suspect Bruce Davis was convicted for the murders of music teacher Gary Hinman and ranch hand Shorty Shea. Howard Davis claimed that those behind the cover-up feared that another trial would somehow jeopardize the previous convictions. A Zodiac prosecution would not somehow undo Bruce Davis’s previous murder convictions.
Manson prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi dismissed the conspiracy claims as “preposterous on its face and obviously 100% wrong,” and added, “I reject it completely out of hand.” Bugliosi noted the illogical scenario, “If Manson committed more murders than the Manson murders, why would anyone want to protect him on that?… It makes no sense… What you’re talking about is a crime, obstruction of justice… A massive conspiracy of many, many people being involved, for no believable reason.”
Howard Davis also claimed that Vincent Bugliosi had endorsed the Zodiac/Manson theory. Bugliosi denied that he had ever endorsed the theory and said, “I’ve never heard of anything to support that allegation. I doubt it very much. I think it would have come out by now.”
The “pristine source” inside the LA DA’s office was identified and he denied that he had ever made such statements to Howard Davis. He dismissed the conspiracy tale as absurd. “I can’t believe that whoever suggested it has any credibility whatsoever.” He further described Davis as a “nutjob” also known for “some extraordinarily bizarre and fanciful so-called investigative insight into the Mormon church.” In 1977, Davis and others published a book titled Who Really Wrote the Book of Mormon Book? which claimed that the Book of Mormon was a work of plagiarism. Davis claimed that he and his co-authors had received death threats and that the Mormon church was trying to seize control of the U.S. economy. “I’m dead serious about this… But our lives are definitely in danger… Please don’t think we’re afraid… We are not afraid… trying to fight a multi-billion dollar organization that is trying to take over the economy of the United States.”
The so-called “Zodiac/Manson connection” remains a popular myth and a common theory on many websites, but the available evidence does not indicate that Charles Manson and his followers were involved in the Zodiac crimes.
3. The Zodiac called a TV show with attorney Melvin Belli
In his book Zodiac Unmasked, author Robert Graysmith told readers that the Zodiac called the home of attorney Melvin Belli and declared, “Today’s my birthday.” According to Graysmith, this call occurred on December 18, the birthdate of his suspect Arthur Leigh Allen. [Robert Graysmith, Zodiac Umasked (New York: Berkeley, 2002) Pages 365-366.] The film adaptation of Graysmith’s books included a scene which showed investigators sharing this information with Graysmith. Another scene is a reenactment of a television broadcast featuring Belli and host Jim Dunbar talking with a caller who claimed to be the Zodiac.
On October 22, 1969, someone placed a telephone call to the Oakland Police Department and claimed to be the Zodiac. The caller demanded that attorneys Melvin Belli or F. Lee Bailey appear on the Bay Area talk show hosted by Jim Dunbar. Belli lived in San Francisco near the television station, so he appeared for the broadcast. A man called into the show and used the name “Sam” during the subsequent conversation. Belli also spoke with the man off the air, but police were unable to trace Sam’s calls and the identity of the caller remained unknown.
After the broadcast, police played recordings of Sam’s voice for the three people who had spoken to the Zodiac. Surviving victim Bryan Hartnell and police dispatchers David Slaight and Nancy Slover all agreed that Sam was not the Zodiac.
Weeks later, a Zodiac letter arrived at Belli’s home accompanied by a piece of a victim’s blood stained shirt. After the resulting publicity, “Sam” began calling Belli’s home. Police set up a trace and eventually discovered that the calls originated from a mental hospital. An FBI report dated February 14, 1970 stated that telephone calls to Belli’s home had been traced to a patient at the hospital, and authorities concluded that he was not the Zodiac.
In the film Zodiac, Robert Graysmith cites the December 18th “birthday” call to Belli’s home and shows a copy of Arthur Leigh Allen’s driver’s license to SFPD Inspector David Toschi. The fictional Toschi seemed impressed by this evidence, but the real-life Toschi knew that the person who called Belli’s home was not the Zodiac.
The FBI report indicated that the telephone call to Belli’s home had occurred in February 1970 and not on December 18, 1969, as Graysmith claimed. [FBI report # 9-49911-88, dated February 14, 1970.] The facts indicated that one individual placed the calls to the Dunbar show, but the movie Zodiac suggested that two people made the calls. Belli confirmed that he had talked with only one person. The official documents demonstrate that police did not believe that the individual who called Belli’s home was the Zodiac. The FBI files demonstrate that the individual who called Belli’s home was identified and that person was not Graysmith’s suspect, Arthur Leigh Allen.